Utterly Useless Information
If useless information were a novel, this would be War & Peace
When I started this newsletter, I noted I would sometimes include items I find intriguing, for whatever reason, but which are of no use or value whatsoever.
This is one such item. I don’t know why I love it, and yet I do. But I must warn you that it is utterly unimportant. And utterly useless.
Still with me?
(Why? Never mind.)
A while ago, I bought a series of books called Our Times. It was a sensation when it was published in the late 1920s and early 1930s. (Thank you, paid subscribers, for the steadily growing smell of musty books in my office. I should note, however, that my wife, who does not share my delight in the smell of musty books, is somewhat less grateful for your contribution.)
Written by journalist Mark Sullivan, Our Times was an ambitious attempt to explain how the United States had changed between 1900 and 1925, a period of economic, social, and technological change that may have been swifter and more profound than any other quarter-century in American history. (I may write something about Sullivan’s series, as it was daringly innovative for the time and is still illuminating, in ways both intentional and not.)
Sullivan begins by setting a baseline in the 1890s, a period he knew from personal experience as he was born in 1874. That decade, he writes, saw enormous growth in American publishing. A big reason? Copyright law was reformed.
Before the International Copyright Act of 1891, American publishers could watch what English books were successful, and then print them in America without the expensive royalty arrangements involved in the case of American authors. A New York publisher testified before a Senate committee that “the effect of absence of international copyright on the opportunities of American authors to get into print is most disastrous. I have unused manuscripts in my safe and have sent back manuscripts which ought to have been published. The market would not support them.” A Boston publisher testified: “For two years I have refused to entertain the idea of publishing an American manuscript.” After the passage of the new law, in 1891, the effect “in encouraging the production of American rather than of foreign books has been little less than marvellous.”
Set aside the America-centric nature of that passage and what it describes is industrial-scale theft: American publishers were printing British books and not paying the authors. That wholesale robbery seems not to have bothered Sullivan or any other American. But the effect was to make it far more expensive to publish American authors — the wretches expected to be paid! — and this reduced the number of American books by American writers. And that was unfortunate.
Happily, the International Copyright Act of 1891 put American authors on a level playing field. At the same time, Sullivan writes, “there was in the nineties an expansion of national self-consciousness, a new spirit in our broadly national life….” The result was a great shift away from the British fare that had dominated book shops to American works.
Sullivan listed the the six books most widely read in the United States in December, 1895 — including The Second Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling — and noted they were all written by Brits. In the same month four years later, all six were American authors. Sullivan listed them:
Janice Meredith …………………………………………… Paul Leicester Ford
Richard Carvel ………………………………………………Winston Churchill
When Knighthood Was In Flower …………………..Charles Major
David Harum…………………………………………………..Edward Noyes Westcott
Via Crucis……………………………………………………….F. Marion Crawford
Mr. Dooley in the Hearts of His Countrymen……Finley Peter Dunne
You can probably guess where I did a spit-take.
Did Mark Sullivan actually call Winston Churchill an American?!
Granted, Churchill’s mother was American. But did Sullivan actually use that slender thread to appropriate someone who, at the time Sullivan wrote that, was not the Great Man of History we know, but was, nonetheless, a major figure in British politics?
But then there was the title of the book. Richard Carvel. Never heard of it. And I’ve got plenty of Churchill trivia stuffed in my brain. Plus it’s a novel. Churchill did write one novel when he was young, I recalled, but that ain’t it.
Confusion descended upon me like a fog from Parnassus and I was left in a quite considerable state of befuddlement … That’s how I felt as written by Charles Major, the author of When Knighthood Was In Flower.
Or to put it in the language of Twitter in 2022: Winston Churchill?! WTF, Mark Sullivan?!?
But really I shouldn’t swear at the long-dead Mr. Sullivan. No, I must thank him. For he compelled me to dig deeper, and in doing so to discover the most wonderful utterly useless knowledge I now possess.
At the end of the 19th century, and the beginning of the 20th century, there was not one famous Winston Churchill. There were two.
The other Winston Churchill was indeed American.
Winston Churchill, born 1871, graduated from the United States Naval Academy in 1894 but decided to become a writer and soon resigned from the Navy. In 1895, he was appointed editor of Cosmopolitan (it was a major literary magazine in that era). A year later, he quit to become a novelist. He was an almost immediate success — thank you, International Copyright Act of 1891 — and his novel Richard Carvel sold two million copies in a country with less than a quarter of the present population. This made Churchill quite rich and, for reasons unknown, he stopped writing and effectively withdrew from public life in 1919. He was still well known when Mark Sullivan was writing but he and his books faded from collective memory. He died in 1947.
The British Winston Churchill, meanwhile, was born in 1874, graduated from the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, soon quit the military to become a writer … but then veered off into politics and the rest is history.
Now, I know what you’re thinking.
“Yes, that is utterly useless,” you are thinking. “But is it really ‘wonderful’? Mildly curious, perhaps. Something to inflict on the person next to you at a boring dinner party, certainly. But it hardly rises to the level of sheer perverse obscurity needed to elevate completely useless information to the status of a wonder.”
And you are right.
What I have written so far is not the most wonderful utterly useless knowledge I now possess.
It is merely the amuse-bouche in advance of the great roast beast of uselessness I shall now serve:
On June 7, 1899, the British Winston Churchill who would one day save civilization from Adolf Hitler (born 1889, the 10-year-old future Führer was in school on that day learning how to read, write, and rage) wrote a letter to the American Winston Churchill.
Mr. Winston Churchill presents his compliments to Mr. Winston Churchill and begs to draw his attention to a matter that concerns them both.
Suitably droll. But you can see why it isn’t in any of the many collections of Churchill’s wit and wisdom.
The British Winston Churchill goes on to congratulate the American Winston Churchill on the success of his novel, Richard Carvel, but notes that as the former is, like the latter, a writer, some confusion may arise among readers. Indeed, the British Winston Churchill was spurred to write the letter because he had started to receive congratulations for the success of his novel — he had published one a year earlier and it was no roaring success — only to realize the congratulations were for the American’s novel.
Mr. Winston Churchill will no doubt recognize from this letter — if indeed by no other means — that there is a grave danger of his works being mistaken for those of Mr. Winston Churchill.
The British Winston Churchill then informs the American Winston Churchill that in order to reduce the risk of confusion he will henceforth use the name “Winston S. Churchill” in all his writing. And he did.
That is why there is an “S” in Winston S. Churchill.
And there it is: The most wonderful utterly useless knowledge I now possess.
Ordinarily, I would drop the microphone here and walk away, leaving the reader stunned, astonished, and thrilled. Or merely stunned.
But I really should give credit to the person who did the legwork that brought me such joy: Warren Dockter is an historian who published a paper suitably entitled “The Tale of Two Winstons” in the Autumn, 2011 edition of The Historian.
Please do have a read because I have truncated the story considerably. In particular, I have omitted that when the British Winston Churchill later went on a speaking tour of the United States, he met the American Winston Churchill. Endless drollery ensued. I mean, really endless. Apparently they never got tired of grandly addressing each other as “Mr. Winston Churchill” and chortling. It gets annoying.
But not Mr. Warren Dockter’s essay. It’s quite good. Please do have a read.
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