Saturday, February 9, 2013

1913: The Inside of the Cup by Winston Churchill

No, not that Winston Churchill. 

This Winston Churchill

     The author of The Inside of the Cup was, at the time, more famous than the future British Prime Minister.  The American Winston Churchill was born in St. Louis, Missouri in 1871.  He attended the United States Naval Academy and, upon graduation, was made an editor of the Army and Naval Journal.  In 1895, he was made managing editor of Cosmopolitan Magazine (the same magazine that “now survives as a harrowingly explicit sex manual”1).  He published his first novel, The Celebrity, in 1898, to moderate success.  His second novel, Richard Carvel, was released in 1899 and placed third on the bestsellers list.  From 1899 through 1913, Winston Churchill appeared on the annual bestsellers list eight times.  Five of those times, he was in the number one spot.  He became a millionaire and a household name.  The Inside of the Cup was the last book of his to reach the top of the bestsellers list.

          He got involved in politics in the early twentieth century, and got elected to the New Hampshire state legislature in 1903 and 1905.  He failed to win the Republican nomination for governor in 1906.  In 1912, he ran as the candidate for the Progressive Party (colloquially known as the Bull Moose Party, after its founder Theodore Roosevelt), but lost to Democrat Samuel Felker.  The novel I’m reviewing deals heavily with the political and social values espoused by the Progressive party.

So what's this book?
          The Inside of the Cup was originally published serially in Hearst Magazine in 1912 before being released in book form in 1913.  The title comes from a biblical quote: “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For ye make clean the outside of the cup and of the platter, but within they are full of extortion and excess.”2

          Despite being written over a century ago, The Inside of the Cup is surprisingly relevant today.  The story centers around John Hodder, an orthodox Anglican rector from a comfortable suburb who is recruited to lead the congregation of St. John’s, a prestigious chapel in “one of the largest cities of the United States of America, and of that portion called the Middle West.”  St. John’s had been built on Dalton Street in what was originally an upscale part of town, but in the past decades, had become the slums.  However, it is still frequented by the rich and powerful.  Through his interactions with the heads of industry and the poor of Dalton Street, Hodder’s worldview drastically changes. 

          Theology is, unsurprisingly, a major aspect of the novel.  The first chapter features a conversation between members of the Waring and Goodrich family which sets the tone for the theological debates to follow.  The aim of the novel’s theology can be inferred from this quote on page eleven:

“So far as I can see, the dilemma in which our generation finds itself is this, - we want to know what there is in Christianity that we can lay hold of.  We should like to believe, but, as George says, all our education contradicts the doctrines that are most insisted upon… We have the choice of going to people like George, who know a great deal but don’t believe anything, or to clergymen like Mr. Hodder that demand that we shall violate the reason in us which has been so carefully trained.” 

          Although initially obstinate, Hodder eventually agrees with the above sentiment and sets to create a new understanding of religion, putting him at odds with Eldon Parr, one of the nation’s most powerful businessmen.  The main focus of the novel is Hodder’s ‘conversion.’  As with practically any book that delves into the can of worms that is theology, the book occasionally becomes encumbered by it.  Its saving grace, however, is the similarity of the issues in the novel to the issues of today.  Regardless of religious affiliation or lack thereof (in the spirit of full disclosure, I am not religious in any sense), anyone who has an intellectual interest in theology could gain some insight from reading this. 

          The cast of supporting characters and their subplots are the best part of the book.  Although most of the focus is on John Hodder, he is not so much of a personality as he is a set of beliefs that we watch change throughout as he becomes enlightened.  It is a testament to Churchill’s writing prowess that these small characters are so complete, and tend to steal the show whenever they pop in.   

Why was it so popular at the time?
          The Inside of the Cup was written in what is known as the Progressive Era in the United States and propounds many of the ideals of the Progressive party including women’s rights (including suffrage and minimum wage), an eight hour workday, a social security system, direct election of senators, and more.  The novel deals with all of these to some extent and further shows how they not only do not contradict religion, but are a necessary part of it.    

          Specifically, the novel calls out the unfair practices of major trusts.  Abuse of workers at the hands of large companies was endemic.  If you think corporations are powerful today, this was nothing compared to how it was at the time.  From Thomas Patterson’s textbook “We the People” (ninth edition):

“After the Civil War, the Supreme court also gave nearly free rein to business.  A majority of the Court’s justices were proponents of laissez-faire capitalism, and they interpreted the Constitution in ways that restricted government’s attempts to regulate business activity.  In 1886, for example, the Court decided that corporations were “persons” within the meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment, and were thereby protected from substantial regulation by the states. 

“The Court also weakened the national government’s regulatory power… When the federal government invoked the Sherman Antitrust Act (1890) in an attempt to break up a monopoly on the manufacture of sugar, the Supreme Court blocked the action, claiming that interstate commerce covered only the transportation of goods, not their manufacture… However, because the Court had previously decided that state’s regulatory powers were limited by the Fourteenth Amendment, the states were not allowed to regulate manufacturing activity in a significant way.”3

     Public sentiment was incited, and a book that helped them express and expand upon their discontent was bound to receive a large audience.

Why haven't I heard of it?
          Winston Churchill’s popularity declined not long after this book was published.  He wrote two more novels in that decade, plus one non-fiction and a play.  In 1919, he quietly left the sphere of public writing, only releasing one more book in 1940.  He passed away in Florida in 1947.  Since then, the other Winston Churchill has become considerably better known, as a public figure and as a writer. 

Should I read it?
          If you have an interest in theology, academic or personal, there’s a lot to gain from this book.  The showdowns between opposing parties are very tense and exciting, though they are few.  If you can handle some slow parts, I’d recommend giving it a shot.

You can read The Inside of the Cup on Project Gutenberg.

Books with similar themes:
Native Son by Richard Wright
God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater by Kurt Vonnegut

1. Vonnegut, Kurt. Bagombo Snuff Box. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1999.  Page 7.
2. Churchill, Winston. The Inside of the Cup. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1913.
3. Patterson, Thomas E. We the People. 9th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill. 2011. Page 82-3.


  1. Enjoying the blog! Neat idea! (Found you on Reddit)

  2. Came here from reddit and I think this is a great idea!

    But, could you try to change the blog format so line spacing is smaller?

  3. Found you on reddit and have you bookmarked! Can't wait to read your posts, such a great idea!

  4. Found you on Reddit. I'm also a book blogger. I would love to subscribe, but I can't find an RSS link on the page. :-(

  5. Enjoyed your review and like the structure you've laid out. I don't think I've heard of this book before and it's relevancy today sounds like one of those interesting bits of synchronicity that happen upon us.

  6. I'm enjoying your blog immensely. One thing would improve it in my opinion: could you include the page counts of the books in your reviews? I'm always interested to know how "long" a book is, especially since you're reading them consistently at one per week. Thanks.

  7. What a great idea! I absolutely love this blog and appreciate the high quality of your reviews. Thank you! BelleZora

  8. I've been looking for a list of books I might find for free on Kindle and your list might work for that. I just finished reading 'The Inside of the Cup" and rather enjoyed it. As you suggested, I was amazed at how some of the arguments of the rich in the book (like Mr. Parr) sounded so like arguments made today by rich conservatives. The long conversations between Mr. Hodder and the beautiful Allison about religion were breathtaking. Did people actually used to talk to each other like this. Your summary of the book was good. My only quibble is that I don't think St. John's was a Catholic Church.

    1. I recall it being Anglican / Episcopal, which is Catholic Lite (not Light)--neither filling nor satisfying.

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