Review of William
F. Buckley, Jr.’s Miles Gone By
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 1/6/06
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 am a great 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 them, 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. Buckley 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? Love 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 ain’t bragging if you can back it up.’ Buckley does, and in this book, Miles Gone By, mislabeled an autobiography, he flexes his literary and intellectual muscle, as well as a bit of good natured preening.
In the book’s 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 pleasure.’
He succeeds on both counts, and in a book whose essence far outstrips the ballsiness of Edmund Morris’s 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 Morris’s writing, but in the wholesale blurring of fact and fiction, and some scenes that were outright distortions or 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, it’s 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 Eiseley’s classic All The Strange Hours, which focused on that man’s life of science and the mind. In a sense, Buckley’s book is far more broad, to compensate for its comparative lack of depth. And, when I say it lack of depth, remember it’s only in comparison to one of the greatest prose stylists that ever lived. Compared to most such works Buckley’s 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, although 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, Buckley’s 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 Buckley’s enthusiasm and descriptions draw the reader in, in the section’s eleven chapters.
The section on people he’s 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 Reagan’s ass, and made him look utterly un-Presidential, and that’s the point of the episode’s 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 bandwagon 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 journalist 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 Buckley’s continued support of the liar Chambers is seen as evidence of his dogmatism, and his greatest error, by Buckley’s 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 Flagstad’s, 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, Buckley is wrong with great style- and that is what separates art from philosophy; how an idea is conveyed, not the 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 minutes flat:
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 couldn’t think of anyone. And I devoted to the exercise twenty minutes. Flat.
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 Don’t We Complain? Of course, given the PC tendency of the last twenty years it would seem that Buckley’s call has been answered all too fully by those he most detests! The book’s 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. Here’s a typically leadheaded example of an Amazon detractor whose bias is evident, and apparently did not even bother to read the same book as I did:
Buckley’s reminiscences run along the lines of: ‘When NR staffers are working against deadline, they yell out ‘okay’ a lot.’ Excuse me? His politics are nearly unintelligible, and I was hoping this book would prove him to be worthy of the weird appeal that keeps him famous. But instead, it is too literally a bio: him writing about himself, without any sense of narrative, theme, or message.
Of course, to say that Buckley’s politics are unintelligible says far more of the reviewer than the reviewed, and apparently this reviewer did not read the same introduction I did, as well; the one where Buckley announces he will not ever write a formal autobiography. And Amazon is a place where bad writers often get their pals to write glowing shill reviews of their crap anyway. 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 and executed. The portrait of Buckley 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 won’t 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. He is the Conservative Colossus, and makes vapid lightweights such as the unimaginative George Will and the anomic David Horowitz seem just that. 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, I’m sure, as Bill Buckley, so he’d get a chair at my fest. So, too, should his book get a place on your shelves.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the 12/05 Hackwriters website.]
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