Academic journal article The Middle East Journal

Richard Aldington and Lawrence of Arabia: A Cautionary Tale

Academic journal article The Middle East Journal

Richard Aldington and Lawrence of Arabia: A Cautionary Tale

Article excerpt

Richard Aldington and Lawrence of Arabia: A Cautionary Tale, by Fred D. Crawford. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1998. 206 pages. Notes to p. 224. Bibl. to p. 255. Index to p. 263. $39.95.

British Army Lieutenant Colonel T.E. Lawrence was, after participation in the Arab Revolt during World War One, propelled veritably overnight from being an obscure military officer to a living legend with the glamorous sobriquet of "Lawrence of Arabia." This remarkable transformation was primarily the result of a series of romanticized lectures and slide-shows on the Palestine campaign presented to a war-weary public yearning for escape from the hecatombs of death and destruction on the Western Front. American journalist Lowell Thomas developed and delivered these travelogues, with Lawrence himself the eager source of frequently exaggerated and disingenuous information-although he publicly denied providing such material. After Lawrence's 1935 death, his "legend" was protected and perpetuated uncritically by his younger brother, A.W. Lawrence; by fledgling biographers and neophyte historians; and by other associates, admirers, and partisans who were willing to do almost anything to preserve intact the presumed infallibility of their hero's reputation.

The first significant challenge to the Lawrence legend came in the 1950s from novelist, poet, translator, and critic Richard Aldington, a Great War Western Front veteran. Aldington had no predisposition towards Lawrence or his writings and certainly no axe to grind, but the more research he conducted the more he became convinced that Lawrence was "a vainglorious liar, a self-advertising poseur, and a charlatan" (p. 2). He ascertained that, in addition to Lawrence's significant but unheralded contributions to the Thomas travelogues, Lawrence had assisted and provided information to Thomas (With Lawrence in Arabia [New York: Century, 1924]), Robert Graves (Lawrence and the Arabs [London: Cape, 1927]), and B.H. Liddell Hart (`T.E. Lawrence': In Arabia and After [London: Cape, 1934]), as they prepared their Lawrence biographies. As a result, during his lifetime Lawrence was able to establish and institutionalize "his own version" of the Arab Revolt and his self-aggrandized role in it.

Aldington, during the course of his research, also came to believe strongly that Lawrence had used his literary skills (through newspaper articles and books) for the base purposes of self-advertisement and to advance, rather than the truth, his own political agenda. Moreover, Lawrence while in military service in the Middle East seemed to have been a security risk, and may have caused friendly casualties by such actions as "inventing" portions of map sheets of the Sinai he was tasked to draw. Lawrence's embellishments, distortions, and just plain lies infuriated Aldington, whose project evolved from being a "biography" to a "biographical enquiry."

News of Aldington's research and results, especially his discovery of Lawrence's illegitimacy (known only to a few of Lawrence's closest friends and admirers)-and of his intent to publish a book debunking numerous aspects of Lawrence's life and purported achievements-spread quickly through literary and related circles. Lawrence partisans (known as the "Lawrence Bureau," a pun on Arab Bureau, in which Lawrence had served in the Middle East) quickly mobilized and began a fierce opposition to Aldington. Coordinated by Liddell Hart (who was probably more concerned for his own reputation and credibility than anything else), attempts, including denial of access to source materials, withholding permission to quote from Lawrence publications and papers, threats of libel and copyright infringement, and pressure upon the publisher by other prominent authors, were made to suppress Aldington's work. Moreover, letters were written to various newspapers and periodicals attempting to discredit Aldington and his book even before it was published. …

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