Garden City New York: Doubleday, Doran & Company, 1936. Limited, hand-numbered, copyright edition. Hardcover. This is the true first edition of T. E. Lawrence’s unstintingly candid portrait of life in the Royal Air Force ranks, a magnificent example of the U.S. “copyright edition”, one of just 50 copies, none of which was circulated to the public.
Given that it was never intended to be seen by the public, this edition was quite handsome, bound in half vellum with blue-gray paper-covered boards (evoking RAF color) and a black leather spine label. The contents, printed on mould-made, watermarked paper with untrimmed fore and bottom edges and gilt top edges, are bound with blue-gray endpapers and a red and gold head band.
This copy, hand-numbered “UK 17” is truly fine, nearly flawless. The binding is immaculately square, clean, and tight with sharp corners and no reportable wear or soiling. The vellum is quite mildly and evenly mellowed, as is inherent to and intended with vellum, but there is no acute browning or differential spine toning. The contents are likewise immaculate with a crisp, untouched feel. We find no spotting.
The only previous ownership marks are those of T. E. Lawrence’s youngest brother and literary executor, Arnold Walker Lawrence (1900-1991). A. W. wrote in black ink on the front free endpaper recto “the property of A. W. Lawrence.” Additionally, A. W. wrote in four lines on the copyright page “The property of A. W. Lawrence | c/o Tamplin & Co., Solicitors. | 52, Bishopsgate, | London, E.C.”
The book is protected beneath a clear, removable mylar cover and housed within a modern blue cloth-covered slipcase.
Thomas Edward Lawrence (1888-1935) found fame as instigator, organizer, hero, and tragic figure of the Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire during the First World War, which he began as an eccentric junior intelligence officer and ended as "Lawrence of Arabia." This time defined Lawrence with indelible experience and celebrity which he spent the rest of his famously short life struggling to reconcile and reject, to recount and repress.
In 1922, in a state of nervous exhaustion following the First World War, his work on the post-war settlement, and writing and re-writing Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Lawrence enlisted in the ranks of the R.A.F. under the name of John Hume Ross. He swiftly concluded "there is grand stuff here, and if I could write it..." so he began making notes "scribbled at night, between last post and lights out, in bed."
Interruptions ensued. In January 1923 Lawrence’s identity became public and he was discharged from the R.A.F., but allowed to re-enlist two and a half years later, this time using the surname "Shaw". “The project was set aside, not to be taken up again until he was posted to India in 1927, during which interval he oversaw publication of Seven Pillars of Wisdom and its abridgement for Cape, Revolt in the Desert. In March 1928 he sent a clean copy of the revised text to Edward Garnett. Garnett circulated typed copies to a small circle, among them Air Marshal Trenchard.”
A saga ensued. Cape claimed publication rights but Lawrence successfully resisted. In the meantime, “Trenchard’s concerned response led Lawrence to guarantee that it would not be published at least until 1950.” Nonetheless, “The manuscript found its way to America and in 1936, in order to control publication, it was found necessary to have a copyright edition published in the USA.” The resulting edition was just 50 copies, of which just ten were for sale at the intentionally prohibitive price of $500,000 per copy. (O’Brien, pp.119-120)
This 1936 U.S. copyright edition is not only rare, but also preceded eventual publication by nearly two decades and differs from the final text. Lawrence made revisions in the last months of his life and “a revised manuscript was found later”, finally published in 1955 in Britain and America after the death of an officer described unfavorably in the text. Even then, libel concerns led the British publisher, Cape to remove all objectionable words, leaving blank spaces. Item #006157