Prose in 1929 … and today

From Isaiah Berlin’s “Mr. Churchill in 1940”. Berlin’s essay starts off this way.

In the now remote year, 1929, an eminent English poet and critic published a book dealing with the art of writing English prose. Writing at a time of bitter disillusion with the false splendours of the Edwardian era, and still more with the propaganda and phrasemaking occasioned by the First World War, the critic praised the virtues of simplicity.

The enemy of this humble and honest style? Sir Winston Churchill, or course. But within the space of a decade, many things would change. The western world, still not recovered from the horrors of the first war, would be plunged into economic disaster, which would lead to yet another and even more horrendous war. Churchill, a man whom many regarded as kaput in the 1930’s, would re-emerge as the one leader who could  just perhaps,  save his nation.

BTW, Berlin wrote his essay in 1949 as a review of Mr. Churchill’s war memoirs, and it appeared in The Atlantic Monthly.  Churchill was still at his peak of fame. And Berlin paid appropriate homage to the man, his role as a leader, and his writing. Churchill’s books were best sellers. They were highly relevant to people wanting the inside story of what they had lived through.

Does this have any relevance at all to us now?. What do we care about the pre-war disillusionment? The rise of fascism?  It was all long., long ago. A mere pinprick on the immense map of history. Better understood than the passions at Bosworth Field, but not by as much as one might think. We may remember the famous dates, but few if any of us can conjure up the emotions that led to the series of events that made those dates significant..

We have our own issues to contend with. And they are as perplexing to us, as was the rise of Hitler et al. Will we find our heroes who can confront the challenges now at hand?  That remains to be seen. But one thing is worth noting. Churchill’s great strength was rooted in his understanding and appreciation of history. Perhaps I am wrong, but I sense that our understanding and appreciation of our own history is  of a less order.

Do you agree?


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