A Detailed Review of “Churchill By Himself”

A Detailed Review of “Churchill By Himself”

Heights of Sub­lim­i­ty: A Land­mark in Churchill Studies

by Man­fred Weidhorn

Dr. Wei­d­horn is Guter­man Pro­fes­sor of Eng­lish, Yeshi­va Uni­ver­si­ty, author of four books on Churchill includ­ing the sem­i­nal Sword and Pen. First pub­lished in Finest Hour 141, Win­ter 2008-09.

You may also be inter­est­ed in a short­er review by R. Emmett Tyrrell. 


When one reads a book or legal brief for the pur­pos­es of teach­ing or schol­ar­ship or rebut­tal, the usu­al pro­ce­dure is to high­light impor­tant pas­sages. Mr. Richard Lang­worth has done just that with the vast cor­pus of Churchill’s writ­ings and speech­es. With­in the cov­ers of one thick vol­ume, our Hap­py Reaper has gath­ered all of Churchill’s wit­ti­cisms, max­ims, and ripostes, as well as a rich selec­tion of his scin­til­lat­ing prose pas­sages. The source for each pas­sage is scrupu­lous­ly giv­en (includ­ing the occa­sion­al uncer­tain­ty). And, at long last, those few famous utter­ances which Churchill, like Yogi Berra, did not real­ly make are iso­lat­ed in a lim­bo. No more should there be inquiries as to whether or where Churchill said this or that, and a depart­ment in Finest Hour can be shut down for good. Now, as Casey Sten­gel used to say, “You can look it up.”

Here is a dis­til­la­tion of Churchill the writer and ora­tor at his very best in the var­i­ous peri­ods of his unique­ly long career—as a cal­low youth seek­ing both fame and voca­tion, as a fire-breath­ing young rad­i­cal, as a superb “triphib­ian” mil­i­tary expert, as a Cas­san­dra warn­ing about India (alas!) and Hitler (cheers!), as the great­est war leader of a democ­ra­cy in per­il (with apolo­gies to LG and FDR), as a pru­dent Cold War­rior (“jaw” rather than “war”), and, final­ly, as a sage in the era of Mutu­al­ly Assured Destruc­tion unwill­ing to sur­ren­der hope despite the many ambi­gu­i­ties of tech­no­log­i­cal progress which he him­self had often not­ed. What oth­er polit­i­cal leader, liv­ing through so many phas­es and tack­ling so many dif­fer­ent issues, pos­sessed so much curios­i­ty in so many areas, so much eru­di­tion and such a con­sis­tent­ly mes­mer­iz­ing style? Ah, but what oth­er leader was a pro­fes­sion­al writer? This col­lec­tion also reminds us of Churchill’s Fal­staffi­an side—the cor­pu­lent  man who likes his drink and who is seem­ing­ly nev­er at a loss for a quip just when oth­ers think they have him trapped.

Though he trend­ed through the decades from a severe crit­i­cism of lais­sez faire cap­i­tal­ism (which sounds ter­ri­bly rel­e­vant today) to a severe crit­i­cism  of social­ism (what he bril­liant­ly called “Queue­topia”), he, unlike most knee-jerk anti-com­mu­nists, under­stood the com­plex­i­ty of life: “Bol­she­vism is a great evil, but it has arisen out of great social evils” (147); this insight he would also apply to Hitler and Nazism, though not so suc­cinct­ly. He had a jar­ring warn­ing for knee-jerk rad­i­cals, as well: “Those who talk of rev­o­lu­tion ought to be pre­pared for the guil­lo­tine” (394).

Such obser­va­tions are based on an under­stand­ing of the past (“Study his­to­ry!”), and read­ing this book indeed reminds us of some of the fate­ful junc­tures of his­to­ry. Not just that in 1931 he had a famous near fatal taxi acci­dent in New York City that almost lost us World War II but also that, in 1929, at the eeri­ly arith­meti­cal mid­point of his career, he was toy­ing with the idea of retir­ing from pol­i­tics and even emi­grat­ing to Cana­da (155). The let­ter express­ing such velleities sug­gests that his My Ear­ly Life: A Rov­ing Com­mis­sion, being writ­ten at that time, was a vale­dic­to­ry mem­oir and that his sad­ly unful­filled career might  well have become a mere foot­note in his­to­ry, a “study,” as Robert Rhodes James put it, “in fail­ure.” But he stayed on, and com­pelling are  the selec­tions from the speech­es of the 1930s, on the rearm­ing of Ger­many and the flac­cid­i­ty of the Bald­win-Cham­ber­lain response. Jux­ta­posed with each oth­er in this anthol­o­gy, these pas­sages cre­ate a chill in the read­er, as he tem­porar­i­ly sus­pends his aware­ness of the ulti­mate hap­py though cost­ly outcome.

With such a wealth of mate­r­i­al (15 mil­lion words) on such a wide range of top­ics, Mr. Lang­worth faced a major deci­sion about orga­ni­za­tion: Would he go by alpha­bet, or chronol­o­gy, or top­ic? A tough call. In the end, he arrived at a hap­py com­pro­mise: Broad top­ics (though in no inevitable pat­tern); alpha­bet­i­cal­ly ordered sub­di­vi­sions with­in them; chronol­o­gy with­in the lat­ter. As war­rant­ed, he allowed him­self vari­a­tions and excep­tions. It is not always a per­fect solution—for exam­ple, one of Churchill’s great­est sen­tences, the one about being turned out after five years’ suc­cess, is hard to track down, as is the fas­ci­nat­ing ques­tion of when he first expressed the ambi­tion to become Prime Min­is­ter, or when he spoke of the exhil­a­ra­tion of being fired at with­out results (the index sim­ply can­not per­form all that is asked of it)—but the result is bet­ter than that of all those oth­er schema­ta that have been tried from time to time.

Great­ly help­ful are the cross ref­er­ences among the famous utter­ances. These are part of the editor’s sage inter­ven­tions, as after every two or three items, Mr. Lang­worth pro­vides brief com­ments (foot­notes, as it were) which clar­i­fy, cor­re­late, quote, refer, con­tex­tu­al­ize, and some­times take a wider view. When nec­es­sary, he glances at recent or cur­rent events and ten­den­cies, but in an objec­tive, non-par­ti­san fash­ion.  One there­fore can­not tell—and right­ly so–whether he is a Left or Right Churchillian, only that his eru­di­tion is immense.  With these  judi­cious notes, Mr Lang­worth is the Vir­gil to the reader’s Dante. And that image is not far fetched, for the jour­ney takes us through vast tracts of Hell and Pur­ga­to­ry and even prof­fers (beyond  Virgil’s pow­er) glimpses of heaven—or at least of peace and rel­a­tive­ly good times.

Bring­ing togeth­er the best of Churchilliana reminds the read­er that, not only does Churchill’s  prose (in any peri­od of his career, unlike the poet­ry of the grad­u­al­ly matur­ing Shake­speare) roll as smooth­ly as the Mis­sis­sip­pi Riv­er, but, except for some  occa­sion­al boil­er­plate about patri­o­tism, duty, and morality—legitimate val­ues nec­es­sary in a leader’s rhetor­i­cal arse­nal but often over­done by less­er politicians—it shows lit­tle of the Vic­to­ri­an pur­ple rhetoric that some “mod­ern” (as Churchill might have said with a sneer) lit­er­ary crit­ics have com­plained about.  Pas­sage after pas­sage demands to be read aloud for the sheer aur­al and ver­bal effects. Churchill’s bril­liance in dis­cur­sive rea­son­ing and expos­i­to­ry prose is there right at the begin­ning, as in, for exam­ple, his pre­scient and elo­quent argu­ment in 1901 that future Euro­pean wars (which seemed to every­one to have become obso­lete or unthink­able) would be dread­ful (504).

His is a unique way of express­ing him­self, whether in rolling peri­od, in care­ful or stim­u­lat­ing choice of words, in sur­pris­ing twist of thought, in inspired use of con­crete detail. Just note one exam­ple of the many amus­ing ways he had of assert­ing that a polit­i­cal oppo­nent was wrong or untruth­ful (or that the oppo­nent had only by chance stum­bled upon the truth): “An uncon­trol­lable fond­ness for fic­tion for­bade him to for­sake it for a fact” (232). (Where in Amer­i­can pol­i­tics, since that lov­able Sen­a­tor Everett Dirk­sen in the 1960s—though he was often more wind­bag than Churchillian–do we have any­body like that? For shame, inar­tic­u­late Americans!)

But no less stun­ning is the erup­tion of the apt home­ly sim­i­le or metaphor that brings the dis­cus­sion home to even the dullest mind. To wit, many peo­ple have observed that the oppo­site extremes of Com­mu­nism and Fas­cism actu­al­ly meet, like a line becom­ing a cir­cle, but only Churchill comes up with the apt anal­o­gy of the North and South Poles, equal­ly cold and bar­ren (384). Con­sid­er oth­er exam­ples: “Every offen­sive lost its force as it pro­ceed­ed. It was like throw­ing a buck­et of water over the floor” (23); “Chi­na, as the years pass, is being eat­en by Japan like an arti­choke, leaf by leaf” (157). Warn­ing against the “great fol­ly” of extend­ing the Kore­an War into Chi­na, he said, “It would be like flies invad­ing fly paper” (437). About his curi­ous fusion of agnos­ti­cism and tra­di­tion­al­ism: “I am not a pil­lar of the church but a buttress—I sup­port it from the out­side” (465).  Or take this paean to democ­ra­cy: “The alter­na­tion of par­ties in pow­er, like the rota­tion of crops, has ben­e­fi­cial results”(110).  Or his at once poet­ic, patri­ot­ic, and mis­chie­vous praise of the Amer­i­can foun­da­tion­al doc­u­ment, “No con­sti­tu­tion was writ­ten in bet­ter English”(127).

Then there is the mat­ter  of his unprece­dent­ed and risky  injec­tion of humor into speech­es address­ing the most dire sit­u­a­tions: “We are wait­ing for the long-promised inva­sion. So are the fish­es” (160). On dis­con­tin­u­ing the plan to ring church­bells to warn that the Ger­man army has land­ed: ”I can­not help feel­ing that any­thing like a seri­ous inva­sion would be bound to leak out” (297). Hitler, in  for­get­ting about the Russ­ian win­ter, “must have been very loose­ly educated….I have nev­er made such a bad mis­take as that” (347). Or take the earthy way he has in mak­ing  the pedes­tri­an mil­i­tary  obser­va­tion that Hitler has lost air pow­er supe­ri­or­i­ty: “Hitler made a con­tract with the demon of the air, but the con­tract ran out before the job was done, and the demon has tak­en on an engage­ment with the rival firm” (207). But to cite these exam­ples is to betray hun­dreds of equal­ly great ones. What a drill sergeant of words he was, and what an out­rage it was to let some­one like him loose to embar­rass and humil­i­ate the rest of us mere mor­tal users of the language!

Leg­end has it that when Milton’s Par­adise Lost was pub­lished, John Dry­den, the great­est poet of the next gen­er­a­tion, said to fel­low poets fre­quent­ing a cof­fee house, “This man cuts us all out, and the ancients too.”  In the same way, all the col­lec­tions of the “Wit and Wis­dom of Churchill” are now ren­dered auto­mat­i­cal­ly obso­lete. Indeed it is hard to think of a “Wit and Wis­dom” vade mecum devot­ed to any­one (oth­er than per­haps Shakespeare)—Pope, Twain, Wilde, Shaw, Proust, Lincoln—that is not dimin­ished by the scope of this book, the vol­ume of mem­o­rable utter­ances, the help­ful com­men­tary. As a trea­sure trove of pro­found obser­va­tions, rolling peri­ods, amusing—often hilarious—one-liners, it threat­ens the hege­mo­ny of Bartlett’s Quo­ta­tions. Who could have thought that any one man had so many won­der­ful things to say? He makes the val­ue of the oth­er mer­chan­dis­ers of sagac­i­ty seem inflated.

Mr. Langworth’s pre­vi­ous pub­li­ca­tion was a record of the edi­tions of Churchill’s books. That defin­i­tive work was of inter­est only to that class of harm­less eccentrics known as book col­lec­tors. Churchill By Him­self (nice title, too) is, how­ev­er, of inter­est to any­one who loves English—nay loves lan­guage itself—for its evi­dence of how this puny, feath­er­less, two-legged crea­ture called man can use his inven­tion of words to reach heights of sub­lim­i­ty. In short, although not con­ven­tion­al schol­ar­ship or crit­i­cism, which advances a new inter­pre­ta­tion or brings to light obscure doc­u­ments or con­nects the dots in a revi­sion­ist fash­ion, this book, putting a huge num­ber of dots at our dis­pos­al for us to con­nect, is noth­ing less than a land­mark in Churchill stud­ies. Indeed, thanks to Mr. Langworth’s well-inten­tioned efforts, some aca­d­e­m­ic scoundrel will no doubt spare him­self the enjoy­able but time-con­sum­ing task of read­ing Churchill’s forty or so books and rather use just this one vol­ume in order to write a cred­i­ble mono­graph on “Churchill’s polit­i­cal phi­los­o­phy” or “Churchill’s Prose Style” or “Churchill and” any  num­ber of top­ics. Churchill was cer­tain­ly right to have his doubts about “progress.”

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