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The John Buchan Society    

No 22 / Spring 2000


A Buchan cartoon? [Reuters caricature of JB]

Walter Scott, Julius Caesar, Flambard and Prince Anatole: JB at Elsfield, 1932, by David Daniell [paper at the JB Soc Conference, July 1999]

John Buchan's Roman Biographies, by James T Chlup [on Julius Caesar and Augustus, in context of modern scholarship]

John Buchan at Milton Academy, by Michael Redley [circumstances and implications of Buchan's War Memorial Lecture at Milton Academy, MA, October 1924]

Does Canada still remember its literary Governor-General?, by J William Galbraith [survey of modern Canada's regard for Lord Tweedsmuir's legacy]

Notes and Queries

Dorothy L Sayers [DLS citing Buchan in her diary (1932) and in Gaudy Night (1935)]

Lady Tweedsmuir in Canada [extract from diary of Emily Carr (1937)]


John Buchan at Milton Academy
Michael Redley

John Buchan delivered the War Memorial Foundation lecture at Milton Academy Boys' School in Massachusetts on 16 October 1924. The Academy, a fee-paying school established in 1798, flourishes still. Buchan's visit to Milton, part of the first visit he paid to North America, has been mentioned only briefly in the printed sources, although it was an episode of some importance in his own life. This article describes the circumstances, and then explores some of its implications

In June 1922 the authorities at Milton Academy discussed how to honour the memory of its alumni, twenty-two in number, who had died in action in the Great War. The Trustees of the Academy wanted a living memorial, not something 'static or finished' like a statue or a stained glass window, to reflect the aspirations of a living institution. They envisaged a memorial which would challenge future generations to honour the hope of those who had died that their sacrifice 'would count for the advancement of civilisation'. A commemorative plaque by a sculptor from New York expressing what they had in mind showed a fallen torch-bearer holding up his torch to a relay rider, with, underneath, the inscription 'The cause shall not fail'. It was decided to embody this thought in a permanent foundation which would fund an annual series of lectures at the Academy to address 'the responsibilities and opportunities attaching to leadership in a democracy'. The guest speakers were to be people of 'preeminent ability and international reputation in statesmanship, professional research or commercial administration' (Milton Graduates Bulletin 1922).

The Academy's choice as inaugural speaker for the new foundation fell upon John Buchan. Buchan was not then an eminent figure with an international reputation in the way many of his successors as foundation lecturers were to be. True, he was a writer with a certain following in North America. His readership had grown substantially there, as it did in Britain, with the publication of his wartime novels, Greenmantle and Mr Standfast. The American references in them were a deliberate attempt to interest American readers in what he had to say. A popular novelist was not, however, an obvious choice as the Academy's memorial lecturer, particularly to inaugurate the series. Buchan was selected largely on the strength of his four-volume A History of the Great War, which had appeared to good reviews in the United States in November 1922. The letter of invitation to him from the headmaster referred to its closing paragraphs, in which Buchan described in moving words the betterment of the world which would emerge from the sacrifice of a generation of young lives

The war was a vindication of the essential greatness of our common nature, for victory was less by genius in the few than by faithfulness in the many. Every class had its share, and the plain man, born in these latter days of doubt and divided purpose, marched to heights of the heroic unsurpassed in simpler ages. In this revelation democracy found its final justification, and civilisation its truest hope. (Buchan 1922, vol IV, 443-4)

No words, wrote the headmaster to Buchan, could better have expressed the spirit in which Milton's War Memorial had been established. 2

Ferris Greenslet, Buchan=s American publisher and no mean judge himself of English style, told Buchan than he thought these paragraphs amongst the greatest in English prose: 'along with Sir Walter Raleigh's on Death, Sir William Temple's on Life, Sir Thomas Browne's on Dead Bones, Arnold's on Oxford, Lincoln's on Gettysburg, and others of like ilk'. He proposed that they be circulated to bookshops to advertise the History. It may also have been significant that Greenslet had a son, George, in the senior part of the school at Milton. Greenslet had been trying to entice Buchan onto the North American lecture circuit since the end of the war, believing both that this would help to promote the Anglo-American friendship in which, with Buchan, he firmly believed, and also to build Buchan up as a major author in the United States. 3 George helped his father by promoting Buchan=s candidature as a suitable Memorial lecturer in an address to the school. Buchan was undoubtedly flattered to be asked. He had played a significant part behind the scenes in the official war memorial movement in Britain, and the way Milton had approached the issue of commemoration caught his fancy. He told the headmaster that he wished English schools had been as imaginative with their own memorial schemes as the Academy had been (Milton Graduates' Bulletin May 1924). It seemed a worthy challenge to try to convert the lessons of the war into a statement of his own beliefs about the post-war world. He began to plan around the engagement at Milton a long-promised holiday with his wife Susan in North America.

There was another key feature of the invitation which made it particularly attractive to Buchan. The Foundation provided not merely a platform for the lecturer, but also undertook to publish the address widely in the United States. Free copies of a quality publication by Greenslet's firm, the prestigious Boston house of Houghton Mifflin, were to be offered to libraries of selected universities, colleges and secondary schools. The Foundation regarded its 'free list' as an important feature of the Memorial (Milton Graduates' Bulletin February 1925). Buchan and Greenslet had worked together during the war as members of their respective governments' information services on the mass dissemination of ideas in publications delivered at below the cost of production. Their collaboration to promote Anglo-American solidarity continued even after the end of the war, for example with the publication in the United States of Buchan=s pamphlet of ideas for the post-war world, The Island of Sheep (1919), which it was hoped would show that European aspirations were very similar to those of the United States and encourage East Coast opinion to favour American ratification of the Versailles Treaty. The firm also published in the United States A History of the Great War, in which credit was given to the way the intervention of the United States in the war from April 1917 had decisively shifted the balance in favour of the Allies. It was not to be wondered at that Buchan took the opportunity of the Milton lecture to address transatlantic relations, nor indeed that Greenslet should have emerged once again as the publisher behind the enterprise.

Buchan did not in the end deliver the inaugural Foundation lecture. He was invited to Milton originally for the anniversary of the Armistice in 1923, but it was not a time for him to be away from Britain. He was committed to a major new educational publishing enterprise at Thomas Nelson which needed careful personal handling for much of the year. At the same time, while establishing himself in his new role as Deputy Chairman of Reuters, he had become involved in a dispute with Nelson's about his partnership in the firm which might very well have ended in litigation. He declined the Milton offer with real regret. When they pressed him again for the following year, his immediate problems being out of the way, he quickly accepted. 4 Concerned to avoid the winter storms in the North Atlantic, he insisted that he could not stay as late as Armistice Day in November. So on Tuesday 13 October 1924, fresh from Greenslet's hospitality in Boston, Buchan arrived at Milton. On the following two days he conducted seminars for senior pupils in which he set out his personal philosophy of history. The account by the Academy's magazine suggests that he emphasised in these 'master classes' the utility of history 'as a great reference book to which man may turn, and find recorded there innumerable experiments of life and their results, and so not have to experiment over and over again usually bringing about disastrous results'. On the Thursday he delivered his memorial address, 'not with any great comfort' as he told his mother, to a large audience of pupils, faculty and local worthies, including the Bishop of Massachusetts, in the school gymnasium (The Milton Orange and Blue December 1924a). 5

He began simply with a few words which positioned him not on the podium but among his audience: 'I count it a high privilege to be with you here today. You are permitting me to share in the commemoration of your dead, and by so doing you are treating a stranger as a kinsman'. Much of the address was indeed about lessons from history. Buchan sketched out the difficulties the North had faced despite its overwhelming superiority in wealth and manpower in defeating the South in the American Civil War. He argued that the major lessons learned by the Allies in the first couple of years of the Great War, the necessity for conscription to create a democratic army with the morale and discipline to win, the need to find competent military leaders and free them from civilian interference and to identify a simple but robust military strategy to which all resources should be committed, could all have been learned from the American Civil War. However there is an important sub-text to the address which returns repeatedly to his opening thought about kinship. Claiming 'the right of an intimate friend, and speaking to you not of my own country, but of yours', Buchan used the opportunity to emphasise the identity of transatlantic feeling which had been induced by the conflict. 'The Great War, which we are here to commemorate.' he said, 'made us for a time one household' (Buchan 1925, 151).

The transatlantic relationship was among Buchan's most important articles of faith in his adult years. Even before the war, when he had written the editorials and book reviews on North America for The Spectator under the guidance of its fervent Atlanticist editor John St Loe Strachey, he had believed firmly in the destiny of the Atlantic community with its shared history and language. His novel Salute to Adventurers (1915), set in the Tidewater country of Virginia, identified youthful idealism with the adventure and democratic spirit of the American frontier. The enemy of 'the plain man' in his story was the aristocracy of the plantation settlements, loyalists of the British Empire, their power buttressed by links through trade protection with the merchant companies of London. Unable to master the untamed land, these cosetted autocrats were bound eventually to surrender power to those who could. Early in the war Buchan was part of the team inside the British Foreign Office dedicated to drawing the United States, despite its neutrality, towards the Allied side. After April 1917 when the United States joined the war, he became a main point of contact in London for the many Americans who came to Europe on fact-finding missions as part of the joint war effort. Buchan, the guide and mentor who had taken a sympathetic interest in their point of view as well as giving masterly expositions of his own, remained after the war something of a hero to this band of younger American politicians, journalists, publishers and bankers, many of whom were to rise to positions of influence in their professions after the war. When Buchan referred at Milton to the transatlantic relationship, he spoke with some inside knowledge of what it meant and could achieve.

Buchan staked a certain amount on the continuation of the special Anglo-American relationship after the war. He left government service abruptly early in 1919, partly in protest at the anti-American tone emerging in British foreign policy. He eagerly took up voluntary work with the League of Nations Union in the hope that, with Britain and the United States in its vanguard, a new global order would emerge based on democratic political values. His faith in this idea for a time eclipsed his prewar enthusiasm for the British Empire as a force for good in the world. He also tried to steer Thomas Nelson's towards a large investment in the United States. 'The bulk of the world is going to become a pure democracy, an experiment never tried before,' he told his fellow partners. To take advantage of the new spirit he expected to be abroad in the world as a result of American engagement in world politics, he proposed that Nelson's should recreate in the United States the sort of popular reprint publishing which had proved so successful before the war in Europe. He offered to lead this undertaking himself, putting at the firm's disposal the contacts he had made during the war in American journalism, publishing and banking. 6

It came to nothing. However even the repudiation on both sides of the Atlantic of President Woodrow Wilson's internationalism and the eclipse of the Democrats in the Presidential election of 1920 did not entirely end Buchan's hope that transatlantic cooperation would have a part to play in the post-war world. He threw himself into the movement to develop the constitution of the British Empire as a commonwealth of sovereign nations linked formally to Britain, through only a shared loyalty to the British Crown. He hoped that the United States would feel able to associate with this looser nexus of English-speaking nations in a way it could not with Dominions which remained subject to the British Parliament. In 1923 he struck up a close friendship with the Prime Minister of Canada, William Lyons Mackenzie King. He regarded King and Canada as a possible bridge for the development of new relations between the United States and Britain, and had visited Ottawa early in September 1924 to compare notes with King before coming on to the United States. A large publishing project in which he persuaded Houghton Mifflin to join him in 1923, The Nations of Today, was designed to lay an intellectual framework for these ideas. His Milton lecture added another brick to the edifice by underlining for the American audience the elemental foundations of the Anglo-American relationship, based on a shared heritage, which no mere political disagreement or economic rivalry could undermine. He said at Milton: '[We] enter upon a heritage bequeathed by others, and in our turn we hand on a potent legacy to those who follow after' (Buchan 1925, 151). The relationship certainly had a key part to play while, as Buchan believed, anti-democratic forces remained abroad in the world. 7

Buchan chose to dramatise the point he was making at Milton by developing as the centrepiece of his address a striking portrait of Abraham Lincoln. 'He was a country lawyer with little experience of men and cities, self-educated, uncouth in manner and appearance, utterly unfamiliar with the details of government' (op cit, 156). At what seemed to Buchan the defining moment in the formation of the modern world, this 'plain man' reflecting the values of his unpretentious upbringing had saved democracy from itself by defying the South in its attempt to secede from the Union. He quoted Lincoln's own words as proof of this: 'I consider the central idea prevailing in this struggle is the necessity upon us of proving that popular government is not an absurdity if we fail it will go far to prove the incapability of the people to govern themselves' (op cit, 158). Whatever one thinks about the historical judgment here, it was an inspired choice of theme. The Lincoln Memorial, which Buchan had greatly admired during his visit to Washington a few weeks earlier, had been completed in 1922. Lincoln's record was at that time being reexamined in the United States as Americans in their isolationist mood sought out the political giants of their own recent past. The advertisement put out by the Memorial Foundation for Buchan's address stated that the book 'threw a new ray of light upon the lonely and heroic figure of Abraham Lincoln, as one of the outstanding figures in human history'. Buchan claimed Lincoln as a figure whose genius transcended nationality. Like Shakespeare, he suggested, Lincoln belonged not to one nation but to humanity at large (Buchan 1925, 180).

Lincoln's British ancestry had already been explored by Buchan in The Path of the King (1921) which he started immediately after leaving government service early in 1919. The book was in large part a restatement of his Atlanticist beliefs. At Milton he said: 'To me he seems one of the two or three greatest men ever born of our blood. You will observe that I am talking as if we were one household and speaking of our blood, for no drop ran in his veins which was not British in its ultimate origins. I like to think that in him we see at its highest that kind of character and mind which is the special glory of our common race' (op cit, 179). This was not a merely a trivial point about blood relationships. Buchan referred to the understanding of democratic values which he felt to be shared within the Atlantic community more than elsewhere. Here were the foundations of an identity of interest, crucial for the future as it had been in the recent past, which no mere clash of economic interests or temporary political estrangement could undermine.

As an American reviewer of the address put it: 'Colonel Buchan speaks in a way which is bound to cement good relations between the great Anglo-Saxon peoples; he discusses our problems with sympathy as well as intelligence; and he assumes that idealism is, in the last analysis, to be the guiding point of our respective nations. He believes, furthermore, that the World War was not merely an aimless and sordid clash of brute forces, but a duel between two essentially conflicting theories of life, in which Great Britain and the United States stood shoulder to shoulder in defence of civilisation' (The Phillips Bulletin 1925). Buchan could not have put it better himself.

There were, it seems to me, certainly two significant results from Buchan's visit to Milton Academy. The first was a personal one. Contact with young people interested Buchan increasingly as he grew older. Partly as a result of his propaganda work during the war, he regarded it as crucially important that old truths should be rethought for changing circumstances so that they remained relevant to younger generations with new perspectives. He was delighted at the rapport he felt with the pupils at the question and answer sessions at the Milton seminars. He remarked to his hosts at their eagerness to participate, in pleasing contrast to similar situations in Britain where pupils in his experience tended to sit quietly not knowing what to say. This seems to have brought him to a new understanding of the moral force within the idealism of young people (The Milton Orange and Blue 1924b). From Milton he went on to another prestigious private school for boys, Groton, just outside Boston, where he was the guest of honour at a dinner party of senior pupils hosted by the son of another friend. From there he visited Harvard University, where he was taken to see an American football game and addressed an audience of students in an auditorium so crowded that half of those who came to hear him couldn't get in. This in particular had been 'an inspiring occasion'. Describing these experiences in a letter to his mother, Buchan said: 'I have met so many kind good people. There is a curious fineness and goodness in New England, the Puritan tradition, I suppose'.

The inspiration of these personal encounters in North America immediately influenced his writing. The return journey across the Atlantic was rough, but Buchan used his time well. He began a new novel, The Dancing Floor (1926), which tells of young love set against the background of pagan mysteries on a Mediterranean island. Greenslet could scarcely contain his excitement when he read the manuscript: 'I don't know,' he wrote to Buchan, 'when I have had more pleasure in reading one of your books. The essential fabric is highly romantic and attractive, and the handling and workmanship is, it seems to me, up to the level of the fable'. The book takes as its theme the hope that civilisation can be reborn through its younger generation, whose relative innocence of the horrors of war and confidence in their ability to make a new and better life are the main hopes for the future. Buchan acknowledged to Greenslet that it had been a bold experiment for the first time in his fiction 'to make my hero a young lady'. 9 The character of Kore Arabin, the feisty heroine who experiments with a modernist lifestyle before being called to sterner duty, was his debut in the drawing of a significant female character. It was not Jane Austen, but Buchan took a major step forward as a writer of fiction, opening the door to new possibilities of plot and character. The romance of The Dancing Floor fed an appetite among younger readers, particularly in North America where its sales soared above those of his other books published since the war. He had found a lighter touch, and with it a younger readership which he was to keep with Witch Wood (1927), The Courts of the Morning (1929) and The Blanket of the Dark (1931).

One may say, then, that Buchan's visit to the United States helped him to put the First World War behind him. As a journalist, writer, publisher, public official and memorialist he had been continuously under its shadow for almost ten years. Suddenly he discovered, through encounters at Milton and elsewhere in North America, a way out. They suggested important new themes, looking forward and no longer warning of dangers, but instead identifying the sources for hope of a better future. A new positive tone had entered into his writing. It may also be significant that from this point he resumed his prewar ambition for a place in political life.10

The second consequence of the Milton address arose out of its publication in book form. Buchan pressed Houghton Mifflin to bring the book out quickly. They duly did so, on the anniversary of Lincoln's birthday, 12 February 1925. He proposed a number of different titles for the publication, and it was Houghton Mifflin who chose Two Ordeals of Democracy. The firm made a special effort to promote the book to international affairs specialists in the United States. The text also appeared in Britain in the autumn of 1926 as part of Buchan's collection of reflections on politics and literature, Homilies and Recreations. The American edition of Two Ordeals of Democracy sold poorly for nearly ten years. It was a time when relations between London and Washington, as a result of commercial and naval rivalries, went to their lowest point for several generations. Buchan's proposition of a natural affinity across the Atlantic seemed at best irrelevant, at worst simply wrong. Close friends such as Greenslet never lost faith. But Buchan could not but be regarded as a voice crying in the wilderness. In Britain he continued to argue for understanding of the American position. He told an audience shortly after his return to Britain from North America in 1925: 'Though we differ widely, I think we share in the last resort the same ideals. Let us be sympathetic towards the idealism of the other, for though we may choose a different route across the desert, we are aiming at the same Promised Land'. 11

Sales of the book suddenly picked up late in 1935, shortly after Buchan had been appointed Governor-General of Canada. A popular American broadcaster, Alexander Woollcott, whose shows were widely syndicated on the East Coast, devoted the whole of an hour-long programme to Buchan and his works, giving special prominence to Two Ordeals of Democracy. Buchan missed the programme, but quickly heard the news from Greenslet and asked him to obtain a transcript of the programme. Houghton Mifflin rushed out a special edition of Two Ordeals of Democracy to cope with the extra demand. 12 Before becoming a broadcaster Woollcott was a journalist, and may have met Buchan during his time as a reporter in Europe covered the operations of the American Expeditionary Force on the Western Front. With the deteriorating political situation in Europe in 1935, the role of America in world politics, and particularly towards Europe, emerged again as a topic of more than passing interest.

The implication of Buchan's Milton lecture as seen from the late 1930s was that if America valued the survival of democracy, her natural alliance was with Britain. This was not an easy conclusion for isolationist America to accept. So when President Franklin Roosevelt, who had delivered the Milton War Memorial Lecture in 1925, had some gracious words to say about Buchan's speech in a letter to him early in 1936, it was a sign that there was something serious for them to correspond about. 13 The subject of their exchanges was how America and the British Empire could best coordinate their efforts to prop up democratic politics then under threat in Europe. This was a specific instance of the general topic which Buchan had broached in his Milton lecture. It was without doubt significant in the burgeoning of the friendship between the two men, which lasted until Buchan's death in Canada in February 1940, that they had in common the experience of delivering the Memorial lecture, and that Buchan had made clear ten years earlier his sympathy for the dilemmas of American isolationism

One final point may be worth making about Buchan's experience at Milton. If it helped Buchan to find a personal way forward and, in however small a way, kept alive Atlanticist thinking in difficult times, it also helps us today to understand the source of Buchan's enduring appeal as a storyteller and literary figure. From the vantage point of the end of the millennium, we can see that the Anglo-American alliance and democracy in the Anglo-Saxon tradition have indeed proved influential as Buchan asserted they would. Even ten years ago, though, with the Cold War scarcely over, his thesis would have seemed less credible. At Milton Academy in 1924, Buchan staked out for himself a political position, which permeates much else of his writing, in what has turned out to be the mainstream of the century's history.

Buchan has not therefore suffered the fate of so many thinkers of his own time, many of them considered more highly today than he, by getting the future wrong. This, it seems to me, says something about particular genius of the man.


  • John Buchan, 1922 A History of the Great War, 4 vols, Thomas Nelson, Edinburgh & London.
  • John Buchan 1925 Two Ordeals of Democracy, Houghton Mifflin, Boston.
  • Milton Graduates' Bulletin 1922, 1 (5)
  • Milton Graduates' Bulletin May 1924
  • Milton Graduates' Bulletin February 1925.
  • The Milton Orange and Blue 1924a Second War Memorial Lecture, XXI (3), December
  • The Milton Orange and Blue 1924b, XXXII (3), December
  • Colonel Buchan's 'Two Ordeals of Democracy': An announcement of the Publishing Committee', 9 February 1925
  • Editorial in The Phillips Bulletin 1925, XIX (3), April


  1. They have included Franklin Roosevelt, Sumner Wells, T S Eliot, George Marshall, Robert Oppenheimer, Ralph Nader, Lord Caradon, Maya Angelou, Bruno Bettelheim, William Manchester and Helen Suzman.
  2. W.Fields to JB, 13 April 1923.
  3. Ferris Greenslet to JB 5 May 1919; 13 December 1922; and 28 February 1924: Houghton Mifflin Papers, Houghton Library, Harvard University.
  4. W.Fields to JB 8 May 1923.
  5. JB to Mrs Buchan, 20 October 1924.
  6. JB to George Brown, 17 December 1918: Nelson Papers, Edinburgh University Library.
  7. He had already spoken at some length about contemporary European politics during his visit to North America to audiences in Philadelphia and Toronto.
  8. JB to Mrs Buchan, 20 October 1924; John Buchan Papers.
  9. Ferris Greenslet to JB, 16 March and JB to Ferris Greenslet, 29 March 1926: Houghton MifflinPapers, Houghton Library Harvard.
  10. For his political career, see Michael Redley 1997 'Making democracy safe for the world', John Buchan Journal 17, 31-37.
  11. John Buchan Papers.
  12. Ferris Greenslet to JB, 14 November, and JB to Ferris Greenslet, 16 November 1935: Houghton Mifflin Papers, Houghton Library, Harvard University.
  13. JB to Franklin Roosevelt, 30 March 1936. Copies of the Roosevelt correspondence are in the John Buchan Papers.

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