Saturday, December 25, 2010

Holiday Update

Merry Christmas to my fellow Lawrence enthusiasts!

This winter break has been rather trying, between Christmas shopping, bad weather and the death of my grandfather. However, I have found plenty of time to read, and I recently finished two additional Lawrence biographies: Anthony Nutting's Lawrence of Arabia: The Man and the Motive (1961), and Knightley and Simpson's The Secret Lives of Lawrence of Arabia (1969). I hope to review both of them soon.

I also received Michael Korda's Hero, the most recent Lawrence biography, as a Christmas gift, though it may have to stand in line behind Edmund Morris's Colonel Roosevelt (the finale of his TR trilogy) and The Complete New York Times Civil War. The joys of being a history buff.

Anyway, I hope you've enjoyed this blog so far. I'll plunge into this project in earnest next year, and you can look forward to three new reviews come January.

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Lawrence and the Arabian Adventure (aka Lawrence and the Arabs) (Robert Graves, 1928)

Publishing Info:

Graves, Robert. Lawrence and the Arabian Adventure. Garden City (NY): Doubleday, Doran & Company, 1928. 400 pp.


The second major Lawrence biography, Lawrence and the Arabian Adventure (UK title: Lawrence and the Arabs) (1928) is mostly a curio despite its distinguished pedigree. Lawrence cooperated closely with Graves, providing him with notes, diary entries, correspondence and a manuscript of Seven Pillars of Wisdom (which, up until then, had only been released in a very limited "Subscribers Edition"), and the result is that rehashes Seven Pillars to a painful degree. Its primary value is providing some shrewd insights into Lawrence's characters.

The Author:

Robert Graves (1895-1985) was a renowned English poet and novelist. After service in World War I, during which he befriended Siegfried Sassoon, Graves spent time at St. John's College (Oxford) and the University of Cairo and collaborated on several academic works with fellow poet Laura Riding. He's probably best-remembered for his novels Good-bye to All That (1929) and I, Claudius (1934), but he was also a prolific poet and translator of Classical works, including a controversial take on the Rubiyat of Omar Khayyam.

The Review:

Despite being a gifted writer in his own right, Graves resorts to paraphrasing Seven Pillars, with an occasional parenthetical comment thrown in. I'm informed by Maarten Schild that Lawrence wrote much of it himself. For this reason, it's very difficult to pass judgment on it as an original work, aside from some interesting and valuable primary research.

For comparison's sake, compare Lawrence's account of his first conference with General Allenby in July 1917:

Before I was clothed the Commander-in-Chief sent for me, curiously... It was a comic interview, for Allenby was physically large and confident, and morally so great that the comprehension of our littleness came slow to him. He sat in his chair looking at me - not straight, as his custom was, but sideways, puzzled. ... He was hardly prepared for anything so odd as myself - a little bare-footed silk-skirted man offering to hobble the enemy by his preaching if given stores and arms and a fund of two hundred thousand sovereigns...

Allenby could not make out how much was genuine performer and how much charlatan. The problem was working behind his eyes, and I left him unhelped to solve it. (SP p. 330)

And here's Graves's version of same:

Later at Cairo [Allenby] sent for Lawrence... It was a comic interview. ... Allenby sat in his chair looking at Lawrence, very much puzzled at this haggard little man, with silk robes and a face burned brick red with the sun, explaining with a map a fantastic plan for raising the Eastern Syrians in revolt behind the enemy lines. He listened quietly, asking few questions and trying to make up his mind how far Lawrence was a charlatan and how far a real performer... (pp. 184-185)

This, of course, is just one example of many. Aside from an occasional interjection of original research (an interview or correspondence with Lawrence's comrades-in-arms), Graves ventriloquizes Lawrence's own account. At that, it's a sanitized version of Lawrence's account, with Deraa and other messy aspects excised. Graves frequently criticizes Lowell Thomas and slams Revolt in the Desert as "a series of incidents loosely strung together" (p. 358). Fair enough, but what does one make of this in light of Graves's own work?

What's mostly of interest here are the bookend chapters, which deal with Lawrence's character. Graves relates dubious claims and anecdotes about Lawrence (reading 50,000 books at Oxford) that more critical writers would refute or at least question. And he is an unabashed Lawrence-worshipper, who like John Buchan would "follow Lawrence over the end of the world." But his personal analysis and depiction of Lawrence remains spot-on, and it's especially valuable coming from a man who actually knew him. Here is a representative sample of Chapter 2, where Graves tries to provide us with a snapshot of his ever-elusive subject:

[Lawrence] keeps his enormously wide circle of friends... as much as possible in watertight compartments, each away from the other. To each friend he reveals in fact some part of himself, but only a part: these characters he never confuses. So there are many thousands of Lawrences, each one a facet of the Lawrence crystal: and whether or not the crystal is colourless and the facets merely reflect the characters of the friends whom they fact, Lawrence himself has no motion. ... [Those who] try to corner him, each believing that he alone knows the real Lawrence, so that there is a comical jealousy when they meet. (pp. 39-40)

This comment seems especially prescient when one considers that Lawrence simultaneously helped Graves and Basil Liddell Hart on their respective biographies, without telling either about the other. Supposedly Lawrence wanted the novelist Graves to provide a personalized portrayal of T.E., while military historian Liddell Hart could put his military campaigns in the proper context.

In a broader sense, this comment presciently captures the biographical and historical debate about Lawrence that continues, even today. He was such a unique personality, a mysterious, mischievous individual who reveled in being elusive, that any attempt to pin him down or pigeon-hole him is doomed to failure.

Equally interesting is the primary research; virtually all of the primary participants in the Revolt were still alive in 1928, and Graves corresponded with most of them (at least on the British end). The final chapter, dealing with Lawrence's life as "Airman Shaw" in the Royal Air Force and Tank Corps, gives us some valuable insights into his character: RAF Sergeant Pugh's account is especially revealing T.E.'s intense love of music and motorcycles, his mechanical skill and chumminess with his mates. Pugh gives comment on Lawrence's chest and back scars - evidence of Deraa that none of the "skeptical" biographers have adequately refuted. Unfortunately, such gems are only a small part of a dissatisfying whole.

I recommend Lawrence and the Arabian Adventure only for Lawrence completists and serious scholars. Everyone else is encouraged to read Revolt in the Desert and Seven Pillars of Wisdom instead, where you can enjoy Lawrence's own words in... Lawrence's own words.

What Others Say:

"If Lawrence is portrayed as larger than life... nevertheless Graves introduce(s) a psychological complexity to his subject." - Stephen E. Tabachnick

Thursday, December 9, 2010

T.E. Lawrence: An Arab View (1962, Suleiman Mousa)

Publishing info:

Mousa, Suleiman. T.E. Lawrence: An Arab View. English translation. London: Oxford University Press, 1966. 301 pp.


One of the more interesting books in the wave of post-Aldington revisionism is this work by acclaimed Jordanian historian Suleiman Mousa. T.E. Lawrence: An Arab View casts a critical eye on the Lawrence legend, with Mousa arguing that Western historians unfairly downplay the Arab contributions to the war by focusing on Lawrence and other Allied advisors. It's a worthwhile,  unique read - one of the few Arab-written books on Lawrence and the Revolt available in English. However, it's also a flawed and (inevitably) dated work, with Mousa's own prejudices coloring his depiction of Lawrence.

The Author:

Suleiman Mousa (1919-2008) came from a modest background, born in the Jordanian village of Al Rafeed. From an early age he cultivated a love of learning and began teaching at the age of 16. He was also a freelance essayist and poet, and began working for the Jordanian government in 1957. Mousa published his first book, Ali Hussein ibn Ali and the Great Arab Revolt, that year, and produced a steady output of works about Jordanian and Middle Eastern history, most notably his Lawrence biography and Days Unforgotten: Jordan in the 1948 War. Widely respected in both the Middle East and the West, Mousa passed away in 2008.

The Review:

Mousa's book is valuable if only for its focus on the Arab leaders and soldiers who fought alongside Lawrence. His recounting of specific events is interesting, filling in some much-needed gaps in the story of the Revolt. He ewcounts the major battles of the Revolt in significant detail and telling analysis; the famous Tafilah battle of February 1918, long held as a sign of Lawrence's military genius, is convincingly portrayed as the result of improbably heroic Arab resistance. There is a lot of interesting material here for an open-minded reader to digest. Mousa makes a good case that Lawrence, at the very least, overstated his importance as a military leader. It's nice to see a version of the story where the Arabs are actors in their right, rather than mere imperial pawns.

Mousa brings the Arab protagonists to vivid life. These men aren't callow opportunists or greedy bandits as many Western writers portray them, but heroic patriots fighting for a worthy cause. He castigates Lawrence for his portrayal of Prince Abdullah, depicting him as shrewd a ruler as Feisal. Mousa also dips into a well of sources, from Arab memoirs to personal interviews, that many Western writers left untouched. A reader may take issue with some of Mousa's interpretations or uncritical acceptance of these sources, but on the whole it's nice to see the Arab side of things. However, these laudable attributes should not cause us to overlook the book's faults.

Mousa's biggest problem is his own bias. He was writing with the sponsorship of Sherif Hussein's descendants, and his reluctance to criticize the Hashemites undermines his credibility. To hear Mousa tell it, Sherif Hussein and all his sons were military and political geniuses of the highest caliber, commiting nary a mistake in their conduct of the Revolt. Most egregiously, he refuses to believe that Feisal tried to negotiate with the Turks in the summer of 1918, ignoring the fact that many sources other than Seven Pillars (including the memoirs of German General Liman Von Sanders, who had no reason to back up Lawrence) reported this. Why doesn't Mousa accept it? Apparently, because Feisal "was known to be level-headed and prudent" (p. 180).

Mousa goes on to argue that the Arab people were united in support of the Revolt - something at odds with virtually every other history I've read. Mousa completely omits the potentially-disastrous feud between Feisal and Abdullah in the summer of 1918, and neglects to mention Auda's 1917 correspondence with the Turks. Certainly it's not fair to portray the Arabs as glorified bandits, as Aldington does, but the opposite extreme is no better. He criticizes Lawrence's accounts of Turkish and Arab atrocities during the war as spurious, going so far as to, incredibly, doubt that the Tafas Massacre ever took place!  His uncritical acceptance of Arab accounts and sources while raking Lawrence's work over the coals, is also very telling. If Lawrence's Western biographers have an agenda to sell, then so does Mousa.

Though he never resorts to the bloody-mindedness of Aldington, Mousa repeats most of his themes: Lawrence was a liar, egomaniac and sadomasochist. He paints Lawrence as a coldly-calculating Machiavellian British Agent who manipulated the Arabs from beginning to end, and who was also a Zionist. Nevermind Lawrence's tortured equivocations over his role in the war, expressed in both private correspondence and published works: for one example, his comments in Seven Pillars that he was "thoroughly and bitterly ashamed" (p. 283) of his role in deceiving the Arabs. Would an imperialist harbor such feelings? Mousa, being a pan-Arabist, sees anything short of absolute endorsement of Arab nationalism as a betrayal. He paints Lawrence's idea for a post-war Middle East as proof of Lawrence's chicanery, rather than a naive and unworkable hope for compromise.

A major innovation of Mousa's work is his questioning of the Deraa incident. Mousa examines discrepancies in Lawrence's diary entries, memoirs and Arab accounts and concludes that "the whole story [is] highly implausible" (p. 117). Similar arguments have been advanced by future biographers (most recently James Barr), but Mousa doesn't account for Lawrence's whereabouts or provide a reasonable explanation of what *did* happen. Mousa is either ignorant of or unduly dismissive towards Lawrence's private correspondence with Charlotte Shaw (Bernard Shaw's wife), E.M. Forster and W.F. Stirling, compromising his argument.

Some of these discrepancies can be explained, quite easily. Many of the war-time records and primary documents concerning the Revolt weren't opened to the public until 1968; indeed, Mousa reportedly softened on Lawrence after gaining access to this material. (He also played a major role in researching Knightley and Simpson's Secret Lives of Lawrence of Arabia, which I hope to read soon). I do, however, find it hard to excuse certain aspects of the book, especially his uncritical use of Arab sources. Why Naseeb al-Bakri's fifty-years-after-the-fact reminiscences disprove that Lawrence's "northern ride" to Baalbeck during the Aqaba campaign is left unexplained, except by the author's own predilections.

Lest we be overly critical, let's give Mousa his due. His work is, despite its flaws, rational and well-reasoned enough to provide a point of synthesis with the more extreme Lawrence worshipers of the pre-Aldington era (Lowell Thomas, Robert Graves). Prejudices aside, Mousa doesn't have a personal axe to grind and he's a responsible and thoughtful historian, even allowing A.W. Lawrence a brief rebuttal at book's end. There's no talking to a Richard Aldington or a Desmond Stewart, but Mousa was a gentleman one could dialogue with.

Mousa's book fulfills its purpose in providing "an Arab view" of one of the 20th Century's most dramatic and important events. Lawrence scholars will find much to criticize, but T.E. Lawrence: An Arab View remains a unique interpretation of the Lawrence legend.

What Others Say:

"This book is not a thoughtless trashing of T.E. Suleiman is a careful researcher who evaluates the evidence, and the picture he paints of Lawrence is by no means negative." - CooperToons

"Although many admirers of T.E. will prefer Lawrence's version of his part in the Arab Revolt, Mr. Mousa's obvious concern to be fair-minded and the weight of the evidence he produces makes his book one that must be studied by all who are interested in 'Lawrence of Arabia'." - Oxford University Press

"Although they can be readily challenged, Mousa's criticisms were to prove important for the next period of Lawrence biographies." - Stephen E. Tabachnick

"By challenging the accepted Western view, Suleiman Mousa played an important part in that process. For that he deserves lasting recognition." - Jeremy Wilson

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Images of Lawrence (1988, Stephen E. Tabachnick and Christopher Matheson)

Publishing Info:

Tabachnick, Stephen E., and Christopher Matheson. Images of Lawrence. London: Jonathan Cape, 1988. 176 pp


Published on the centennial of Lawrence's birth, Images of Lawrence is a wonderful reference guide for Lawrence enthusiasts. As a biography of Lawrence it makes few original points, but it's extremely prescient and helpful as an analysis of Lawrence's legacy and the ongoing biographical debate surrounding him.

The author(s):

Stephen E. Tabachnick is a noted Professor of English Literature who currently teaches at the University of Memphis. Among his many other works are two Lawrence-related books: T.E. Lawrence (New York: Twayne, 1997), a literary analysis of Lawrence's writings, and Lawrence of Arabia: An Encyclopedia (Santa Barbara: Greenwood, 2004), for which I will be sure to keep an eye out.

I couldn't find any information on the co-author, Christopher Matheson, beyond learning that he has compiled an extensive photo archive of Lawrence and worked for the BBC. Anyone who knows more is welcome to fill me in.

The Review:

This book is structured as a simple, accessible "coffee table" book for the mass reader, which isn't by any means a bad thing. The biographical portrait of Lawrence won't be especially enlightening to the knowledgable or scholarly reading, and the analysis of Lawrence's greatness is fairly straightforward and uncontroversial. These sections are probably for the Lawrence neophyte rather than the serious scholar.

What makes this book worth a look, however, is the lengthy second section, dealing with biographical portrayals of Lawrence. Tabachnick and Matheson look at most of the major Lawrence biographies up until then, from Lowell Thomas to Michael Yardley (Backing into the Limelight), providing commentary and analysis on each book. The individual analyses are interesting, assessing the quality of the work and research and the validity of the author's portrait of Lawrence.

Not only that, but Tabachnick and Matheson ably place each biography within sociological and historical trends of Lawrence depiction: the initial "Superhero" phase, which lionized Lawrence uncritically; the "Age of Aldington," when more critical authors viciously assaulted the Lawrence myth; and the "Prince of Our Disorder" (after John E. Mack's study), when a synthesis between the first two schools and the release of UK documents in 1968 allowed for a more nuanced portrayal. This is a wonderful analysis, and the authors do a commendable job of contextualizing and dissecting these works, showing just how much Lawrence biographies are colored by the author's time, environment and personal beliefs.

For the latter reason, Images of Lawrence is definitely worth seeking out. For anyone (like me) looking for more Lawrence-related material, it's a handy reference guide of Lawrence biographies. One only wishes that a more up-to-date version, dealing also with Jeremy Wilson, Michael Asher and James Barr's works, were available, but you can't have everything.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Lawrence of Arabia: A Biographical Enquiry (Richard Aldington, 1955)

Publishing Info:

Aldington, Richard. Lawrence of Arabia: A Biographical Enquiry. Regnery: Chicago, 1955. 448 pp.


Revisionist history is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, generally accepted history is often sanitized, and going over historical figures and events in detail allows more ambiguous, complex and thorough interpretations. On the other hand, revisionism leaves the door open for men and women with their own motives for tearing down (or building up) an historical image, crafting history just as biased as what they're claiming to replace. Further, many readers assume that revisions of the "official" story are to be taken at face-value, that new works trumpeting "the true story" or "shocking revelations based on original research" are more truthful than common knowledge.

Richard Aldington was savagely attacked for going after T.E. Lawrence in 1955. No doubt some of the reaction was due to his assault on one of Britain's greatest heroes. However, I strongly suggest the vitriolic tone of his "Biographical Enquiry" is his main demerit. Instead of a rational debunking of the Lawrence legend, it's an angry screed that accepts sensationalism, bias and wild speculation as valid historiography. The result is a book that, while undeniably important, is ultimately of little practical merit.

The Author:

A veteran of World War I, Richard Aldington (1892-1962) was a distinguished poet and novelist before tackling Lawrence. An early founder of the Imagist movement, Aldington became famous for his acerbic, bitingly-satirical writing style, evidenced in his most famous novel, Death of a Hero (1929). Later in life, disenchanted with English society, he exiled himself to Paris, and then spent some time in the United States. Despite his distinguished WWI service, he was ostracized for spending World War II in the United States, and his attack on Lawrence gained him few friends and many detractors. He remained largely a pariah from British society before his death in July 1962.

The Review:

If Aldington's book remains relevant, it's in providing a corrective to the hagiographic portrayal of Lawrence that prevailed up to then. The hyperbolic adulation of Lowell Thomas is pretty hard to swallow, even if it makes a great story, and a counter-view was needed for discussion to advance beyond simple hero-worship.

Unfortunately, Aldington's book is a nasty piece of work, a vitriolic screed that goes out of its way to demonize Lawrence. His general viciousness and sensationalism undermines any valid points he has to make about Lawrence's character and truthfulness, and his work provides a crude playbook for a half-century of Lawrence detractors to repeat ad nauseum.

The most unattractive thing about the book is Aldington's tone. The text is dripping with sarcasm, acidic parenthetical commentary on Lawrence's every word and action. At times, Aldington comes up with modestly clever asides and bon mots, but at other times he just seems childishly hateful. One example: noting a discrepancy over dates in Lawrence's demobilization (p. 296), he remarks that "it illustrates so well Lawrence's modest confession 'that... he could recall any date.'" As this is, by Aldington's own account, a trivial detail, such an insulting comment is completely uncalled for. He repeatedly parrots lines that are less-than-flattering to Lawrence or his associates - for instance, he repeats Lloyd George's comment on denying "agnostic, atheistic France" a mandate in Syria three times. Aldington's condescension quickly grows tiresome, coming off as a playground bully picking on a popular kid. The sarcastic tone that serves him so well as a novelist undermines his credibility as an historian.

Another problem is Aldington's lack of scholarship. Aldington's method of research consists of comparing Lawrence's account with his biographers (specifically Robert Graves, Basil Liddel Hart, and Lowell Thomas), and accounts of others. There is some value in this, but the problem here is that Aldington always assumes that: a) Lawrence is the one fibbing, b) Lawrence's biographers cannot be blamed for the discrepancies (highly suspect in Thomas's case), and c) Lawrence is deliberately lying in all cases. That Lawrence may have somewhat embellished facts, or more mundanely misremembered them, is a valid point, but to go a step further and claim him a pathological liar is something else entirely. Aldington's disuse of primary documents - for instance, government reports - can be somewhat excused, but certainly hurts his case.

Aldington employs many strawman arguments. He says that Lawrence claimed his own responsibility for creating the idea of the Arab Revolt, and inventing the campaign against the Hejaz Railway. He also claims that Lawrence's subtitling of Seven Pillars as "a triumph" is vanity or egoism rather than irony over the ultimate failure of the Arab Movement. To be fair, Lawrence took undue credit for certain aspects of the campaign, particularly the raid on Aqaba, and Aldington is right to point this out. And he does a good job of deflating Robert Graves's claim that Lawrence read 50,000 books at Oxford, and discrepancies in his accounts of specific events between, say, personal correspondence and his memoirs. It's something else, however, to use this as proof that Lawrence deliberately lied about everything.

Aldington's motives are highly suspect. He had his own traumatic experiences in France during World War I, where he was wounded. Obviously this affected him a great deal, as evidenced by his body of work and troubled life. The overall tone seems to be of a man who fought in France, the decisive theater in the war, angry that someone from "the sideshow of a sideshow" got all the glory. Aldington even admits this, particularly in this revealing passage (p. 381):

"I have tried, but perhaps not always successfully, to give evidence... fairly and in such away that it can be instantly verified, though not without some indignation that such a man should have been given the fame and glory of the real heroes of 1914-1918" (emphasis added)

Ergo, Aldington's motives as suspect if not more so than what he claims of his subject. Apparently Lawrence's hardships in the desert, helping to unite disparate Arab tribes and providing a front that, at the very least, proved a useful "sideshow" to the British war effort, while under extremely harsh and trying conditions, is nothing compared to Aldington's own contribution, because Lawrence did not serve in France. To which I say, phooey. Even if we accept that Lawrence gilded the lily in Seven Pillars and elsewhere, Aldington's self-righteousness insults Lawrence and others who fought in peripheral theaters of WWI.

I might also suggest, if only parenthetically, that Aldington, already disenchanted with British society, wanted to bring the despised British Establishment down a peg by attacking one of their cherished heroes. The final line of the book, "Lawrence was the appropriate hero for his class and epoch" (p. 388), is highly suggestive of this.
Aldington creates the playbook for what Robert Bolt called the "facile Lawrence denigrators." Everything is here: emphasis on Lawrence's illegitimacy (Aldington was the first English writer to mention this, though Frenchman Leon Broussard first brought this to light in 1941), the downplaying of the Arab Revolt, the downplaying within that of Lawrence's own contribution, the treatment of Lawrence as pathological liar and egomaniac, etc. He also posits Lawrence as betraying the British cause by supporting the Arabs, a claim that exemplifies the tendency of Lawrence revisionists to view his political sympathies from extremes (as we'll see with Suleiman Mousa). Just about the only thing later skeptics would disparage is his acceptance of the Deraa Incident; it wasn't until Suleiman Mousa's T.E. Lawrence: An Arab View (1962) that a biographer strongly questioned Lawrence's account.
For any discussions of Lawrence's sexuality, I think it's key that Aldington is the first major biographer to strongly assert Lawrence as homosexual; this seems tacked on as a kick in the teeth, with absurd psychoanalysis culminating in the charge that Lawrence's evil mother warped his personality (!!!). Without expanding into a full-blown discussion here, I don't think it's a coincidence that allegations of Lawrence's homosexuality originated with Aldington, and have largely been parroted by Lawrence detractors since. The charge's general acceptance by even those sympathetic towards Lawrence shows the dangers of uncritically accepting "revisionism" as more valid than the "official" story.

All in all, Aldington's book is a bloody-minded hatchet job, saved only by virtue of being reasonably well-written. Any value it has as a corrective to what he calls "the Lawrence Bureau" is undermined by its overall smuttiness. This wouldn't be so much a problem if many people, unwilling to concede that old-fashioned heroes may have a grain of honor to their name, take Aldington and his successors at face value. There's room for debate in any area of history, but vitriol and dishonest scholarship is something to be discouraged.

What Others Say:

"If psychoanalysing someone is difficult by a licensed psychiatrist speaking with his subject, it's ridiculous for it to be attempted by a writer after his subject is dead and gone." - CooperToons

"Aldington's 'debunking' was made with such ill-conceived sarcasm and vitriol that he virtually demolished his own case." - Michael Asher

"Reading Aldington’s book is a bit like standing under a waterfall of venom." - Robert Irwin

"[Aldington provides] a sharper, deeper, cagier assessment... than... any of his predecessors." - Stephen E. Tabachnick

"[Aldington] had come to see Lawrence as the hero of a decadent society which he detested. He seems to have believed that if he could destroy Lawrence's reputation, this would in some way deeply wound the British establishment." - Jeremy Wilson

Sunday, December 5, 2010


Welcome, one and all, to my latest project: the T.E. Lawrence Biographical Review!

What prompted the creation of this blog? A week or so ago, sent me an e-mail of recommended readings. While this is often a nuisance, I was quite surprised to find that one of the recommendations was a new biography of T.E. Lawrence by the acclaimed historian Michael Korda. My first reaction was delight, but a second one was: another Lawrence biography? Just how many are there?

Well, it turns out that there are hundreds, in a wide variety of languages, from Lowell Thomas's With Lawrence in Arabia (1924) to Korda's Hero, with many diverse and interesting examples in between. Before starting this blog, I've already read thirteen or so books on Lawrence, including:

Aldington, Richard. Lawrence of Arabia: A Biographical Enquiry. Chicago: Regnery, 1955.

Barr, James. Setting the Desert on Fire: T.E. Lawrence and Britain’s Secret War in Arabia, 1916-1918. New York: W.W. Norton, 2009.

Brown, Malcolm. Lawrence of Arabia: The Life, the Legend. London: Thames and Hudson, 2005.

Florence, Ronald. Lawrence and Aaronsohn: T.E. Lawrence, Aaron Aaronsohn, and the Seeds of the Arab-Israeli Conflict. New York: Penguin, 2008.

Gonzalez-Gerth, Miguel. T.E. Lawrence, Richard Aldington and the Death of Heroes. Austin: Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, 1994.

Lawrence, Arnold W. (ed.) T.E. Lawrence by His Friends: A New Selection of Memoirs. 2nd edition. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1963.

Lawrence, T.E. Revolt in the Desert. New York: Black Dog and Leventhall, 2005.

Lawrence, T.E. Seven Pillars of Wisdom: a Triumph. New York: Penguin, 2000.

MacLean, Alistair. Lawrence of Arabia. New York: Random House, 1962.

Mousa, Suleiman. T.E. Lawrence: An Arab View. London: Oxford University Press, 1966.

Thomas, Lowell. With Lawrence in Arabia. New York: The Century, 1924.

Wilson, Jeremy. Lawrence of Arabia: The Authorized Biography. London: William Heinemann, 1989.

Which, amazingly enough, is barely a drop in the bucket. Even this fairly small number provides a wide variety of interpretations and of Lawrence and his character. The absolute of ambiguity, controversy and surrounding Lawrence seventy-five years after his death is mind-boggling. Besides my personal interest, there's something of a practical one.

Though Jeremy Wilson, Lawrence's official biographer, is engaging in an invaluable project of bringing primary Lawrence sources to the 'Net, I haven't seen a comparable project regarding works about Lawrence by other people. With so many Lawrence biographies, with such a wide variety of interpretations and analysis of his character, motivations and importance, it seemed a good idea to separate the wheat from the chaf for the Lawrence-interested. I am nothing like the expert Mr. Wilson is, to be sure, but I imagine I have a lot more free time.

Like many people, I first became aware of T.E. Lawrence through David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia (1962), which I still consider my favorite film ever. Watching that extraordinary film convinced me to look into the man behind the film, and what an experience it has been. The first Lawrence book I read was a juvenile work by novelist Alistair MacLean; soon I graduated into more substantial fare, like Lowell Thomas's bio and Lawrence's own Revolt in the Desert. It was Seven Pillars of Wisdom, however, that fully captured my attention. Whatever its trustworthiness as an historical account, it's a masterpiece of memoir and self-analysis, by an appealingly tortured and neurotic - yet unquestionably heroic - man. Five years after my first introduction to Seven Pillars, I'm still diving headlong into Lawrence books.

T.E. Lawrence is a figure who never goes out of style. He appeals to different people for different reasons. He's certainly a man of historical importance: his guerilla tactics have influenced everyone from Mao Tse-Tung to Vo Nguyen Giap to the Iraqi insurgency, and his involvement with the Colonial Office helped draw the current boundaries of the Middle East. Then there's his character: his psychology, character, beliefs, sexuality and truthfulness have been scrutinized by biographers of various shades, yet he remains elusive, impossible to pin down, and biographies are more likely to reflect their author's environment and sensibilities than Lawrence's (as this blog no doubt will). Aside from Thomas Jefferson, I don't think there's an historical personage half so shrouded in mystery and subjective interpretation. He's a figure of continuing fascination, ambiguity and importance, and no doubt he'll be the subject of biographies for centuries to come.

The purpose of this blog, then, is simple. I will read and review as many Lawrence biographies as I can, providing brief analysis and commentary on them. I will read the books as they become available to me, and not in any real order: you'll forgive the disjuncture, I hope, in starting with an Aldington or Mousa review rather than Lowell Thomas and Robert Graves. I probably won't review Lawrence's own works as they fall outside the blog's main purview.

This blog will be updated depending on how busy I am, and how often I read a Lawrence-related work (I do have other interests). As I have already reviewed Aldington's work, and have recently read two others, we should at least have a decent place to start.

Well, there's no time to waste then, is there?