Shaping Memoir and History
A person typing “memoir” into an internet search engine could be forgiven for thinking that, with the exception of the occasional book by a retired politician, memoirs were now the province of people one had never heard of before they wrote their books, determined to tell the story of unconventional, disturbing, or inspiring lives. One might also recall the fairly regular occurrence of mini-scandals in the course of which the memoir’s revelation of unconventional, disturbing, or inspiring details were revealed to be in fact closer to fiction, and might conclude that memoir as a genre was largely the province of those whose stories either did not rate the attention of a biographer or would not stand up to the standard of factual accuracy required of biography, or even autobiography. Indeed, such a person might conclude that memoir was an essentially meaningless category—that a work called a memoir might either meet the standards of historical accuracy and interest demanded of autobiography (in which case it might as well be called autobiography) or it would not (in which case it should more accurately be called fiction).
It was not always so. There was a time, before our celebrity-drenched confessional age, when memoir was largely considered the province of those who had been actively involved in public life, and who wished, through their memoirs, to retell the story of events in which they had been involved from their own point of view, explaining, and perhaps trying to justify, the motivations and assumptions behind these actions. Such an ideal memoirs might evidence less insistence on the sort of strict historical accuracy and citation than would be expected from a work of academic history in that the emphasis would be more on the author’s interpretation of, reaction to, and intentions regarding factual historical events than on a detailed description of the historical facts themselves. Nonetheless, a reader would be able to rest assured that he was reading a work of non-fiction. Thus, it would be possible to maintain a more useful role for memoirs than the somewhat murky cultural space memoir has recently occupied.
Upon closer examination, however, this idealized picture of the memoir dissolves; it has always been a murky category, although in the past it was the distinction between objective history and a more personally oriented view of history that was blurred (as opposed to the distinction between fiction and non-fiction, which is what seems to be blurred lately). Indeed, one of the most famous memoirs of recent history exploited this blurred distinction, often to the author’s advantage. In Command of History, David Reynolds’ very interesting study of Winston Churchill’s famous six-volume memoir published between 1948 and 1953 (individually titled The Gathering Storm, Their Finest Hour, The Grand Alliance, The Hinge of Fate, Closing the Ring, and Triumph and Tragedy) details the manner in which Churchill managed to straddle history and memoir, in the process solidifying his historical reputation and making sure that future historiography proceeded the way Churchill thought it ought.
In many ways, The Second World War was intended to serve as the British government’s quasi-official history of the war (though there would be official histories written later, Reynolds, a professor of international history at Cambridge University, makes it clear that both Churchill and the Labour government of the immediate post war period were well aware that any account of the war composed by Churchill would be extremely influential in shaping later perceptions, and would in many ways be taken as the authoritative version). However, The Second World War was also quite clearly a memoir of Churchill’s experiences before and after the war; not surprisingly, events are narrated largely from Churchill’s point of view and his actions and opinions are given pride of place. A consequence of this, understandable in a memoir but a serious failing in a history, was that major aspects of the war in which Churchill was not much interested in or not personally involved in either got rather short shrift (in the case of the Russian front) or were discussed in a manner that relied very heavily on other sources (in the case of the Pacific theater).
Reynolds convincingly shows how aware Churchill was of this duality - that he was writing a memoir that would in many ways be taken to be more history than memoir, but that in doing so he could make history serve the justification and explanation purposes of a memoir even more strongly. (The reader is reminded, for example, that Churchill was wont to say that he would leave it to history to judge controversial questions, “but remember that I shall be one of the historians”). To illustrate, Professor Reynolds makes use of a structural device that initially seems somewhat clunky. He treats each volume of The Second World War in three segments, the first discussing the process of composition, the second comparing (not always favorably) the historical record with Churchill’s description of events, and the third examining the critical and political reaction to the publication of each volume, as well as the political context in which Churchill found himself at the time of publication. This structure, among other things, permits Reynolds to discuss subjects such as the legal and financial arrangements surrounding the publication of The Second World War, which might otherwise be very dry and confusing, in a manner that clarifies their impact on the composition of the work.
In fact, it is often the first and third sections which are the most interesting - while Reynolds’ discussion of the discrepancies between Churchill’s account and the historical record are interesting, these discussions can sometimes seem a bit “inside baseball” to the generalist reader. The segments discussing the process of composition of each volume, for example, make clear that the Cabinet Secretary read and commented extensively on the drafts of each volume, often with an eye towards managing the impact Churchill’s memoirs might have on contemporary domestic politics. Similarly interesting are Reynolds’ discussions on the manner in which Churchill’s composition of The Second World War was shaped both by Churchill’s desire to respond to the publication of other war memoirs and by the need to consider the reaction of Churchill’s domestic and foreign allies to his description of their war time attitudes. For example, it is fascinating to read of the negotiations between the Cabinet Secretary and Churchill over the question of whether only government documents drafted by Churchill himself could be reprinted, or if the replies to Churchill’s minutes could also be printed. In the end, reprinting of official documents was largely confined to minutes authored by Churchill, which had the effect, as Professor Brooks points out, of strengthening the impression that Churchill won the war single-handedly. Similarly fascinating is Reynolds’ discussion of the manner in which Churchill sought to make his role in Britain’s negotiations with Stalin serve his needs both as a historian and as a politician, as he tried to reconcile his positions at Yalta and Potsdam with his public position at the beginning of the Cold War.
Also of interest is Reynolds’ discussion of the public reaction to the publication of each succeeding volume of The Second World War, and how that reaction was influenced by the Churchill’s continuing involvement in domestic and foreign politics. One can vividly imagine, for example, the conflict between the desire, in the context of a general election campaign in which Churchill was campaigning as Leader of the Opposition, to make maximum use of the publication of memoirs showing Churchill as a heroic wartime leader, and the desire to enhance the Second World War’s status as a quasi-official history of Britain’s role in the Second World War by placing it above the fray. In the end, this conflict was often managed by judicious selection of the passages to be serialized during elections, omitting passages that might seem overly partisan while still taking advantage of the generally quite positive light in which The Second World War showed Churchill.
In hindsight, recounting these steps risks deflating his reputation, showing that Churchill was not quite everything he made himself out to be, and indeed perhaps making him look rather petty in his glossing over of his own mistakes and his failure to give colleagues proper credit for their own successes. Reynolds, however, avoids this pitfall, conveying throughout his book the very strong sense that Churchill, subject though he was to human foibles, was nonetheless a very great man. In Command of History reminds us, rather, of the unique manner in which Churchill, by both making history and then writing it, remained in command of history.
Charles Jeanfreau is an attorney in New York City. He received an M.A. in English Language and Literature from New York University.
Posted: May 16, 2007
No More Idols: Taking Measure of a Modern Prophet
Volume 34, Number 4 (Winter 1994)