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BOOK REVIEW: ‘Churchill: The Power of Words’
In 1841, Scottish historian Thomas Carlyle wrote about the Great Man Theory in his book, “On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History.” He believed that the “history of the world is but the biography of great men,” and “the Great Man was always as lightning out of Heaven; the rest of men waited for him like fuel, and then they too would flame.”
If you accept Carlyle’s thought-provoking theory, then Sir Winston Churchill would surely fit the bill as a Great Man. Few individuals in history have ever matched the late British Tory prime minister’s intellect, wit, writing and oratorical skills. We were fortunate to have experienced his many talents for as long as we did, and his legacy remains with us still.
Sir Martin Gilbert, the prominent British historian and author, has played a vital part in maintaining this legacy in his role as Churchill’s official biographer. His newest book, “Churchill: The Power of Words,” was published in conjunction with an exhibit of the same name, at the Morgan Library in New York City through Sept. 23. This important volume reproduces 200 extracts from various writings and speeches made during the famous statesman’s life and career.
To be sure, this is hardly the first book ever produced of Churchill’s collected words and sayings. Various editions already exist, such as Robert Rhodes James‘ “Churchill Speaks 1897-1963: Collected Speeches in Peace & War” and Richard Langworth’s “Churchill By Himself: The Definitive Collection of Quotations” (which includes an introduction by Mr. Gilbert). What makes this particular volume stand out is the expert’s encyclopedic knowledge about his subject — and his keen eye in choosing the most exceptional words of a man who wrote and spoke so many of them. Mr. Gilbert has long been Churchill’s greatest champion, but he wisely takes a secondary role to simply provide brief thoughts on each excerpt’s historical significance. In doing so, Churchill’s astonishing mastery of the English language can thereby do all the talking.
While the book doesn’t have any chapters or subsections for topics, it does follow a consistent timeline. On every odd-numbered page, there is a date; on every even-numbered page, there is a reference to Churchill’s age. From his only novel, “Savrola” (1900) to his final public speech Oct. 31, 1959, the methodical development of Churchill’s glorious style and prose is on full display.
It’s an impossible task to give Churchill’s words their proper due in such a small amount of space. Rest assured that Mr. Gilbert has amassed a solid balance of pre-war and post-war material in “Churchill: The Power of Words.” Some of the World War II speeches will be familiar at first glance. From Churchill’s famous inaugural speech as prime minister in Britain’s House of Commons (“I would say to the House, as I said to those who have joined this Government: ‘I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat’”) to his stirring words on June 4, 1940 (“We shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender … “), his magnificent ability to turn a phrase shines through.
Lesser-known statements made during Churchill’s long and illustrious career also will leave a distinct impression. For example, on April 26, 1915, he wrote a touching obituary about the poet Rupert Brooke during his sojourn in the Liberal Party ranks: “Joyous, fearless, versatile, deeply instructed, with classic symmetry of mind and body, ruled by high undoubting purpose, he was all that one would wish England’s noblest sons to be in days when no sacrifice but the most precious is acceptable, and the most precious is that which is most freely proffered.”
As well, consider this superb line from a Dec. 24, 1941 U.S. radio broadcast: “Ill would it be for us this Christmastide if we were not so sure that no greed for the land or wealth of any other people, no vulgar ambition, no morbid lust for material gain at the expense of others, had led us to the field.”
To his credit, Mr. Gilbert has devised a superb volume of Churchill’s writings and speeches that will likely find its way onto many bookshelves. Readers will surely be mesmerized by his astute observations about the world’s underbelly and want to learn and discover more. Considering the brilliance of the source, and the immense talents of his official biographer, who could blame them?
Michael Taube is a columnist and former speechwriter for Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
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