Winston Churchill was born on this day in 1874. Churchill received the 1953 Nobel Prize in Literature for being a stylist, one who could turn history and biography into a good read. If his was an old-fashioned writing style — Eliot and Faulkner had already won their Nobels — it was unabashedly British. In the following passage from My Early Life, the first volume of his autobiography, Churchill says that he learned to write as a schoolboy, by being too slow to be placed among the smart boys:
They all went on to learn Latin and Greek and splendid things like that. But I was taught English. We were considered such dunces that we could learn only English. Mr. Somervell — a most delightful man, to whom my debt is great — was charged with the duty of teaching the stupidest boys the most disregarded thing — namely, to write mere English. He knew how to do it. He taught it as no one else has ever taught it. Not only did we learn English parsing thoroughly, but we also practised continually English analysis. Mr. Somervell had a system of his own. He took a fairly long sentence and broke it up into its components by means of black, red, blue, and green inks. Subject, verb, object: Relative Clauses, Conditional Clauses, Conjunctive and Disjunctive Clauses! Each had its colour and its bracket. It was a kind of drill. We did it almost daily. As I remained in the Third Form three times as long as anyone else, I had three times as much of it. I learned it thoroughly. Thus I got into my bones the essential structure of the ordinary British sentence — which is a noble thing.
There are many parse-friendly and pro-British passages in the thirty-nine volumes of Churchill’s Collected Works. But he had other styles and moods — for example in the charming Painting as a Pastime, which encourages us all to forget the art school rules and just have a go. And he was no prig, if we can believe the anecdote that records this response to a critic who had upbraided him for ending his sentence with a preposition: “This is the sort of English up with which I will not put.”
Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.