Unabridged: James Muller publishes definitive edition of Churchill's 'The River War'

by Austin Osborne  |   

2021 edition of 'The River War' by Winston Churchill and edited by James Muller
The unabridged edition of “The River War: An Historical Account of the Reconquest of the Soudan” by Winston Churchill, edited by James Muller, was published April 5, 2021. (Photo courtesy James Muller)

On April 5, 2021, University of Alaska Anchorage (UAA) political science professor James Muller published the definitive edition of “The River War: An Historical Account of the Reconquest of the Soudan” by Winston Churchill after more than 30 years of meticulous work. This is the first time in over a century that the story has been told and published in its entirety. Muller’s book, published by St. Augustine’s Press in two volumes, is the first unabridged edition to appear since Churchill himself published the first edition in 1899.

In 1902, the book was shortened to fit into one volume. Seven whole chapters, and parts of every other chapter, disappeared in the abridgment. Many maps, most illustrations and most appendices were also dropped. Since then, the abridged edition has been reprinted regularly and even abridged further, but the full two-volume book was never published again — until now.

“This book sets a new standard for Churchill scholarship and in doing so tells us much about how Churchill used his words and actions to launch his career,” said Allen Packwood OBE, director of the Churchill Archives Centre.

Muller was recently interviewed by the National Churchill Museum in Fulton, Missouri, and his work has received rave reviews among Churchill scholars. Richard M. Langworth CBE, a senior fellow at the Hillsdale College Churchill Project, said, “A hundred and twenty years after its last printing, James W. Muller revives Winston Churchill’s most important early book, freshly annotated with impeccable scholarship.”

A March 27 book review by Churchill’s biographer Andrew Roberts in The Wall Street Journal has had a marked effect on sales. A few days after Roberts’ review appeared in the Journal, the first printing of the book sold out before its official publication date and before Amazon had purchased any appreciable number of copies to sell. A second, larger printing will make the book available again soon.

James Muller at work editing 'The River War'

UAA political science professor James Muller at work editing an unabridged edition of “The River War: An Historical Account of the Reconquest of the Soudan” by Winston Churchill. (Photo courtesy James Muller)

Below, James Muller answers questions about the project:

As a political scientist, is there a reason you were drawn to Winston Churchill and his work?
I am particularly interested in political philosophy, of which Socrates was the first practitioner. In graduate school, as I studied the great classical and modern philosophers, I was surprised to discover that Winston Churchill, who never went to college, had read their works on his own. He had thought and written about the same philosophical questions I was considering: Which is more important, self-government or good government? What is the best regime? What is the best way of life?

What is the significance of an unabridged version of this book?
Churchill first published “The River War” in two volumes in 1899, when he was only 24 years old, but abridged the book to fit into a single volume in 1902. Since then, only the abridged version has been printed, until now.

Restoring the full text of the unabridged version means that many passages describing Churchill’s adventures during the campaign in Egypt and Sudan, criticizing his commander-in-chief General Kitchener, expressing his opinion on the religion of Islam or speculating on the justice of the British reconquest and the future of Sudan, which were left out in the shorter version of the book, can now be read and considered by 21st century readers.

Along with these passages, which amount to almost a third of the book, the reader of the new edition can see what Churchill changed or added in the abridged version. I’ve been able to restore 50 illustrations by Churchill’s brother Officer Angus McNeill and colored maps that were left out of the shorter version of the book. The new edition lets the reader discover the whole story of Churchill’s experience of war on the Nile, as he wrote it.

What does it mean to you to have completed this project after three decades of work?
After so many years of enjoying my work on “The River War” — and especially the detective work of tracking down Churchill’s references to books, people and events in the book for the introduction and footnotes in the new edition — it is strange to have the new book to keep me company instead of my work to prepare it.

I’m delighted that readers who have waited so many years for this book can now finally read what Churchill wrote without missing anything. Since the book was published earlier this month, I’ve heard from friends, former students, colleagues and strangers all over the world who are busy reading the book — which takes a long time, since it’s more than 1,500 pages — so new conversations about it are just beginning.

This summer it will be time for me to work on finishing my next project; preparing a new edition of Churchill’s autobiography, “My Early Life: A Roving Commission.” When our daughter was growing up, I promised her I would read the first Harry Potter book as soon as I finished “The River War.” Now, “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone,” to call it by its proper English title, is a long book, but I hope to keep that promise before her 30th birthday this fall.

James W. Muller is a professor of political science at UAA, where he has taught since 1983. He also serves as chairman of the Board of Academic Advisers of the International Churchill Society. Educated at Harvard University and the Ecole Normale Supérieure, Paris, he is a by-fellow of Churchill College, Cambridge. He served as a White House fellow in 1983–84 and won the Alaska Governor’s Award for Distinguished Service to the Humanities in 2008.

Prior to his most recent accomplishment, Professor Muller had edited two books about Winston Churchill, “Churchill as Peacemaker” (Cambridge University Press, 1997) and “Churchill’s ‘Iron Curtain’ Speech Fifty Years Later” (University of Missouri Press, 1999), and new editions of two of Churchill’s interwar books, “Thoughts and Adventures” (ISI Books, 2009) and “Great Contemporaries” (ISI Books, 2012).

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