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Who was 'Lawrence of Arabia'

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Jeremy Wilson

 

Page updated May 2012

The State of T. E. Lawrence Research and Scholarship

Jeremy Wilson


The career of T. E. Lawrence presents scholars with two unusual challenges.

First, it crossed academic boundaries, straying into mediaeval history, archaeology, military history, British diplomatic history, Middle East studies, English literature, and so on. Therefore, "T.E.Lawrence studies" do not fit within the scope of any traditional academic department.

Secondly, because Lawrence was a celebrity, scholars have to excavate fact from beneath accumulated layers of media legend. This can be time-consuming when working in your own academic field. When your subject's activities cross into other fields, the task becomes daunting.

Nevertheless, Lawrence merits scholarly attention. This would be true even without the achievements for which he became famous. His writings and his many friendships among the intellectual elite of his day guarantee him a place in British history.

During the past forty years a handful of academics have researched aspects of Lawrence's career. Likewise, research students sometimes choose something he did as a thesis topic. Yet, until recently, these efforts lacked any overall focus. Three important things were lacking:

  • A forum where different academic specialists could meet and draw upon each other's expertise

  • A peer-reviewed research journal focused on Lawrence's career that would provide a vehicle for publishing scholarly articles

  • A publishing programme that, instead of focusing on editions that would sell well to the general public, would make scholarly editions of primary source-materials more widely available in university libraries.

Because of Lawrence's fragmented career, these necessary initiatives were unlikely to be sponsored by any academic department, even though most of the major T.E. Lawrence research collections are in university libraries.

Instead, scholars like myself have drawn on the wider interest in Lawrence to support scholarly initiatives that seemed otherwise impossible.

All three the elements listed above are now in place:

  • Forum - The moderated T.E. Lawrence Studies discussion list brings together scholars from many countries and research fields. Questions to the list are generally answered by experts.

  • Journal - The peer-reviewed T.E. Lawrence Studies online journal - now integrated into the 'Discussion' area - has been designed to fill this need.

  • Publishing programme - The 'Writings' section of this website and the Castle Hill Press publishing programme are making Lawrence's published and previously unpublished writings more widely available than ever before.  

The kind of broad-based collaboration needed for this holistic approach produces rich rewards. T.E. Lawrence research is now advancing on many fronts. As the tide of legend is rolled back, popular myth and speculation become far less of a barrier. At the same time, scholars have much easier access to knowledge that lies outside their own speciality. As a result, the academic world is at last in a position to take up the challenges set by Lawrence's many-faceted career.

Jeremy Wilson



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