Bookmarks Issue: 

The Life and Legend of Lawrence of Arabia

A-HeroMichael Korda, former editor in chief of Simon & Schuster, has written many best-selling books, including biographies of Dwight D. Eisenhower (Ike: An American Hero, 3.5 of 5 Stars Nov/Dec 2007) and Ulysses S. Grant (Ulysses S. Grant: The Unlikely Hero, 2004), popular histories (With Wings Like Eagles: A History of the Battle of Britain, 4 of 5 Stars Selection Mar/Apr 2008), self-help books, and novels.

The Topic: One of the most dashing and memorable characters to emerge from World War I, Thomas Edward Lawrence (famously nicknamed "Lawrence of Arabia" by the epic 1962 film) was a field archaeologist who had traveled extensively through the Ottoman Empire by the time hostilities escalated in 1914. His command of the Arabic language and his familiarity with the region secured him a post with British intelligence in Cairo, where he was instrumental in uniting and leading the Arab nationalists against the Turks--a role he was uniquely suited to fill, according to Korda. Not only did Lawrence successfully transform an undisciplined assortment of camel-mounted tribesmen into a fearsome guerilla army, he also pioneered "asymmetrical" warfare and helped to create three Middle Eastern nations.
Harper. 784 pages. $36. ISBN: 9780061712616

Boston Globe 4 of 5 Stars
"Korda has produced a readable (though terribly long) biography of a hero that manages not to be a heroic biography--a rare achievement. That's because he sees Lawrence ‘not just [as] a hero, a guerrilla leader, or a gifted strategist,' not just as a man with ‘a remarkable eye for the commercial development of what we would now call the third world,' but also as a complex figure with failings as large as his achievements." David M. Shribman

Dallas Morning News 4 of 5 Stars
"In Hero, Korda presents Lawrence's life in minute, fascinating detail. ... Hero will certainly not be the last of this genre, but Korda's extensive research and straightforward writing make this a valuable addition to the Lawrence library, a one-stop resource for all who are interested in this hero." Philip Seib

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars
"The result is an unexpectedly fresh, engagingly written biography that adds substantially to our understanding of this strange, contradictory, curiously admirable and compelling subject's life and contribution. ... What Korda accomplishes, beyond delivering a fascinating story well told, is to make the case for Lawrence not only as a protean figure in what we've come to call ‘asymmetrical warfare'--the phrase was actually employed by British strategists of his era--but also as a shrewd, quite humane diplomat." Tim Rutten

USA Today 4 of 5 Stars
"The lay reader sometimes feels as if he has stepped onto a biographical battlefield, with Korda devoting too much time to defending his hero against obscure, earlier depictions. But the story of T. E. Lawrence's life is one well worth reading, particularly for its insights about the history of the Middle East." Deirdre Donahue

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"Korda grippingly chronicles Lawrence's military exploits and shows us better than previous biographers how likeable and lively the man could be. ... It is well crafted and excellent in its depiction of T. E. Lawrence as a multi-dimensional figure." Jonathan Schneer

New York Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"The familiar voices of biographers like John E. Mack (who took a psychiatric look at Lawrence), Richard Aldington (who took a nastily debunking one) and those seeking a covert homosexual subtext in Lawrence's story are echoed in Mr. Korda's prose. But the strength of Hero lies in its ability to analyze Lawrence's accomplishments and to add something meaningful to the larger body of Lawrence lore." Janet Maslin

NY Times Book Review 3.5 of 5 Stars
"The author's admiration frequently comes in volleys: ‘physical courage, hardiness, cool judgment under fire,' ‘an outstanding shot, physically tireless, generous, absolutely fearless, gentle in manner.' Yet into this baggy but beguiling biography, Korda ... has also crammed the darker incarnations of Lawrence, the shy depressive, the tortured ascetic, the ‘odd gnome, half cad--with a touch of genius,' in the words of one of his companions behind Turkish lines." Ben Macintyre

Critical Summary

Despite its grand, hagiographic title, one of Hero's greatest strengths is its ability to represent Lawrence--"a scholar and warrior, an imperialist and supporter of Arab independence, a politician and rebel, a publicity seeker and recluse" (New York Times Book Review)--as a complex, multilayered figure. Korda gives a painstaking account of Lawrence's audacious exploits, extraordinary victories, and disheartening failures. He also dissects previous biographers' disagreements, confronts some of the most entrenched misconceptions surrounding Lawrence, and ultimately contributes to a greater understanding of Lawrence--no small feat given that nearly sixty biographies cover much the same ground. Though some critics objected to its length, Korda's extensive research, engaging prose, and fascinating subject will ensure that this newest biography receives a hero's welcome among readers.

Supplementary Reading

Seven Pillars of Wisdom A Triumph | Thomas Edward Lawrence (1926): Considered a classic work of military history and strategy, this highly readable memoir describes Lawrence's remarkable desert adventures during the Arab Revolt.