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Churchill and the Power of Words

Friday, August 17, 2012

Had Winston Churchill never set foot in the House of Commons, he would still be remembered today as one of the major writers of his time.

Winston Churchill is one of the titanic figures in the history of the 20th century. If not for him, that century would have turned out very differently indeed. It is hard to see how Britain could have long survived the fall of France without Churchill’s adamant refusal to consider negotiations, his shrewd diplomacy to nudge a reluctant United States into aiding Britain’s cause, and his immortal oratory to strengthen British resolve in the face of the German onslaught.

Had Britain been knocked out of the war in the summer of 1940, could anything have stopped Hitler’s conquest of the rest of Europe, the Middle East, and then the Soviet Union? Could even the United States have then prevented, in Churchill’s words, “a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science”?

So great, and so dramatic, was Churchill’s public career, that we tend to forget that he was more than just a statesman. Indeed, had he never set foot in the House of Commons, he would still be remembered today as one of the major writers of his time.

That is why a new exhibition at the Morgan Library and Museum in New York called Churchill: The Power of Words is so welcome. It is devoted not to Churchill’s deeds nor to his extraordinary life, but to his writing and the process of it—from dictation to proofs to finished work. The items on exhibit range from childhood letters to his mother, through his journalism career, to books on military actions that he witnessed as a soldier and journalist, to some of the finest biographies ever written, to the speeches that roused the world.

His “day job” probably had something to do with it, to be sure, but Churchill remains to this day the only writer of nonfiction, other than the philosopher Bertrand Russell, ever to win the Nobel Prize for Literature (itself on display in the exhibit).

Churchill remains to this day the only writer of nonfiction, other than the philosopher Bertrand Russell, ever to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.

While Churchill was born to the highest nobility—a grandson of the seventh Duke of Marlborough, as a child of a second son (Lord Randolph Churchill)—he did not stand to inherit titles or wealth. (For a brief while, he was, in fact, heir presumptive to the ninth duke. Had that come to pass, his political career would have transpired in the House of Lords, not the Commons, and Churchill would almost certainly never have become prime minister.)

So Churchill had to earn a living, which he did by writing. He was one of the highest-paid journalists of his time, often earning as much as £20,000 a year by the 1930s, a very handsome income at that time.

But it is his books—especially his multivolume biographies of his father and the first Duke of Marlborough—that secure his reputation as a major historian. Both remain eminently readable and historically valuable. But he is better known to the public at large for his histories of both the world wars: The first, in four volumes, called World Crisis, and the second, in six, called, simply, The Second World War.

And, of course, there are his speeches. It is fascinating to look at the process of creation of some of the most famous sentences of the 20th century. Churchill usually dictated them to a typist (who used a “silent typewriter”—on exhibit—so the noise wouldn’t break his train of thought) and then revised the typescript until he was satisfied. The delicate balance of diplomatic considerations is clearly seen as he toned down some passages and strengthened others. There is a 21-minute recording of Churchill speaking the most famous passages.

He was one of the highest-paid journalists of his time, often earning as much as £20,000 a year by the 1930s, a very handsome income at that time.

The only thing to get short shrift in this exhibit—and that, perhaps, is because it left few physical traces—is Churchill’s incomparable wit. It could be acid (“There but for the grace of God goes God,” said of the famously self-regarding Sir Stafford Cripps). It could be wise (“A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on”). It could be wry (“Once in a while you will stumble upon the truth but most of us manage to pick ourselves up and hurry along as if nothing had happened”). Or it could be self-revealing (“Writing a book is an adventure. To begin with, it is a toy and an amusement; then it becomes a mistress, and then it becomes a master, and then a tyrant. The last phase is that just as you are about to be reconciled to your servitude, you kill the monster and fling him out to the public”).

If you take in this exhibit—and I hope you do—save some time to see the rest of the Morgan Library. It is one of New York’s cultural and architectural gems. Perhaps, pound for pound, the finest collection of rare books in the world, it has no fewer than three Gutenberg Bibles, more than any other library on earth. The books on exhibit change frequently, but the two main rooms of the original library are worthy of inspection all by themselves. One is J.P. Morgan’s office, with dark, flocked wallpaper, a huge fireplace, and Renaissance masterpieces on the walls. It is just what you might expect of the man who was, perhaps, the most powerful banker who ever lived. The other is the library proper, with three tiers of bookcases lining the walls, each volume worth a fortune by itself, and the whole simply beyond price.

John Steele Gordon has written several books on business and financial history, the latest of which is the revised edition of Hamilton's Blessing: The Extraordinary Life and Times of Our National Debt.

FURTHER READING: Gordon also writes “What’s in a Name?,” “‘A Sympathiser with the Poor’: Charles Dickens at 200,” “Snapshot of a Creative Destruction,” and “Long Live the Queen!” Steven F. Hayward asks “Is Newt Like Churchill?” and discusses “The Churchill Test.

 

Image by Darren Wamboldt / Bergman Group

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