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Letters of a Man of Legend

ISSUE:  Summer 1939

The Letters of T. E. Lmvrcnce. Edited by David Garnett. New York: Dou-bleday, Doran and Company. $5.00.

The spate of reminiscences which brought notoriety to T. E. Lawrence has led to his elevation as perhaps the most shadowy, romantic figure of present times. Hence “The Letters of T. E. Lawrence,” edited by David Garnett, has a double appeal, since the book not only contains the private papers of a man of some historical and perhaps literary importance, but it also gives the best key yet published to a character of strange and compelling interest.

Too often lately the death of a person who has aroused the public appetite for sensationalism is the signal for a rush into print. Colonel Lawrence suffered from journalistic prying during his lifetime, and his death, like that of another Lawrence, released the printing presses. Now, after a more decent interval, we have this collection of his letters, selected and edited by his friend David Garnett, and authorized by his brother as well as by the trustees of the Lawrence Fund. The character of the editor and the auspices under which the letters are presented to the public is a sufficient guarantee of the purpose of this collection. The object has evidently been to substitute this volume for a biography, with the laudable purpose of allowing Lawrence to speak for himself; to this end the editor has adopted the chronological method and has prefaced the major divisions with brief narratives of Lawrence’s life. Notes occasionally detail the circumstances under which individual letters were written, and references are consistently identified. Selections are given from obscure pieces which Lawrence printed, such as articles from The Arab Bulletin.

That the intention is so largely biographical—indeed, almost autobiographical—must be emphasized, for the volume does not purport to be a complete and uncensored collection of letters for their own sake. The biographical purpose has led Mr. Garnett to print only a selection of Lawrence’s cor-respondence (583 letters are selected), and has permitted] him to omit repetitious passages. The extent and place of the omissions is always carefully noted, and this editorial dis- j cretion has improved the interest for those who are chiefly j concerned with the running account of Lawrence’s life. 1 There is another class of omissions which has been forced on j the editor by considerations of courtesy and necessity. Some j owners have apparently refused to permit certain letters to 1 be printed in view of personal matters contained in them; I moreover, the editor himself has deleted a number of personal I references which would have caused pain to living persons. :| The reader of the collection must accept this censorship as a ] penalty for the timeliness of the work, no matter how much j he may deplore the scanting of Lawrence’s prejudices and more forthright opinions. !

With these restrictions understood, the reader will find in the work a story of absorbing interest. Lawrence’s years in j Arabia are not very full in letters, although a number of his j comments, combined with the editor’s abstracts from official I documents and occasionally from unpublished parts of “The Seven Pillars of Wisdom,” aid considerably in illuminating Lawrence’s published accounts of the Arabian cam- j paign. It is in the after-years least known to the public that I the tension rises, the collection grows to be an intensive character study, and little by little the fascination of the man catches hold upon the reader. A comparison to the especial ] fascination exercised by Hamlet may seem too pedantic or too profane, but on a relative scale Lawrence’s letters will gain the same hold. Posterity may decide, perhaps after the publication of the complete “Seven Pillars,” that this work needs to be done again in a more objectively complete form; until that event, Mr. Garnett’s selection of letters is probably as inclusive as is necessary, and is therefore heartily welcome.


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