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Great Contemporaries

Churchill Reflects on FDR, Hitler, Kipling, Chaplin, Balfour, and Other Giants of His Age


Winston S. Churchill

Edited by James W. Muller, with Paul H. Courtenay & Erica L. Chenoweth


Wilmington (Delaware): Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI) Books, 2012

Paperback. xxxvi+504 p. ISBN 978-1935191995. $22.00


Reviewed by James Lancaster

Churchill Centre



Winston Churchill is best remembered and best known for his five years as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom during the Second World War. He was also a prolific writer—fifty books, 150 pamphlets, over 800 press articles, plus many forewords and introductions. In the 1930s, the Wilderness Years, he was out of office. As he wrote in the first volume of his The Second World War:

The years I spent from 1931 to 1935, apart from my anxiety on public affairs, were personally very pleasant to me. I earned my livelihood by dictating articles which had a wide circulation not only in Great Britain and in the United States, but also, before Hitler’s shadow fell upon them, in the most famous newspapers of sixteen European countries. I lived in fact from mouth to hand.

The phrase ‘from mouth to hand’ is an amusing play on the familiar English phrase ‘from hand to mouth’. It refers to the fact that, in the 1930s, Churchill dictated most of his press articles. It was only through dictation that he was able to write so many articles: 43 in 1935, 49 in 1938, and another 35 in 1939 before the outbreak of war. He needed to write almost one article a week to maintain his simple lifestyle: ‘We live vy simply—but with all the essentials of life well understood & well provided for—hot baths, cold champagne, new peas, & old brandy’.

Some of the articles were ‘pot-boilers’ (light-weight articles written quickly to meet contractual obligations, with titles such as Are There Men In The Moon?, Ides of March, What Do You Know About Yourself?, Life Under The Microscope, etc…) However, many of the articles were sketches of people whom Churchill knew well and whom he admired—Rosebery, John Morley, Balfour, Birkenhead—and sketches of people whom he only knew at a distance, such as Franklin Roosevelt whom he admired, but, in 1934, had only met once—in 1918. Since many of these articles had been well received, Churchill realised that he could improve his earnings by republishing them in book form. He may have been influenced by John Aubrey (1626-1697), whose Brief Lives, chiefly of contemporaries between the years 1669 and 1696 had been republished in two volumes in 1898.

Thornton Butterworth published a selection of Churchill’s ‘brief lives’ as Great Contemporaries in 1937. There were twenty-one sketches in this first edition. The book was a great success; it had to be reprinted within a few weeks. A second edition was published the following year, 1938, with an additional four sketches. James W. Muller, Professor of political science at the University of Alaska, has recently edited a new edition of Great Contemporaries, to which he has added another five sketches, bringing the total to thirty:

The twenty-one essays in the first edition (1937):

The Earl of Rosebery (first published in Pall Mall in October 1929)

The Ex-Kaiser (Strand Magazine November 1930)

George Bernard Shaw (Pall Mall August 1929)

Joseph Chamberlain (Pall Mall February 1930)

Sir John French (Lord French of Ypres) (Pall Mall January 1930)

John Morley (Pall Mall November 1929)

Hindenburg (Daily Mail August 1934)

Boris Savinkov (Pall Mall February 1929)

Herbert Henry Asquith (Pall Mall August 1928)

Lawrence of Arabia (News of the World May 1935)

‘F.E.’ (First Earl of Birkenhead) (News of the World March 1936)

Marshal Foch (Pall Mall July 1929)

Leon Trotsky, Alias Bronstein (Pall Mall December 1929)

Alfonso XIII (Strand Magazine July 1931)

Douglas Haig (Pall Mall November 1928)

Arthur James Balfour (Strand Magazine April 1931)

Hitler and His Choice (Strand Magazine November 1935)

George Nathaniel Curzon (Pall Mall January 1929)

Philip Snowden (Sunday Pictorial August 1931)

Clemenceau (Strand Magazine December 1930)

King George V (News of the World January 1936, six days after the King died)


The four essays in the second edition (1938):

Lord Fisher and His Biographer (News of the World January 1936)

Charles Stewart Parnell (Strand Magazine October 1936)

‘B.-P’ ( Baron Baden-Powell) (Sunday Pictorial August 1931)

Roosevelt From Afar (Collier’s December 1934)


The five additional essays in the Muller edition (2012):

H.G. Wells (Sunday Pictorial August 1931)

Charlie Chaplin (Collier’s October 1935)

Kitchener of Khartoum (News of the World January 1936)

King Edward VIII (Collier’s June 1937)

Rudyard Kipling (John O’London’s Weekly November 1937)

This new edition is much more than a reprint of earlier editions; it is an annotated edition with hundreds of detailed Footnotes and Endnotes. The 1938 edition of Great Contemporaries was about 80,000 words long (or ±300 pages). With the five extra sketches and the numerous footnotes and endnotes, Muller’s Great Contemporaries runs to just over 500 pages. It is a hefty tome, and worth every cent of the list price of $22.00.

This new edition of Great Contemporaries is ground-breaking in many respects. It opens with a very interesting 32-page Introduction. All readers of this book are strongly advised to read this Introduction carefully, not only because it provides brief summaries of each of the 30 articles, but also because it explains the methodology—how best to use the book.

The main body of the book opens with Churchill’s Preface to the 1937 edition. Muller includes no less than 14 detailed footnotes to this two-page Preface. All the footnotes in this new edition were written by his collaborator in England, Paul Courtenay. This reviewer much enjoys a good footnote, the more the merrier, and does not share John Betjeman’s opinion, as expressed in his sharp remark about ‘Foot & Note disease’. The footnotes in the Muller / Courtenay Great Contemporaries are sometimes obscure, sometimes anecdotal, sometimes joyous; they are always enlightening. They are a tour de force.

But there is a second tour de force, the Endnotes. There is, first, a brief account of where and when each essay was first published—the title of the periodical and the date of publication. Similar information is provided for later reprints where appropriate. This preliminary ‘initial note’ is then followed by a detailed, page-by-page review of any textual changes and / or deletions in the periodicals where the essay appeared. This difficult and demanding task was undertaken by Jim Muller’s other collaborator—Erica L. Chenoweth. The mind boggles when considering the time required to do a word-by-word comparison of the texts as published in two, and sometimes three, different periodicals, when compared to the text as finally published in Great Contemporaries. Has it been worth the effort? The answer is Yes. Not least because most of the essays in Great Contemporaries are of a high standard. Some examples:

Churchill on Rosebery:

He made many things not only arresting but merry. He seemed as much a master of trifles and gossip as of weighty matters. He was keenly curious about every aspect of life. Sportsman, epicure, bookworm, literary critic, magpie collector of historical relics, appreciative owner of veritable museums of art treasures, he never needed to tear a theme to tatters. In lighter vein he flitted jauntily from flower to flower like a glittering insect, by no means unprovided with a sting.

and later:

His life was set in an atmosphere of tradition. The Past stood ever at his elbow and was the counsellor upon whom he most relied. He seemed to be attended by Learning and History, and to carry into current events an air of ancient majesty. His voice was melodious and deep, and often, when listening, one felt in living contact with the centuries which are gone and perceived the long continuity of our island tale.

Churchill on John Morley:

Morley was always a fascinating companion, a man linked with the past, the friend and contemporary of my father, the representative of great doctrines, an actor in historic controversies, a master of English prose, a practical scholar, a statesman-author, a repository of vast knowledge on almost every subject of practical interest. It was an honour and privilege to consult and concert with him on equal terms, across the gulf of thirty-five years of seniority, in the swift succession of formidable and perplexing events. Such men are not found today.

Churchill on Foch:

It was in this situation, depressed, precarious, disputed, half undermined, that Marshal Foch, faced by the new German offensive of 12 July, did not hesitate to overrule Pétain, to withdraw the reserves which stood between Paris and the enemy and hurl them under Mangin at the German flank. This decision, judged in its circumstances and in its results, must ever be regarded as one of the greatest deeds of war and examples of fortitude of soul which history has recorded.

Churchill on Balfour, on leaving Asquith for Lloyd George in December 1916:

He passed from one Cabinet to the other, from the Prime Minister who was his champion to the Prime Minister who had been his most severe critic, like a powerful graceful cat walking delicately and unsoiled across a rather muddy street.

and on the death of Balfour:

I saw with grief the approaching departure, and—for all human purposes—extinction, of a being high-uplifted above the common run. As I observed him regarding with calm, firm and cheerful gaze the approach of Death, I felt how foolish the Stoics were to make such a fuss about an event so natural and so indispensable to mankind. But I felt also the tragedy which robs the world of all the wisdom and treasure gathered in a great man’s life and experience, and hands the lamp to some impetuous and untutored stripling, or lets it fall shivered into fragments upon the ground.

Churchill on Curzon:

The morning had been golden; the noontide was bronze; and the evening lead. But all were solid, and each was polished till it shone after its fashion.

Churchill on Georges Clemenceau:

He [Clemenceau] meant to sit on the safety valve, till he won or till his world blew up. He had no hope beyond the grave; he mocked at death; he was in his seventy-seventh year. Happy the nation which when its fate quivers in the balance can find such a tyrant and such a champion.

and after meeting Georges Clemenceau for the last time in Paris in 1927:

The old man appears, in his remarkable black skull-cap, gloved and well wrapped-up. None of the beauty of Napoleon, but I expect some of his St. Helena majesty; and far back beyond Napoleon, Roman figures came into view. The fierceness, the pride, the poverty after great office, the grandeur when stripped of power, the unbreakable front offered to this world and to the next—all these belong to ancients.

Churchill on ‘F.E.’ (First Earl of Birkenhead):

Some men when they die after busy, toilsome, successful lives leave a great stock of scrip and securities, of acres or factories or the goodwill of large undertakings. F.E. banked his treasure in the hearts of his friends, and they will cherish his memory till their time is come.

The Muller / Courtenay new edition of Great Contemporaries can be highly recommended. In the year 2012, most of Winston’s ‘Great Contemporaries’ are but shadowy figures from days long ago. Muller’s Introduction and the Courtenay footnotes for each essay, allied to Churchill’s marvellous prose, help bring these ‘Great Contemporaries’ back to life. Apart from a few minor errors, most of the Footnotes and Endnotes display an attention to detail which is quite remarkable. Another important bonus in this new edition is the Index, which in our digital age is much more detailed than earlier editions. However, there are some blemishes:

The first is a caveat—the book’s layout and methodology. It would be easier for the reader if each essay was self-contained. But this is not the case, for two reasons:

1. For a brief profile of each essay, the reader first has to turn to the Introduction, where there is no easy way of finding the brief profile of the subject of any specific essay. (It should also be noted that Muller has failed to provide brief profiles for the five new essays which he added in this new edition. This is an unfortunate omission.)

2. For the publishing history of each essay, the reader then has to turn to the long Endnotes section, noting in advance the page number for the beginning of each essay. This is time-consuming. The reader has to turn many pages of the book which, especially with a paperback, is not the easiest of tasks.

The second blemish concerns the photographs. All the photos in the first Thornton Butterworth edition, as well as the photos in the post-war Odhams editions, were printed on photo-standard glossy paper. Unfortunately, all the photos in the Muller / Courtenay edition are printed on plain paper; the quality of reproduction is poor.

These blemishes are primarily concerned with layout, printing and publishing; they have nothing to do with content. As far as content is concerned, the new Muller / Courtenay edition of Great Contemporaries is an enlightening and significant contribution to Churchillian scholarship.


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