John Keegan's biography of Winston Churchill weighs in at under 200 pages and seems positively meteoric compared to the usual heavy tomes deemed necessary to recount long and productive lives. Yet this brilliant little book illuminates the life and career of one of the most important men of the 20th century and tells a sweeping story in a way that is richly gratifying.
Keegan clears the furniture out of the room and allows us to see the bare bones and structure of Churchill's amazing and somewhat improbable life. Here was a sickly boy, the son of an English lord and beautiful American mother who was neglected in ways by both. Unimpressive in his studies, he nevertheless became a great and courageous soldier, the leading orator and writer of history of his time.
I don't know why, but I had forgotten until Keegan reminded me that Churchill won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953. Although he barely passed his exams to be accepted into Sandhurst, the British military academy, he did some things extremely well. One of those was to master the English sentence. When he joined the 4th Hussars in India, with time on his hands, he read deeply into history, especially Edward Gibbon's "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire."
As he became involved in battles and skirmishes, he sent dispatches and articles to newspapers, supplementing his scant wages. Thus, journalism, war and a later segue into politics blended the themes of his life.
Keegan begins with his own belated discovery of Churchill's power of language and follows with a thrilling narration of the young officer's baptism in war and display of personal courage. Churchill developed an early certainty in his ability to judge military situations, which stood him well in the turbulent years leading up to World War II. It would be wonderful to think careers progressed smoothly from early success to mature leadership to distinguished old age. Such was not the case here. Although Churchill was unafraid to test himself and he had limitless faith in his powers to lead, his path was one of success followed by disappointment, retreat and "black dog" depression, leading again to fresh challenge and triumph.
The key to his epic resurgence time and again was his possession of, as Keegan calls it, "remarkable resilience." When he was defeated in an election, when his spendthrift habits rampaged and the creditors were hounding him, when his fellow members of Parliament turned away from him with scorn, when no one would listen to his warnings of rising Nazism in Germany, "somehow he swam rather than sank."
During the times he was unwanted in government leadership positions, he worked diligently on his books, his painting, or on his estate and waited for his next moment.
The great moment arrived May 10, 1940, when he was called as prime minister. For five years, he led his countrymen through "their darkest hours," constantly repeating the words to encourage dampened spirits and flagging hearts -- "hardship and agony, but also sunshine and hope and the promise eventually of conquest and victory."
For Churchill never allowed himself to speak of defeat or appeasement or accommodation with Hitler. From the beginning of the war, his only goal was winning.
He articulated his will to win in a series of immortal speeches that commanded the attention of the world. CBS Radio reporter Edward R. Murrow said Churchill "mobilized the English language and sent it into battle." These "tools of battle" literally lifted the moral tone of the war to the highest ideals of liberty and humanity. His words sustained his people and inspired them when nations all over Europe were falling to Nazi invasion.
Whenever Keegan quotes Churchill in his fighting form, familiar as the phrases may be -- "conquer we must, conquer we shall" -- the thrill has not faded. One sees again, as in a thousand books and films, the courage and tenacity of besieged citizens. After the war, Churchill did not take the credit, rather gave it to the people, telling them it was their victory. And so it was, but one man embodied the spirit leading to that tremendous victory.
In Keegan's view, the "glow of military achievement and the splendor of empire have almost faded away, but a true glory continues to gleam over Churchill's life, works and words." This book certainly adds to that glory and keeps this personal history from dulling with age.
I admire the economy and artistry of this work, It is part of, and a splendid example of, a series called Penquin Lives, edited primarily by James Atlas. These biographies are small and intimate in nature, giving the essence of a life, the important details and not necessarily all the clutter. When I was a child, I loved those little orange biographies of famous Americans, still cherished and collected by many. They were so readable, with elegant silhouette illustrations of their subjects: Dolley Madison, Jane Addams, Thomas Edison.
This Penquin series is like an adult version of those earlier books. I've enjoyed Larry McMurtry writing about Crazy Horse, Edmund White on Marcel Proust and Karen Armstrong on the Buddha. One unfortunate entry was Jane Smiley's "Charles Dickens," but I can't wait for the promise of Bobbie Ann Mason doing Elvis.
Keegan writing about Winston Churchill is a perfect match. Keegan enjoys the same conversational style anchored by solid scholarship that distinguishes Churchill's books. In these troubled and uncertain times, reading his brisk review of menace and tyrants of the past, of elevated rhetoric leading to victory and one genuine hero is like giving a gift to oneself.
("Winston Churchill" by John Keegan, Viking, 192 pages, $19.95.)