One of the joys of searching a database is serendipitous discovery. Since November 30th is the birthday of Winston Churchill, I was poking around looking for something to write about him. Imagine my surprise when I started reading that Winston Churchill played “an important part in catalyzing reform behavior in his adopted state of New Hampshire” just over a century ago. The state legislature was then very much under the thumb of corporate interests until the best-seller author…
…ah, I see your confusion. I shared it. Not that Winston Churchill, the British statesman, who was born in 1874, but the once more famous American novelist of the same name, who was born in 1871.
In terms of memory and historical reputation, it must absolutely stink to share a name with someone who rises to fame after you do. Does anyone today know of the American Winston Churchill? His historical novel Richard Carvel was a huge phenomenon when it was published in 1899, selling two million copies at a time when the U.S. population was only around 76 million. The book launched Churchill into a “tremendous vogue with the reading public between 1900 and 1918” wrote Warren I. Titus in American Literary Realism.
But his fall was as rapid as his rise. Fashion in fiction is fickle. Assessing his fall in reputation, Titus noted that Churchill, even before his death in 1947, was already largely “forgotten except by those who recalled his books from their earlier reading experience.”
The two unrelated Churchills, close contemporaries across the Atlantic, knew of each other and corresponded. They shared some similarities: both served in their respective militaries; both were amateur painters; and, of course, they both wrote. The American Churchill wrote a dozen novels. The British Churchill only wrote one novel, concentrating instead on journalism and history, for which he won the Noble Prize in Literature in 1953. In deference to the American Churchill’s seniority, the British Churchill published under “Winston S. Churchill.”
Both Churchills dabbled in politics as well. The American Churchill served a couple terms in the New Hampshire State Legislature and unsuccessfully ran as the Progressive candidate for Governor of that state in 1912. The British Churchill, twice Prime Minister of the UK, had a little more success in the political arena.