The BEST: “The Last Lion”

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The BEST: “The Last Lion” by William Manchester
by Joe Kanofsky

Summary: In this biography of Winston Churchill, William Manchester constructs the man, his worldview, and his drives with captivating detail and breathtaking immediacy. Compelled by the memory of his genetic and spiritual English forebears, Churchill strives to lead boldly in the turbulent times of the Great War, but is ultimately sacked as First Lord of the Admiralty in the aftermath of Gallipoli. Churchill learns from and builds upon that defeat, ultimately coming to the pinnacle of power in the spring of 1940 as Nazi bombers threaten the very existence of Great Britain.

Consumption Time: ~130 hours

Why this is The BEST: Poor and limited political imagination plagues leaders of our era. For inspiration we can look to the past toward outsized figures such as Churchill, of whom Isaiah Berlin wrote in his marvelous appraisal:

Churchill’s dominant category, the single, central, organizing principle of his moral and intellectual universe, is a historical imagination so strong, so comprehensive, as to encase the whole of the present and the whole of the future in the framework of a rich and multicoloured past.

Churchill reached back 200 years before the nineteenth century to which he was native into further recesses of English history to craft a biography of his own ancestor, the First Duke of Marlborough, which, with his other works, earned him a Nobel Prize in Literature in 1953.

The best biography of this “biographer” (who accomplished many things in addition to writing in his 90 years) is William Manchester’s 3-volume The Last Lion. Hardly a quick read at over 2,600 pages, Manchester’s cradle-to-grave study of Churchill leads the reader along every step of the path that made Churchill, again in Berlin’s felicitous wording, a “paladin of imperialism and the romantic conception of life; the swashbuckling militarist, the vehement orator and journalist, the most public of public personalities. . .”

Courage, tenacity, oratory, reverence for King and country, boldness, seeming unflappability and utter fearlessness; these congeal in Churchill’s ability to unite the British people and its commonwealth in the twentieth century’s great military victory. Manchester’s gifts are in the telescoping from the immediate to the grand, placing his subject firmly and centrally in both settings.

The third volume of this magisterial work was composed from Manchester’s notes after his death by a collaborator, Paul Reid. Though the clarity of Manchester’s narrative voice does not resound as it did in the first two volumes, the work is hardly diminished by Reid’s complementary effort. The reader eager to be enveloped by the sweep and scope of the subject and the telling will not be disappointed. “History will judge us kindly,” Churchill famously quipped, “for I intend to write it.” In capturing the man who made history and subsequently wrote it, The Last Lion navigates that nearly impossible balance of making a larger-than-life figure seem human, without diminishing his unique place in history.

Yosef Haim Yerushalmi distinguishes between Jewish History and Jewish Memory in his seminal book Zakhor. Halakha calls upon us to see ourselves and to make it evident that we see ourselves (Rambam uses both expressions in Mishneh Torah) as if we are leaving Egypt on the night of the Seder. This demands both memory in the halakhic sense as well as tremendous historical imagination. In our everyday lives, the challenge is to see ourselves as constantly receiving revelation at Sinai, participating in the creation of the world, and anticipating the redemption. All this is certainly not less demanding than Churchill’s magisterial view of the present and future through the prism of the past, and the contemporary Jewish reader can find substantial insight into this challenge in this awesome work.

Joe Kanofsky is the Rabbi of Kehillat Shaarei Torah in Toronto and holds a Ph.D. in Literature.

This is the 16th installment in TraditionOnline’s “The BEST” column, exploring exemplars of the best culture has to offer thinking religious people — click here for the series introduction and links to all entries in the series.

[Published on November 27, 2019]

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