London: Thornton Butterworth Limited, 1937. First edition, third printing. Hardcover. This is the British first edition, third printing, increasingly scarce thus with a clean, bright binding protected by its third printing dust jacket. Great Contemporaries is Churchill's much-praised collection of insightful essays about 21 leading personalities of the day - including the likes of Lawrence, Shaw, and, most famously, Hitler.
This third printing was issued in October 1937, the same month as the first and second printings, and is virtually identical in appearance. The binding and contents are identical with the sole exception of notation of the first through third printings on the copyright page. The third printing dust jacket faces, spine, and rear flap are identical to those of the first printing. Only the lower front flap text differs.
This copy is near fine in a very good plus dust jacket. The blue cloth binding approaches immaculate – square, clean, and strikingly bright with sharp corners. We note only a trivial hint of shelf wear to extremities and a tiny, superficial blemish on the upper front cover. The contents are equally impressive – crisp and bright, entirely free of spotting, the blue-stained top edges retaining strong, uniform hue, the fore and bottom edges mildly age-toned but otherwise clean. We would grade condition a “fine” if not for a circular embossed previous owner name at the lower right of the title page. The dust jacket is impressively complete, excepting only fractional loss at the flap fold extremities, and the orange hue is well-preserved, with only quite mild color shift to the spine. Light soiling, minor wear to extremities, and a vertical crease to the spine are flaws more than compensated by the color and completeness of the jacket, which is protected beneath a clear, removable, archival cover.
Neville Chamberlain, perhaps Churchill’s most vexing political opponent at the time Great Contemporaries was published, wrote to Churchill on 4 October 1937: “How you can go on throwing off these sparkling sketches with such apparent ease & such sustained brilliance… is a constant source of wonder to me.” Naturally, in the course of sketching the character of his contemporaries Churchill necessarily reveals some of his own character and perspective.
Churchill's portrait of T.E. Lawrence, published here just a few years before the Second World War, might well have been written about the author rather than by him: "The impression of the personality of Lawrence remains living and vivid upon the minds of his friends, and the sense of his loss is in no way dimmed among his countrymen. All feel the poorer that he has gone from us. In these days dangers and difficulties gather upon Britain and her Empire, and we are also conscious of a lack of outstanding figures with which to overcome them. Here was a man in whom there existed not only an immense capacity for service, but that touch of genius which everyone recognizes and no one can define." (Great Contemporaries, p.164)
Churchill's piece about Hitler can be a shock to the modern ear, as it underscores his ability to write a balanced appraisal of his subject while expressing his earnest desire to avoid the war that he would fight with such ferocious resolve only a few years later. There is a reason this book has seen many subsequent editions in the intervening years. It was written with what has been called "penetrating evaluation, humor, and understanding."
While some of the subjects of Churchill's sketches have receded into history, many remain well-known and all remain compellingly drawn. This is as engaging a read today as it was in 1937.
Reference: Cohen A105.1.d, Woods/ICS A43(a.3), Langworth p.178. Item #007432