Welcome to Imprint Friday and today's featured imprint: Harper Perennial. Stop by each week to be introduced to a must-read title from one of my favorite imprints. I know you'll be adding many of these books to your wish list.
You've likely seen the movie, heard the tales, or at least recognize the name of the dashing World War I hero known as Lawrence of Arabia. Like millions of others over the last century, I've been drawn to his story, wondering whether the real T. E. Lawrence was anything like his popular image. Michael Korda's Hero: The Life and Legend of Lawrence of Arabia, now out in a new paperback edition, has all the answers.
The story of an epic life on a grand scale, Michael Korda’s Hero is a gripping, in-depth biography of the extraordinary, mysterious, and dynamic Englishman still famous the world over as “Lawrence of Arabia.” An Oxford scholar and archaeologist sent to Cairo as a young intelligence officer in 1916, Lawrence was a born leader, utterly fearless and seemingly impervious to pain and fatigue. A bold and ruthless warrior, he was the virtual inventor of modern insurgency and guerrilla warfare; a writer of genius who alternately sought and fled the limelight. Korda digs deeper than anyone before him to expose the flesh-and-blood man and his contradictory nature—farsighted visionary; diplomat and kingmaker; shy, sensitive, and private man; genius military strategist; arguably the first modern "media celebrity" . . . and one of its first victims. Hero is the magisterial story of one of the most unique and fascinating figures of modern times—the arch-hero whose life was, at once, a triumph and a sacrifice.I'm not quite halfway through Korda's engaging 700-page biography, so I can't yet comment on Lawrence's life at the end of the war and after, but I have read enough to have been utterly won over by Korda's style. Whether we are in the Arabian desert with the young military officer or back in Oxford with the boy, Korda brings out the essence of Lawrence's personality and the dynamics (and dramatics) behind his decisions.
From a young age, Lawrence held himself apart from the crowd, even moving into a small cottage behind the family home when still a teenager and choosing to live off campus when he entered university. Once in the army, he was rarely seen in regulation dress and was known to act on his own orders. In addition, unlike most of his colleagues,
he was a teetotaler, and, when he bothered to eat all, by inclination a vegetarian, except on occasions when he was obligated to please his Arab hosts by sharing their mutton. (p. 6)His aloofness could be off-putting, but his legendary charisma would usually win people over in the end. However, no matter what others thought of his personality, few could deny his intelligence, capacity for hard work, and his visionary thinking.
Korda relies on Lawrence's own writings and letters, firsthand accounts, and other biographers in his account of the making of a hero. As Korda says in his preface, Lawrence was a hero in the classical sense of the word. He was a man of great courage who set out to become a leader, preparing himself for the role and seizing the opportunity when his chance came (p. xvi)
Because I started out knowing very little about the Arab Revolt and Lawrence's actions at Aqaba (the focus of the well-known movie), I thought it was smart of Korda to open his biography with a brief account of campaign that put Lawrence on the road to heroism. When the narrative then took us back to England and the circumstances of Lawrence's birth, boyhood, and years at Oxford, I was better able to appreciate how early events helped shape the man.
I am looking forward to reading the second half of the biography, which details Lawrence's triumphs and hardships in the Mideast as well as what he saw as his personal failures:
. . . the feeling that would motivate Lawrence through the rest of his life: the belief not just that he had failed the Arabs by not getting them the state and independence they had fought for, but that he was rendered, by what he done, seen, and experienced, permanently unclean, unfit for the society of decent people, a kind of moral leper. (p. 435)Later chapters cover the postwar years, when Lawrence was hounded by the press, wrote his memoirs, and reenlisted in the military several times under assumed names to avoid public attention. He died in 1935, as the result of a motorcycle accident (prompting cries of assassination and conspiracy theory), when only forty-six years old. Lawrence of Arabia was a legend even in his own time, and his fame has yet to ebb.
Here are some other opinions (click on the links for the full reviews):
- Janet Maslin, writing for the New York Times: "the strength of 'Hero' lies in its ability to analyze Lawrence’s accomplishments and to add something meaningful to the larger body of Lawrence lore. It is here that Mr. Korda’s full affinity for his subject shows."
- Tim Ruttan, writing for the Los Angeles Times calls Hero "an unexpectedly fresh, engagingly written biography that adds substantially to our understanding of this strange, contradictory, curiously admirable and compelling subject's life and contribution"
- Lydia Pyne, writing for The New York Journal of Books: "With so many biographies of T. E. Lawrence, Korda’s detailed research and narrative arch, coupled with the narrative explicating the creation of Lawrence as a hero, creates a unique and reflective niche for the book."
Harper Perennial is a featured imprint on Beth Fish Reads. For information about the imprint, please read Erica Barmash's welcome note posted here on June 18, 2010. I encourage you to add your reviews of Harper Perennial books to the review link-up page; it's a great way to discover Good Books for Cool People. And don't miss the The Olive Reader, the Harper Perennial blog.