The Most Famous Unknown Writer of the Twentieth Century: An Interview with Historian Peter Clarke on Winston Churchill as Author
Robin Lindley is a Seattle attorney and writer. He is feature editor for the History News Network, and his writing appears in HNN, Crosscut, Real Change and more, with a focus on history, politics, international affairs, law, medicine, the media and the arts.
I’ve never had any money except
what my pen has brought me.
--Winston Churchill (1945)
The achievements of Winston Churchill as a politician and statesmen now eclipse his career as a writer. Perhaps the most popular image of Churchill is the cigar-chomping, intrepid prime minister who led Britain through the darkest days of the Second World War. But he earned his living as a writer and was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1953 for Literature -- not for his celebrated statecraft.
Churchill was a prolific writer with numerous articles and his many books -- 42 by some counts -- including magisterial biographies of his father Lord Randolph Churchill and his distant forebear the Duke of Marlborough; his history of the First World War, The World Crisis; his six-volume opus The Second World War; his sweeping A History of the English-Speaking Peoples, and even an early novel.
Eminent historian Dr. Peter Clarke explores Churchill’s life as a writer in his new book Mr. Churchill’s Profession: The Statesman as Author and the Book that Defined the “Special Relationship” (Bloomsbury Press, 2012). Dr. Clarke traces Churchill’s writings from his first publication in 1898 to his two-thousand-year history of the English-speaking peoples, the work that defined the “special relationship” between the United States and Britain and shaped Churchill’s own rhetoric and leadership. Dr. Clarke also details Churchill’s unstable financial situation as writing kept him afloat, and shares glimpses of Churchill’s often frustrating and at times devious dealings with publishers.
Dr. Clarke was Professor of Modern British History and Master of Trinity Hall at Cambridge University. He is the author of several acclaimed books on modern British history including Keynes: The Twentieth Century's Most Influential Economist; The Last Thousand Days of the British Empire: The Demise of a Superpower, 1944-47; A Question of Leadership: Gladstone to Blair; The Keynesian Revolution in the Making, 1924-1936; and the final volume of the Penguin History of Britain, Hope and Glory, Britain 1900-2000. Dr. Clarke is also a Fellow of the British Academy and writes regularly for The Times Literary Supplement, The London Review of Books and The Financial Times. He lives with his wife, the Canadian writer Maria Tippett, in Cambridge, England, and Pender Island, British Columbia
Dr. Clarke recently talked by telephone from his home in Canada about Churchill the writer.
You’ve written extensively on modern British history. What inspired your new biography of Winston Churchill focusing on his life as a writer?
It came to me after reading a couple of other books that I admire. One was Roy Jenkins’s great biography of Churchill. Jenkins was a British politician but he was also a considerable writer in his own right and, unusually, he devoted a full chapter to Churchill’s own writing career. It was obvious there was a fellow feeling there, and that prompted me. Then a colleague at Cambridge, David Reynolds, wrote a good book on the way Churchill had written about the Second World War.
I put those two things together and thought, "this is a beginning," but there’s a lot more to be said here and to find out.
It’s a real writer’s book because Churchill encountered the problems other writers face with meeting deadlines and dealing with publishers, and his finances depended on writing more than his political work and other activities.
That’s absolutely true, and I imagine I wrote about him with a certain amount of fellow feeling. At times, I felt here am I, a writer in my sixties, trying to write a thousand words a day. I’m writing about another chap in his sixties who was trying to write a thousand words a day. That sort of empathy with the subject came in. I hope I’ve never treated my publishers so disgracefully as Churchill treated his in, if not lying to them, certainly concealing a good deal of the truth about what he was actually up to.
Churchill has a reputation as a poor student and he must have seemed an unlikely future winner of a Nobel Prize for Literature.
Yes, but I think that’s there’s a lot of myths about Churchill’s school days, some of them generated by Churchill himself. When he wrote this wonderful autobiographical volume My Early Life, I think he exaggerated about how bad he was in school.
He wasn’t stupid. One of the few people who thought he was stupid was his father, Lord Randolph Churchill -- not a very appealing figure to my mind. And I think [one reason] simply was that he didn’t want to spend too much money on Winston’s higher education, and he put the boy down. The net result of that was that Churchill was relatively late flowering in education, and he was, of course, self-educated to a much larger degree than you’d expect of someone on his path. He was, after all, upper class through and through.
He was an autodidact of a kind you’d expect much more often in those days further down the social scale -- working men who educated themselves. He’s not unlike one of your greatest presidents, Abraham Lincoln, who likewise acquired much of his own learning in the same way.
Churchill admired his father Lord Randolph despite his father’s attitude toward him.
Yes. Lord Randolph seems to me to be one of those parents who seem almost undeserving of real respect, but Churchill went to immense efforts to please him in Lord Randolph’s lifetime. And, of course, after he was dead, he was idolized and his political legacy was something young Winston wanted to carry on. In that sense, it was a legacy to live up to, and Churchill, like his father, became Chancellor of the Exchequer of the Treasury Ministry in the British government. To that extent, there was degree of direct emulation.
And his extensive biographies of his father Lord Randolph and his distant forebear the Duke of Marlborough are quite defensive about their actions and their lives.
That’s right. You wouldn’t go to either for a wholly dispassionate view. Winston wrote his biography of Lord Randolph as his major exercise in writing history and biography. It’s a great achievement, but it’s certainly a partisan work and it’s shameless in the amount of suppression of awkward facts, as well as the literary props with which some events are embellished.
Churchill’s later vast biography of the first Duke of Marlborough is a different kettle of fish and there’s real historical research and insight that shines through it. But it is a partisan work in that he’s defending the Duke of Marlborough -- especially from the attacks on his reputation by [historian] Lord Macaulay in his great history of England in the mid-nineteenth century. It wasn’t really until Winston had a way of mounting a defense that he was ready to take on the work, and he certainly presents the case for the defense with enormous rhetorical force and enormous length.
You discuss Churchill’s career as a journalist, and he was a war reporter. Was he seen as a credible reporter at the time?
He was in a very ambiguous position because he was a young officer and he managed to get different postings and worked as a war correspondent -- what we’d now call an embedded journalist. When he was mounting criticisms of some of the British commanders -- most notably Kitchener, who headed the assault on the Sudan in the campaign on the Nile -- Churchill was a serving officer, and therefore was on very delicate ground. Possibly he was ready to risk everything because he already sensed that he didn’t have a long-term career in the army, and he was going to have to make his name through writing about war rather than continuing [to serve].
As First Lord of the Admiralty in the First World War, Churchill planned the ill-fated Dardanelles campaign -- culminating in the disaster at Gallipoli -- and he later wrote a multi-volume history of the war, The World Crisis. How was this history received given his scarred reputation after the war?
The World Crisis runs to at least five volumes. (I say at least because there are further addendum volumes lumped in with it.) The most interesting is volume two because that deals with the assault on the Dardanelles and the landing at Gallipoli to knock Turkey out of the war. Notoriously, this operation went badly wrong. Ask the Australians who provided some of the troops who died heroically on the beaches of Gallipoli. That’s the reason why Churchill’s name perhaps is less lauded in Australia than in other parts of the British Commonwealth.
So Churchill had a lot of explaining to do. He went to enormous lengths to get out the relevant documents, mounting the case in defense of the operation, and extenuating his own role. Again, it was not done in an even-handed way. He manipulated some of the documents more as a lawyer than as a judicious historian. It was his case for the defense in that sense. I don’t think anybody these days would read The World Crisis as a dispassionate account of the First World War. We get very much Churchill’s own viewpoint, presenting one side of many complex arguments.
John F. Kennedy was a voracious reader of history, and he read The World Crisis in his youth, before the Second World War.
He did, and JFK’s first book on how Britain had allowed Germany to rearm was called Why England Slept. And that title is a play on words. Churchill’s speeches of that period were published under the title While England Slept. Kennedy [changed] that title to Why England Slept, so it was a broad tribute to Churchill with the title.
Churchill’s mother was American and he saw a “special” British-American relationship. Did his strong feeling about the United States stem from his mother’s origins?
It does and it doesn’t. I think too many have naively accepted claims that Churchill made at various at times that he was proud to be half American and that he always thought of his mother in this way. It’s a sobering fact that when Churchill was speaking most warmly about the Americans, it was when it was frankly in his own interest and it was in Britain’s national interest.
It’s rather remarkable -- and it came as a surprise -- that after the First World War, in the late 1920s, he was often regarded as quite anti-American. His wife Clementine in 1928 envisioned a reshuffling of the British government when Churchill was at Treasury and thought he might go to the Foreign Office. Clementine asked, “Wouldn’t you be regarded as anti-American?” That doesn’t fit the simple image we have of Churchill as automatically pro-American. I think that’s something that came later from in the 1930s onward. We can see some of it in the way he decided to write about the "English-Speaking Peoples," in which he certainly is not a British partisan who is making points against the Americans. For example, in his treatment of the American War of Independence, his sympathies are much more with the Americans than with British. It’s really from the 1930s and into the Second World War that he develops his much stronger commitment to Anglo-American partnership, which is the lodestone of the alliance.
Can you talk about Churchill’s relationship with President Franklin Roosevelt?
Talking about the common heritage of the English-speaking people was a way for Churchill to draw the United States and Great Britain closer together. And it was a way to talk about Britain’s world role without raising American hackles by talking about the British Empire, always an awkward corner for Churchill to negotiate.
There’s no doubt at all that he used the rhetoric of the English-speaking people to suggest a common interest between Britain and the United States. And he suggests, long before Pearl Harbor, that the Americans ought to be in this war, too, because it’s a defense of the great common principles for which they stood against the monstrous tyranny of Nazism. That actually feeds Britain’s national self-interest and Roosevelt listened to this [rhetoric] empathetically, as he often would in his charming way, smiling but not fulfilling Churchill’s hopes that he would actually bring the United States into the war until the political situation ripened and allowed him to do so. In the end, it was the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor which provided the obvious occasion for this.
Roosevelt in those years was sympathetic to Churchill and gave him support when he much needed it. Later in the Second World War, by 1944, when the United States became the dominant power among the Allies, Roosevelt got bored with Churchill and wasn’t listening to him as much, and their relationship in that sense passed its zenith.
He begins the massive History of the English-Speaking Peoples in the 1930s, but aren’t the origins of this concept advanced much earlier by the English-Speaking Union and others in Britain who promoted Anglo-American amity?
Right. Again, this is something where I learned more in the course of my research. I assumed that Churchill was much more instrumental in bringing forth the concept of the English-speaking people than is in fact the case. This concept goes back to the nineteenth century in the aftermath of the American Civil War, in sympathy with the North and the great cause of the abolition of slavery. This expression was introduced in British politics and there’s a strong Anglo-American connection.
The point is that this is that this expression comes into politics from the left. That’s not surprising, but Churchill, who came at politics from the right, didn’t have much to do with [this concept] until after the First World War.
It’s striking that some see a sense of racial superiority in terms of the discussion of the Anglo-Saxon forebears of the modern Americans and British English-speaking people.
It was never Churchill’s preferred terminology. He talks about the English-speaking people and he may well be implying cultural superiority, but I don’t think it’s racial in any sense. It would be wrong to associate Churchill with Anglo-Saxon racist stereotype that others latched onto at times in the late nineteenth century. He’s free of any traces of that. He developed much more in terms of political culture for the common good -- legal heritage, the constitutional frame of mind, the emphasis on freedom, the growth of liberty, the opposition to tyranny. This is the way idea works in Churchill’s hands.
The story of this wide-ranging history is fascinating. Churchill begins in the 1930s and has interruptions at times, and then the Second World War interferes for six years when he must put the writing aside.
Yes. Churchill took on the project in the winter of 1932, making light with his publisher of his other big project on hand with the Duke of Marlborough. Admittedly that wasn’t finished -- or really started. So for years, Churchill had to bluff his way along pretending that he was doing a lot more on A History of the English-Speaking Peoples than was actually the case, because he was actually finishing Marlborough. It’s very late in the 1930s that he devotes his full attention to it.
I think that I show most of the book was in draft by the end of 1939. Two-and-a-half or even three of the four volumes of the final work were essentially there and Churchill had done it himself. Whatever the reliance on ghostwriters later, we can take the early volumes of A History of the English-Speaking Peoples as Churchill’s own done with help and some research and some research assistance but his own work through and through. That really forms the work, and it’s the last volume -- volume four, which is really a later construct mainly at the hands of others after the Second World War, in the early 1950s, with the significant exception of the long section of the American Civil War, which Churchill had already written in 1939. To some extent, it [breaks] the volume in two. There’s far too much on the war in relation to the theme of the whole work, but it was irresistible to Churchill. Of course he wanted to write about the American Civil War and waded in at great length. And on its own terms, it’s a very fine exercise in narrative history and him telling the story.
I was surprised the researchers and eminent historians such as Alan Bullock were writing parts of the English-speaking peoples book. Did other writers help on Churchill’s other books?
Not too many. But the young historian Maurice Ashley helped a bit with A History of the English-Speaking Peoples having been Churchill’s first research assistant who worked a lot on the early volume of Marlborough. Later, another young historian named William Deakin became a friend of Winston’s over the years, and he also did an enormous amount on both volumes. It was really only later on that Churchill relied on a whole big team of people who were doing rather more than just helping with revisions or research, but really taking over the work. That doesn’t happen until the 1950s.
And A History of the English-Speaking Peoples doesn’t come out until after Churchill is awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Was the Nobel Prize for specific works or his body of writing?
The Nobel Prize is not a book prize in the sense of being given for one particular publication, but it’s a lifetime achievement award. That award was made in 1953, and the publication of A History of the English-Speaking Peoples does not begin until 1956, so clearly it can’t have been for the history. Churchill’s history of the Second World War was virtually complete by 1953 -- an important work, but that’s not mentioned in the official citation for the prize. His wartime speeches are, however.
The interesting thing is that he was recognized as an orator. And that was something Ernest Hemingway complained about. He also was a candidate in 1953 for the Nobel Prize, and he said rather grumpily that Churchill was a great orator rather than a great writer. But they fudged that distinction in awarding the prize. And it’s interesting that the citation said that “behind Churchill as a writer stands Churchill as an orator.” But it’s really the other way around: behind Churchill the orator stands Churchill the writer, meaning that when he made those great wartime speeches, he was already drawing on writing he had dictated and he had had in his grasp in A History of the English-Speaking Peoples. That was already in his mind then. Clearly, many references, many passages are re-workings of themes he had already developed in the history.
Thank you so much for your comments. Is there anything else you’d like to say about what you hope readers take from your book on Churchill as an author?
This book asks that Churchill be taken seriously in his profession as a writer, not to the extent pretending that politics was anything other than his vocation and his life’s work. But we should take his writing seriously and give it more attention than hitherto has been the case.
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