London: Thornton Butterworth Limited, 1937. First edition, first printing. Hardcover. This is an unusually clean and bright jacketed copy of the British first edition, first printing. 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 copy is fine in a very good dust jacket. The blue cloth binding is superlative – immaculately clean, square, and tight, with deep, unfaded blue hue, and sharp corners. We note only a touch of wrinkling at the spine ends and perhaps the slightest hint of shelf wear to the edges. The contents are likewise immaculate – improbably bright and crisp with no spotting and no previous ownership marks. The blue top stain remains evenly dark. Differential toning to the dust endpapers corresponding to the dust jacket flaps confirms what the magnificent binding already testifies – that this copy has spent life jacketed. The book feels unread.
There were six printings of the first edition between October and December of 1937, but from the second printing on there are differences to the dust jackets, rendering the first printing dust jacket elusive. This particular first printing dust jacket is quite elusive thus. The dust jacket is unclipped, retaining the original lower front flap price, and nearly complete, with loss confined to the joint and flap fold extremities. The vivid orange color remains bright on the flaps and faces, with only the jacket spine showing minor toning, as well as some superficial scuffing. The dust jacket is protected beneath a removable, clear, 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.a, Woods/ICS A43(a.1), Langworth p.178. Item #007688