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66: DISLODGING THE JEWEL

#66: DISLODGING THE JEWEL. Few men of the twentieth century have been idolized (and simplified) more than Mohandas Gandhi and Winston Churchill. The greatest shock of reading Arthur Herman’s recent Gandhi and Churchill: The Epic Rivalry That Destroyed an Empire and Forged Our Age (Bantam, 2008) is being reminded of the long trail of blunders, miscalculations, backfires and disasters both men left behind them, which makes it all the more incredible how, after errors that would have deleted lesser men’s careers, they repeatedly found their way back to the center of their country’s political events. This dual biography is the story of India’s departure from the British Empire, and Herman is sufficiently removed in time from his story that he is interested neither in canonizing his subjects nor in blackening their names; indeed, we are forced to wonder what might have happened in India if men of lesser vision, more flexible than these “intransigent, obstinate, uncompromising principals” (Archibald Wavell’s phrase) had been at the helm. And Herman does not skirt the multiple tragedies of India, of England, of his two protagonists: “Both men at the end of their lives got what they most wanted, but at the cost of what they most treasured.” It’s a brick of a book, but quite readable, and Herman’s had to assimilate an enormous amount of material; scholars of the period may quibble about details, but the general picture seemed to me convincing. The book’s subtitle may be kitsch, but after reading about these two gigantic wills hurled at each other by history, you may be willing to allow it.

The study of both Gandhi and Churchill has reached cottage-industry proportions. Of the many selections from Gandhi’s voluminous works, my favorite is Mahatma Gandhi: The Essential Writings, edited by Judith M. Brown for the Oxford World’s Classics (2008). It’s bits and pieces, but nobody reads Gandhi for the style, and it captures some of the range of his concerns as well as some suggestion of the staring intensity and idealism that made him so heroic (and, I suspect, discomfiting) a figure. The literature by and of Churchill--enough to make it seem Abraham Lincoln has gone relatively unnoticed--is enormous, and I confess I know it not. To paraphrase a paraphrase, never has so much been written by so many about so few.


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