Let us not allow this incident to blind us to the great qualities of Charles Lindbergh; he is, and always will be, not merely a school-boy hero, but also a school boy
In September 1938, Charles Lindbergh betrayed not only Harold Nicolson personally but Britain too. Not quite two months after the outbreak of war in Europe, Nicolson wrote this piece about him in the Spectator, 20 October 1939, page 15.
COLONEL CHARLES LINDBERGH has again been broadcasting to the American people. He urged them (as he had every right to do) not to repeal the Neutrality Acts; but he also abused Canada for entering the war on the ground that “as an American country” she should have remained neutral. This extension of the Monroe doctrine has caused surprise in the United States and rage in Canada. Even in this country there are those who contend that the respect which all classes showed for his privacy might have tempted him to prolong that privacy until the crisis in our national existence had been surmounted. I do not agree with this criticism. I have myself enjoyed much hospitality in Germany and in Italy, but do not feel precluded thereby from expressing my views upon the foreign policy of Herr Hitler or Count Ciano. I see no need to excuse Colonel Lindbergh; I want to explain him.
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His grandfather emigrated from Sweden; and on reaching the United States changed his name from Manson to Lindbergh. His father was a gentle, conscientious, almost fanatical Democrat. He represented Minnesota in Congress, and belonged to a small group of insurgents who fought the governing classes and Wall Street with might and main. As a child in Washington young Lindbergh spent much time listening to Victor Murdoch and other fiery radicals from the Middle West denouncing the whole political system of the United States and the “decadent Europeanism” of the Atlantic seaboard. Congressman Lindbergh died, and young Charles returned with his mother to the bleak farm in Minnesota and to the rigours of an impoverished boyhood. This tough existence was scarcely mitigated by the three terms which he spent in the engineering school at Wisconsin University. He entered the flying corps and became a pilot upon the St. Louis-Chicago route. At 10 p.m. on May 21st, 1927, he landed at Le Bourget, having flown the Atlantic alone.
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He returned to the United States in a blaze of glory. The American public had been deeply disappointed that the war had produced no romantic figure, and they seized upon their “lone eagle” as the embodiment of all that American youth should be. His charm, his boyishness and his modesty were everywhere acclaimed. He drove in triumph through New York; he was the guest of the President at the White House; he visited every State in the Union and was accorded the freedom of seventy-eight cities. He found himself a national, even a world-hero, at the age of twenty-five. His head was not turned by this apotheosis; it merely became completely stiff. He remained from then onwards the lad from Minnesota, the slim pilot upon the Chicago-St. Louis trail. The ideas which he had acquired from his father, or at the University of Wisconsin, were no whit changed by contact with men of great experience of or wide outlook upon world affairs; when wealth came to him, and with it the contact with gentler and more sensitive minds, he retained unaltered his simple habits of life; he never drank or smoked; his life was completely ascetic; he continued to prefer corned beef to terrapin; he continued to believe that virility was the highest human virtue and that anything which might sap that virility (such as art, literature or music) must be something un-American, some “poisonous honey stolen from France.” To this day he remains the fine boy from the Middle West.
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The strain was terrific. How was this young man to maintain his own simplicity, his own few clear-cut convictions, against the adulation of a whole continent? It was almost with ferocity that he struggled to remain himself. And in the process of that arduous struggle his simplicity became muscle-bound; his virility-ideal became, not merely inflexible, but actually rigid; his self-confidence thickened into arrogance; and his convictions hardened into granite. He became impervious to anything outside his own legend – the legend of the lad from Minnesota whose head could not be turned. Then came the murder of his child. The suffering which that dreadful crime entailed upon himself and those he loved did pierce the armour and enforce a change. He emerged from that ordeal with a loathing of publicity which was almost pathological. He identified the outrage to his private life, first with the popular Press, and then, by inevitable associations, with freedom of speech and then, almost, with freedom. He began to loathe democracy.
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We cannot blame him. The life which he and his were forced to lead became abnormal. He is not possessed of any sense of humour and was unable to add that lovely lubricant to the harsh grating of his machine. He could not buy a stick of chocolate without being mobbed in the drug-store; when he visited a theatre both he and Mrs. Lindbergh were forced to assume disguise. I remember him telling me a story which explained much. He told me that when his child had been kidnapped he received a clue which seemed at the time hopeful. He leapt into his car to follow it up. As he left Princeton he found four Press cars following in his wake. He stopped and addressed the leading car. “Yes, boys,” he said, “I have got a clue. But unless I am left alone to follow it up, there is no chance of success. I beg you as human beings not to follow me.” The younger newspaper men were embarrassed by this appeal. An older one answered for them. “Sorry, Colonel,” he said, “but business is business.” Lindbergh turned his car back to Princeton and drove home in white anger. “So you see,” he said to me, “I have cause to hate the Press.”
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It is not true to say that Colonel Lindbergh was ungrateful to the British Press and people for the reserve with which they treated him when he was living over here. He came to me one day in London and asked whether he could help in any way. “I’d like,” he said, with his shy smile, “to do something in return.” I introduced him to two Cabinet Ministers. Little came of his suggestion. He went to Germany. Like most aviators, Colonel Lindbergh is certain that any modern war will be settled in the air. He was shown all the more modern types of German aeroplanes and given full facilities to observe their pilots practising. He became convinced that both in men and pilots the Germans possessed the mightiest air-force in the world. There were other things that he admired. He liked their grim efficiency, he liked the mechanisation of the State, he was not at all deterred by the suppression of free thought and free discussion; he admired the conditioning of a whole generation to the ideals of harsh self-sacrifice; the rush and rattle of it all impressed him immensely.
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He would return to the little Kentish village where he lived. Slowly the smoke of burning weeds would rise against the autumn woods, and lazily the apples would drop in the orchard. His mind had been sharpened by fame and tragedy until it had become as hard, as metallic, and as narrow as a chisel. The slow, organic will-power of Britain eluded his observation; he regarded our indifference to the mechanical as a proof that we, as they say in Minnesota, were “incurably effete.” He liked England; he had no desire to see her murdered; he hoped that we should run away before Marshal Goering could catch us.
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Let us not allow this incident to blind us to the great qualities of Charles Lindbergh; he is, and always will be, not merely a school-boy hero, but also a school boy.
March: Belatedly, I’ve decided to add, as a comparison piece, Lindbergh’s reflections on England.
Sticklers will point out that the following paragraphs are highly unreliable. And they will be right. All autobiographies and journals, if they are published on the basis of their historical or literary merits, will be subject to judicious editing: but in most cases (especially where diaries and journals are concerned) the aim is to remove or compress much that is trivial or self-indulgent or quotidian or just downright dull.
Lindbergh’s autobiography, published two years after he died, was by its very nature the product of a more exotic editorial process.
In the weeks before Lindbergh died, he told his publisher, William Jovanovich, that he had begun a memoir, but had not finished it. The likelihood now was that he would run out of time. Would Jovanovich care to look over the manuscript and related papers?
Indeed he would. The draft, he discovered, was good but negligible. Of even more interest were the notes, sketches, earlier abandoned drafts, a fitfully maintained journal, scraps of philosophy and a memorandum of intent as to what he, Lindbergh, hoped a completed memoir would achieve. In other words, its design, its architecture.
So, soon after Lindbergh died in August 1974, Jovanovich set to work. He co-opted one helper: Judith Schiff, curator of the Lindbergh archive at Yale University. Another was thrust upon him: Charles’s widow, Anne Morrow Lindbergh.
Anne’s involvement complicated matters considerably: because of course Anne was keen to remove or amend anything that might compound the ambiguous nature of the Lindbergh legacy.
But in truth, even without Anne’s involvement, it would have been a task of Byzantine complexity. Beginning right back in the late 1920s, Lindbergh was continually rewriting his own history and recasting his opinions. The material was riddled with all sorts of contradictions and inconsistencies.
Students of the autobiographical genre will be familiar with this notion – and it’s a fascinating one in and of itself. The history of modern autobiography since Wordsworth’s The Prelude illustrates, if nothing else, the contingency of consciousness.
(Not, you understand, that I am offering the same sort of houseroom to Charles Lindbergh and William Wordsworth.)
But here’s the thing: most autobiographers, be they ever so unreliable on their own account, are usually able to affirm their own revisions.
Great swathes of Lindbergh’s testament were effectively written by Jovanovich or Schiff or Anne, sometimes using ingenious circumlocutions and editorial sleights of hand to weave together different accounts, often written decades apart, of the same events; sometimes paraphrasing as they saw fit.
The following is a case in point.
“The year and a half I spent in England left me with no desire to return for other than visits. I was impressed by the great traditions of the British and by their stability and laws and their sense of justice. The family summers at Long Barn were among the most wonderful summers of my life. I valued highly the friendships I made within a people who through commerce, Christianity and conquest had established the greatest empire ever to exist on earth. But there was a sense of heaviness of life in England that pressed like a London fog. It was as though the Englishman’s accomplishments, century after century, had become a cumulative burden on his shoulders until his traditions, his possessions and his pride over-weighed his buoyancy of spirit. I felt that England, aged, saw not her greatness year by year. She was satisfied with her empire and a legal status quo enforced by her warships’ guns. It was as though her desires blocked out the knowledge of her mind that life is not stabilised long by conquest, and that wings fly over land and sea and gun batteries.”
“I wondered whether the temperament of the English people was compatible with the rising tempo of other Western countries’ life. For it seemed more attuned to ship and sail than to wings and the speed of aircraft.”
So it had come to pass. Exit, stage right, a weeping King, led by his belt buckle. Exit, stage left, a bruised bruiser of a Prime Minister, supernumerary, a worked-out Warwick, a provincial kingmaker needed no longer now the King was unmade. And in his place, stepping into the Premier spotlight, a man of quiet confidence, a man who had always known this moment would come and who was utterly assured as to its rightness: a conceited man, a man, in other words, well-practised in mastering conceit. Scrubbed, pressed, immaculate in a wing collar. A stickler, a grey man with a salt and pepper moustache: and yet, for all that, a man who’d almost succeed in convincing you there was a twinkle, a mischievousness behind the bombastic façade. Chamberlain, in short; Chamberlain plain.
It was like the denouement to a History Play. Or, who knew, the opening scene of its First Act.
He stepped right over to the lip of the stage and stood there, scanning to left and to right, as if to take the measure of every single member of his audience. And then it seemed as if he were about to strike a dramatic pose. Looking up now, uppish, his eyes fixed on the back row of the gods, it seemed possible that at any moment he might shape a definitive gesture; his hand might shoot up and he’d clutch at an essence in the empty air, destiny perhaps, and pull it passionately to his breastbone in his fist.
But of course this gesture, the gesture of all great dictators, did not come. He merely stood there, the faintest suggestion of a smile playing on his lips. There were a few scattered coughs from the darkest depths of the auditorium; but not a pin dropped. And the more he stood there in the spotlight, inviting you to take him in, Chamberlain plain, the more you were aware of motes of dust dancing in the column of lit air that isolated him from the darkness.
Motes, like microbes, like a swarm of tiny insects. They somehow made him seem moth-eaten.
And behind him, lit only by their leader’s reflected glory, his cabinet. The sort of supporting cast of which only a Caesar might dream: Hailsham, Halifax, Simon, Hoare, Eden, MacDonald, Hore-Belisha, Inskip. Even Harold was there, to the very back of this tableau.
Opening section of Book 8 of Flying Over Ruins, a project currently hurtling towards its ultimate destiny at a glacial pace