The International Writers Magazine:Book Review
F. Buckley, Jr.s Miles
I have long lambasted the kiss ass
critics of other works who are blatantly currying favor to get
their own mediocre (at best) works published, and rightfully so.
That said, I shall not do the same, so I will begin this book
review by admitting a bias- more accurately, a set of biases I
have regarding William F. Buckley, Jr. He is the godfather of
the modern American Conservative movement.
I am a political
moderate from working class roots. He is an elitist snob. I am more
of a Whitmanian. He is a terrible writer of potboiler thrillers that
make Tom Clancy seem like a prose stylist. I beleive I am a good poet,
writer, and critic. Yet
.I have always been a big Bill Buckley
fan. Why? Because he has grace, wit, and charm, and when he was not
penning dreadful fiction he churned out some of the most insightful
and cogent writings on contemporary culture in the last half century.
And I say this fully disagreeing with 90% or more of what he writes.
However, he is one of the few public intellectuals who is pragmatic
and intelligent enough to see the folly of drug illegalization.
Too often in this society we demonize the individuals rather than their
ideas. I have flayed such overrated hacks as Harold Bloom, Robert Bly,
David Foster Wallace, Maya Angelou, and the list goes on, but I have
never attacked them, nor others on an ad hominem basis. That is, in
most cases, simply a cession of de facto loss on the issue at hand.
Bill Buckley generally has followed similar tactics, although when he
occasionally violates, as I have done in response to ad hominem my way,
he responds as I have - with wit that confounds and frustrates his opponents.
In short, humor is a saving grace that few diehards on the left or right
seem to curry in these days, much to their personal and dialectical
detriment. He is also the embodiment of the ideal that assumes good
faith and honorable opposition, but a dogged determination to destroy
the idea, not the opponent. I subscribe to that philosophy, as well.
I remember the Firing Line Debate shows on PBS of a few decades
back with great zeal. Where else would you get such a pertinent clash
of ideas, propounded by people of good faith, on either side? Like him
or hate him, there is no denying that Buckley is a giant of the American
scene, and he knows it. As baseball great Reggie Jackson once said,
It aint bragging if you can back it up. Buckley does,
and in this book, mislabeled an autobiography, he flexes his literary
and intellectual muscle, as well as a bit of good natured preening.
In the books Introduction he declares:
There would be no point in contriving an autobiography
from scratch. Why? I have already written about events and the people
that have shaped my life; any new account would simply paraphrase these.
I hope that this volume achieves the purpose, and that it will give
He succeeds on both counts, and in a book whose essence far outstrips
the ballsiness of Edmund Morriss Ronald Reagan biography of a
few years back, Dutch. In that book, Morris constructed a fictive
alter-ego of the same name as his, who witnessed key Reagan life moments.
Where that failed was not in Morriss writing, but in the wholesale
blurring of fact and fiction, and some scenes that were outright distortions
and never happened. Buckley, however, achieves the same outsider looking
in effect by simply re-jiggering many prior works with each other, and
then threading a narrative that at times is chronological, and at other
times topical, only to occasionally pop into the proceedings with a
diatribe, a reminiscence, or an elegy. This mosaic technique of old
columns and selections from prior books is astonishingly well-used in
this potpourri, and as someone who, years ago, read some of his flatulent
fiction, I am amazed that he has never let some of his manifest brilliance
and inventiveness in non-fictive rhetorical techniques, especially his
classic sailing books, filter over into his fiction. I guess there is
simply something about the structure of the human mind which disallows
certain intellectual or daring techniques to cross certain synapses,
for this technique is the rare case of a deconstructive and postmodern
technique being well used to convey material. Ironically, its
achieved by one of those isms greatest foes.
However, Miles Gone By is a milestone book, one that will have
to be read a century from now to understand the bedrock of the man whose
ideas were, for ill or good, a defining force that shaped American politics
in the later 20th Century. But, it is a milestone not only for its subject
matter, but the non-conventional technique it uses to really layer an
indelible portrait of the man, even to those who may never have heard
of him. Of major autobiographical works, perhaps the only one I can
think of that surpasses Miles Gone By in technique, daring, and
wordsmithing, is Loren Eiseleys classic All The Strange Hours,
which focuses on that mans life of science and the mind. In a
sense, Buckleys book is far more broad, to compensate for its
comparative lack of depth. And, when I say it lacks depth, remember
its only in comparison to one of the greatest prose stylists that
ever lived. Compared to most such works Buckleys plumbs depths
of emotion and thought few do.
The first section of the book is about life growing up and his family-
done through a series of portraits. There are some typically autobiographical
moments, and this is the weakest part of the book- not for its
immanent themes, but simply because anyone wanting to read the book
will, as Buckley admits, know most of this information. There are some
well-written passages and moments. There are also similar moments in
the sections on Yale- including an excerpt from his 1951 manifesto,
God and Man at Yale, Buckleys early education in the U.K.,
war experiences, and a lengthy digression on sailing. This section is
where Buckley really starts strutting his stuff. I can think of little
more boring than sailing- perhaps golf, but Buckleys enthusiasm
and descriptions draw the reader in, in the sections eleven chapters.
The section on people hes known, is where Buckley starts his own
hagiography, consciously enhancing his own reputation by his association
with luminaries such as David Niven, Ronald Reagan, Clare Booth Luce,
Alistair Cooke, and John Kenneth Galbraith. This collegial tone even
drifts through to the next section, where he gives portraits of people
and things, such as his TV show, Firing Line (incidentally, the
longest-running program in television history with the same host, and
a winner of many Emmy Awards), wherein he reprints the transcript of
a 1978 debate about the Panama Canal treaty where he and soon to be
President Ronald Reagan clashed. Of course, Buckley kicked Reagans
ass, and made him look utterly un-Presidential, and thats the
point of the episodes inclusion. Buckley admires Reagan, but is
in effect telling his readership that history will remember his as the
greater place in American political thought, whereas Reagan was just
a manipulable puppet and band wagon jumper. It takes great skill to
both praise and damn someone at the same time. Legend has it, for example,
that Buckley had, on his National Review office wall, a photo of President
Reagan reading the magazine, with a caption that said: I got my
job through National Review. Of course, he also writes of said
magazine, as well as an odd assortment of characters, from Left Wing
icon Murray Kempton to his own fictional spy Blackford Oakes. The most
moving tribute, however, is the first one, to Left Wing bête noir
Whittaker Chambers, the man whose lies about State department employee
Alger Hiss kicked off the Red Scare and blacklisting that resulted in
McCarthyism. History has already exculpated Hiss, and Buckleys
continued support of this liar is seen as evidence of his dogmatism,
and his greatest error, by Buckleys detractors, but the point
is that this is a self-portrait of a man, not a deity, and the prose
with which Buckley eulogizes the great deceiver is sparkling:
I took the call standing, in front of my desk. It was John
Chambers. He gave me the news. A heart attack. The final heart attack.
Cremation in total privacy. The news would go to the press later that
afternoon. His mother was in the hospital. I mumbled the usual inappropriate
things, hung up the telephone, sat down, and wept.
American men, who weep in droves in movie houses, over the woes
of lovestruck shop girls, hold that weeping in men is unmanly [he wrote
me once]. I have found most men in whom there was depth of experience,
or capacity for compassion, singularly apt to tears. How can it be otherwise?
One looks and sees: and it would be a kind of impotence to be incapable
of, or to grudge, the comment of tears, even while you struggle against
it. I am immune to soap opera. But I cannot listen for any length of
time to the speaking voice of Kirsten Flagstad, for example, without
being done in by the magnificence of tone that seems to speak from the
center of sorrow, even from the center of the earth.
For me, and others who knew him, his voice had been and still
is like Kirsten Flagstads, magnificent in tone, speaking to our
time from the center of sorrow, from the center of the earth.
While clearly wrong on the Hiss case, he is wrong with great
style- and that is what separates art from philosophy; how an idea is
conveyed, not the often noxious idea nor subject matter. In short, art
is a verb, not a noun! Buckley has always recognized this.
The book then reaches its end with some remarkable flourishes-
pieces on the art of writing; including one, The Conflict Over The
Unusual Word, where he defends the Proustian sentence structure
of his dialectics- and brilliantly, and another where he playfully hands
fellow conservative journalist Morton Kondracke his head, after being
chided over writing too speedily, accused of writing columns in twenty
So cut it out, Kondracke. I am, I fully grant, a phenomenon,
but not because of any speed in composition. I asked myself the other
day, Who else, on so many issues, has been so right so much of the time?
I couldnt think of anyone. And I devoted to the exercise twenty
He also has humorous pieces on culture, travel, his failed 1965 bid
for the mayoralty of New York City, and his classic 1961 essay on the
failure of Americans to speak up, Why Dont We Complain?
Of course, given the PC tendency of the last twenty years it would seem
that Buckleys call has been answered all too fully by those he
most detests! The books epilogue is also moving, and oddly, the
publisher, Regnery Press, includes a CD of Buckley reading selections
from the book, with brief introductions from journalistic icon Walter
Cronkite. Why this was included is puzzling, for it adds nothing to
the superb book, unlike, some of the unusual photographs that stud the
book- of the sort not usually present in such a work.
And that book is no mere diatribe against enemies, as one might believe
if one were merely to peruse the Lowest Common Denominator reviews one
finds on Amazon, where the good and bad reviews dare not speak of the
actual writing, merely the reviewers politics, and their like
or dislike of the man.
Still, such blatant bias is frustrating, especially for tyros who might
go seeking real informative reviews. Fortunately, Buckley, himself,
is beyond this sort of petulance, and this book is a true portrait of
the man- his good and bad points, sometimes admitted by the author,
and other times seeping out in the way the book was conceptualized.
The portrait that emerges is of a complex man, no matter your opinion
of his views- a man of culture, biases, refinement, stylized crudity,
dedication, tireless work ethic, snobbery, self-delusion, and a commitment
to excellence and constant self-education. It is as public a book and
life as can be, yet one where Buckley can echo a sentiment Galbraith
intoned to him on a shared vacation:
My fear is that the day may come when I write less well
than I now do, and nobody will tell me, and I wont have the faculty
of knowing it for myself.
That day seems a ways off, for William F. Buckley, Jr. To me, he will
always be that provocative host of Firing Line, with his trademark,
slung back posture in a chair, tightly wound, with legs stretched out,
arms folded, head reared back and a pencil eraser on his lower lip.
But, this book shows he is and was alot more. And I was delighted by
just how good a prose writer he could be, outside of fiction. This collection,
both as autobiographical primer, and a Buckley omnibus, should succeed
in making newer readers of the man seek out his other works. There is
the old query that people ask- who would be the ten figures from history
that you would most like to have dinner with. While there have been
weightier individuals, few would be as entertaining, Im sure,
as Bill Buckley, so hed get a chair at my fest. So, too, should
his book get a place on your shelves.
© Dan Schneider December 2005
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