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.
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.
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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.