Rediscovering Churchill's history of the American-speaking peoples
Name recognition just wasn't an issue when Winston S. Churchill began a 27-year career in Parliament in 1970. But being the grandson and namesake of the great World War II-era British leader hasn't opened every door. When the young Winston identified himself to two burly, disbelieving Chicago police officers amidst the riots at the 1968 Democratic Convention, he got a swift nightstick on the noggin for his trouble. A New York cabby once told him, "If you're Winston Churchill, then I'm Marilyn Monroe." And then there are always the daunting comparisons.
"My grandfather's life is a constant reproach to me and to everybody," Churchill says during a call to Belgium, where he is on summer holiday. "How little one is able to achieve by comparison! Not only did he produce some 50 volumes of history, biography, and speeches, but nearly 500 canvases as an artist, some of them of remarkable quality. And in his spare time he managed to beat the daylights out of Adolf Hitler as well."
Four of the volumes Sir Winston produced make up his massive A History of the English-Speaking Peoples, for which he received glowing reviews and the 1953 Nobel Prize for literature. Buried within these volumes is a fresh and vigorous account of the development of the United States, which Winston S. Churchill has seamlessly edited into the very enjoyable and very readable The Great Republic: A History of America.
"I had long known of my grandfather's writings about America and his love of America," Churchill explains, "and it just struck me as amazing that the history of America which he had written had never been published in this format. To this day mainstream American readers are probably oblivious to the fact that Winston Churchill wrote a rather good history of their country."
Rather good indeed. Sir Winston writes with wit and verve and a capacious understanding of politics and governance. As his grandson says, "It certainly isn't the work of an academic historian who has scribbled in his ivory tower. This is somebody who knows the world." The American world Sir Winston presents to the reader is just unfamiliar enough to be exceptionally interesting. Although the son of an American mother and proud of his American blood, Sir Winston escaped the hypnotic pull of our founding mythologies. So, for example, while acknowledging the contribution of George Washington and his heroic struggle to keep a revolutionary army in the field, he attributes British losses not to Washington's generalship but to larger strategic matters, such as Britain's inability to bring overwhelming force against the colonial armies because the French dominated the sea and bottled up the British navy in port. What we get is certainly a recognizable version of our history, just not the one we're likely to hear from other historians. That The Great Republic is so cleverly written is simply an added pleasure.
Sir Winston's writing is probably best when describing the battles of the Civil War. Such gruesome and heroic struggles clearly energized him. According to his grandson, he tramped many of the battlefields on foot during a 1929 visit to the United States. He impressed into service somebody who as a small boy had witnessed some of the heaviest fighting. He brings to his descriptions all of his knowledge as a soldier who had fought in many battles on four continents, as well as his power as a strategist, politician, and historian.
Churchill's history of the United States ends about 1900. His grandson fills the void by presenting a fine selection from Churchill's articles and speeches about 20th-century America. Some of these are the expected ones the famous Iron Curtain speech delivered in Fulton, Missouri, and his speeches before Joint Sessions of the U.S. Congress. But there are surprises here, too—a review of Upton Sinclair's book, The Jungle, in which Churchill displays an unexpectedly intense social conscience, and a very funny 1933 article on American food called "Land of Corn and Lobsters."
The Great Republic concisely demonstrates what an exceptional writer Winston Churchill was, something that may surprise Americans who think of him primarily as a politician. According to his grandson, Sir Winston derived virtually all of his income from his pen, which is why by the end of the war six years when he had been unable to earn anything he was effectively bankrupt. When Churchill announced that he had to sell his beloved home, Chartwell, wealthy friends and well-wishers purchased the place for posterity. Churchill lived there until he died in 1965 at the age of 90.
Winston S. Churchill has vivid memories of his grandfather standing at his upright desk at Chartwell correcting page proofs. "It was a literary factory there. When he was at home he had a large team two or three researchers, mostly Oxford historians who would be preparing material, looking up facts and figures, and a relay of two or three secretaries that he kept busy until the early hours. He really drove himself." Sir Winston had no speechwriters, and according to his grandson, put "approximately one hour of preparation into each minute of delivery. And that's why the speeches are so damn good!"
Like his grandfather and father, the mercurial Randolph Churchill, Winston S. Churchill has had a dual career as a politician and a journalist. In the 1960s he spent a number of years working as a war correspondent and notes that the only time he sustained any injuries was "in a place called Chicago in 1968." He and his father co-authored a book on the Six Day War which remains the standard work on that war. Since retiring from politics, he has written a well-regarded biography of his father and continues to contribute articles to the Wall Street Journal and various European newspapers and magazines.
Winston S. Churchill remembers his grandfather not as the awesome personage of history, but as wonderfully warm and approachable, intensely human, with a lively sense of humor. He adds, "I learned quite a bit as a journalist from my grandfather and various things as a politician from him. But above all, I learned about independence of mind to stand up for what you believe, come what may."
Alden Mudge is a reviewer in Oakland, California, and a regular contributor to BookPage.