Commentary Magazine


Topic: Christopher Buckley

On Satire

Monday’s review of They Eat Puppies, Don’t They? — Christopher Buckley’s ninth political satire — raises the question of just what satire is. Trouble is, no one is really sure. The term has become a verbal shrug (“You know?”) for any kind of fiction at all with a humorous smack. As George Meredith famously said in his Essay on Comedy (1877), “If you detect the ridicule, and your kindliness is chilled by it, you are slipping into the grasp of Satire.” At its most precise, then, satire denotes humor that is mean as distinguished from humor that is nice. Peter De Vries advanced a similiar distinction in his novel Sauce for the Goose (1981):

Mrs. Dobbin had once read an article on humor in one of the magazines with smooth complexions, which analyzed satire by sorting its practitioners into two classes. Satirists were either soft-mouthed or hard-mouthed. They both brought their prey back dead, true, but some mangled it in purveyance while others did not.

If De Vries is to be believed, however (and no one understood the use of humor in fiction any better than he), the distinction belongs to satire instead of blocking it off from other types of humor. And De Vries has got to be right, because not all satirists are chilling meanies (Christopher Buckley, for example, is warm-hearted toward his prey).

The question about satire is an ancient one, and I have no intention of rehearsing history’s answers. Mainly because they have been remarkably uniform, from Diomedes Grammaticus in the 4th century B.C.E. (quoted by Dryden in the Discourse on Satire), who said that “Satire amongst the Romans but not amongst the Greeks, was a biting invective poem, made after the model of the ancient comedy, for the reprehension of vices,” all the way down to Stephen Greenblatt, who characterizes it in Critical Terms for Literary Study (1990) as the kind of literature explicitly engaged in attack. Literary history stands united. Satire is fiction that delivers a good bitch slap.

Who am I to stand athwart history? But I would like to observe that two errors result from the uniform confusion of satire with biting humor. First, fiction that is not satirical is subjected to misunderstanding. (The best example of a first-rate novelist who has suffered from the confusion is Francine Prose.) Second, the element of humor, which is not the dominant note in satire, no matter what the critics think, is overemphasized, leading to misinterpretation of a different sort.

WTF? Satire is not supposed to be funny? Only a pompous fool or a turgid academic (but I repeat myself) would arrive at such a conclusion! Don’t get me wrong: a satirist has to make his readers laugh. Otherwise there’s no reason to read him in the first place. But that’s not all he is supposed to do. That’s not even the main thing. The German romantic novelist Jean Paul (a.k.a. Johann Paul Friedrich Richter) explains:

A satire on everything is a satire on nothing; it is mere absurdity. All contempt, all disrespect, implies something respected, as a standard to which it is referred; just as every valley implies a hill.

This is why the view of satire as ridicule or biting invective or attack is upside-down. Despite outward appearances, satire is fundamentally affirmative, even if its methods are not. De Vries quoted Robert Frost in support of the notion: “If it is with outer seriousness, it must be with inner humor. If it is with outer humor, it must be with inner seriousness. Neither one alone without the other under it will do.”

Satire’s principal method is what in philosophy is called the reductio, the reduction of an idea or attitude to absurdity. But as Jean Paul points out, the satire itself cannot be an absurdity, or nothing is accomplished. (There in a sentence is the weakness of Sacha Baron Cohen’s “satire.”) The satirist reduces his puffed-up targets to absurdity, because he wants to clear the ground for a more durable standard of meaning. If he could describe it with outer seriousness, rather than mocking its competitors with outer humor, he’d probably do so. But he writes the best way he can, and avoids what is beyond his capacities. “I have recently read a couple of serious-type articles about what I am actually up to,” De Vries said, “and I can only conclude that my stuff is really over my head.”

What, then, distinguishes satire from other varieties of fiction and other types of humor? The definition in the 11th edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica is the best, because it is the cleanest: Satire is caricature joined to literary form. Other varieties of fiction depend upon characterization rather than caricature; other types of humor dispense with literary form (plot, scene, meter). Satire is a genre of serious literature which keeps its seriousness carefully concealed like a weapon of last resort. Bitch slaps are optional: they are a technique, not a genre.

Monday’s review of They Eat Puppies, Don’t They? — Christopher Buckley’s ninth political satire — raises the question of just what satire is. Trouble is, no one is really sure. The term has become a verbal shrug (“You know?”) for any kind of fiction at all with a humorous smack. As George Meredith famously said in his Essay on Comedy (1877), “If you detect the ridicule, and your kindliness is chilled by it, you are slipping into the grasp of Satire.” At its most precise, then, satire denotes humor that is mean as distinguished from humor that is nice. Peter De Vries advanced a similiar distinction in his novel Sauce for the Goose (1981):

Mrs. Dobbin had once read an article on humor in one of the magazines with smooth complexions, which analyzed satire by sorting its practitioners into two classes. Satirists were either soft-mouthed or hard-mouthed. They both brought their prey back dead, true, but some mangled it in purveyance while others did not.

If De Vries is to be believed, however (and no one understood the use of humor in fiction any better than he), the distinction belongs to satire instead of blocking it off from other types of humor. And De Vries has got to be right, because not all satirists are chilling meanies (Christopher Buckley, for example, is warm-hearted toward his prey).

The question about satire is an ancient one, and I have no intention of rehearsing history’s answers. Mainly because they have been remarkably uniform, from Diomedes Grammaticus in the 4th century B.C.E. (quoted by Dryden in the Discourse on Satire), who said that “Satire amongst the Romans but not amongst the Greeks, was a biting invective poem, made after the model of the ancient comedy, for the reprehension of vices,” all the way down to Stephen Greenblatt, who characterizes it in Critical Terms for Literary Study (1990) as the kind of literature explicitly engaged in attack. Literary history stands united. Satire is fiction that delivers a good bitch slap.

Who am I to stand athwart history? But I would like to observe that two errors result from the uniform confusion of satire with biting humor. First, fiction that is not satirical is subjected to misunderstanding. (The best example of a first-rate novelist who has suffered from the confusion is Francine Prose.) Second, the element of humor, which is not the dominant note in satire, no matter what the critics think, is overemphasized, leading to misinterpretation of a different sort.

WTF? Satire is not supposed to be funny? Only a pompous fool or a turgid academic (but I repeat myself) would arrive at such a conclusion! Don’t get me wrong: a satirist has to make his readers laugh. Otherwise there’s no reason to read him in the first place. But that’s not all he is supposed to do. That’s not even the main thing. The German romantic novelist Jean Paul (a.k.a. Johann Paul Friedrich Richter) explains:

A satire on everything is a satire on nothing; it is mere absurdity. All contempt, all disrespect, implies something respected, as a standard to which it is referred; just as every valley implies a hill.

This is why the view of satire as ridicule or biting invective or attack is upside-down. Despite outward appearances, satire is fundamentally affirmative, even if its methods are not. De Vries quoted Robert Frost in support of the notion: “If it is with outer seriousness, it must be with inner humor. If it is with outer humor, it must be with inner seriousness. Neither one alone without the other under it will do.”

Satire’s principal method is what in philosophy is called the reductio, the reduction of an idea or attitude to absurdity. But as Jean Paul points out, the satire itself cannot be an absurdity, or nothing is accomplished. (There in a sentence is the weakness of Sacha Baron Cohen’s “satire.”) The satirist reduces his puffed-up targets to absurdity, because he wants to clear the ground for a more durable standard of meaning. If he could describe it with outer seriousness, rather than mocking its competitors with outer humor, he’d probably do so. But he writes the best way he can, and avoids what is beyond his capacities. “I have recently read a couple of serious-type articles about what I am actually up to,” De Vries said, “and I can only conclude that my stuff is really over my head.”

What, then, distinguishes satire from other varieties of fiction and other types of humor? The definition in the 11th edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica is the best, because it is the cleanest: Satire is caricature joined to literary form. Other varieties of fiction depend upon characterization rather than caricature; other types of humor dispense with literary form (plot, scene, meter). Satire is a genre of serious literature which keeps its seriousness carefully concealed like a weapon of last resort. Bitch slaps are optional: they are a technique, not a genre.

Read Less

Review: Who Killed the Dalai Lama?

Christopher Buckley, They Eat Puppies, Don’t They? (New York: Twelve, 2012). 352 pages. $25.99.

“They happened to get lucky — real lucky — with their timing,” a CIA official says of the co-conspirators at the heart of Christopher Buckley’s latest novel. Exactly the same can be said of Buckley. His ninth novel was in press, its dog-chomping title decided upon long before, when Jim Treacher of the Daily Caller broke the story that Barack Obama had boasted of eating “dog meat (tough)” as a boy, and the #ObamaEatsDog meme went viral. Then, just days after Buckley hit the bookstores with a new book that satirized the expensive sport of dressage (among other things), the New York Times obliged him with a 2,200-word front page story on Ann Romney’s immersion in “in the elite world of riding.”

You can’t buy that kind of publicity. Not that Buckley needs it. He may be the best comic novelist now writing in America, perhaps the best since Peter De Vries. His most celebrated novel is probably Thank You for Smoking (1994), a satire on the tobacco lobby and anti-tobacco zealots, which was filmed by Jason Reitman nine years later. I prefer Little Green Men (1999), his tale of a TV talk-show host who is abducted by aliens from a golf course.

The only child of William F. Buckley Jr., he was a speechwriter for Vice President George Bush before getting out of politics to mock it in hilarious restrained prose. The White House Mess, a 1986 parody of White House memoirs, established from the start of his career that Buckley had perfect pitch for the mendacious sincerity of Washington, D.C. Above all his characters want to preserve a reputation for high principle and upright conscience, even if everything they say reveals that they are, as Nick Naylor puts it in Thank You for Smoking — his second novel — “unholier than thou.” After God Is My Broker (1998), a caricature of self-help books that was cowritten with the science reporter John Tierney, Buckley knocked out a string of six political satires over the next 13 years. His targets included White House sex scandals, Islamism, bloggers, and the Supreme Court nomination circus.

In They Eat Puppies, Don’t They? the 59-year-old Buckley trains his sights upon China and especially America’s anxious relationship with China. In Washington, a defense contractor observes, “[t]hey’re more nervous about China than a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs.” Which makes life difficult for defense contractors, who only want to sell weapons to the government so that Americans can “sleep a lot more soundly.” Chick Devlin, head of the munitions giant Groepping-Sprunt (no one is better than Buckley at deflating an entire industry with one made-up name), hatches a plot to “gin up a little anti-China mojo.” As he explains to Walter “Bird” MacIntyre, his chief lobbyist:

“Last time I checked, their flag was flaming Communist red. Yes, I believe the time has come to educate the great dumb American public — God love them — to educate them about the . . .” — Chick paused, as if searching for just the right word — “the peril we as a nation face from from a nation of one point three billion foreigners. . . . If we can do that, then those limp dicks and fainting hearts and imbeciles in the United States Congress — God love them — will follow.”

Bird enlists the help of Angel Templeton, a dead ringer for Ann Coulter. “Tall, blond, buff, leggy, miniskirted,” Angel chairs the Institute for Continuing Conflict, which its detractors call the Institute for Never-Ending War. It is headquarters for “the so-called Oreo-Cons—‘Hard on the outside, soft on the inside.’ ” These are hawks who do not much care what Congress does “so long as they kept the Pentagon and the armed forces well funded and engaged abroad, preferably in hand-to-hand combat.” No one is more anti-China than Angel Templeton:

Am I the only person in this town who’s tired of hearing that the twenty-first century is going to be ‘the Chinese Century’? Could someone tell me — please — why America, the greatest country in history, only gets one century? And by the way, who decided this was going to be their century? Some thumb-sucking professor at Yale? Please.

Together Bird and Angel cook up a scheme. They plant the rumor that Beijing is out to murder the Dalai Lama. “You know the saying,” Bird tells Angel, “ ‘You can fool some of the people some of the time — and those are the one you need to concentrate on’?” The Dalai Lama collapses on his way to a meeting with the Pope. In the hospital in Rome, he is diagnosed with terminal cancer. He is given two months to live. But here the plot thickens. The medical report is stolen by the Chinese government, who keep the Dalai Lama’s condition a secret. The director of Chinese intelligence explains why: “Once he learns that he’s dying, he’s sure to petition to be allowed to return to Tibet.” And that the Chinese cannot permit.

They Eat Puppies, Don’t They? then becomes a fast-paced plot and counter-plot and counter-counter-plot involving not just Bird and Angel but the Chinese Politburo at its highest level and the inner bowels of the National Security Council to boot. Everyone, it seems, would prefer to see the Dalai Lama dead — the Chinese to remove the face and symbol of anti-China resistance, the Americans to blame the Chinese. And when the Dalai Lama finally dies, it is not clear if the cancer killed him, or if he was murdered; and if so, by whom. Buckley makes great use of the story’s twisting back-and-forth, not merely as a supporting medium for his tickling one-liners, but as a source of humor in its own right. National governments are basically spy agencies, he seems to be implying: plotting against enemies foreign, domestic, and inter-agency is the principal form of government work.

It is Bird’s wife Myndi, incidentally, who is into what he calls “the horse thing.” She is trying out for the American equestrian team which will compete for the Tang Cup in Xi’an, China. When her mare injures a tendon, she asks Bird for a $225,000 replacement mount. “The bloodlines are stunning,” she reassures him. “The House of Windsor doesn’t have bloodlines like this.” Bird balks at the price; Myndi gets angry. “Look,” she says — “we agreed when I decided to try out for the team that we were going to do this together.” Bird is struck by her conception of togetherness: “She’d compete for a place on the U.S. Equestrian Team and he would write the checks.” As for him, Bird’s avocation is writing novels — absurd techno-thrillers in the manner of Tom Clancy, to whom Buckley has long acted the part of scourge. When Angel teases him about his unpublished tetralogy, Bird explodes: “What is it with you people? Is being a novelist considered some kind of disability?”

Perhaps the most surprising thing about Buckley’s novel is its tone of quiet respect, even reverence, for Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th and current Dalai Lama. Along with Chris Matthews, he is the only character in the book to appear under his own name. “Americans love the guy,” Bird says. “The whole world loves him. What’s not to love? He’s a seventy-five-year-old sweetie pie with glasses, plus the sandals and the saffron robe and the hugging and the mandalas and the peace and harmony and the reincarnation and nirvana. All that. We can’t get enough of him.” In fact, Buckley gives little of him — but the little he gives is deeply moving. Not just for the reader, but for the characters in the novel too. Everyone who comes in contact with him is affected by him. Without any sermonizing at all, Buckley offers a serene and alluring image of anti-politics — the life of religion, which gives meaning to human conduct. Although he fires off a few zingers about public figures (“The vice president’s tongue is several time zones ahead of his brain,” the Chinese Foreign Minister says of a character who resembles Joe Biden), Buckley is more interested in more substantial figures.

The powerful example of the Dalai Lama accounts for Buckley’s own political attitudes in his latest novel. Ever since he famously broke with his father’s old magazine the National Review by announcing that he would vote for Barack Obama, Buckley has had a testy relationship with American conservatism. They Eat Puppies, Don’t They? is his first novel since the 2008 election. Its satirical transformation of neocons into “Oreo-Cons” is unlikely to win back many friends on the right. (“Norman Podhoretz?” Angel scoffs at one point. “That’s your definition of a major Jew?”) And a hint of sanctimony creeps into his political reflections early in the novel. The U.S. deployment of “killer drones,” he says,

was stark evidence that somewhere along the line Uncle Sam had quietly morphed into Global Big Brother. With wings. The proud American eagle now clutched in one talon the traditional martial arrows, in the other a remote control.

This is political speech more familiar among the neo-isolationist left. “If we’re really in the endgame of the American experiment,” as one character puts it in They Eat Puppies, Don’t They?, for Buckley the cause is not a decline of American power or the loss of American exceptionalism — the cause is a decline of religion and the loss of religious influence like the Dalai Lama’s. If Christopher Buckley remains a conservative, in other words, he is a conservative in the mold of Whittaker Chambers. The difference is that he laughs at American politics while he retreats from it, and gets the rest of us to laugh at it too. “How sad it would be if our people saw what was going on in the world,” the general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party says wryly when news of the Dalai Lama’s death is blocked at China’s borders. In Buckley’s fiction, what goes on in the world is less comic than what goes on outside its view — less meaningful too.

Christopher Buckley, They Eat Puppies, Don’t They? (New York: Twelve, 2012). 352 pages. $25.99.

“They happened to get lucky — real lucky — with their timing,” a CIA official says of the co-conspirators at the heart of Christopher Buckley’s latest novel. Exactly the same can be said of Buckley. His ninth novel was in press, its dog-chomping title decided upon long before, when Jim Treacher of the Daily Caller broke the story that Barack Obama had boasted of eating “dog meat (tough)” as a boy, and the #ObamaEatsDog meme went viral. Then, just days after Buckley hit the bookstores with a new book that satirized the expensive sport of dressage (among other things), the New York Times obliged him with a 2,200-word front page story on Ann Romney’s immersion in “in the elite world of riding.”

You can’t buy that kind of publicity. Not that Buckley needs it. He may be the best comic novelist now writing in America, perhaps the best since Peter De Vries. His most celebrated novel is probably Thank You for Smoking (1994), a satire on the tobacco lobby and anti-tobacco zealots, which was filmed by Jason Reitman nine years later. I prefer Little Green Men (1999), his tale of a TV talk-show host who is abducted by aliens from a golf course.

The only child of William F. Buckley Jr., he was a speechwriter for Vice President George Bush before getting out of politics to mock it in hilarious restrained prose. The White House Mess, a 1986 parody of White House memoirs, established from the start of his career that Buckley had perfect pitch for the mendacious sincerity of Washington, D.C. Above all his characters want to preserve a reputation for high principle and upright conscience, even if everything they say reveals that they are, as Nick Naylor puts it in Thank You for Smoking — his second novel — “unholier than thou.” After God Is My Broker (1998), a caricature of self-help books that was cowritten with the science reporter John Tierney, Buckley knocked out a string of six political satires over the next 13 years. His targets included White House sex scandals, Islamism, bloggers, and the Supreme Court nomination circus.

In They Eat Puppies, Don’t They? the 59-year-old Buckley trains his sights upon China and especially America’s anxious relationship with China. In Washington, a defense contractor observes, “[t]hey’re more nervous about China than a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs.” Which makes life difficult for defense contractors, who only want to sell weapons to the government so that Americans can “sleep a lot more soundly.” Chick Devlin, head of the munitions giant Groepping-Sprunt (no one is better than Buckley at deflating an entire industry with one made-up name), hatches a plot to “gin up a little anti-China mojo.” As he explains to Walter “Bird” MacIntyre, his chief lobbyist:

“Last time I checked, their flag was flaming Communist red. Yes, I believe the time has come to educate the great dumb American public — God love them — to educate them about the . . .” — Chick paused, as if searching for just the right word — “the peril we as a nation face from from a nation of one point three billion foreigners. . . . If we can do that, then those limp dicks and fainting hearts and imbeciles in the United States Congress — God love them — will follow.”

Bird enlists the help of Angel Templeton, a dead ringer for Ann Coulter. “Tall, blond, buff, leggy, miniskirted,” Angel chairs the Institute for Continuing Conflict, which its detractors call the Institute for Never-Ending War. It is headquarters for “the so-called Oreo-Cons—‘Hard on the outside, soft on the inside.’ ” These are hawks who do not much care what Congress does “so long as they kept the Pentagon and the armed forces well funded and engaged abroad, preferably in hand-to-hand combat.” No one is more anti-China than Angel Templeton:

Am I the only person in this town who’s tired of hearing that the twenty-first century is going to be ‘the Chinese Century’? Could someone tell me — please — why America, the greatest country in history, only gets one century? And by the way, who decided this was going to be their century? Some thumb-sucking professor at Yale? Please.

Together Bird and Angel cook up a scheme. They plant the rumor that Beijing is out to murder the Dalai Lama. “You know the saying,” Bird tells Angel, “ ‘You can fool some of the people some of the time — and those are the one you need to concentrate on’?” The Dalai Lama collapses on his way to a meeting with the Pope. In the hospital in Rome, he is diagnosed with terminal cancer. He is given two months to live. But here the plot thickens. The medical report is stolen by the Chinese government, who keep the Dalai Lama’s condition a secret. The director of Chinese intelligence explains why: “Once he learns that he’s dying, he’s sure to petition to be allowed to return to Tibet.” And that the Chinese cannot permit.

They Eat Puppies, Don’t They? then becomes a fast-paced plot and counter-plot and counter-counter-plot involving not just Bird and Angel but the Chinese Politburo at its highest level and the inner bowels of the National Security Council to boot. Everyone, it seems, would prefer to see the Dalai Lama dead — the Chinese to remove the face and symbol of anti-China resistance, the Americans to blame the Chinese. And when the Dalai Lama finally dies, it is not clear if the cancer killed him, or if he was murdered; and if so, by whom. Buckley makes great use of the story’s twisting back-and-forth, not merely as a supporting medium for his tickling one-liners, but as a source of humor in its own right. National governments are basically spy agencies, he seems to be implying: plotting against enemies foreign, domestic, and inter-agency is the principal form of government work.

It is Bird’s wife Myndi, incidentally, who is into what he calls “the horse thing.” She is trying out for the American equestrian team which will compete for the Tang Cup in Xi’an, China. When her mare injures a tendon, she asks Bird for a $225,000 replacement mount. “The bloodlines are stunning,” she reassures him. “The House of Windsor doesn’t have bloodlines like this.” Bird balks at the price; Myndi gets angry. “Look,” she says — “we agreed when I decided to try out for the team that we were going to do this together.” Bird is struck by her conception of togetherness: “She’d compete for a place on the U.S. Equestrian Team and he would write the checks.” As for him, Bird’s avocation is writing novels — absurd techno-thrillers in the manner of Tom Clancy, to whom Buckley has long acted the part of scourge. When Angel teases him about his unpublished tetralogy, Bird explodes: “What is it with you people? Is being a novelist considered some kind of disability?”

Perhaps the most surprising thing about Buckley’s novel is its tone of quiet respect, even reverence, for Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th and current Dalai Lama. Along with Chris Matthews, he is the only character in the book to appear under his own name. “Americans love the guy,” Bird says. “The whole world loves him. What’s not to love? He’s a seventy-five-year-old sweetie pie with glasses, plus the sandals and the saffron robe and the hugging and the mandalas and the peace and harmony and the reincarnation and nirvana. All that. We can’t get enough of him.” In fact, Buckley gives little of him — but the little he gives is deeply moving. Not just for the reader, but for the characters in the novel too. Everyone who comes in contact with him is affected by him. Without any sermonizing at all, Buckley offers a serene and alluring image of anti-politics — the life of religion, which gives meaning to human conduct. Although he fires off a few zingers about public figures (“The vice president’s tongue is several time zones ahead of his brain,” the Chinese Foreign Minister says of a character who resembles Joe Biden), Buckley is more interested in more substantial figures.

The powerful example of the Dalai Lama accounts for Buckley’s own political attitudes in his latest novel. Ever since he famously broke with his father’s old magazine the National Review by announcing that he would vote for Barack Obama, Buckley has had a testy relationship with American conservatism. They Eat Puppies, Don’t They? is his first novel since the 2008 election. Its satirical transformation of neocons into “Oreo-Cons” is unlikely to win back many friends on the right. (“Norman Podhoretz?” Angel scoffs at one point. “That’s your definition of a major Jew?”) And a hint of sanctimony creeps into his political reflections early in the novel. The U.S. deployment of “killer drones,” he says,

was stark evidence that somewhere along the line Uncle Sam had quietly morphed into Global Big Brother. With wings. The proud American eagle now clutched in one talon the traditional martial arrows, in the other a remote control.

This is political speech more familiar among the neo-isolationist left. “If we’re really in the endgame of the American experiment,” as one character puts it in They Eat Puppies, Don’t They?, for Buckley the cause is not a decline of American power or the loss of American exceptionalism — the cause is a decline of religion and the loss of religious influence like the Dalai Lama’s. If Christopher Buckley remains a conservative, in other words, he is a conservative in the mold of Whittaker Chambers. The difference is that he laughs at American politics while he retreats from it, and gets the rest of us to laugh at it too. “How sad it would be if our people saw what was going on in the world,” the general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party says wryly when news of the Dalai Lama’s death is blocked at China’s borders. In Buckley’s fiction, what goes on in the world is less comic than what goes on outside its view — less meaningful too.

Read Less

Obama Should Read Less Fiction, More Women

At least that’s the verdict of the political press. On Tuesday, at the National Review Online, Tevi Troy described Obama’s summer reading as “the oddest assortment of presidential reading material ever disclosed.” Five of his six books are fiction, which is a problem, you see, because it “sets him up for the charge that he is out of touch with reality.” Meanwhile, over at Salon, Robin Black was less exercised by his books’ genre as by their authors’ gender. “Obama’s reading [is] 70 percent male,” she said — “which is actually a better male-female ratio than the past.” Studying a list compiled by the Daily Beast of every book Obama has mentioned since 2008, Black howled that “It’s a 23-to-one blowout in favor of the men.”

If it is displeasing both left and right, the White House might just consider declaring victory and putting the books away. The real problem, this summer as last (when he wasted his time with Jonathan Franzen’s overhyped Freedom), is that all of Obama’s books speak with one voice. Troy noticed something of the kind when commenting on the president’s non-fiction reading load:

While the fiction-heavy aspect of the list is something new, the liberal authors should come as no surprise. Obama, like other Democratic presidents, has tended to read mainly liberal books, although he could stand to gain some insight from conservative ones.

As long as he is going to read fiction, though, Obama is going to read liberal authors. Perhaps the only publicly identified conservatives who are known for writing novels these days are Charles McCarry and Christopher Buckley. Shelley’s Heart, McCarry’s masterpiece, is unlikely to appeal to the president, since it is about a conspiracy by the political left to install a “messiah” in the White House. And he needn’t curry any favor with Buckley. The author of Thank You for Smoking endorsed Obama in 2008.

The fiction that Obama does read is guaranteed to make him smile. Not only do its authors side with the better angels of the president’s progressive nature, but as I have observed here and here and here, Bush-and-Cheney-and-Fox News bashing has become one of the most reliable conventions of contemporary fiction. Small wonder Obama took home so many novels to enjoy this summer. Even smaller wonder that that so few were by women. Nearly all of them share his purity of heart, after all.

At least that’s the verdict of the political press. On Tuesday, at the National Review Online, Tevi Troy described Obama’s summer reading as “the oddest assortment of presidential reading material ever disclosed.” Five of his six books are fiction, which is a problem, you see, because it “sets him up for the charge that he is out of touch with reality.” Meanwhile, over at Salon, Robin Black was less exercised by his books’ genre as by their authors’ gender. “Obama’s reading [is] 70 percent male,” she said — “which is actually a better male-female ratio than the past.” Studying a list compiled by the Daily Beast of every book Obama has mentioned since 2008, Black howled that “It’s a 23-to-one blowout in favor of the men.”

If it is displeasing both left and right, the White House might just consider declaring victory and putting the books away. The real problem, this summer as last (when he wasted his time with Jonathan Franzen’s overhyped Freedom), is that all of Obama’s books speak with one voice. Troy noticed something of the kind when commenting on the president’s non-fiction reading load:

While the fiction-heavy aspect of the list is something new, the liberal authors should come as no surprise. Obama, like other Democratic presidents, has tended to read mainly liberal books, although he could stand to gain some insight from conservative ones.

As long as he is going to read fiction, though, Obama is going to read liberal authors. Perhaps the only publicly identified conservatives who are known for writing novels these days are Charles McCarry and Christopher Buckley. Shelley’s Heart, McCarry’s masterpiece, is unlikely to appeal to the president, since it is about a conspiracy by the political left to install a “messiah” in the White House. And he needn’t curry any favor with Buckley. The author of Thank You for Smoking endorsed Obama in 2008.

The fiction that Obama does read is guaranteed to make him smile. Not only do its authors side with the better angels of the president’s progressive nature, but as I have observed here and here and here, Bush-and-Cheney-and-Fox News bashing has become one of the most reliable conventions of contemporary fiction. Small wonder Obama took home so many novels to enjoy this summer. Even smaller wonder that that so few were by women. Nearly all of them share his purity of heart, after all.

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The Alien Among Us

Jennifer Rubin astutely notes that Obama the candidate “let everyone form their own impression of who he is and what he stands for.” (In this respect, he is like one of those alien species from Star Trek with the ability to assume the appearance of whatever life-form it finds itself among.) And Rubin correctly reads Tina Brown as saying that Obama does not believe in the mission in Afghanistan and — at least implicitly — that the Daily Beast editor is calling the president a liar when he claims that his health-care plan will be “deficit neutral.”

Brown’s comments call to mind Christopher Buckley’s odd endorsement, in October 2008, of Obama’s presidential bid, in which Buckley — like a feckless member of the Starship Enterprise crew — failed to see the alien standing in front of him as alien, even to the point of turning over control of the ship to him. In his endorsement, Buckley identified himself as “a small-government conservative who clings tenaciously and old-fashionedly to the idea that one ought to have balanced budgets” and correctly characterized Obama as a “lefty,” raising the obvious question: “So, Chris, why are you endorsing him?” Part of Buckley’s answer concerned his dissatisfaction with John McCain. But beyond that, Buckley opined that Obama had “a first-class temperament and a first-class intellect” and that, therefore, he would “surely understand that traditional left-politics aren’t going to get us out of this pit we’ve dug for ourselves.” In other words, Buckley supported Obama because he thought Obama was too smart to do the things he was promising to do; which is to say, he supported him because he didn’t believe him.

Now that President Obama has resorted precisely to the “traditional left-politics” that Buckley was so sure he would eschew, and has deepened the “pit” by several orders of magnitude — with the worst yet to come — we are left to conclude (1) that Obama’s intelligence and temperament fall far short of what so many of his supporters — and some of his adversaries — attributed to him, and/or (2) that Obama was telling the truth about his policy intentions all along and that what is in doubt is the capacity of some of his supporters to recognize an alien when they see one.

Jennifer Rubin astutely notes that Obama the candidate “let everyone form their own impression of who he is and what he stands for.” (In this respect, he is like one of those alien species from Star Trek with the ability to assume the appearance of whatever life-form it finds itself among.) And Rubin correctly reads Tina Brown as saying that Obama does not believe in the mission in Afghanistan and — at least implicitly — that the Daily Beast editor is calling the president a liar when he claims that his health-care plan will be “deficit neutral.”

Brown’s comments call to mind Christopher Buckley’s odd endorsement, in October 2008, of Obama’s presidential bid, in which Buckley — like a feckless member of the Starship Enterprise crew — failed to see the alien standing in front of him as alien, even to the point of turning over control of the ship to him. In his endorsement, Buckley identified himself as “a small-government conservative who clings tenaciously and old-fashionedly to the idea that one ought to have balanced budgets” and correctly characterized Obama as a “lefty,” raising the obvious question: “So, Chris, why are you endorsing him?” Part of Buckley’s answer concerned his dissatisfaction with John McCain. But beyond that, Buckley opined that Obama had “a first-class temperament and a first-class intellect” and that, therefore, he would “surely understand that traditional left-politics aren’t going to get us out of this pit we’ve dug for ourselves.” In other words, Buckley supported Obama because he thought Obama was too smart to do the things he was promising to do; which is to say, he supported him because he didn’t believe him.

Now that President Obama has resorted precisely to the “traditional left-politics” that Buckley was so sure he would eschew, and has deepened the “pit” by several orders of magnitude — with the worst yet to come — we are left to conclude (1) that Obama’s intelligence and temperament fall far short of what so many of his supporters — and some of his adversaries — attributed to him, and/or (2) that Obama was telling the truth about his policy intentions all along and that what is in doubt is the capacity of some of his supporters to recognize an alien when they see one.

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Home from the Sea

cross-posted at About Last Night

Moss Hart, who grew up poor and spent a not-inconsiderable portion of his young life riding the subway from deepest Brooklyn to Times Square, swore that if he ever struck it rich, he’d take cabs everywhere, even if his destination was only a block or two away. I’ve never been poor and have yet to strike it rich, but I rode the subway often enough in my first years as a New Yorker to be glad that I can now afford to take cabs. Be that as it may, a true New Yorker who wants to get somewhere at ten on a rainy morning takes the subway, and since today’s Mass for the repose of the soul of William F. Buckley, Jr., who died five weeks ago, was scheduled to start at ten o’clock sharp at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, I put on my black outfit and raincoat, descended into the bowels of Manhattan, and made my bumpy way to Rockefeller Center in the midst of a rush-hour crowd.

It’s been quite a while since I walked through Rockefeller Center, even longer since I’ve been inside St. Patrick’s, and a very long time indeed since I last attended a memorial service for a public figure. For all these reasons, I have no standard against which to measure Bill’s funeral obsequies. All I can tell you was that today’s service seemed as splendid as it could possibly have been. The cathedral was full of mourners, the choir loft full of singers, and the music was mostly appropriate to the occasion. Bill was a serious amateur musician who loved Bach above all things–he actually performed the F Minor Harpsichord Concerto in public on more than one occasion–so the organist played “Sheep May Safely Graze” and the slow movement of the Toccata, Adagio, and Fugue in C Major. No less suitable were the sung portions of the Mass, drawn from Victoria’s sweetly austere Missa “O magnum mysterium,” and the closing hymn, the noble tune from Gustav Holst’s The Planets to which the following words were later set: I vow to thee, my country–all earthly things above–/Entire and whole and perfect, the service of my love.

The only thing that made my inner critic smile wryly was the performance during communion of the Adagio in G Minor long attributed to Albinoni but in fact woven out of whole cloth by one Remo Giazotto. It is a preposterously operatic piece of spurious yard goods, and to hear it played on the organ with all stops pulled put me in mind of something Bill wrote after attending a Virgil Fox recital many years ago:

At one point during a prelude, I am tempted to rise solemnly, commandeer a shotgun, and advise Fox, preferably in imperious German, if only I could learn German in time to consummate the fantasy, that if he does not release the goddam vox humana, which is oohing-ahing-eeing the music where Bach clearly intended something closer to a bel canto, I shall simply have to blow his head off.

That was the Bill Buckley I knew, whip-smart and impishly outrageous, the same man that David Remnick had in mind when he described Bill as having “the eyes of a child who has just displayed a horrid use for the microwave oven and the family cat.”

I wish I could say I knew him well, but I didn’t. I dined at his table a number of times but was only alone with him once, when I interviewed him about Whittaker Chambers for an anthology of Chambers’ journalism that I edited in 1989. On that occasion Bill assured me that although they had been close, Chambers never had “any direct historical or intellectual influence” on him. The reason he gave is striking:

I never embraced, in part because subjectively it’s contra naturam to me, that utter, total, objective, strategic pessimism of his. Among other things, I think it’s wrong theologically to assume that the world is doomed before God decides to doom it. So I never drank too deeply of his Weltschmerz.

Indeed he did not: Bill was the least weltschmerzy person imaginable. Henry Kissinger, who eulogized him this morning, alluded to that side of Bill’s personality when he remarked that Bill “was vouchsafed a little miracle: to enjoy so much what was compelled by inner necessity.” I couldn’t have put it better. Bill worked fearfully hard and was deadly serious about what he believed, but he extracted self-evident enjoyment from everything he did, and you couldn’t be in his presence for more than a minute or two without responding to his joie de vivre. If I’d been in charge of the music today, I would have made a point of picking something a good deal more festive–Bach’s Fugue à la gigue, say, or one of the harpsichord sonatas in which Scarlatti turns the instrument Bill loved best into a giant guitar.

Christopher Buckley, Bill’s son, followed Henry Kissinger, and gave just the sort of eulogy I’d expected from him, funny and light-fingered, putting much-needed smiles on our faces. Only at the end did he sound a darker note, quoting the lines from Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Requiem” that he chose as the epitaph for a man who loved sailing as much as he loved Bach: Here he lies where he long’d to be;/Home is the sailor, home from the sea,/And the hunter home from the hill. Then we all sang “I Vow to Thee, My Country,” pushed our way past the waiting photographers, and returned to the gray, misty day.

I passed up a lunch invitation and went home by myself, preferring to be alone with my thoughts. I was thinking of an evening in the fall of 1985, not long after I moved to New York from the Midwest. I’d been writing for National Review, Bill’s magazine, since 1981, but I’d never met my first great patron face to face, so he invited me to an editorial dinner at his Park Avenue apartment. Back then I was working for Harper’s, whose offices were in Greenwich Village, and the thought of meeting Bill for the first time was so exciting that I walked all the way from Astor Place up to 73 E. 73rd Street (where Bill invariably entertained at 7:30).

It was, of course, a symbolic gesture: I was taking possession of the streets of the city to which I had moved and in which I hoped someday to make a name for myself. At the end of my journey I knocked on the door of Bill’s maisonette, and a few moments later he clasped my hand and said, “Hey, buddy!” It was, I would learn, his standard greeting, always uttered with a warmth that remained disarming no matter how many times you heard it.

Ever since then I have associated Bill Buckley with New York, whose doors he flung wide to me, just as he opened the pages of the magazine he edited. Now New York is my home–but Bill is gone, buried in Connecticut, home at last from the sea. Somehow you never imagine outliving the people who show you through the doors that lead to the rest of your life.

cross-posted at About Last Night

Moss Hart, who grew up poor and spent a not-inconsiderable portion of his young life riding the subway from deepest Brooklyn to Times Square, swore that if he ever struck it rich, he’d take cabs everywhere, even if his destination was only a block or two away. I’ve never been poor and have yet to strike it rich, but I rode the subway often enough in my first years as a New Yorker to be glad that I can now afford to take cabs. Be that as it may, a true New Yorker who wants to get somewhere at ten on a rainy morning takes the subway, and since today’s Mass for the repose of the soul of William F. Buckley, Jr., who died five weeks ago, was scheduled to start at ten o’clock sharp at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, I put on my black outfit and raincoat, descended into the bowels of Manhattan, and made my bumpy way to Rockefeller Center in the midst of a rush-hour crowd.

It’s been quite a while since I walked through Rockefeller Center, even longer since I’ve been inside St. Patrick’s, and a very long time indeed since I last attended a memorial service for a public figure. For all these reasons, I have no standard against which to measure Bill’s funeral obsequies. All I can tell you was that today’s service seemed as splendid as it could possibly have been. The cathedral was full of mourners, the choir loft full of singers, and the music was mostly appropriate to the occasion. Bill was a serious amateur musician who loved Bach above all things–he actually performed the F Minor Harpsichord Concerto in public on more than one occasion–so the organist played “Sheep May Safely Graze” and the slow movement of the Toccata, Adagio, and Fugue in C Major. No less suitable were the sung portions of the Mass, drawn from Victoria’s sweetly austere Missa “O magnum mysterium,” and the closing hymn, the noble tune from Gustav Holst’s The Planets to which the following words were later set: I vow to thee, my country–all earthly things above–/Entire and whole and perfect, the service of my love.

The only thing that made my inner critic smile wryly was the performance during communion of the Adagio in G Minor long attributed to Albinoni but in fact woven out of whole cloth by one Remo Giazotto. It is a preposterously operatic piece of spurious yard goods, and to hear it played on the organ with all stops pulled put me in mind of something Bill wrote after attending a Virgil Fox recital many years ago:

At one point during a prelude, I am tempted to rise solemnly, commandeer a shotgun, and advise Fox, preferably in imperious German, if only I could learn German in time to consummate the fantasy, that if he does not release the goddam vox humana, which is oohing-ahing-eeing the music where Bach clearly intended something closer to a bel canto, I shall simply have to blow his head off.

That was the Bill Buckley I knew, whip-smart and impishly outrageous, the same man that David Remnick had in mind when he described Bill as having “the eyes of a child who has just displayed a horrid use for the microwave oven and the family cat.”

I wish I could say I knew him well, but I didn’t. I dined at his table a number of times but was only alone with him once, when I interviewed him about Whittaker Chambers for an anthology of Chambers’ journalism that I edited in 1989. On that occasion Bill assured me that although they had been close, Chambers never had “any direct historical or intellectual influence” on him. The reason he gave is striking:

I never embraced, in part because subjectively it’s contra naturam to me, that utter, total, objective, strategic pessimism of his. Among other things, I think it’s wrong theologically to assume that the world is doomed before God decides to doom it. So I never drank too deeply of his Weltschmerz.

Indeed he did not: Bill was the least weltschmerzy person imaginable. Henry Kissinger, who eulogized him this morning, alluded to that side of Bill’s personality when he remarked that Bill “was vouchsafed a little miracle: to enjoy so much what was compelled by inner necessity.” I couldn’t have put it better. Bill worked fearfully hard and was deadly serious about what he believed, but he extracted self-evident enjoyment from everything he did, and you couldn’t be in his presence for more than a minute or two without responding to his joie de vivre. If I’d been in charge of the music today, I would have made a point of picking something a good deal more festive–Bach’s Fugue à la gigue, say, or one of the harpsichord sonatas in which Scarlatti turns the instrument Bill loved best into a giant guitar.

Christopher Buckley, Bill’s son, followed Henry Kissinger, and gave just the sort of eulogy I’d expected from him, funny and light-fingered, putting much-needed smiles on our faces. Only at the end did he sound a darker note, quoting the lines from Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Requiem” that he chose as the epitaph for a man who loved sailing as much as he loved Bach: Here he lies where he long’d to be;/Home is the sailor, home from the sea,/And the hunter home from the hill. Then we all sang “I Vow to Thee, My Country,” pushed our way past the waiting photographers, and returned to the gray, misty day.

I passed up a lunch invitation and went home by myself, preferring to be alone with my thoughts. I was thinking of an evening in the fall of 1985, not long after I moved to New York from the Midwest. I’d been writing for National Review, Bill’s magazine, since 1981, but I’d never met my first great patron face to face, so he invited me to an editorial dinner at his Park Avenue apartment. Back then I was working for Harper’s, whose offices were in Greenwich Village, and the thought of meeting Bill for the first time was so exciting that I walked all the way from Astor Place up to 73 E. 73rd Street (where Bill invariably entertained at 7:30).

It was, of course, a symbolic gesture: I was taking possession of the streets of the city to which I had moved and in which I hoped someday to make a name for myself. At the end of my journey I knocked on the door of Bill’s maisonette, and a few moments later he clasped my hand and said, “Hey, buddy!” It was, I would learn, his standard greeting, always uttered with a warmth that remained disarming no matter how many times you heard it.

Ever since then I have associated Bill Buckley with New York, whose doors he flung wide to me, just as he opened the pages of the magazine he edited. Now New York is my home–but Bill is gone, buried in Connecticut, home at last from the sea. Somehow you never imagine outliving the people who show you through the doors that lead to the rest of your life.

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The Bill Buckley Memorial

I’m just back from St. Patrick’s Cathedral, where a memorial mass was held for “the repose of the soul” of William F. Buckley Jr., who died last month at the age of 82. The grave majesty of the proceedings was a reminder that, as Fr. George Rutler said in his homily, Bill was, first and last, a man of deep and abiding faith, and whose faith was not his lodestar but his core and root. This was a quality often missed in the blizzard of tributes to him immediately following his passing. In the first of two eulogies, Henry Kissinger dwelled at beautifully eloquent length on the mysterious quality of Bill’s perpetual good cheer, which was twinned (especially in his final years) by a certain remoteness and remove — in all of which Kissinger, not known for a preoccupation with the divine, brilliantly discerned a state of grace. Finally, Christopher Buckley offered parting words in a portrait so supple that one hopes he will offer the portrait at full length in a memoir of what was clearly a complex and singular relationship. The words “we shall not see his like again” are often spoken in tribute to the dead, primarily to honor people whose like we will actually see again — people whose lives follow the same arc as most others. Those words were not spoken today, perhaps because they are so obvious that they are unnecessary.

I’m just back from St. Patrick’s Cathedral, where a memorial mass was held for “the repose of the soul” of William F. Buckley Jr., who died last month at the age of 82. The grave majesty of the proceedings was a reminder that, as Fr. George Rutler said in his homily, Bill was, first and last, a man of deep and abiding faith, and whose faith was not his lodestar but his core and root. This was a quality often missed in the blizzard of tributes to him immediately following his passing. In the first of two eulogies, Henry Kissinger dwelled at beautifully eloquent length on the mysterious quality of Bill’s perpetual good cheer, which was twinned (especially in his final years) by a certain remoteness and remove — in all of which Kissinger, not known for a preoccupation with the divine, brilliantly discerned a state of grace. Finally, Christopher Buckley offered parting words in a portrait so supple that one hopes he will offer the portrait at full length in a memoir of what was clearly a complex and singular relationship. The words “we shall not see his like again” are often spoken in tribute to the dead, primarily to honor people whose like we will actually see again — people whose lives follow the same arc as most others. Those words were not spoken today, perhaps because they are so obvious that they are unnecessary.

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How the Left Lacks Humor

One of the most telling differences between the Left and the Right–at least among political journalists–is that the Left lacks a sense of humor. Case in point: the wickedly funny piece by Christopher Buckley–author of Thank You For Smoking–in yesterday’s New York Times, which seeks to explain why some conservatives are uneasy with a McCain presidency. In discussing McCain’s alleged lack of conservative bona fides, Buckley writes:

And—true, again—Mr. McCain is a bit of a girlie-man when it comes to waterboarding high-value detainees; but that’s a tricky one, even for macho, red-meat conservative chest-thumpers. You get a pass on that one if you’ve spent five-and-a-half years being bastinadoed by North Vietnamese.

This earned the following reaction from the oh-so-serious folks at ThinkProgress, blog of the Center for American Progress, which categorizes Buckley’s column as yet another example of the “Radical Right-Wing Agenda”:

Buckley’s description of McCain as a “girlie-man” reveals a couple of things. The first is Buckley’s belief that one’s “manliness” can be deduced from his support for torture. The second, and more important, is that the state of American conservatism is such that McCain requires “forgiveness” for opposing torture.

Aside from the fact that the author of this post totally misses the point in that Buckley is lampooning McCain’s conservative critics, he also seems like a total party pooper. Observe that, in the column, Buckley refers to the “the Archfiend, Ted Kennedy” and notes that Fred Thompson “could barely manage to stay awake during his own announcement speech.” Indeed, Buckley opens the piece with an anecdote about a New Yorker cartoon. The problem with the liberals at ThinkProgress is that, since they themselves have no sense of humor, they cannot recognize a joke when it hits them square between the eyes.

I may not agree with Christopher Buckley or Mark Steyn about everything, but I’d sooner share a drink with them than with Paul Krugman, Joe Conason, or any other of the multitude of sober, boring, hectoring liberal writers who populate the nation’s newspapers and magazines.

One of the most telling differences between the Left and the Right–at least among political journalists–is that the Left lacks a sense of humor. Case in point: the wickedly funny piece by Christopher Buckley–author of Thank You For Smoking–in yesterday’s New York Times, which seeks to explain why some conservatives are uneasy with a McCain presidency. In discussing McCain’s alleged lack of conservative bona fides, Buckley writes:

And—true, again—Mr. McCain is a bit of a girlie-man when it comes to waterboarding high-value detainees; but that’s a tricky one, even for macho, red-meat conservative chest-thumpers. You get a pass on that one if you’ve spent five-and-a-half years being bastinadoed by North Vietnamese.

This earned the following reaction from the oh-so-serious folks at ThinkProgress, blog of the Center for American Progress, which categorizes Buckley’s column as yet another example of the “Radical Right-Wing Agenda”:

Buckley’s description of McCain as a “girlie-man” reveals a couple of things. The first is Buckley’s belief that one’s “manliness” can be deduced from his support for torture. The second, and more important, is that the state of American conservatism is such that McCain requires “forgiveness” for opposing torture.

Aside from the fact that the author of this post totally misses the point in that Buckley is lampooning McCain’s conservative critics, he also seems like a total party pooper. Observe that, in the column, Buckley refers to the “the Archfiend, Ted Kennedy” and notes that Fred Thompson “could barely manage to stay awake during his own announcement speech.” Indeed, Buckley opens the piece with an anecdote about a New Yorker cartoon. The problem with the liberals at ThinkProgress is that, since they themselves have no sense of humor, they cannot recognize a joke when it hits them square between the eyes.

I may not agree with Christopher Buckley or Mark Steyn about everything, but I’d sooner share a drink with them than with Paul Krugman, Joe Conason, or any other of the multitude of sober, boring, hectoring liberal writers who populate the nation’s newspapers and magazines.

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Bookshelf

• In January I wrote an essay for COMMENTARY occasioned by the simultaneous publication of new biographies of Walt Disney and Orson Welles. Neal Gabler’s Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination turned out to be a big, booming bore, so I went out of my way to mention in a footnote that Michael Barrier, author of Hollywood Cartoons, the best book ever written about American animation, had a Disney biography of his own in the pipeline. Now Barrier has delivered the goods. The Animated Man: A Life of Walt Disney (University of California Press, 424 pp., $29.95) is half the length of Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination and has twice as much to say about the aesthetic aspect of Disney’s cartoons. Because it is concise, wholly unpretentious, and gossip-free—and because an academic press published it several months after Gabler’s high-profile biography—my guess is that The Animated Man will be overlooked by most book-review editors. Pay them no heed. Barrier is one of the few thoughtful critic-historians to have taken a serious interest in animation, and The Animated Man is a superbly penetrating piece of work.

Having concluded (correctly, in my view) that Disney the man wasn’t especially interesting as a personality, Barrier devotes most of the book to a close but not numbingly detailed account of the breathtakingly rapid artistic development and subsequent decline of his animated films. He lays out his critical priorities with admirable clarity on the very first page:

Disney was, in my reckoning, a stunted but fascinating artist . . . The Disneyland park was, and remains, an entrepreneurial marvel, but it was much more a product of its times than Disney’s films, and its impact on American culture, for good or ill, has been exaggerated. Thomas Edison and Henry ford may have transformed their country, but Walt Disney only helped to shape economic and demographic changes that would have occurred without him. It is his animated films of the 1930′s and early 1940′s that make him uniquely interesting.

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• In January I wrote an essay for COMMENTARY occasioned by the simultaneous publication of new biographies of Walt Disney and Orson Welles. Neal Gabler’s Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination turned out to be a big, booming bore, so I went out of my way to mention in a footnote that Michael Barrier, author of Hollywood Cartoons, the best book ever written about American animation, had a Disney biography of his own in the pipeline. Now Barrier has delivered the goods. The Animated Man: A Life of Walt Disney (University of California Press, 424 pp., $29.95) is half the length of Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination and has twice as much to say about the aesthetic aspect of Disney’s cartoons. Because it is concise, wholly unpretentious, and gossip-free—and because an academic press published it several months after Gabler’s high-profile biography—my guess is that The Animated Man will be overlooked by most book-review editors. Pay them no heed. Barrier is one of the few thoughtful critic-historians to have taken a serious interest in animation, and The Animated Man is a superbly penetrating piece of work.

Having concluded (correctly, in my view) that Disney the man wasn’t especially interesting as a personality, Barrier devotes most of the book to a close but not numbingly detailed account of the breathtakingly rapid artistic development and subsequent decline of his animated films. He lays out his critical priorities with admirable clarity on the very first page:

Disney was, in my reckoning, a stunted but fascinating artist . . . The Disneyland park was, and remains, an entrepreneurial marvel, but it was much more a product of its times than Disney’s films, and its impact on American culture, for good or ill, has been exaggerated. Thomas Edison and Henry ford may have transformed their country, but Walt Disney only helped to shape economic and demographic changes that would have occurred without him. It is his animated films of the 1930′s and early 1940′s that make him uniquely interesting.

All true, and Barrier makes an equally striking point about Disneyland when he observes that its commercial success would help to “seal character animation’s identity as a children’s medium and thus make it more difficult to produce films comparable to those that had made Disney himself famous.” This seems to me exactly right.

I wish Barrier had said a bit more about Disney’s critical reception—that’s one of the few things Neal Gabler gets right—but otherwise The Animated Man tells you everything you need to know about Walt Disney and his work. I recommend it wholeheartedly.

• A few days after writing about the Library of America’s Thornton Wilder: Collected Plays and Writings on Theater in this space, I received a letter from Tappan Wilder, the playwright’s nephew. I’d mentioned in passing that I hoped the Library of America would someday get around to bringing out a volume or two devoted to Wilder’s novels, and Tappan Wilder wanted me to know that all seven are currently available in paperback from Perennial. He enclosed a copy of Heaven’s My Destination, which I am now reading with enormous pleasure and fascination, both of which are greatly enhanced by J.D. McClatchy’s foreword and Tappan’s own afterword. More in due course, but for the moment I’ll mention that the other six novels are accompanied by forewords written by Russell Banks (The Bridge of San Luis Rey), Christopher Buckley (Theophilus North), Penelope Niven (The Woman of Andros and The Cabala), John Updike (The Eighth Day) and Kurt Vonnegut (The Ides of March). I’m still hoping for a Library of America omnibus, but these attractive editions will do quite nicely until then.

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