Friday, August 17, 2012

16 Questions With Professor Stephen E. Tabachnick

Stephen E. Tabachnick is one of the world's foremost T.E. Lawrence experts. A Professor of English literature at the University of Memphis, he's written, co-written or edited several books on Lawrence: The T.E. Lawrence Puzzle (Athens, Ga.: University of Georgia Press, 1984), T.E. Lawrence (New York: Twayne, 1997) and Lawrence of Arabia: An Encyclopedia (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2004). Most importantly for us, he co-authored (with Christopher Matheson) Images of Lawrence (London: Jonathan Cape, 1988), whose overview of Lawrence biographies largely inspired this blog.

Professor Tabachnick graciously agreed to an email Q&A for this blog. I asked him about his books Images of Lawrence and Lawrence of Arabia: An Encyclopedia, along with his thoughts on Lawrence's reputation and the current state of scholarship. Enjoy!

1. What attracts you to Lawrence as a subject? 

He was a brilliant polymath who did more things well than almost anyone else of his period, and his Middle Eastern experience remains relevant to our own. Most of all, I think that he was a great writer whose Seven Pillars of Wisdom will live forever.

2. Your book Images of Lawrence largely dissects biographies and media portrayals of Lawrence. What do you consider the most common failing of Lawrence biographers? 

The most common failing of Lawrence biographers is to push a single thesis at the expense of the complexity of the subject. Anyone working on Lawrence has got to be open to his many contradictions and to the idea that as complex a person as he was cannot be easily made to fit a mold.

3. Why is Lawrence such a polarizing figure? 

Because Seven Pillars of Wisdom is full of ambiguities, including the Deraa incident, his own assessment of himself in the famous chapter 103, “Myself,” which contains many contradictions, and his divided loyalty between the British and Arab sides in the conflict. Some people (Aldington) take this as the equivalent of lying or disloyalty, while others (Mack and Wilson) are more accepting.

4. What are the most prevalent myths about Lawrence, either among the public or biographers? Why do you think they've taken hold?

Perhaps the most prevalent myth is that he was some kind of liar, and that myth gives biographers something to write about, so they perpetuate it. Another myth is that he was an active homosexual, although there is no evidence for that. He undoubtedly had homosexual tendencies but there is little evidence that he ever acted on them. The public is always fascinated by sexuality of any kind, as we see in the attention given to the affairs of celebrities. And finally there is the myth that he was a straightforward hero, when he was a very divided person and was very critical of the hero designation for himself.

 5. How truthful should we consider Seven Pillars of Wisdom, The Mint and Lawrence's other writings? 

Seven Pillars of Wisdom and The Mint reflect the truth of who Lawrence was and what he thought. They are subjective autobiographies rather than objective histories of the events in which he was involved. I believe that he did his best to be truthful but sometimes—as in the case of the Deraa incident—he simply could not bring himself to fully describe and comment about embarrassing episodes. Rather, he chose to be ambiguous, leaving a fertile ground for subsequent critics and biographers to impose their own interpretations. Also, he chose not say much about important British intelligence assets that still might be operative in the Middle East after his departure. But this is not the equivalent of lying, and to characterize it as such is very misleading and sensationalist.

6. What value do the early Lawrence biographies, such as those by Lowell Thomas and Robert Graves, still hold? 

They will always remain valuable because they contain eyewitness testimony concerning Lawrence’s personality, and eyewitness testimony is irreplaceable. Moreover, both Thomas and Graves were very intelligent people and often provide insights into his personality.

7. In Images you gloss over the books written by Lawrence's friends (eg. T.E. Lawrence by His Friends, Clare Sydney Smith, Vyvyan Richards). Do you feel these personal portraits hold any value? 

Yes, these portraits are certainly valuable, especially the essays in T.E. Lawrence by his Friends, which gives a variety of points of view. Any eyewitness testimony is valuable since no more eyewitness testimony will be forthcoming, because just about everyone who knew Lawrence personally has died.

8. Richard Aldington's Biographical Enquiry (1955) is undoubtedly among the most important Lawrence books, since it's the first critical account. But it's also vicious and ultimately as problematic as earlier works. Do you think such an extreme reaction was necessary to balance the debate? 

I think that this kind of extreme reaction is never necessary in the case of any biographical subject, except perhaps the most loathsome, such as a Hitler or Stalin. Biographies should strive for balance in my view. But there’s no doubt that Aldington, by presenting such an extreme picture of Lawrence, helped move the debate forward since many people have responded to him to balance the picture. So, perhaps without meaning to be helpful, Aldington is responsible for a lot of excellent scholarship on and discussion of Lawrence.

9. There's still a lack of Arab sources on Lawrence available in English. Even Suleiman Mousa's T.E. Lawrence: An Arab View is hard to find. What effect do you think this has on Lawrence scholarship? 

It would be nice to have more Arab scholarship about Lawrence because some new evidence or information about him might be unearthed. But it is worth noticing that Mack, for instance, traveled to the Middle East to interview individuals about Lawrence and to see the sites where the events transpired, and that other Western writers have made that pilgrimage for the same reasons. So even without Arab scholarship per se outside of Mousa, it has been possible to bring Arabs and Arab culture into the picture of Lawrence’s career.

10. Do you feel that certain biographers (John Mack, Desmond Stewart, Michael Asher) focus excessively on Lawrence's psychology/personality/sexuality? 

Lawrence’s sexuality seems always to have interested the general reading public. Writing for a popular audience, Stewart and Asher focused on this subject in order to gain readership and sales, and I do believe that they focus excessively on Lawrence’s sexuality. However, John Mack, as a psychiatrist, naturally was interested in this aspect of Lawrence’s life, and I believe that he remains the best source on this subject as on Lawrence’s personality in general.

11. How does a writer decide which sources are valid? Many Lawrence biographers still quote Richard Meinertzhagen and John Bruce, for instance, despite their questionable veracity.

Even when Meinertzhagen or Bruce might not be accurate concerning some things that they say about Lawrence, their testimony is still useful because they knew him. A scrupulous biographer must decide, on the basis of other, external evidence and cross-checking, which parts of their testimony might be useful and which not. Sometimes as in the case of Aldington, even the inaccurate things that someone says can be valuable in producing a counter-reaction that is more accurate.

12. What are your thoughts on Lawrence books published since Images' publication? Eg. Jeremy Wilson, Lawrence James, Michael Korda, any others? 

Jeremy Wilson’s biography remains one of the best because it is solidly based on archival evidence. His series of volumes of Lawrence’s writing—which like his biography I have reviewed in the journal English Literature in Transition: 1880-1920 and in the Shaw Annual--is also an enormous gift to present and future scholarship on Lawrence. Philip O’Brien’s bibliography and its supplement are also extremely valuable. James and Korda in my view are popular writers whose research is not particularly outstanding, and who in my opinion do not contribute much that is truly new to the discussion.

13. What is the current state of Lawrence scholarship and debate? 

There have been some good books connecting Lawrence’s experience to ours in Iraq and elsewhere, such as John Hulsman’s To Begin the World Over Again: Lawrence of Arabia from Damascus to Baghdad (2009). And detailed academic studies of Lawrence, including doctoral dissertations, continue to be produced (most recently, in 2007, one by Vinothini Charles from the University of Madras, India, “The Search for Identity in the Writings of T.E. Lawrence and Sayyid Qutb,” which shows Lawrence’s worldwide fame, and Andrew Williams’ Canadian dissertation on The Mint, which is now a book, The Toxic Morsel). And there have been excellent exhibitions on Lawrence, especially “Lawrence von Arabien: Genese eines Mythos” at the Landesmuseum in Oldenburg, Germany during 2010-11, and the resulting superb catalog.

But on the whole the most recent biographies, which are aimed at a popular audience, have not contributed much. I am always waiting for someone to find some genuinely new manuscript or archival material that will answer some of the questions we still have about Lawrence’s life and career. But like all discoveries, there is no knowing when such a thing might take place.

14. Do you find it more valuable to approach Lawrence's writings from a literary rather than historical perspective? 

As an English professor, I am naturally interested primarily in Lawrence as a writer. I believe that he was a great writer, and that he will increasingly come to be recognized as such. The Longman Anthology of English Literature, a textbook used in the classroom, now includes a passage from Seven Pillars of Wisdom along with selections from other important writers’ works.

But it is impossible to write about him as a writer without considering the historical perspective; and that perspective will continue to be very important in helping us understand the Middle East now and in the future.

15. How did you get the idea to compile your Lawrence encyclopedia? What sort of effort goes into a project like that? 

Biographies and critical books on Lawrence usually push the author’s thesis to the detriment of other viewpoints. I wrote the Lawrence encyclopedia because I felt that there was a gap in the scholarship on Lawrence, in that no one source brought together all of the disparate views about him as well as all aspects of his career, and that an encyclopedia would fill that gap, both for general readers and for scholars.

I have written on article about the problems involved in writing the encyclopedia—“An Attempt to Map the Lawrence Territory: Writing Lawrence of Arabia: An Encyclopedia” which appeared in the Journal of the T.E. Lawrence Society, 16.1 (Autumn/Winter 2006-7): 17-27. This article was based on a paper I gave at the excellent international Lawrence conference at Lee University, near Chattanooga, Tennessee in April 2006.

Essentially, writing the encyclopedia was a labor of love and I enjoyed working steadily on it for about five years. To write an encyclopedia like this, you first have to compile a list of important topics and then work through each one until you finally complete the work. I am pleased that many people, including academic researchers, seem to find the encyclopedia helpful, or at least they have told me so.

16. Do you have any current projects, Lawrence-related or otherwise, in the works? 

In the past few years, I have published an essay on Lawrence in the Oldenburg exhibition catalog, and have written several reviews of works about Lawrence. The reviews are to be found in the journal English Literature in Transition: 1880-1920 (which, much to its credit, has always been interested in studies of Lawrence), and in the forthcoming Shaw Annual.

Over the past twenty years, I’ve become interested in the graphic novel, and I gave a paper on Lawrence and the comics at the Huntington Library symposium in 2007. I’d like to turn that into an article one day. Also, I am interested in possibly doing a second edition of the encyclopedia, which would contain revisions of any factual or other errors based on the latest information.

* * *

Many thanks to Professor Tabachnick for his time. Hopefully this can become a regular feature as I come into contact with other Lawrence experts. I will have several new reviews coming up soon, so stay tuned.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Hero: The Life and Legend of Lawrence of Arabia (2010, Michael Korda)

Publishing Info:

Korda, Michael. Hero: The Life and Legend of Lawrence of Arabia. New York: HarperCollins, 2010. 762 pp.


The most comprehensive Lawrence bio in 20 years, Hero attempts to repair Lawrence's reputation. Michael Korda might go a step too far in proclaiming Lawrence as a genius in everything he touched. Still, it's a judicious treatment of a man oft criticized but never fully understood.

The Author:

Michael Korda (born 1933) is the son of Zoltan Korda of the legendary British film family. Moving to New York, Korda spent decades as editor at Simon & Schuster, gaining notoriety for publishing racy novelists Jacqueline Susan and Harold Robbins. He's written numerous books, including biographies of Ulysses S. Grant and Dwight D. Eisenhower, Queenie (1985), a novel about his aunt Merle Oberon, and With Wings Like Eagles (2009), an account of the Battle of Britain. 

The Review:

Hero is a popular history with all the attendant virtues and foibles. It's extremely readable, Korda handling a dense, detailed narrative with delicacy. On the other hand, Korda's analysis of specialist areas (Middle Eastern politics, psychology) are shaky, with an unhappy reliance on secondary sources. He lards the text with awkward cultural allusions, such as quoting Casablanca when discussing Lawrence's pre-war encounter with an Arab bandit or comparing his subject to Princess Diana (!).

Korda begins in media res with Lawrence's most famous exploit: the 1917 capture of Aqaba. This awkward opening lasts for 100 pages before backtracking to Lawrence's childhood. Lay readers may prove overwhelmed by the barrage of dates, names and places, and Lawrence experts will note Korda's heavy reliance on Seven Pillars and Basil Liddell Hart. Fortunately, Hero recovers from this shaky start.

Unlike most biographers, Korda focuses on Lawrence's relationship with father Thomas Chapman. Noting Chapman's love of technology and intellectual pursuits, Korda also feels he shielded Lawrence from  his mother's more extreme impulses. "Ned not only learned from his father but worked hard to please him" (144), ultimately besting Chapman at his own hobbies. Korda's Sarah Lawrence mixes guilt, piety and protectiveness, but scarcely resembles the monster of Richard Aldington and Michael Asher's accounts.

Hero rejects common portrayals of Lawrence as neurotic. Korda depicts him as exceedingly erudite and likeable, with a "particular genius for friendship" (508) and craving for recognition. Korda views Lawrence as asexual but capable of strong attachments to men (Vyvyan Richards, Dahoum) and women (Janet Laurie, Charlotte Shaw, Clare Sydney Smith). Lawrence's ambivalence towards fame is a quirk rather than psychosis. In this account, Lawrence remains essentially the same man lifelong, despite his war-time trauma and guilt.

By Korda's reckoning, "there was always a germ of truth" to Lawrence's recollection of events (442). Korda discusses Deraa at length, accepting its validity because of the account's vividness, Lawrence's injuries and private correspondence afterwards. He accepts Knightley and Simpson's suggestion that Lawrence confused Hajim Bey with another Turkish officer. More minor anecdotes (Lawrence making Lord Curzon cry at a war cabinet meeting, forcing an obnoxious officer to salute him) are found equally plausible. His collaboration with Lowell Thomas amounts to idle ribbing that spectacularly backfired. Far from a braggart or liar, Lawrence at worst misremembered or playfully embellished events.

Korda grows rhapsodic discussing the Arab Revolt. He consistently plays up Lawrence's role, even his marginal involvement in Russia's capture of Erzurum and the diplomatic mission to Kut. Lawrence's colleagues receive due attention, though Korda uncritically accepts Seven Pillars' account of Feisal and his brothers. He echoes Liddell Hart in claiming Lawrence a self-taught military genius comparable to Napoleon and a pioneer in guerrilla warfare. Korda is extremely adept at battle writing, providing riveting descriptions of Arab victories at Abu el-Lissal and Tafileh. Lawrence's personal bravery is justly never in doubt.

Korda claims "no man ever tried harder to serve two masters than Lawrence" (400), desperately trying to square Arab sympathies with English allegiance. He depicts Lawrence's defense of Feisal at Versailles, criticism of imperial policy and involvement in the Cairo Conference. Korda's grasp of Sykes-Picot and the Balfour Declaration are fuzzy, undeniably inflating Lawrence's importance. One is amused by the assertion that the Hashemites brought stability to the Middle East: arguably true of Jordan, not so much with Iraq or the Hejaz. But Korda's account of Lawrence's rapturous reception in post-war Jordan demolishes the revisionist view that he was just another military adviser.

Sections on Lawrence's post-war career dabble heavily in speculation. Not unreasonably, Korda views Lawrence's descent into the Tank Corps and RAF more as an attempt to escape his wartime responsibility than a retreat from fame. He's undeniably right in rejecting Desmond Stewart's claim of Fascist sympathies. But Korda depicts Lawrence as a lifelong masochist, even while casting doubt on John Bruce's stories of flogging. Lawrence's youthful obsession with fitness becomes a prelude to self-torture in this dubious reading.

Balancing the conjecture are astute observations. We see a Lawrence whose work with boats and seaplanes was extremely productive. He also used his connections to affect RAF reform, and Lawrence's sympathy for rankers comes off strongly. Korda amusingly etches Lawrence's equivocation towards the limelight: he attends Bernard Shaw's Too True to Be Good incognito, only to sign autographs after the show! He shows Clare Sydney Smith as "the only woman who actually flirted with Lawrence, an experience... he seems to have enjoyed" (607). Far from a miserable hermit, Lawrence experiences "the best and most productive years of his life" (509).

Korda finds Seven Pillars overwritten but concedes it features "great pieces of modern writing about war" (310). He does defend its essential truthfulness, despite Lawrence's personalized view and downplaying the roles of men he disliked (Colonel Bremond, Hubert Young). On the other hand, he finds The Mint an implausible depiction of the RAF. Korda saves his greatest praise for Lawrence's translation of The Odyssey, feeling "nobody... understood better than Lawrence the difficulties facing a warrior... returning home, or could write more feelingly about it" (661).

Hero is a very good, old-fashioned biography. Perhaps Korda's idolatry is a bit much, but proves a welcome corrective to lingering skepticism. T.E. Lawrence is finally restored to his place as a genuine hero, warts and all.

PS: Readers stay tuned! I have a very special treat coming soon.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The Desert and the Stars (1955, Flora Armitage)

Publishing Info:

Armitage, Flora. The Desert and the Stars: A Biography of Lawrence of Arabia. New York: Henry Holt, 1955. 318 pp.


Written simultaneous to Richard Aldington's Biographical Inquiry (and tweaked before publication), The Desert and the Stars reads like an extreme reaction to that skeptical tome. An admirable attempt at probing Lawrence's psyche, Armitage falls short of an effective portrait.

The Author:

Flora Armitage (1911-1995) was an English-born writer who spent most of her life in the United States. At the time she wrote The Desert and the Stars, she worked for the British Information Services in New York City. She published three novels and several collections of short stories, as well as essays published in the UK and US. Dartmouth College has a collection of her papers here.

The Review:

The biggest hurdle with The Desert and the Stars is its unfortunate style. Armitage's novelist instincts overwhelm her sober subject matter, and we're treated to laughably overripe palaver on the most banal subjects. For instance, Armitage writes of Lawrence's birthplace (p. 16):
"The house at Tremadoc... stood in the midst of a garden where the August flowers bowed their heads to the wind, and over which islands of Atlantic cumulus moved in shadowing phalanxes. To the south of Tremadoc the waters of a bay shimmered; and to the north the green foothills rose slowly up to the craggy peak of Snowdon."

Later, describing the fort at Azrak (p. 115):
"In winter a desolation more acute overtook it, for it was swept then by northeast winds and buffeted with driving rains. A pestilent dampness inflicted it, and a long and lingering melancholy which hovered like a hidden enemy in the gloomy passageways, waited upon the unwary, to swoop, to seize, to destory. Like a banshee the wind blew notes of doom through the volcanic rock towers which echoed into the shivering quiet below, trembled there, and then departed until the next gust."

This reader finds a little purple prose goes a long way. 300-plus pages of it are insufferable.

Other style points niggle, too. Throughout, Armitage insists on calling her subject "Edward Lawrence." Perhaps this is to distinguish him from his father, except she continues this affectation after the senior Lawrence departs. Awkward literary and Biblical allusions riddle the text to no effect. Ms. Armitage should have spent less time displaying her erudition than exploring her subject.

Armitage addresses many of Aldington's critiques. She concedes several points on Lawrence's honesty, but takes a more benign view. Recounting his claim of having read every book in the Oxford Union (tediously debunked by Aldington), she sniffs that "it is surely pedantic to take [it] seriously" (26). I'm inclined to agree; Lawrence's dishonesty was certainly more playful than pathological. She similarly addresses his claims about Lawrence's childhood; his alleged hatred of women; his heroism, politics and sexuality. It's a convincing rebuttal to Lawrence debunkers, though obviously not conclusive.

In this telling, Lawrence has a happy childhood. Armitage tiptoes over Lawrence's illegitimacy and describes him as a precocious child, mixing his mother's strength of character and morality with his father's love of history and machines. His time at Oxford and Carchemish receives almost idyllic treatment, his relationships with Dahoum and D.G. Hogarth lacking the sexual/political implications of later biographers. It seems fairly bowdlerized, even if one rejects Aldington's portrait of subtle repression. Armitage's repeating of apocryphal canards - for instance, that Lawrence's youthful leg fracture retarded his growth - somewhat weakens her credibility.

Armitage skims over Lawrence's war years, stopping for introspection only at Deraa and Damascus. Aqaba gets a few paragraphs, while the Tafas massacre receives a single sentence. She makes little effort to address the Revolt's effectiveness, though her assessment of Hussein as "a crotchety, devious-minded but sincere Arab patriot" (102) rings true. Less so does her implication that Lawrence was the Revolt's only worthwhile personage. Either Armitage had little interest in the subject or felt it would be familiar from past books.

Armitage excels, however, with Lawrence's post-war career. Aside from "personal portraits" like Claire Sydney Smith's The Golden Reign, most biographers up to 1955 elided his later activities, and Armitage's detailed description deserves commendation. She depicts Lawrence's unhappy stint in the Tank Corps, service in India and famous friends with skill. We encounters a Lawrence struggling with his fame, detesting life in the ranks and finding solace in technical achievements and unorthodox companions. It's only missing the testimony of witnesses like John Bruce, unavoidable in its era.

Armitage echoes Robert Graves in calling Lawrence "an iceberg... display(ing) a myriad of dazzling shapes and contours, though the inner matrix is forever hidden" (307). She views Lawrence's aversion to feminine company as product of his college and war experience rather than misogyny. "His hatred for sex should not be misconstrued... as a hatred of women," she chides (254). Similarly, she rebukes claims of Lawrence as budding Fascist, claiming that he "never had any message for mankind" (266). She ultimately views him as "a spirit so modern in vision and temper that his century has not caught up with him" (307) - a man who mixed the virtues of the scholar and soldier with nagging self-doubt and interior demons.

Despite its merits, The Desert and the Stars proves underwhelming. If one overlooks the acres of aureate verbiage it's readable, but offers few original insights or penetrating analyses.