Sunday, February 24, 2013

Hannen Swaffer Vs. TEL

Maarten Schild points me towards an article published in the April 22, 1933 Literary Digest. Entitled "Debunking Lawrence of Arabia," it's a sarcastic open letter questioning Lawrence's modesty and achievements, penned by famed British journalist Hannen Swaffer.

The letter itself offers no substantive criticism, merely a rant against Lawrence's inflated (in Swaffer's view) reputation. "This sort of hero worship is a public menace," Swaffer writes, condemning Lawrence's self-contradiction and ceaseless press coverage. Yet it's an interesting piece, if only as an example of early Lawrence criticism, long before Richard Aldington's Biographical Enquiry.

Skepticism towards Lawrence did not originate with Aldington. Indian officers serving in Mesopotamia, including Arnold Wilson and Charles Vickery resented the attention drawn to Lawrence's theater of operations. Major N.N. Bray published Shifting Sands in 1928, criticizing Lawrence and the Arab Bureau for supporting the Hashemites over Ibn Saud. Lawrence's French counterpart Edmond Bremond was unflattering in his Le Hedjaz dans la guerre mondiale (1931). Charles Wilson, wartime British resident in Jeddah, excoriated Lawrence in a review of Lowell Thomas's With Lawrence in Arabia (1924). Schild notes also that these critics helped originate claims of Lawrence's homosexuality. Many had personal reasons to attack Lawrence, yet their positions gave them perceived credibility. 

Intellectuals and writers shared their reservations. Explorer Rosita Forbes attacked Lawrence as "a figment of [Lowell Thomas's] imagination." Poet Herbert Read, incidentally a friend of Aldington, called Seven Pillars of Wisdom an "expensive parade of eccentricity and bad taste" and the author a near-psychopath in a 1928 article for The Bibliophiles' Almanack. Historian George Antonius accused Lawrence of self-promotion in The Arab Awakening (1938). Even D.H. Lawrence took a few shots in Lady Chatterley's Lover, ridiculing Colonel "C.E. Florence" for his "unsatisfactory mysticism... [Sir Malcolm] saw too much advertisement behind all the humility."

Swaffer's critique illustrates that Aldington did not exist in a vacuum. Many publicly and privately found Lawrence failed to measure up to the Lowell Thomas media circus. Some outright loathed him. Yet until 1955, they were a footnote compared to the popular biographies of Thomas, Robert Graves, Liddell Hart, the praise of well-connected friends Winston Churchill and Bernard Shaw, and Lawrence's own remarkable writings.

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