The life of Winston Churchill offers an abundant supply of extraordinary material for biography.
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There is a word for this sort of thing: hagiography. This is not to suggest that Johnson’s adoring study is not a pleasure to read. A wonderful prose stylist, Johnson composes one graceful sentence after another. Despite the elegant writing, in his effort to sanctify Churchill, Johnson is reluctant to train a critical lens on his subject.Skip to next paragraph
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There were reasons, for example, that Churchill’s political foes called him a warmonger, a charge Johnson dismisses too easily. Consider a letter Churchill wrote to his wife on the eve of World War I: “Everything tends toward catastrophe and collapse. I am interested, geared up, and happy.” And once the war began, Churchill acknowledged that it was “smashing and shattering the lives of thousands.” Yet, he said, “I cannot help it – I love every second I live.” It would be worth probing Churchill’s attitude toward war, something Johnson fails to do in a serious way.
Given Johnson’s lack of objectivity in evaluating Churchill, his claim that the British leader saved his country during World War II rings hollow, as does his assertion that “no one else could have done it.”
Moreover, Johnson’s declaration that “the facts and documents at our disposal” confirm this proposition does nothing to strengthen his case, which is, of course, unprovable. Such hyperbolic language undermines an important point, namely, that Churchill’s wartime leadership was exemplary.
In assessing Churchill’s historical writing, Johnson is overly kind. Early on, Johnson writes that Churchill possessed a “historian’s mind.” He was “eager to grapple with facts” and wanted “to answer the who, how, where, when questions.”
But if Churchill possessed such a mind, he failed to employ it when writing history. As recent scholarship has shown, Churchill’s six-volume study of World War II, for all its grandeur, is an utterly unreliable work of history. One historian who has examined it calls it an “exercise in self-defense and self-promotion,” which is “willfully inaccurate” and filled with “attempts to deceive.”
Even Johnson, in evaluating Churchill’s massive examination of the war years, writes that the British leader was determined to fight for “his ultimate place in history. What was at stake,” Johnson observes, was Churchill’s “status as a hero.” While this is no doubt true, it belies Johnson’s contention that Churchill had the mind of a historian.
Johnson’s mellifluous prose and passion for his subject might have made this a genuinely engaging book on an extraordinary man. Instead, because he was unwilling to apply any critical detachment in composing this study, Johnson has created an unreal portrait of a figure who often appears ready for canonization. But with all Churchill achieved, he can afford to be seen for what he was – a man, not a saint.
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