Churchill Couldn’t Write Fiction to Save His Life
Prof. Jonathan Rose explores his literary side in new book.
Many historians have chronicled the remarkable life of Sir Winston Churchill, prime minister of Britain during World War II, but few have focused on the torrent of books he churned out during his long life. For that we can turn to Professor Jonathan Rose, whose latest book, “The Literary Churchill: Author, Reader, Actor,” published by Yale University Press, comes out May 28.
Churchill is remembered as the statesman whose stirring oratory inspired his countrymen to defeat Hitler, but “I don’t think we can understand his politics unless we understand what he read and he wrote,” says Rose, the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of History. “The more I read of him, the more I saw how his political agenda was shaped by his reading.” Although many of his books were collections of his speeches, Churchill also wrote a novel, history, biography, autobiography, newspaper columns and war correspondence. “He couldn’t write fiction to save his life, but the reportage was brilliant.”
Other politicians have written books to advance their career. “Why did we elect Obama president? Because we loved his biography. It really propelled him into the White House,” Rose says. Yet writing was not a sideline, but a successful and lucrative career for Churchill, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953. “He wrote for money—he had an expensive lifestyle—and he wrote to promote his career and shape public opinion. He was seeking fame and immortality.” The British politician was born into a famous and wealthy family, but didn’t have much of a formal education.
An early review of Rose’s book praises the author for documenting how millions of people’s lives can depend on what their rulers read. “Here is an oeuvre to be reckoned with,” reported the Financial Times of London, where the book was published April 21. “In an erudite exploration of (Churchill’s) development as ‘reader,’ we are deftly shown the very wide range of literary influences that helped him to form his own style.”
Rose, who specializes in British history and the history of the book, decided to study what Churchill read and wrote after publishing his prize-winning book, The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes. During a visiting appointment at Princeton in 2003, he visited the university’s archives of Scribner’s, Churchill’s American publisher.
“Before World War Two, his books were a flop in this country. He was regarded as a British imperialist and kind of old-fashioned. Scribner lost money on every book. After the war though, he became a bestseller here,” Rose says. “One of his books sold almost as many copies as the Kinsey Report.”—Mary Jo Patterson