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The Last Lion at Long Last

Lots of good books out right now deserving comment and reflection, including Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind (spent the day with him last Friday), Jonah Goldberg’s The Tyranny of Clichés: How Liberals Cheat in the War of Ideas, and Jim Manzi’s Uncontrolled: The Surprising Payoff of Trial and Error for Business, Politics, and Society (Jim is another pal, and maybe one of the two or three most incandescently brilliant people I’ve ever met).  In due course I’ll try to post some comments on all three of these fine books.

But right now I want to be the first to bring to your attention a major publishing event next November, just in time for Christmas.  On November 20, Little, Brown will finally publish The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill: Defender of the Realm, 1940-1965, the third volume of the Churchill biography begun by the incomparable narrative stylist William Manchester.  (You can already pre-order from Amazon.)  Old age and ill-health prevented Manchester from completing the third volume beyond the first few chapters, and it fell to Paul Reid, a journalist who was close friends with Bill Manchester (as Paul refers to him) to complete the long-awaited final volume.

Through a long chain of circumstances I’ve come to know Paul a little, and we’ve had long conversations about Churchill, Manchester’s writing style and research method, and the trials and tribulations of writing long-form narrative non-fiction.  Paul kindly shared a few draft chapters with me; I think he’s got the hang of Manchester’s literary sensibility.  Manchester’s first two Churchill volumes are susceptible to a number of substantive and stylistic criticisms, but they are unquestionably the most popular Churchill biographies for a reason: Manchester captured the context of Churchill extremely well, and his narrative style is virtually unequalled.

For what it’s worth, here’s my criticism of Manchester, from my 2005 book Greatness:

William Manchester employed as a hortatory theme the viewpoint that Churchill was “the last lion”—the last man of superlative virtue and courage, whose supreme greatness shall never be seen again on the human stage.  Manchester attributes Churchill’s greatness precisely to the extent that Churchill was a Victorian anachronism in 1940. . .     Here we must suggest that for all of Manchester’s fulsome admiration for Churchill and magnificence in describing his life, his premise is wrong.  Roy Jenkins, Churchill’s most recent biographer, says that explaining Churchill as a product of Victorian aristocracy is “unconvincing. . . Churchill was far too many faceted, idiosyncratic and unpredictable a character to allow himself to be imprisoned by the circumstances of his birth.”  John Lukacs adds: “Contrary to most accepted views we ought to consider that [Churchill] was not some kind of admirable remnant of a more heroic past.  He was not The Last Lion.  He was something else.”  The “something else” at the root of Churchill’s greatness in 1940 derived not from being a Victorian man, but from being, in a larger sense, an ancient man—the kind of “great-souled man” contemplated in Aristotle and other classical authors.

Even with this caveat, I’m greatly looking forward to the last installment of The Last Lion come November.

P.S. Now, if only Jim Muller and St. Augustine’s Press could get the nearly-as-long-promised unabridged River War out sometime this century. . .  (Something of an inside joke between me and Walter Berns. . .)

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