In November 1895, Winston Churchill sailed for America for the first time. His ultimate destination was Cuba, where the Spanish government was attempting to put down an insurrection by Cuban rebels.
The twenty-year-old Churchill (he turned twenty-one while in Cuba) was a Second Lieutenant in the British Army, and he was going to Cuba as a military observer.
He was also going as a journalist.
He had contracted with the Daily Graphic of London to send back dispatches on what he saw and heard. Churchill made it to Cuba, joined up with the Spanish Army, and stuck with the soldiers as they pursued and fought a band of rebels through the jungle. He telegraphed five “Letters from the Front” to the Graphic. They were full of vivid descriptions and telling details,
Daylight slowly broadened, and the long Spanish column insinuated itself like a snake into the endless forrests and undulations of a vast, lustrous landscape, dripping with moisture and sparkling with sunshine.
From the very beginning of his life-long writing career, Churchill showed a mastery with the English language that was indeed rare. The Cuban adventure, however, revealed another talent the young aristocrat had: the ability to draw attention to himself.
Churchill’s Cuban dispatches were sympathetic to the Spanish government’s efforts to retain Cuba as a colony. As such, they were well-received in London because the official British position was to back the Spanish. They were not so well received in America where they had been reprinted. Americans wanted the Spanish out of Cuba, and Churchill’s reports became the subject of much negative comment in American newspapers.
Churchill added to his fame by returning to America before heading back to Britain and giving a press conference in which he predicted an ultimate rebel defeat. Again, he was pilloried by the American press — something he disliked intensely — but people on both sides of the Atlantic began to know the name of Winston Churchill.
Four decades later, Churchill was still writing — only now, just about everyone on every continent in the world knew his name.
Churchill was no longer writing for fame. He had that. He was writing for reputation — his own. He had often expressed the sentiment that history would be kind to him because he would write it. The problem with that idea was that he was not the only one writing it. Almost before the fighting of World War II had ended, the world had begun to hear from others who had fought in the war, and Churchill was — to put it mildly — not the hero of their stories. (See the previous post in this series.)
Churchill might not be able to control how history viewed him, but he could certainly have an influence on it. So, once the official and psychological obstacles had been overcome, Churchill got down to work.
Rather, Churchill and his Syndicate — his term — got to work.
The former prime minister did not retire to an upper attic in Chartwell to scratch our his memoirs with pen and paper or peck them out on an old typewriter. He had five gifted and intelligent men, plus a dedicated secretary and other assistants to help him sort through the papers and documents he had, to take his dictation, and even to write first drafts of many of the sections and chapters. Churchill would dictate the memories and thoughts about events in which he participated. These would be woven into the narrative.
Once a section or chapter was drafted, it would be sent to the printer where it was set in type and sent back to him as a galley proof.
These proofs would be read line-by-line by Churchill and then sent back to be re-set. This back-and-forth process, expensive as it was, might occur a dozen times for one chapter.
Churchill was a serious and exacting editor for some of the chapters, while letting others go without much comment. He often tightened the language, knowing that fewer words left more impact. Sometimes he changed nouns and verbs to make them more descriptive. At other times, he brought his skills as an orator to bear to make the events and participants even more dramatic.
The first volume, The Gathering Storm, appeared in 1948. It received generally rave reviews from critics and wide distribution through publishing and serialization deals negotiated by Churchill’s attorneys. It accomplished another major goal: it made Churchill a lot of money. That book was followed by five more, and in 1953, Churchill was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. All in all, Churchill made about $18 million (in today’s dollars) from his work.
International Churchill Society: winstonchurchill.org
William Manchester, The Last Lion: Winston Churchill 1874-1932
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