London: Thornton Butterworth Limited, 1937. First edition, second printing. Hardcover. This is the British first edition, second printing, increasingly scarce thus with a clean, bright binding protected by its 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 second printing was issued in September 1937, the same month as the first printing, and is virtually identical in appearance. The binding and contents are identical with the sole exception of notation of the second printing on the copyright page. The second printing dust jacket faces, spine, and rear flap are identical to those of the first printing. Only the lower front flap text differs.
This is an exceptionally clean, near fine copy in a very good plus dust jacket. The blue cloth binding is impressively square, tight, clean, and unfaded with sharp corners. Only the faint suggestion of a vertical spine crease prevents our grading this copy as truly fine. The contents are even impressive – crisp and bright, entirely free of spotting, the blue-stained top edges retaining strong, uniform hue, the fore and bottom edges not only clean, but also showing virtually no age-toning. The dust jacket is unclipped, retaining the original lower front flap price, and impressively complete, excepting only fractional loss at the spine ends and flap fold extremities. The orange hue remains vividly bright, with no significant color shift between the flaps, faces, and spine. The jacket is also uncommonly clean and should stay thus, newly fitted with 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.c, Woods/ICS A43(a.2), Langworth p.178. Item #007701