Susanna J. Sturgis   Martha's Vineyard writer and editor
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Happy Birthday, T.E.L.

August 15, 2005

That would be T. E. Lawrence, born on August 15, 1888, or, in some accounts -- including the biographical summary compiled by editor Malcolm Brown for The Selected Letters, which is sitting on my lap -- August 16.

Thomas Edward Lawrence was known to his family as Ned, to his comrades in the Arab Revolt of 1916-18 as Aurens (various spellings), briefly to his RAF mates as John Hume Ross, then for the last dozen years of his life as T. E. Shaw. He was, and still is, widely known as "Lawrence of Arabia." Lawrence of Arabia and T. E. Lawrence are inseparable, but they aren't the same. John Hume Ross and T. E. Shaw attempted to sever the connection, but with mixed success, even in the man's lifetime. Since his death, on May 19, 1935, Ross and Shaw have been all but forgotten. So Lawrence it is.

T. E. Lawrence has been my #1 hero since I was nine years old. I hasten to add that I turned nine in June 1960, nearly three years before David Lean's film Lawrence of Arabia was released in the U.S. The immediate cause was a young people's biography, part of the Landmark series to which my parents had subscribed me, also called Lawrence of Arabia and written by Alistair Maclean. Maclean was already famous for writing The Guns of Navarone, but I didn't know that. Why did a guy who'd been dead 25 years and whose World War I exploits were only dimly remembered so capture the imagination of a nine-year-old schoolgirl in the Boston suburbs? Damned if I know. As to why he's continued to be my lodestar for the four and a half decades since -- I have plenty of insights and speculations about that, but no time to explore them in writing. Yet.

Around the same time, I was developing a rather precocious interest in the Middle East, thanks to a couple of school projects, but my paternal grandmother, Rosamond, played a decisive role. She lived a mile away, my family often went to her house for Sunday dinner, and one day while climbing around her small, book-lined den I found copies of Seven Pillars of Wisdom and its abridgment, Revolt in the Desert. I went for the real thing and thus became one of the rare ten-year-olds to read Lawrence's masterwork, which had black-and-white reproductions of paintings Augustus John did for the original, very limited edition prepared under Lawrence's own supervision. I probably didn't understand more than half of it. It did provide a trove of vocabulary words that impressed my fifth-grade teacher. Since I reread it almost yearly for the next several years, all the while learning more about the historical context, the political aftermath, and (most elusive) the psychological underpinnings, eventually I learned a lot.

In April 1963, my grandmother took me to see Lawrence of Arabia at a first-run movie theater in Boston. The rest of my family went to see, I think, How the West Was Won. Whatever chance there had been that I would get over T. E. Lawrence was gone, gone, gone. Before I stopped counting, I had seen the movie, in movie houses, 31 times. By then the butchered version was circulating; I hated it, but for years I bought tickets to see it, because what choice did I have? When the director's cut was released on video, I bought it, even though I didn't (still don't) have either a VCR or a TV. For a long time it was the only video I owned. (Among its few companions these days is A Dangerous Man, subtitled "Lawrence After Arabia," with Ralph Fiennes as Lawrence and Siddig al Fadil as Feisal.) Many people found Lawrence of Arabia mystifying because they hadn't a clue about the Ottoman Empire, the military significance of the Suez Canal, the Sykes-Picot agreement, the Balfour declaration, or even World War I. As a teenager, I probably bored a lot of them silly (and pissed some of them off) by explaining everything they needed to know to understand the movie.

All through high school and into college (I started off as an Arabic major), I studied Arab history, Islam, European imperialism, and contemporary Middle Eastern politics, including the events leading up to the founding of Israel and the tragedy that has been unfolding ever since. T.E. was rarely at the center of my studies, but he was never absent either. Halfway through college, I gave up my formal Arabic studies and my ambition to go into the Foreign Service or maybe work for an international agency. By then I had no desire to ever work for the U.S. government, and I had grave doubts about being a U.S. WASP mucking around in a region that my people had so thoroughly screwed up. I transferred schools, changed majors (to history), and took off on a different trajectory.

T.E. didn't go away. He pointed me toward books like Edward Said's Orientalism and toward all sorts of border-crossers. Gradually it dawned on me that, despite my relatively homogeneous ethnic background and my lack of geographical adventurousness, I was a border-crosser myself. (I just posted to the Essays & Articles section of this website a speech I gave in 1997: "Notes of a Border-Crosser.")

For several years now I've had posted on my refrigerator a poster I organized around these sentences, from Seven Pillars of Wisdom:

"In my case, the effort for these years to live in the dress of Arabs, and to imitate their mental foundation, quitted me of my English self, and let me look at the West and its conventions with new eyes: they destroyed it all for me. At the same time I could not sincerely take on the Arab skin: it was an affectation only. Easily was a man made an infidel, but hardly might he be converted to another faith."

Unflinching and ultimately heartrending words, I think, and a better clue to the man's life, and its significance today, than any pop psychoanalysis.


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