This morning, I got the very sad news that my friend William F. Buckley Jr died earlier today. He was 82. I cannot say that the news was entirely unexpected–Bill had been seriously ill for months–but it was nevertheless shocking. I am one of a host of Bill’s friends who contributed a few words about him to NRO. I’d like also to share the some portions of the review I wrote of his “literary autobiography,” Miles Gone By, partly because it allows me to speak about him in the present tense:
“My God, he does everything,” my friend said. “Skis, plays the harpsichord, sails across the Pacific, writes novels . . .” I was chatting with one of the foremost jurists of our age, a man who is himself hardly innocent of superlative achievement. But when William F. Buckley, Jr.’s, new omnibus came up in conversation, my friend declared himself disgusted at the spectacle of so much energy and accomplishment.
By “disgusted” he of course meant “awed,” and I knew what he meant. The skiing, the harpsichord, the sailing, etc., are mere avocations. The main events are National Review, Firing Line, a syndicated column, and four-plus decades on the lecture circuit (seventy engagements a year: ponder that). How does he do it?
Miles Gone By is subtitled “A Literary Autobiography.” It isn’t really an autobiography, if for no other reason than that Mr. Buckley is much too interested in the world around him to dwell on himself. In an amusing piece about managing the tedium of social life (itself worth the price of the volume), he recalls the French political philosopher Bertrand de Jouvenal telling him that “every subject in the whole world is more interesting than oneself.” This was, Mr. Buckley winks, “some years before writing his autobiography.”
Miles Gone By is as near as Mr. Buckley will ever come writing an autobiography. He plays some part in all of the dozens of pieces he has collected here, but usually as a foil for the exhibition of another personality, event, or idea. In this sense, Miles Gone By is less autobiography than heterobiography: the gaze is cast firmly outwards, not inward. The model is not Augustine or even Montaigne; it certainly is not (thank God) Rousseau. What we have here is a chronicle of things done, not passions suffered, of people met, not feelings scrutinized, of issues debated, not emotions spent. That is doubtless one reason the book is such fun to read: it has the velocity and freshness of piqued curiosity–I almost said of a well-made martini.
Every life can be characterized by one or two governing attitudes. Perhaps the word that best characterizes Mr. Buckley is “relish.” The depth and variousness of this book reflect the depth and variousness of his pleasures. It is a cheerful book, a convivial book, somehow a youthful book, though Mr. Buckley himself is no youngster. Just about everything in it has appeared before, but by some synergistic literary alchemy, the whole is more than the sum of its parts.
Mr. Buckley opens the book with a few pieces about his family (he was in the middle of ten children), growing up in Sharon, Connecticut, going off to boarding school in England. He includes moving memorials to his mother and father. I wish I had known his father. Not only did he amass an impressive wine cellar–the list of clarets reproduced in the book is an invitation to envy–but he also had the right attitude about the Internal Revenue Service. Contemplating the irremediably acquisitive disposition of that organization–in particular, their proprietary interest in one’s estate–he cleverly managed to distribute to his children the vast majority of his goods and chattels before his death. So successful was he that when his will was probated, the children each got a check for $44. Not bad for a man who had made a respectable pile in the oil business. (Alas, no one can think of everything: a few month’s later an IRS agent appeared and exhibited an unhealthy interest in that wine cellar the deceased had spent many years populating.)
Miles Gone By collects pieces about Mr. Buckley’s passions (wine, music, sailing, skiing), the personalities he has encountered (he seems to know everyone who is anyone), and some of the positions he has defended. The longest piece in the book is his introduction to the twenty-fifth anniversary edition of God and Man at Yale. Published in 1951, the book catapulted its twenty-four-year-old author to an atmosphere of hostile notoriety from which he never completely descended.
It is difficult at this distance to recreate the stir–no, the tornado–that book made. Remember the apoplexy that The Closing of the American Mind occasioned in the mid-1980s? My how the left-wing academic established loved (and continues to love) to hate that book! Double that enmity, treble it: that was the reception which greeted God and Man at Yale. Mr. Buckley’s opening credo that “the duel between Christianity and atheism is the most important in the world” was simply not to be borne. His codicil–“I further believe that the struggle between individualism [i.e., conservatism] and collectivism is the same struggle reproduced on another level”–transformed disbelief into rage. The liberal establishment, Dwight Macdonald observed at the time, “reacted with all of the grace and agility of an elephant cornered by a mouse.” McGeorge Bundy pronounced anathema upon the book in The Atlantic Monthly. The well known Yale philosopher T. M. Greene deployed the word “fascist” three times in as many sentences. “What more,” Professor Greene asked, “could Hitler, Mussolini, or Stalin ask for?” Well, as Mr. Buckley observes, “they asked for, and got, a great deal more.”
In retrospect, the reaction to Gamay (as the book was nicknamed by the publisher) is party amusing, partly frightening. The amusing part arises from the elephant-cornered-by-mouse aspect Dwight Macdonald mentioned. The frightening part comes when you realize how contemporary Mr. Buckley’s travails seem. Professor Greene went on to pontificate that
What is required is more not less tolerance–not the tolerance of indifference, but the tolerance of honest respect for divergent convictions and the determination of all that such divergent opinions be heard without administrative censorship. I try my best in the classroom to expound and defend my faith, when it is relevant, as honestly and persuasively as I can. But I can do so only because many of my colleagues are expounding and defending their contrasting faiths, or skepticism, as openly and honestly as I am mine.
Sound familiar? But this, Mr. Buckley rightly notes, is “ne plus ultra relativism, idiot nihilism.” No ethical code requires “honest respect” for any divergent opinion. “Complete moral tolerance,” James Fitzjames Stephen noted in Liberty, Equality, Fraternity (1873), “is possible only when men have become completely indifferent to each other–that is to say, when society is at an end.” Besides, Professor Greene’s aria about tolerance would have been sweeter–or at least ostensibly more plausible–had he deigned to practice what he preached. “An honest respect by him for my divergent conviction,” Mr. Buckley writes, “would have been an arresting application at once of his theoretical and his charitable convictions.”
The nerve that Mr. Buckley struck with Gamay is still smarting; indeed, it is throbbing uncontrollably, as anyone who has contemplated the discrepancy between proclamations of “diversity” on campuses and the practice of enforcing a politically correct orthodoxy on any contentious subject. There is plenty of room for diversity, so long as you embrace the left-liberal dogma. Diverge from that dogma and you will find that the rhetoric of diversity has been replaced by talk of “prejudice,” “hate speech,” and the entire lexicon of liberal denunciation.
God and Man at Yale is full of observations that are at least as pertinent today as they were when penned fifty-odd years ago. Consider the issue of academic freedom. How much irresponsible politicking and smug posturing has been protected by the misuse of that privilege! As Mr. Buckley saw in the early 1950s, the phrase “academic freedom” is often little more than “a handy slogan that is constantly wielded to bludgeon into impotence numberless citizens who waste away with frustration as they view in their children and their children’s children the results of laissez-faire education.”
Mr. Buckley is especially good at exposing certain strategies of rhetorical (or perhaps I mean “moral”) evasion–for example, “the technique of associating oneself for institutional convenience with a general position but disparaging it wherever it is engaged in wars or skirmishes along its frontiers.” For example, Mr. Buckley was sharply upbraided for describing a certain economics professor as “collectivist” when the man himself had professed his belief in individual initiative, the free market, etc. Er, yes, but said professor also went on to advocate “diminishing the inequality of income and wealth,” to which end he proposed a tax of 75 to 99 percent on incomes over $100,000, confiscatory taxes on inheritance “aimed at the goal of ending transmissions of hereditary fortunes,” government-subsidized family allowances, a government-guarantee of full employment, and . . . Well, you get the picture. If you do not find those proposals breathtakingly collectivist, you need to see a doctor.
Mr. Buckley’s reflections on the reception of God and Man at Yale are probably the intellectual high point of Miles Gone By. The aesthetic peaks are distributed much more widely. Most of the book is given over to 1) the people Mr. Buckley has known socially or professionally and 2) scenes from his vocation and avocations.
One of the nice things about being conservative is that you run into many exotic human specimens. Unburdened by the ideology of “diversity,” conservatives tend to cultivate genuine diversity in their interests and acquaintances. I wish I had known many of the people Mr. Buckley recalls in this book–not just the celebrities: Clare Booth Luce, Roanld Reagan, David Niven, Alistair Cooke, Whittaker Chambers, Vladimir Horowtiz, et al. Sure, it would have been amusing to meet them, but how about characters like Wilmoore Kendall, a thorn in the side of the Yale administration for many years until he offered to let them by out his tenure contract for $40,000 (money ain’t what it used to be)? Kendall had been a teacher of Mr. Buckley’s at Yale and an important figure in the early years of National Review. At one editorial meeting of NR, Kendall announced that he had no objection to a proposed course of action, “provided that we would agree to change the denomination of National Review on the cover from “A Weekly Journal of Opinion” to “A Journal of Jacobinical Thought.”
Or how about Frank Meyer, another early NR stalwart? During his last illness, Meyer converted to Catholicism. But it was a struggle. Mr. Buckley reports that Meyer, from his bed of woe, complaining that “the only remaining intellectual obstacle to his conversion was the collectivist implication lurking in the formulation ‘the communion of saints’ in the Apostles’ Creed.” Then there is James Burnham, the political philosopher Mr. Buckley describes as “the dominant intellectual influence” on National Review. I have read a fair amount of Burnham’s work, and I believe he is one of the most under-rated political thinkers of the last century. It is a pity we have no one of his perspicacity with us today: a man of his insight would come in handy in our present muddles.
One piece that I missed in Miles Gone By was Mr. Buckley’s long evisceration of that malevolent fantasist, Gore Vidal, which appeared in the late 1960s in (I believe) Harper’s. It’s a perfect illustration of Hazlitt’s observation that “Those who lack delicacy hold us in their power.” Still, I understand why he decided against including it: it is about a supremely distasteful figure, and the caustic tone is at odds with this book’s dominant music which is by turns celebratory and elegiac. Sailers will be particularly moved by the several excerpts from Mr. Buckley’s adventures at sea. No one writes about sailing with his combination of brio and technical mastery. The most recent piece in Miles Gone By is “Aweigh,” which appeared in The Atlantic Monthly this summer. It recounts Mr. Buckley’s recent decision to sell his boat Patito. It is edged with quiet melancholy, that story, as farewells are wont to be. But I feel sure that in selling Patito Mr. Buckley, far from giving up the boat, was confirming his status as admiral emeritus in perpetuity.