When I was a young teenager in the 1970s, and just beginning to enjoy the local paper’s editorial page, I flipped past everything else to read the columns of James J. Kilpatrick. He wrote frequently for National Review, where the members of the fabled staff called him “Kilpo.” I sent a letter or two his way, care of one periodical or another, back in the days when typing laboriously on a fresh sheet of paper seemed very grown-up and important. He was kind enough to send me a handwritten answer on one occasion. Kilpatrick was born and raised in Oklahoma City, where I spent a number of my early years; but more than that, he was acerbic, illuminating, and entertaining about language and politics.
Many will remember him as the conservative debater on the “Point-Counterpoint” segment of 60 Minutes, a position he occupied from 1971 to 1979. In the quarter-century following his departure from 60 Minutes, he carved out a unique niche in the conservative punditry as an acute observer of the Supreme Court. But his first loves were obviously writing and language, and it’s for his columns on those topics — and his indispensable 1985 book, The Writer’s Art — that I remember him best.
Authors of books should not underestimate the impact they have on readers. I suspect The Writer’s Art will outlive Kilpatrick’s other contributions to our shared intellectual landscape. It is as fresh, sprightly, instructive, and funny today as it was when I bought my dog-eared copy 25 years ago. Someone has to write about writing, but not everyone makes the forensic examination an adventure. The Writer’s Art is Exhibit A in my case that Kilpatrick deserved to have his literary quirks and preferences respected — and his inconsistencies overlooked — simply because he wrote so well.
There were inconsistencies, of course. In later life, Kilpatrick urged all-out war on the semicolon, a punctuation device with which The Writer’s Art is absolutely stuffed. He rethought some of his early political ideas too: he made his name in the civil rights era as a defender of states’ rights and local sovereignty, wedding this theme with the then-respectable argument that school segregation was appropriate for the conditions of the American South. Eventually, he changed his mind on the segregation issue. Wikipedia now refers to him simply as a “segregationist,” a characterization that poignantly elides decades’ worth of serious constitutional debate and erects a victor’s monument on the unmarked grave of federalism.
But Kilpatrick rose to fame in that earlier time and was a product of it. His crotchets, like his on-screen demeanor and his political arguments, were courtly and engaging. He could eviscerate writing without denigrating the writer, a civilized skill rare in any age. He wrote about politics unhaunted by the fear of being soundbitten and misrepresented, a member of perhaps the last American generation to do so. He was the living antithesis of “snark.”
A passage I have long remembered from The Writer’s Art serves as a fitting coda to a consummate writer’s life:
Let me make the point and pass on: If you would write emotionally, be first unemotional. If you would move your readers to tears, do not let them see you cry.
I don’t think he ever did.