If words are weapons, then Winston Churchill possessed a personal arsenal. Martin Gilbert opens this anthology of Churchill’s work by citing President John F. Kennedy’s declaration that Churchill “mobilised the English language and sent it into battle.” (p. vii). Churchill is best known for leading England through the Second World War, and Gilbert’s collection of two hundred excerpts from Churchill’s books, speeches, and personal correspondence provides a readable and compelling glimpse into a man who had many interests and considerable skill at making his opinions clear through the written and spoken word.
Sir Martin Gilbert, who before his death in February 2015 was an Honorary Fellow of Merton College at the University of Oxford, was Churchill’s official biographer. Gilbert wrote and edited over two dozen books about Churchill, including multivolume biographies, collections of primary sources connected to Churchill’s life, and even a resource on Churchill for schoolchildren. After nearly a half-century of creating scholarship connected to Churchill, Gilbert continues to make details of the statesman’s life more available to the public.
The Power of Words is Gilbert’s second-to-last book about Churchill. The anthology is filled with short pieces by Churchill, some only a couple of paragraphs long, others filling several pages. The writings are all arranged more or less chronologically, tracking Churchill’s career over his long and eventful life. The year where a selection is set is in the top left corner of the left page, with Churchill’s age on the top right corner of the right page. The first few selections are not products of their time—the opening selections, describing Churchill’s boyhood and adolescence, were not written when he was young, but instead are taken from the memoir, My Early Life, which was produced when Churchill was in his fifties. The very first selection, about a child’s connection to his nurse, is taken from Churchill’s sole full-length work of fiction, Savrola. Gilbert believes that this scene of warm domesticity is autobiographical.
Gilbert does not spend much time dwelling on Churchill’s childhood. By page ten his subject is in his twenties. While Churchill’s earliest years are given short shrift, the World War II era is given far more attention, which is not surprising due to the prominence that Churchill’s time as a war Prime Minister has in the popular imagination. Still, plenty of space is given to his time as a war correspondent, his experiences as an up-and-coming politician, and his later years. It appears, however, that the proportionate amount of space that could have been allotted to Churchill’s first twenty years has been ceded to his time as Prime Minister.
Each of the entries in this collection is prefaced with a brief biographical note by Gilbert, explaining what was going on in Churchill’s life at the time the piece was written, and what Churchill was trying to accomplish by writing these words. Gilbert’s information is concise and informative, providing a clear and effective description of the context in which these excerpts ought to be viewed. The excerpts cover all sorts of topics connected to Churchill’s life, including speeches attempting to rally the citizenry’s spirits during the First World War, Churchill’s frustration at being stuck in the “political wilderness,” reflections on his disgust at totalitarianism, outreach to Americans during World War Two, and the need to set international enmity aside during the 1950s.
This is not a full biography of Churchill—Gilbert has written plenty others of this sort. The Power of Words is a collection of primary sources, told in Churchill’s own voice. As the tome progresses, it becomes clear that this book is also meant to illustrate Churchill’s mastery of prose and the development of his skill. It is often said that it takes at least ten thousand hours of practice to master some talent, and Churchill clearly spent far more than that amount of time writing over the course of his career. His prose from his twenties is strong and competent, and his reporting of military conflicts is effective. By Churchill’s mid-thirties and forties, it seems as though he has found his personal voice and has learned how to make his messages clearly understood.
It should also be noted that the vast majority of the pieces collected here focus on Churchill’s life as a public figure. There is precious little about his personal life, such as his marriage or his relationship with his children. The bulk of the entries are connected to his political career and war efforts. Some major events, such as his receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature, go unmentioned. Aside from foreign policy, insight into Churchill’s other political opinions is fairly sparse, aside from brief mentions of taxation and looking after the citizenry. This is not meant to be the definitive book about Churchill—Gilbert’s oeuvre is meant to serve that purpose—but it shows how the man developed his skills and became a public figure in part by creating a public image and by bringing his ideas to public awareness. This anthology justifies Gilbert’s assertions that Churchill was a master wordsmith who used his skills to reach out to a nation for most of his long and busy life.
A historian, teacher, and writer living in Milwaukee, WI.