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The Literary Genius of Winston Churchill and Teddy Roosevelt

The Literary Genius of Winston Churchill and Teddy Roosevelt

I have just finished reading part 2 of William Manchester‘s famous biography of Winston Churchill, The Last Lion: Alone, 1932-1940. As the subtitle suggests, it covers the years leading up to Britain’s involvement in World War I. These were years when Churchill was a political has-been, a powerless MP who was virtually the sole voice arguing that Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany could not be negotiated with, that Britain needed to shore up its defenses and military forces quickly, that his country faced a grave danger. By the time the book closes, Churchill has just become prime minister, Germany has declared war on Britain, and the country’s battle for survival has been truly joined.

It’s a terrific book, popular history at its best: witty, engrossing, page-turning. I’ve read plenty about this period in the past, but still I learned a lot that was new to me. For instance, I don’t think I had ever quite realized just how widespread the appeaser viewpoint and policies were among the political and cultural establishment (including the press), and how lengthy the capitulation to Nazi Germany’s repeated aggressions and power-grabs.

As for Churchill himself, I learned much that I hadn’t known, including one huge surprise: He supported himself in these years by working as a freelance writer! His high profile, long experience, and literary gifts made him a sought-after newspaper columnist in the 1930s, and he also toiled away at large-scale book projects, including a massive historical reference work, the 4-volume History of the English-Speaking Peoples. He wrote prolifically, partly because he wanted to, but partly because he had to earn money to support his lavish lifestyle and costly country estate, Chartwell. Manchester recounts how Churchill did most of his writing late at night, after saying goodnight to his usual assortment of dinner guests. His secretaries and researchers would stay up to assist him into the wee hours of the morning. Amazingly—in part because he needed the money—he worked this way even after he joined the War Cabinet of Neville Chamberlain and was beset by duties and responsibilities on all sides.

Chamberlain’s writing prowess got me to thinking about some great American leaders who could wield a wicked pen. Two that come to mind are Theodore Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan.  The entry on Roosevelt in Milestone Documents in American Leaders shows that he was as prolific in his own way as was Churchill:

“Notwithstanding a multitude of grand accomplishments in the realm of public service, a very active family life, a variety of recreational passions, and truly voluminous reading, Roosevelt astonishingly managed over a relatively short lifespan to write approximately thirty books, many hundreds of articles and speeches, and more than one hundred thousand letters.”

Among these was a four-volume history of the American frontier from 1769 to 1807, The Winning of the West. (Note, you can download the entire 4-volume set for free to your Kindle, and possibly in other ebook stores as well.) In other words, like Churchill after him, Roosevelt managed to create his own multivolume history reference sets.

In today’s world, it’s almost inconceivable that any president will end up producing the kind of voluminous writings that a Churchill or Roosevelt did. Heck, I’m in the publishing business, and even I can’t imagine taking the time to write a huge reference work all by myself, despite the fact that my life is nowhere as busy as those of the great statesmen of the past. Of course, like so many modern workers, I write all day, every day: emails, instant messages, blog posts, Twitter posts, Facebook updates, etc. But most of those won’t be saved (thank goodness), and that output will likely never result in the kind of sustained body of work that we saw from previous generations.

Do you think we will ever again see a president or prime minister who produces a vast output of long-form writing? If not, will civilization be the worse for it? One thing that Manchester points out when describing Churchill writing feverishly about Oliver Cromwell or the Norman conquest while juggling critical decisions about how to thwart the German war machine is that Churchill’s literary work was not a distraction from his day-to-day responsibilities. Rather, studying and writing about those historical events helped him to clarify his perspective about contemporary matters. It may be that devoting oneself to the exhausting work of writing about something is, in the end, more useful than merely reading about it. If so, then indeed it may be our collective loss that our political leaders no longer write about history.

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