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Perspective: Harold E. Raugh on Crawford Book and Aldington Point of View

Excerpt from Dr. Harold E. Raugh, Jr.’s review for The Middle East Journal, October 1, 2000, of Richard Aldington and Lawrence of Arabia: A Cautionary Tale, by Fred D. Crawford.

“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. Liddell Hart, in an attempt to alienate potential American readers, went so far as to charge that Aldington’s study was “communist inspired” (p. 101).

Public opinion slowly swayed in Aldington’s favor. His publisher, Collins, finally declared on 15 June 1954 that, “Whatever the faults of the book, it presents a very decided point of view, and the author is entitled to his point of view whether one agrees with it or not” (p. 104). After publication in January 1955 of Lawrence of Arabia: A Biographical Enquiry, Liddell Hart tried to coordinate and influence negative and abusive reviews of the book, but Aldington’s major points could not be refuted. Aldington’s book remains an indispensable milestone in Lawrence historiography.

Chapter seven, “His Brother’s Keeper,” enumerates the role of A.W. Lawrence in preserving and perpetuating the “Lawrence of Arabia” legend by all means, including the concealing and embargoing of compromising documents, withholding permission to quote, and erecting other obstacles. In the mid-1970s, A.W. designated Jeremy Wilson to be Lawrence’s “authorized biographer.” Since that time (and especially after A.W.’s death in 1991), Wilson has seemingly assumed, with the collaboration of the “Seven Pillars of Wisdom Trust,” the mantle of guardianship of Lawrence’s idealized reputation. According to Crawford, for perceived slights in various reviews and other commentaries, or “inaccuracies” in more recent Lawrence studies, Wilson has made numerous - and generally unfounded - objections, threats of legal action, and on at least one occasion demanded the forced ouster of a journal editor (pp. 165-67). Wilson has apparently never followed through with his threats of legal action, has failed to provide offered and requested substantiating documentation, and seemingly continues to denigrate Lawrence biographies that he does not like, agree with, or contradict his own version of the Lawrence canon.

The penultimate chapter, “Aldington and the Documents,” is a comprehensive and methodical evaluation and critique of Wilson’s “authorized biography” of Lawrence. Wilson’s biography generally did not, as boasted and anticipated, refute the controversies and questions raised by Aldington; indeed, Wilson “simply provides fuller detail of what we have known for some time but he does not resolve or even illuminate the more controversial issues” (p. 175). It seems that Wilson perceived his role as an historian to have been simply the categorical recounting of events, generally without assessment, interpretation, or evaluation. Wilson rejects or criticizes wholesale earlier works on Lawrence instead of trying to determine valid and useful information and evidence. The “authorized biographer’s” statements are (according to Crawford) occasionally unreliable, frequently not supported by documentary source material, at times contradictory, and indicate a heavy reliance on Lawrence’s own uncorroborated writings, “confusion” in statements, and “misdating” of letters. Aldington’s study was groundbreaking, a long-needed corrective to Lawrence hagiography, and its discoveries have held up exceedingly well-even to Lawrence’s ‘authorized biography.’”