Tuesday, December 7, 2010
Images of Lawrence (1988, Stephen E. Tabachnick and Christopher Matheson)
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.
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.
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.