Introduction

Winston Churchill 1874-1965

(Full name Sir Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill) English politician and historian.

Although Churchill is best remembered as prime minister of England during World War II, he was also an accomplished historian, having published dozens of volumes on the history of England and Europe. Additionally, he has been noted as a master of oratory. Although interest in his written works has been immeasurably enhanced by Churchill's status as a statesman, they are considered worthy of study in their own right. Churchill was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953 “for his historical and biographical presentations and for the scintillating oratory in which he has stood forth as a defender of human values.”

Biographical Information

Churchill was born at Blenheim Palace in 1874, the son of the English politician Lord Randolph Churchill and the American heiress Jennie Jerome. He was educated at the private school Harrow, where he did not distinguish himself academically. Sensing that his son held more promise in military activity than in intellectual pursuits, Lord Randolph enrolled him at the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst. Churchill went on to serve with the Fourth Hussars in Cuba, India, and Sudan from 1895 to 1898. Recognizing that he needed to earn a living, Churchill turned in 1899 to journalism and worked as a war correspondent in South Africa during the Boer War; he was captured by the Boers and held in a prisoner-of-war camp but escaped. During the early years of the twentieth century, Churchill gained much notice as a journalist and writer, and he was able to support himself on that income for many years. In 1900 he was elected to Parliament and served in a variety of official capacities throughout his career. Churchill married Clementine Hozier in 1908; he had proposed to her four times before she accepted. He saw active service in the trenches of World War I, confessing later that he loved the sound of bombs going off. By the 1920s Churchill became intensely interested in politics; some have suggested that this was a posthumous attempt to live up to his father's high expectations. He devoted himself to many of his father's causes, including democracy, social reform, and the reduction of military expenditure in times of peace. However, Churchill's outlook was always aristocratic, and his genuine reformist sentiments retained a strong element of paternalism. His experience in the military gave him a background different from that of most politicians at the time. In particular, Churchill's martial expertise and his enthusiasm for making war caused alarm among many of his colleagues during World War I, but they provided the makings of the Churchill legend of World War II. While many of Churchill's political ideals in the 1930s led to his alienation in government, at the outbreak of World War II in 1939 he was recognized as an important force in a crisis and was made first lord of the Admiralty. When the English government was reorganized in 1940, Churchill succeeded to the position of prime minister. Churchill's untiring work ushering England through the war led to legendary status; later, however, his commitment to militarism was harshly criticized. In the midst of military victory at the end of the war in 1945, Churchill lost the prime ministry when the Conservatives were defeated in the election, but he regained the office in 1951. He was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1953. Plagued by the infirmities of age, including a series of strokes, Churchill resigned as prime minister in 1955 and did not run for Parliament in the election of 1964. He died in 1965.

Major Works

Churchill was unusual for a politician of his time in that he also supported himself with a viable writing career. In 1900 he made an excursion into melodramatic fiction with his novel Savrola. Though the book sold well, he did not choose to repeat the experiment. Instead he chose to concentrate on historical works. Some of these works describe events in which he himself was a participant, including The Story of the Malakind Field Force (1898), The River War (1899), London to Ladysmith via Pretoria (1900), Ian Hamilton's March (1900), The World Crisis (1923-31), and The Second World War (1948-53). Others deal with the history of his own family, such as Lord Randolph Churchill (1906) and Marlborough (1933-38). In other works, such as A History of the English-Speaking Peoples (1956-58), he filtered history through his own political experiences and came up with an unabashed Whig interpretation. As a historian he has been most admired when describing events with which he had an intimate connection, even given his biases and air of self-promotion. Early in his political career he began, with Liberalism and the Social Problem (1909), the practice of publishing collections of his speeches; throughout his career, Churchill was greatly admired for his ability to rally public and governmental support with his impassioned speaking. His books My African Journey (1908) and My Early Life (1930) are strictly autobiographical. With the early establishment of his reputation as a vivid writer and political figure, Churchill was in considerable demand as a contributor to newspapers. A collection of his best newspaper and journal articles, plus his Romanes Lecture delivered in 1930, was published in 1932 as Thoughts and Adventures. Many of his biographical essays originally published between 1929 and 1936 were collected in 1937 as Great Contemporaries, which was republished several times with additions and deletions.

Critical Reception

As a politician, Churchill has been both praised and excoriated. As a writer, he has been largely admired since his earliest publications despite the obvious biases of much of his work. Critics attribute some of the success of his writings to his habit of dictating his work; many argue that this helped to infuse his writing with the spirit of “fireside chats,” thereby easily garnering public interest and sympathy. Regardless of the direction of public and critical sentiment about his career, Churchill's status as an eminent twentieth-century politician and historian remains secure.