STANLEY WEINTRAUB, published his first biography, about Lawrence of Arabia’s postwar years, in 1963. Since then he has been writing about other notable lives, and about wars, from the rebellion in America to Korea, with many of his books combining both aspects. Before beginning his writing career, he earned a Bronze Star in Korea as a young Army officer. He has published books about the American Revolution, the American Civil War, World War I, the Spanish Civil War, World War II, and the Korean War, as well as biographies of American and English figures of political, cultural and military significance. A former Guggenheim Fellow, Stanley Weintraub is Evan Pugh Professor Emeritus of Arts and Humanities at Pennsylvania State University.
1. How did you become interested in military history?
As a boy in the 1930s I collected bubble-gum “war cards.” I still have nearly 200 about the Japanese conquests in China, the Italian invasion of Ethiopia, and the Spanish Civil War. When I was 10 I even began, in school copybooks, a history of the emerging world war, but that was aborted when I realized that the attempt was beyond me. A dozen years later I was in a real war, as an Army officer in Korea, earning a Bronze Star. For me publishing about war really began with books about the postwar Lawrence of Arabia [Private Shaw and Public Shaw: A Dual Portrait of Lawrence of Arabia and George Bernard Shaw, 1963] and “my war” [The War in the Wards, 1964]. Since then I’ve written about the American Revolution, the Civil War, both world wars, and more about Korea.
2. What drew you to writing this book?
Research on the 1918 Armistice led me to a moving earlier moment when the shooting stopped: the 1914 Christmas Truce. That led to five further books about wartime Christmases. In continuing my World War I research, I found that Prime Minister David Lloyd George in mid-1917 summoned General Edmund Allenby and urged him to retake Jerusalem as a Christmas present for the British people, who were disillusioned after three years of war. The harsh desert campaign succeeded just in time. The recovery of the holy city after 500 years of Turkish rule even occurred on the first day of the festival of Hanukkah. I was hooked. Jerusalem was iconic in our culture. I have visited twice, and a piece of ochre “Jerusalem stone” is on my desk.
3. Does writing energize or exhaust you?
When research is extensive enough to organize the results into likely chapters there is an emotional “high” to begin writing. Not necessarily at the possible beginning of the narrative, but at a chapter opening that propels the keys. The back story—the flashbacks—will come. In my books I have begun at Whistler’s funeral, at Lawrence’s encountering Shaw, at Victoria’s Jubilee, at the “false armistice” in 1918, at MacArthur’s “Old Soldiers Never Die” address to Congress after his sacking. Whatever energizes the first pages is the initiative. Exhaustion comes at frustrating stoppages, at events breaking off, or in biographies when one must kill off a subject with whom one has lived so fully. That can evoke real tears.
4. What is your favorite period to write about?
My earliest research was on the Victorians and their era. Bernard Shaw called himself “an old Victorian” but long survived the queen. To me the Victorian dawn of invention, change, progress, and expectations for fruitful continuity ended abruptly not with her demise in 1901 but with the cataclysm of the war of 1914–1918. The fragile peace that followed was only an interval between world wars. My lasting interest, even at age 88, is that long Victorian afternoon, especially its unhopeful sunset. My newest book and several recent and unrelated essays continue that passion.
5. What kind of research do you do, and how much research do you do before you begin writing?
Technology and time have drastically altered research methods. When I wrote about the 1918 Armistice I could still interview survivors of that war, and I could examine letters and diaries of participants. I traveled long distances to archives—twice around the globe—to pursue documentation. After 49 years of teaching, now long passed, I have a legion of former students, fans of my books, and other valued resource persons to volunteer legwork. And of course the magical internet to summon up material not on library shelves or in accessible collections. E-mail has replaced postage. Photocopy has replaced pricey photostat. Long ago I often sent stamps to elicit prepaid replies. I used onion-skin paper to make copies. I resorted to expensive long-distance telephone. But I still rely on a sense of sufficiency to begin writing.
6. What’s next for you? What are you working on?
I am back to World War II. An abiding interest of mine has been Franklin D. Roosevelt, beginning with his entry into government as an energetic assistant secretary of the navy during World War I. Now I am working on his difficultly as president with the ambitious, autocratic Charles de Gaulle, known for his height as well as his hauteur as deux métres. My working title is Deadlock. I have accomplished enough research to have drafted a first chapter unlike anything else in print on this fraught relationship. I plan also to assemble published and unpublished pieces into a book about the British royals, beginning with George III. Age has slowed me, but writing is an activity in which I can indulge while sitting down. MHQ