Memorial Day weekend prompts not only sober reflection, but also the (completely unrelated) opening of pools for the summer. And with community pools come strangers spraying themselves nearby with sunblock, flying beachballs, ice cream bars melting on lounge chair cushions, and of course, occasional poolside reading. I took the kiddies to our pool last weekend and found a decent second row chair near the water where I could observe my little fish and make some progress through my own book. (I’m learning about geopolitics. Still sorting that one out.)
My first-row neighbor had a hard-bound, red-covered tome in his hands that sparked my interest; it’s not the kind of book that one ordinarily would spot at the pool. I lacked the necessary motivation to ask my lounge chair neighbor about his book or why he was reading it. So, instead, after enough covert observation, I caught a glimpse of the spine — Their Finest Hour — and eventually the cover, which bore Winston Churchill’s signature. It turns out that this reader may actually have been combining his poolside relaxation with sober reflection.
I investigated, and the book pictured above was the book-of-the month edition published by Houghton Mifflin in 1949, the second in a six-volume series, The Second World War, written by Churchill between 1948 and 1954. Setting aside the history of war and political intrigue that it tells, the story of the books’ creation is itself fascinating.
Churchill was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1953 as a result of his efforts; those efforts were not without controversy. It seems that Churchill began contemplating, and perhaps even composing (in the form of personal notes and memoranda), what came to be the book series even while the war still raged, and he certainly took advantage of his political position (including access to state records) to work on the book after the war ended. The whole thing has a bothersome self-serving circularity to it. Churchill, one of the most significant historical figures of World War II, was simultaneously a subject of the history that he was planning on writing. What does it mean when a subject is in control of the narrative of which he is a part? And what does it mean when he later has the opportunity to tell (or re-tell) the story? How reliable is it? This could apply to any significant political figure or leader; can’t you picture President Obama or Hillary Clinton or John McCain making mental notes about their decisions and thinking, “Yep, today definitely belongs in Chapter 42; at least worth a footnote”?
Because Churchill was busy serving as prime minister during part of this creative period, much of the writing was done by others. According to a NY Times book review, Churchill relied “heavily on a bevy” of researchers and first-draft writers known by a rather Bondesqe, British-secret-government-agency type of name: “The Syndicate” (which included two retired generals, a former naval officer and an Oxford historian).
Churchill was the author, however, who made a fortune — relying on dodgy dealings:
Under Britain’s confiscatory tax regime, Churchill would have owed 97.5 percent of his royalties to the state. . . . To get around this obstacle, his lawyers came up with a dodge worthy of Enron: Churchill would donate his papers to a trust run by his friends and family, which would sell them to publishers for a handsome sum without any tax liability and provide the proceeds for Churchill to live on.
According to the New York Times book review quoted above (reviewing a 2005 book about Churchill’s writing process), Churchill would have cleared about $18 million in today’s money under this scheme. A lucrative way of remembering the fallen. Today, this edition is available on Amazon for as little as $.03.
Carrying on with the Memorial Day theme, I separately came across a bit of history intersecting with literature when I read that Harry Truman carried around in his wallet a Tennyson poem, written in 1835, called “Locksley Hall.” This is the poem that contains the popular phrase, “In the spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love,” but it also contains a vision of a military future that captured the imaginations of both Truman and Churchill:
For I dipt into the future, far as human eye could see,
Saw the Vision of the world, and all the wonder that would be;
Saw the heavens fill with commerce, argosies of magic sails,
Pilots of the purple twilight, dropping down with costly bales;
Heard the heavens fill with shouting, and there rain’d a ghastly dew
From the nations’ airy navies grappling in the central blue;
Far along the world-wide whisper of the south-wind rushing warm,
With the standards of the peoples plunging thro’ the thunder-storm;
Till the war-drum throbb’d no longer, and the battle-flags were furl’d
In the Parliament of man, the Federation of the world.
There the common sense of most shall hold a fretful realm in awe,
And the kindly earth shall slumber, lapt in universal law.