Miles Gone By by William F. Buckley, Jr.
Miles Gone By: A Literary Autobiography
by William F. Buckley Jr.
Regnery. 594 pp. $29.95
William F. Buckley, Jr. retired, sort of, on June 29 of this year. He gave up his controlling shares in National Review, the conservative magazine he founded in 1955. This watershed event, disguised as a minor financial transaction, has inexorably led to efforts by others to evaluate the meaning of Buckley’s 55 years onstage in the world of ideas, and especially to assay the nature and extent of his influence on the political landscape. An interesting question—and ideal topic for intercollegiate debate—is whether the conservative movement would look substantially different today if Buckley had chosen to live as a playboy, which he could easily have done.
Buckley’s latest book does not address this question. Rather, it serves up an illuminating report on the events and people who shaped his life. Not exactly an autobiography, Miles Gone By is essentially an anthology—a collection of writings and pronouncements that, one way or another, offer glimpses of Buckley at work and at play from childhood (we come in on him at around age twelve) through yesterday. In order to do this he has stitched together some 60 or so articles, book reviews, columns, reminiscences, excerpts from books, the transcript of a 1978 Firing Line debate with Ronald Reagan over whether to give up the Panama Canal (Buckley argued the affirmative), and even a fragment from one of his novels that is said to “depict pretty exactly” some vignettes from his army years, including a scene in which the Buckley character loses his virginity in Phenix City, Alabama.
I cannot think of another writer who could have recycled so much old material and ended up with a work that most readers will find fresh and original. What makes this possible in Buckley’s case is in part his spirited style but mainly the fact that even his dedicated fans will have previously encountered only a small fraction of his Stakhanovite output. A bibliography covering his work from 1951 to 2000 states that he has produced 34 books of nonfiction, 15 novels, 81 book reviews, 56 introductions, prefaces, or forewords to other people’s books, 222 obituary essays, more than 800 articles and editorials for National Review, and more than 4,000 syndicated columns. The bibliographer, William Meehan, adds that Buckley’s unpublished writings (mostly correspondence) fill over 100 huge boxes at Yale’s Sterling Memorial Library.
The early pages of Miles Gone By depict a magical childhood. Billy, as he was designated in the family, was born in 1925, the sixth of ten children, and “home” during his early years was a sizable estate in Sharon, Connecticut called Great Elm. Its proprietor, William F. Buckley, Sr., appears to have been a shy, somewhat introverted, but quite daring businessman who initially struck it rich in Mexican oil before seeing his properties expropriated and barely escaping with his life in 1921. He later made another fortune in Venezuela, but Miles Gone By gives few details.
It is clear that during Buckley’s early years his father was often absent; it is also clear that he commanded the unquestioned love and loyalty of his often fractious brood, upon whom he imposed some unique ideas about education. To a degree, the Buckley children received what is now called home schooling. Tutors were omnipresent at Great Elm. The children seem to have learned French and Spanish, and learned as well to play musical instruments—the house had five pianos—ride horses, sail boats, and shoot pheasants. At one point, Billy and two of his sisters were sent to study at Jesuit schools in England, mainly, it appears, because their father believed they were not speaking their native tongue properly.
Buckley’s upbringing had a distinctly aristocratic dimension. He describes a scene at the annual Dutchess County horse show, where the Buckleys and Roosevelts had adjoining boxes. When his sister Trish won the blue ribbon, she received an ovation from President Roosevelt, which she disdainfully ignored. As the young lady returned to the family box, her father asked: “Why didn’t you nod to the President?” Her loyal answer: “I thought you didn’t like him.”
Buckley devotes 40 pages of Miles Gone By to a replay of the wars over his 1951 God and Man at Yale. The saga leaves one marveling at the iron resolve and self-assurance of the twenty-six-year-old author, who produced this book (in three months) just after graduating and subsequently did not yield an inch on the issues it raised—principally Yale’s hostility to religion and capitalism—even as he found himself ridiculed, demonized as an enemy of academic freedom, and proclaimed a cryptofascist by the liberal establishment’s heaviest guns. It also leaves one wondering at the college’s wild overreaction, captured in Dwight Macdonald’s crack, gleefully quoted here, about Yale showing “all the grace and agility of an elephant cornered by a mouse.”
Although he has surely earned his reputation as a warrior in the world of ideas, this self-portrait reminds us that Buckley is also an adventurer—a man endlessly, restlessly looking for kicks. Huge chunks of the book concern his passions for ocean sailing, for skiing, and for flying (which he gave up while still at Yale after crashing a plane on the lawn of the Ethel Walker School, in Simsbury, Connecticut, where his sister Maureen was a student). Travel to the South Pole? Take the Orient Express from Peking to Moscow? Perform a harpsichord solo with the Phoenix Symphony Orchestra? Run for the mayoralty of New York? Why not? One has to assume there is a connection, possibly metabolic, between the energy evidenced in all this adventuring and the staggering output registered in Buckley’s bibliography. The on-off switch seems always turned to “on.”
As has often been observed, Buckley has friends all across the political spectrum. He has skied with both John Kenneth Galbraith and Milton Friedman, although perhaps not with both at the same time. To judge from the examples given here, which include several film stars—Princess Grace, David Niven, Roger Moore—a touch of class may be more important to him than political alignment. A special gem in the section on friends and colleagues is an eighteen-page portrait of Whittaker Chambers in his final years, capped by his enrollment as an undergraduate at Western Maryland College to study science even as he was overwhelmed by a final weariness. “He learned science, and killed himself,” Buckley writes. “Those were the two things, toward the end, he most wanted to do.”
Miles Gone By is a fantastic read, reflecting the fantastic trajectory of Buckley’s life. Still, even while admiring and enjoying it I found myself wishing that Buckley had opted to write a genuine autobiography—one that might have illuminated many matters not discussed in this book. I, for one, would like to know if he ever goofs off, and I am also curious about his IQ. On a more substantive level, I would like to know where, if ever, he thinks he has gone wrong over the years. For instance, does he wish in retrospect that he had been more vocal in criticizing Joseph McCarthy? And—highly relevant these days—what would be his own assessment of his accomplishments? If he were on the Yale debating team today, which side of the question I began with—about the fortunes of the conservative movement—would he be inclined to argue?
Almost everyone who has weighed in on that question has given Buckley a lot of credit for either jump-starting or mightily helping the conservative cause. But within this consensus one can already discern two quite different perspectives. Liberals make the point that he has given conservatism a much friendlier face, and that his wit and panache have assured two generations of college students that conservatives need not be dull, stuffy, or intellectually bankrupt. This “public relations” view of his achievements is generally rated inadequate by conservatives; they see Buckley as preeminent in supplying and propagating the message that ultimately got Ronald Reagan elected. As Reagan himself said in 1985: “Bill Buckley is perhaps the most influential journalist and intellectual in our era—he changed our country, indeed our century.”
My own tentative view of the case combines elements of both positions. It begins with the proposition that there would have been a powerful conservative tide even in the wildly counterfactual scenario wherein William F. Buckley, Jr. had opted to become a playboy. That tide was guaranteed by mass affluence and the emergence of a modernized South in the 50′s and 60′s. But in the world of ideas, liberalism still remained overwhelmingly dominant, and it thus made a huge difference, especially in the years before neoconservatism came along, to have a beacon out there to guide a generation newly receptive to conservative thinking. In a sense, Buckley was lucky to have founded National Review in 1955. The timing was perfect. He bought into the market of ideas just when conservatism was at a low, and ready to take off.
He also deserves a great deal of credit for artfully steering his magazine on a difficult course in those early years. He opted against the sectarian irrelevance that would have doomed NR if, as seemed briefly possible at the time, it had refused to endorse Eisenhower in 1956 (because, some of his editors argued, Ike had succumbed to New Deal doctrine). Simultaneously, he managed to make it plain that conservative ideas mattered more than Republican-party interests.
The only existing biography of Buckley is William F. Buckley, Jr.: Patron Saint of the Conservatives, by John B. Judis. Published in 1988, it benefits from much good reporting but suffers from being out of date and from Judis’s inability to suppress his horror of conservative ideas. Now in the pipeline, but apparently a couple of years from publication, is another biography, by Sam Tanenhaus, currently doing a stint as the editor of the New York Times Book Review. One hopes it will give Buckley the high-level reckoning he has so dashingly earned over the years (and maybe even deliver the goods on his metabolism).