Most TAC readers are familiar with Winston Churchill, the British statesman. But they may not be familiar with another Winston Churchill whose fame, at one time, eclipsed that of his British counterpart.
The “other” Winston Churchill was an American novelist of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He wrote several best-selling historical novels, including one (which I will discuss later) that provides a fascinating glimpse into the Civil War era and the rise of Abraham Lincoln.
The American Churchill was born Nov. 10, 1871, in St. Louis, Mo., three years and 20 days before the British Churchill. After attending primary and secondary schools in St. Louis, he entered the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, graduating in 1894. Less than a year after receiving his commission, he resigned to pursue a literary career. In 1895 he became managing editor of The Cosmopolitan magazine — at that time a literary periodical nothing like its modern incarnation. Then he gave up that post to devote himself to writing his own novels, poems, and essays.
His first novel, The Celebrity, was published in 1898, but his second, Richard Carvel (1899) proved to be his most popular. Richard Carvel tells the story of an orphaned descendant of English nobility who grows up in colonial Maryland, journeys to England in pursuit of the woman he loves, then returns to America just in time to join the American Revolution. It was a huge hit, selling over 2 million copies in a nation of only 76 million citizens at the time.
His next book, The Crisis (1901), which can be read online at this link, is set in his native St. Louis in the years 1857 to 1865. The third of Churchill’s popular historical novels was The Crossing (1904), which recounts the settlement of Kentucky and the conquest of the Illinois Country during the American Revolution.
With the money he made from Richard Carvel Churchill built a mansion in Cornish, New Hampshire, named Harklanden House. He also became involved in politics, serving two terms in the New Hampshire legislature and running, unsuccessfully, for governor in 1906 and 1912.
Churchill’s last historical novel was Coniston (1906), after which he turned to contemporary themes in books such as A Modern Chronicle (1910) and The Inside of the Cup (1913). During World War I, he toured the battlefields and moved by what he saw, wrote his first non-fiction work. In 1919, he stopped writing and withdrew from public life. Although considered a very influential writer of the Naturalist genre, by the time he died in Winter Park, Fla., on March 12, 1947, he had been all but forgotten by the American public. He stated in an interview not long before his death, “It is very difficult now for me to think of myself as a writer of novels, as all that seems to belong to another life.” Most of his books are no longer in print today, although older copies can be found in libraries, through secondhand book outlets and online as noted above.
The American Churchill and the British Churchill, who were not related, met each other at least once and corresponded occasionally. In fact, the British Churchill signed his writings with his middle initial, “Winston S. Churchill”, in deference to the American Churchill, whose novels were also popular in England.
While any of the American Churchill’s historical novels may be of interest to history buffs, in honor of Lincoln’s Birthday I will focus on The Crisis, in which Lincoln is the most prominent of the real-life characters. The central fictional characters are Comyn Carvel (Richard’s grandson), a prosperous merchant and slave owner, and his daughter Virginia. Though they live in a closely divided community and border state, the Carvels never deny their Southern sympathies, even when it begins to cost them friendships, their livelihood, their possessions and more. Meanwhile, young and (of course) beautiful Virginia is courted by three men — a Unionist, a Confederate, and an opportunist who plays both sides for his own benefit.
Lincoln appears in The Crisis as a Christ-like figure of boundless wisdom, humor, and compassion. Early in the novel, a judge who is a friend of Lincoln dispatches his newly hired assistant, Stephen Brice, to observe the second of Lincoln’s debates with Sen. Stephen A. Douglas. Brice, a transplanted Bostonian who doesn’t think much of Lincoln at first, comes away from the debate a firm believer in the Rail Splitter, as recounted in this passage:
It only remains to be told how Stephen Brice, coming to the Brewster House after the debate, found Mr. Lincoln. On his knee, in transports of delight, was a small boy, and Mr. Lincoln was serenely playing on the child’s Jew’s-harp. Standing beside him was a proud father who had dragged his son across two counties in a farm wagon, and who was to return on the morrow to enter this event in the family Bible. In a corner of the room were several impatient gentlemen of influence who wished to talk about the Question.
(“The Question” Lincoln had posed to Douglas was whether residents of a U.S. territory could exclude slavery prior to statehood, despite the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision. Douglas’ reply — that they could do so by choosing not to enforce federal slavery law — became known as the Freeport Doctrine.)
But when he saw Stephen, Mr. Lincoln looked up with a smile of welcome that is still, and ever will be, remembered and cherished.
“Tell Judge Whipple that I have attended to that little matter, Steve,” he said.
“Why, Mr. Lincoln,” he exclaimed, “you have had no time.”
“I have taken the time,” Mr. Lincoln replied, “and I think that I am well repaid. Steve,” said he, “unless I’m mightily mistaken, you know a little more than you did yesterday.”
“Yes, sir! I do,” said Stephen.
“Come, Steve,” said Mr. Lincoln, “be honest. Didn’t you feel sorry for me last night?”
Stephen flushed scarlet.
“I never shall again, sir,” he said.
The wonderful smile, so ready to come and go, flickered and went out. In its stead on the strange face was ineffable sadness,—the sadness of the world’s tragedies, of Stephen stoned, of Christ crucified.
“Pray God that you may feel sorry for me again,” he said.
Awed, the child on his lap was still. The politician had left the room. Mr. Lincoln had kept Stephen’s hand in his own.
“I have hopes of you, Stephen,” he said. “Do not forget me.”
Stephen Brice never has. Why was it that he walked to the station with a heavy heart? It was a sense of the man he had left, who had been and was to be. This Lincoln of the black loam, who built his neighbor’s cabin and hoed his neighbor’s corn, who had been storekeeper and postmaster and flat-boatman. Who had followed a rough judge dealing a rough justice around a rough circuit; who had rolled a local bully in the dirt; rescued women from insult; tended the bedside of many a sick coward who feared the Judgment; told coarse stories on barrels by candlelight (but these are pure beside the vice of great cities); who addressed political mobs in the raw, swooping down from the stump and flinging embroilers east and west. This physician who was one day to tend the sickbed of the Nation in her agony; whose large hand was to be on her feeble pulse, and whose knowledge almost divine was to perform the miracle of her healing. So was it that, the Physician Himself performed His cures, and when work was done, died a martyr.
Abraham Lincoln died in His name.
Churchill regarded Lincoln as literally the savior of the Nation, and like Christ a “man of sorrows” who felt the pain of both North and South. Several fictional characters in the novel are transformed for the better simply by meeting Lincoln face to face and being touched by his spirit, so to speak. But even through Churchill glorifies Lincoln and the Union/anti-slavery cause to an extent that might cause some readers to roll their eyes in astonishment today, he also shows respect for those who fought honorably on the Confederate side. In fact, the most evil character in the book is neither a rebel nor a slaveowner, but the opportunist suitor mentioned earlier, who refuses to fight for either side.
The Crisis would probably be of most interest to history buffs interested in a fictional take on the war that is much closer to that era. It was written only 40 years later, when the war was still within living memory of many Americans, and predates the iconic Gone With the Wind by 35 years. It also provides an example of how far the secular “canonization” process for Lincoln had advanced by the end of the 19th century. While Lincoln was neither a demigod nor just another opportunist politician, he was an extraordinarily gifted human being and it’s not hard to picture God working through him, and many others whose names and deeds are no longer remembered. And although Churchill’s style of writing may seem dated today, it is in my opinion a shame that his works have been “lost” to the current generation to the extent that they have. Hopefully, the history buffs who read this forum will do what they can to remedy that situation!