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1lawrence of arabia and american culture the Making of a Transatlantic Legend

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In some ways Lawrence's pique was justified; he had been transformed into a matinee idol. But his contempt for Thomas was hypocritical. He had, after all, contributed as much as anyone to his robed warrior, oriental adventurer image. Before Thomas brought the Allenby-Lawrence lecture to England, Lawrence drew attention to himself, making a stir one evening in London by attending a dinner party in Arab dress. While assigned to Prince Feisal's delegation as adviser at the Paris Peace Conference, he occasionally wore Arab attire. He also collaborated with Thomas in the autumn and winter of 1919-192 0, helping him to prepare his lectures and

Chapter 3

Propaganda and Propagation
In the history of the world (cheap edition) I'm a sublimated Aladdin, the thousand and second Knight a Strand-Magazine strummer. 1
Lawrence to Colonel Stuart Newcombe 16 February 1920
In letters to friends during the early 1920s, Lawrence sometimes expressed his ambivalence about Lowell Thomas and the relentless publicity that had come from being associated with him. To novelist E. M. Forster Lawrence confided that, while he was disarmed by the American journalist's good intentions, he also resented him. Lawrence ended his letter to Forster with the plaintive postscript: "Have I deserved a Lowell Thomas?" In a letter to poet Edmund Blunden, Lawrence was blunter and less forgiving. "That poor purblind Lowell Thomas creature imagined by talking that he was doing me no harm (and making his fortune). The second possibility forced me to let him continue: and he drove me out of sight, that I might avoid the disgust of being the vulgar creature of his invention." 2
In some ways Lawrence's pique was justified; he had been transformed into a matinee idol. But his contempt for Thomas was hypocritical. He had, after all, contributed as much as anyone to his robed warrior, oriental adventurer image. Before Thomas brought the Allenby-Lawrence lecture to England, Lawrence drew attention to himself, making a stir one evening in London by attending a dinner party in Arab dress. While assigned to Prince Feisal's delegation as adviser at the Paris Peace Conference, he occasionally wore Arab attire. He also collaborated with Thomas in the autumn and winter of 1919-192 0, helping him to prepare his lectures and
articles and posing for more photographs. These are not the actions of a person shunning the public gaze. Lawrence's self-advertisement, however, went beyond being egotistical; it was calculated.


During the Arabian campaign, Lawrence had become deeply involved in the Hashemite Arab bid for independence. As early as 1916, however, he anticipated that England might renege on its wartime pledges to the Arabs. He came to believe that, as liaison officer between the Sherifian army and the British command, he had contributed to this betrayal. Lawrence thus sought desperately to vindicate himself, and he used whatever means at his disposal after the war to undermine the Sykes-Picot Agreement, which essentially divided up the ex-Ottoman provinces between France and England. Through Thomas, he could draw attention to Arab unionism and to the Hashemite struggle for self-rule in Syria and Mesopotamia (now Iraq).
Lawrence and Prince Feisal began during the winter phase of the peace conference to construct an alternative to French colonial rule of Syria and Lebanon. They found a vehicle in Article XII of Woodrow Wilson "Fourteen Points," which proposed self-determination for "national" groups that supported the Allied war effort. Wilson's doctrine supplied them with a rationale to seek American mandates in the region. Lawrence lobbied hard for U.S. intervention, scheduling meetings for Feisal with President Wilson and cultivating friendships with Americans, such as publisher F. N. Doubleday, in order to press his ideas on the U.S. delegation. His charm and romantic image, Stephen Bonsal, James T. Shotwell, and other Americans at the conference remembered, helped him to get their attention. 3
Arab hopes for postwar American intervention in the Middle East were momentarily raised when a commission, headed by Henry King and Charles Crane ( King-Crane Commission), went to Palestine and Syria in the spring of 1920 to assess public opinion for various mandates in the region. However, Wilson's utopian proposal for self-rule crumbled under the weight of British and French colonial aspirations. To reshape Europe and the Middle East was no longer within Wilson's reach in any case. When Henry Cabot Lodge launched his anti-Covenant campaign in the U.S. Senate to prevent American entrance into the League of Nations, Wilson's position at the peace conference was irrevocably undermined. With the American president unable to insist on adherence to his "fourteen points," such efforts as Lawrence's on behalf of the Hashemite Arabs quickly
became lost causes. France and England were free to distribute the spoils of war among themselves.
The Treaty of Versailles was signed on 28 June 1919 leaving important questions pertaining to the Middle East unsettled. Incompetence and miscalculation gave Turkish nationalists under the command of Mustafa Kemal (later Ataturk) the opportunity they needed to regroup and begin their War of Independence against the inter-Allied military occupation of Anatolia. The following year, the ex-Ottoman provinces of Syria and Mesopotamia also rose up against the new colonial administrators. The Turks and Arabs found themselves, as before the war, with common European enemies.
In March 1920, Syrian nationalists proclaimed themselves independent of France. A few months later, even though Syrian leaders agreed to treaty demands, France used tanks and artillery to crush their forces, occupy Damascus, and exile Prince Feisal. England was concerned about the mistreatment of Feisal by the French but no less hypocritical toward their recent wartime allies. In May, bloody rebellions occurred in Mesopotamia, then under British mandate and the arch-imperialist administration of the India Office. The Mesopotamian uprising proved to be an embarrassing and awkward affair for England. The British army was called in to suppress the same Arabs whom Lowell Thomas had romanticized as England's noble desert allies for millions of Britons.

Political settlement with the Hashemite Arabs became an important foreign policy issue in Britain throughout the rest of 1920. Prime Minister Lloyd George came under increased pressure to revamp Middle East policy and put an end to the costly conflict in Mesopotamia. Lawrence and other noted Arabists, such as Gertrude Bell, became prominent figures in a policy shift. Earlier, he had published articles on behalf of Arab independence in the London Times and Daily Telegraph. In the spring of 1920, finding his reputation again politically useful, he began another press campaign in London newspapers. One of the articles, Lawrence biographer Jeremy Wilson concludes, was prefaced by Thomas. 4

It is doubtful that Thomas understood much about the internecine political battles between the Foreign and India Offices, the imperialist intrigues of Whitehall, or the depth of Lawrence's involvement in Near Eastern politics. He had, however, been tutored by Lawrence during the fall of 1919. In his second set of articles for Asia magazine, published during the spring and summer of 1920, and in articles for London's Strand Magazine, it is evident that Lawrence was feeding Thomas information. The articles were potentially useful to Lawrence because they bolstered his attempts to apprise the British public of the situation in the Middle East and put pressure
on Lloyd George's government for change. Although most of the articles did not directly address the policy then under discussion, they kept Lawrence, and by association the Hashemite cause, in the public eye. As had his lectures during the fall of 1919, Thomas's spring 1920 Asia articles captured for a popular audience, especially through visual images, the Arab Revolt as Lawrence wanted it to be viewed, as a struggle against oppression and for national self-determination. 5
For instance, Thomas's article for the April 1920 edition of Asia, "The Soul of the Arabian Revolution," carried photographs whose inclusion was clearly designed to elicit sympathy for an oppressed people. One photograph depicted Bedouin children with rifles and bullet belts slung over their shoulders. Beneath the illustration was the caption:
BEDOUIN BOYS READY FOR THE TERRIBLE TURKS These Little Veterans of Many Raiding Expeditions Fought Beside Their Fathers in the Arabian War
Other photographs emphasized Anglo-Arab wartime comradeship, depicting British soldiers and Arab chiefs fraternizing or Arab regulars listening attentively to British officers:
A FRIENDLY GATHERING IN THE DESERT British Tommies and Bedouins Maintained Pleasant Relations
Even readers with short memories might have asked themselves why Tommies were bombing and strafing their recent Bedouin friends. One of the most graphic pictures Thomas used featured a poorly dressed and sun-baked Bedouin mother with a small child strapped to her back. The caption read:
BEDOUIN WOMAN WHO SAW SERVICE AT PETRA They Have Always Encouraged Their Men to Fight, But the Battle of Petra Was the First in Which They [women] Took Active Part
In his chronicle of the revolt, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Lawrence also emphasized the important role that women and Arab civilians played in several battles.
The August article, "Thomas Lawrence the Man," came the closest to being pure propaganda. It picked up Lawrence's story after the fall of Damascus and chronicled his efforts on behalf of the Arabs at the Paris peace talks. The article then discussed history of the Near East pertinent
to self-rule and laid out Lawrence's ideas for Arab independence. It ended with a description of Lawrence's return to civilian life as an Oxford scholar and man of letters. The essay, which mentioned Thomas's London meetings with Lawrence, reflected his collaboration. Various "secret" documents pertaining to British promises to the Arabs were summarized, including the damaging Sir Henry McMahon-King Hussein correspondence and the Sykes-Picot Agreement. The article included a direct quote from Lawrence approximately 1,500 words long that must have been dictated to Thomas. In this article Thomas was clearly Lawrence's mouthpiece.
Thomas's Asia articles probably did not have the same influence in the United States that his Strand articles had in England because the KingCrane Commission and American commitment to the Middle East had already been forgotten. The Senate had failed to ratify the Treaty of Versailles, and in March 1920 the vote for U.S. membership in the League of Nations failed again to get a Senate majority. The country settled into a period of isolationism, or at least noninterventionism, and American rhetoric for Arab self-determination faded away, along with popular interest in the League of Nations. In Britain, the influence Thomas's articles may have had is more difficult to ascertain. He was away in the United States and Australia lecturing during the critical spring of 1920, and his absence from the English stage may have hurt Prince Feisal's cause. But his articles at least helped Lawrence keep interest in the Arab issue alive until Winston Churchill, who was sympathetic to Arab self-rule, took over the Colonial Office in the autumn of 1920. One of his first actions was to persuade Lawrence to join his newly created Middle East Department as adviser on Arab affairs. Lawrence joined in January 1921, and by the spring of that year Feisal had become king of Iraq and his brother Abdullah ruler of Transjordan.


In January 1922, recoiling from the publicity that haunted him as "the Uncrowned King of the Arabs," and beginning to show indications of what today is called post-traumatic stress syndrome because of his war experiences, Lawrence decided to leave his position in the Middle East Department and to seek anonymity by joining the Royal Air Force (RAF). With the help of Winston Churchill and other influential friends, he was allowed to enter the RAF as a private soldier under the assumed name of John Hume Ross. Newspapers reported that he was sent abroad on an unspecified
mission when instead he completed the air force basic training course for recruits.
One reason Lawrence took this drastic action may have been financial. Having vowed to make no profit from his wartime work, he soon found himself unable to maintain the appearance of the public figure he had become. Bemoaning his celebrity status, he wrote to F. N. Doubleday, who since the Paris Peace Conference had became a regular correspondent: "It isn't that I hate being known--I'd love it--but I can't afford it; no one gets so victimized by well-meaning people as a poor celebrity." Like the celebrated American hero of the Argonne Forest, Sergeant Alvin York, who was too modest to profit from his hero status, Lawrence found himself, when the lights died down, suddenly without the means to maintain his stature. When he joined the Royal Air Force he claimed to be down to 15 pence. 6
Throughout the 1920s, after his new identity was discovered, Lawrence continued to spurn the rewards of fame. He refused jobs or appointments which were the outcome of his time in Arabia. He turned down lucrative offers for interviews and articles and refused to profit from sales of his books. Money that did come from his wartime experiences he gave to friends in need, artists, and charities, or used to produce the elaborate subscriber's edition of Seven Pillars of Wisdom, which he had begun writing during the peace conference.
The relationship between Thomas and Lawrence at this time is full of irony. While Lawrence was preoccupied with attempts to redress the "broken promises" to the Hashemite Arabs occasioned by the Sykes-Picot Agreement and contemplating joining the RAF, which he equated to entering a monastery, Thomas was becoming a celebrity in his own right and profiting from the Lawrence of Arabia story. He lectured about Lawrence throughout the world and also wrote two popular biographies about him during the 1920s. The first, With Lawrence in Arabia ( 1924), has gone through more than 100 printings. The second biography, T he Boys' Life of Colonel Lawrence ( 1927), was still in print in 1960. Reception of the latter varied widely. American newspapers, such as The Boston Transcript and New York World, gave it positive reviews, but a reviewer for the British periodical New Statesman found the book "indecent" and "ridiculously inaccurate." Nevertheless, The Boys' Life sold well, initiating a wave of biographies for adolescents about Lawrence which were a continual embarrassment to him. 7
For his transatlantic best-seller, With Lawrence in Arabia, Thomas drew on the same material he had used earlier for his Asia articles to tell "the
inside story of the war in the Land of the Arabian Nights." The eight articles, published between September 1919 and August 1920, totaled seventy pages. They had been based primarily on Thomas's Aqaba interviews with Lawrence's fellow officers in the field, on later discussions with Lawrence in London, and on The Arab Bulletin, which Thomas had had access to in Cairo. 8 As far as can be determined, he did not check further sources standard to the writing of biography, but he did not claim his book was either authorized or definitive. It was actually begun in London in 1919- 1920 and then hastily finished at his father's house upon his return to America from his world tour of the Allenby-Lawrence lectures early in 1924. In his autobiography, Thomas explains that he was "short of funds again and this time [he] turned his hand to writing." He felt there was finally "enough distance between [him and Lawrence], enough perspective" to "put the Lawrence story on paper." Reviewers considered Thomas's first biography of Lawrence to be history as well as popular adventure literature, and reviews were generally positive. The New York Times book review section ran a full-page spread under the title "The Manipulation of Islam." With Lawrence in Arabia was judged "an admirably well-poised history." 9
Because of the hagiographical narrative tone Thomas adopted and the many apocryphal statements he made about Lawrence, it is surprising that reviewers were not more critical. As in the Asia articles, Lawrence was presented in the biography as far more than an able British liaison officer. He became a super-hero around whom legend and mystery revolved, replete with a fabricated childhood resume appropriate for a world-class adventurer. He was introduced to the reader as a combination Huckleberry Finn-Napoleon Bonaparte child prodigy. On the one hand, he was a prankster and a wanderer who explored caves and "rafted" on the Thames River. As an Oxford undergraduate, he continued to climb trees and scale buildings. Thus, for his American audience, Thomas made Lawrence into a British Huck Finn. At the same time, he was portrayed for an English audience as a precocious student of military strategy. According to Thomas, Lawrence"never attended a single lecture at Oxford" but instead sat up all night poring over the military masters. He read Rameses, Xenophon, Caesar, Napoleon, Stonewall Jackson (an allusion for the American readers), and von Moltke among others, as if he were predestined to be a great general and biding his time at Oxford.
After establishing a background for later heroic behavior, With Lawrence of Arabia next chronicles the young Englishman's apprenticeship at the archaeological site of Carchemish before the war. Portrayed as the boyhero-archaeologist, Lawrence is shown gearing up for the Great Game
competition between European powers in the Near East. He impishly tricks German engineers building the Baghdad railroad by setting up drain pipes to resemble cannons. The engineers frantically cable Berlin that the "British were fortifying all the commanding positions." When the war begins, Lawrence, who speaks "faultless classic Arabic," unites the tribes of Arabia into an army 200,000 strong. He becomes "the leader of a hundred thrilling raids, creator of kings" and "world's champion train-wrecker." Finally, he is conferred the title of "Uncrowned King of the Arabs," a man "who had achieved what no sultan and no calif had been able to do in more than five hundred years." 10
The license with language and with fact that Thomas took in With Lawrence in Arabia has changed little from his earlier lectures and articles. If anything, Lawrence's exploits are even more exaggerated. By the time The Boys' Life was published in 1927, they are beyond the bounds of credibility. In a chapter entitled "From Oxford Student to Jungle Leader," Thomas has the British Museum send Lawrence on an expedition to Sumatra where "he had escapes from headhunters almost as thrilling as his adventures in Arabia." Thomas concludes this chapter: "We shall leave both the name of the island and the nationality of the scientists a mystery, because if the full story were to come out even at this late date it might result in trouble for several governments." The Sumatra adventure is perhaps the most extraordinary of fictions about Lawrence. No documentation exists that anything resembling this incident ever took place. Either Thomas made it up, or Lawrence perversely led him on. In his contribution to T. E. Lawrence by His Friends ( 1937), a festschrift for Lawrence, Thomas does not mention the story, although he does take the opportunity to defend himself against accusations that his biography had included "a number of yarns . . . which were really apocryphal." 11
Fabrications similar to the Sumatra adventure were also constructed in order to give Lawrence a heroic genealogy. Thomas made him a relative of Sir Henry and Sir John Lawrence "of Mutiny fame, pioneers of Britain's empire in India," and a descendant of Sir Robert Lawrence, an alleged companion of Richard Lion-Heart. It is quite possible that Thomas, as another Lawrence biographer Richard Aldington speculated, got the story of Sir Robert Lawrence from T. E. Lawrence himself. His father, Sir Robert Chapman, changed his name to Lawrence in order to raise a second family out of wedlock. Because of his illegitimacy, Lawrence might have wanted to construct a false genealogy for himself. This explanation is suspect, however, because Lawrence was naturally guarded about his illegitimacy. He probably would not have drawn attention to his background by con-
structing an ostentatious past, which would invite biographers or newspaper reporters to search it. Since Robert Graves dispelled this particular myth in his Lawrence and the Arabs ( 1927), biographers have not bothered to repeat it, except for Aldington who further discredited the Lawrence genealogy story. Either Thomas was misled by Lawrence or, as Robert Graves wrote somewhat disparagingly to Liddell Hart, he had been duped by Lawrence's younger brother Arnold when he "came calling for information at Polstead Road." It seems as likely that Thomas simply used his license as a biographer to link Lawrence to the Crusades. In so doing, he would have utilized a common convention in heroic literature and adventure fiction of elevating the protagonist by giving him a heroic genealogy. 12
Whatever the source of fabrications about Lawrence's family background and early life, Lawrence bears some responsibility for the propagation of misinformation. Thomas asked him to check the proofs, but he refused. How he came to feel about Thomas's biographies of him, especially The Boys' Life, is clear in his correspondence. He wrote to Graves in 1927: "Butter of the Lowell Thomas sort does not keep well; and its quotation at tenth hand is painfully rancid." In another letter he commented: "I am uncharitably hoping that Lowell Thomas has been driven off the shelves by your onset." Ironically, With Lawrence in Arabia had been a service to Lawrence. It forced him to publicly issue his own account of the Arab campaign. As he wrote to D. G. Hogarth in July 1923: "I hate the idea of selling [ Seven Pillars]. Yet, Lowell Thomas lurks still in the background, & if his book is the fulsome thing I expect, he will force the truth out of me. It might be better to get my blow in first." 13
Publication of With Lawrence in Arabia seems to have occasioned the final break in the symbiotic friendship between Thomas and Lawrence, although there may have been other reasons. As late as March 1923, Lawrence still wrote cordial letters to the Thomases wishing them well, but by the following year, correspondence between the two men had ceased altogether and Lawrence had grown quite bitter. To Charlotte Shaw, wife of Bernard Shaw and one of Lawrence's closest confidantes, he wrote after publication of Thomas's biography: " Lowell Thomas. He's a born vulgarian. It rankles my mind to be called proud names for qualities which I'd hate to possess and for acts of which I'm heartily ashamed." He explained further to American-born editor of the Daily Express R. D. Blumenfeld why he had come to "hate that Arabian business." It deprived him, he believed, of his prewar job, his name, his All Souls' Fellowship at Oxford, and an opportunity to make a fresh start after the war. 14
For several years, Lawrence had actively been seeking friendships with England's literary elite and striving to become a writer himself. When he learned With Lawrence in Arabia was going to be published, he anticipated that he would be embarrassed again by his past association with Thomas and so distanced himself as much as possible from him. After the Cairo Conference in 1921, he also no longer needed publicity to advance Feisal's position. Instead, public attention was an unwelcome and bothersome intrusion into his life. There seems little other explanation for Lawrence's abrupt change of attitude toward Thomas, although Thomas believed it might have been because Lawrence thought he was making so much money from the Arabia story. Years later he wrote to Liddell Hart:
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