Today is the publication date of Athwart History: Half a Century of Polemics, Animadversions, and Illuminations: A William F. Buckley Jr. Omnibus. Edited by Linda Bridges and Roger Kimball, the book compiles some of Buckley’s most notable columns and occasional pieces. Bridges is the former managing editor of National Review; Roger is the co-editor of the New Criterion, publisher of Encounter Books and proprietor of Roger’s Rules.
William Buckley was the founder of the modern American conservative movement. The publication of the new compendium provides an opportune moment to look back in gratitude. I asked Roger if he would write something about the book for our readers. He kindly responded with the following comments, adapted from his introduction to the book:
Today Encounter Books publishes Athwart History by the late, great William F. Buckley Jr. It’s a long book — nearly 500 pages — but it could easily have been much longer. Bill Buckley was, in addition to his many other accomplishments a writing machine. I’m not sure anyone has tabulated the total number of words he published over the course of his sixty-year career as a writer. It’s surely into the millions.
I wish I could claim credit for the idea of putting together Athwart History. But history records that the honor belongs to Charles Kesler, editor of The Claremont Review of Books and an old friend of Bill’s. On the morning of April 4, 2008, some 2,500 people filled St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York to pay their last respects to Bill Buckley. “If I’m still famous,” Bill had told his son a few years earlier, “try to convince the Cardinal to do the service at St. Patrick’s. If I’m not, just tuck me away in Stamford.”
Friends and admirers had streamed in from all over the country — indeed, from all over the world — to be at the memorial Mass. Bill certainly was still famous. That afternoon, National Review sponsored a panel discussion at the Princeton Club in New York to talk about Bill’s legacy and achievement. The discussion was moderated by Jay Nordlinger, then NR’s Managing Editor, and included talks by me, Charles Kesler, National Review’s editor, Rich Lowry, and the author and syndicated columnist George Will (who graciously contributed a preface to the book). In the course of his remarks, Charles pointed out that much of Bill’s more trenchant work was out of print. What was needed, he said, was a collection that represented the intellectual Bill Buckley, Buckley the polemicist, controversialist, and thinker.
That is what Linda Bridges, Bill’s long-time assistant at NR, and I endeavored to provide in Athwart History. Our aim was to produce a companion volume to Bill’s last big anthology, Miles Gone By (2004), the “literary autobiography” made up of essays that include Bill as an actor or subject. Athwart History contains its share of allegro pieces, especially in the section called “Grace Notes,” where readers will find charming excursions about some of Bill’s more conspicuous enthusiasms: Bach, for example, as well as skiing, sailing, and (last as well as least) peanut butter. Elsewhere you will find a defense (sort of) of the three-martini lunch, or at least a rebuke of those nanny-state busybodies who would prohibit or tax them out of existence.
But our chief aim was to reintroduce the public to the serious, sinewy, occasionally pugnacious side of Bill Buckley. Nearly half of the pieces collected in Athwart History are appearing between hard covers for the first time. Many others are from books that are now out of print. A large proportion of the pieces deal with matters of urgent public concern. Not a few tackle basic questions of political philosophy.
There are a few pieces I miss, above all, perhaps, “On Experiencing Gore Vidal,” Bill’s long, devastating excoriation of Vidal that appeared in 1969 in Esquire. But Vidal is a minor figure whose small stature diminishes daily. As we anxiously contemplated the growing girth of the book, we decided that irritation of memorializing so repellent a figure outweighed the pleasure readers might take in the exhibition of Bill’s rhetorical fusillade. The earliest piece, which opens the volume, dates from the summer of 1951. In it, Bill, invoking Friedrich von Hayek’s Road to Serfdom (then only seven years old), limned two critical dangers facing American liberty: the external threat of Communist imperialism and the homegrown threat of “government paternalism.”
The fall of the Soviet colossus signaled not the end but the metamorphosis of the former threat, its distribution over a more amorphous field of action. The threat of government paternalism is today more patent than ever. Indeed, reading through these essays, I was often brought up short by a sense of historical foreshortening: Bill was writing in 1957 or 1967 or 1977, but his essays read as if they were written yesterday, or possibly this morning. Environmentalism. The oil crisis. The Religious Right. States’ rights. Reforming health care. Immigration, illegal and the other kind. The future of Social Security. Israel. Irresponsible accusations of racism. The Supreme Court. Iran and the bomb. “Why We Need a Black President in 1980” (written in 1970). The substance as well as the subject might have been taken from what is happening now, today.
In part, no doubt, the contemporaneous feel of so much that Bill wrote is explained by a passage from Ecclesiastes: “There is nothing new under the sun.” In essentials, we aren’t much different now from what we were in 1950 or in1960, so it is not surprising that the problems we face are, in essentials, the same. But the uncanny contemporary feel of so much Bill wrote half a century ago has a root in something else, too. Among Bill’s gifts as a writer was an unerring instinct for the pertinent. When he wrote about a matter of public interest, he went for, and generally hit upon, the jugular.
I do not mean only that he deployed the successful debater’s trick of touching on spots that were sore or weak. Bill was an able debater, true enough, and he was plenty adept at ferreting out and exposing his opponents’ weaknesses, evasions, ambiguities, enthymemes, and unwarranted presumptions. But he also had a conspicuous talent for getting to the heart of a matter. And so whether his subject was environmentalism, school choice, race relations, religious observances, foreign policy, or encroaching statism, what he wrote was likely to touch upon what was central and enduring.
That is one of the benefits of conservatism: embracing the permanent, one may be unfashionable, but one is never out of date. Literature, said Ezra Pound, is news that stays news. I have met few people better informed about public affairs than Bill Buckley. But his mastery of the day’s ephemera was only a prelude to his embrace of the principles that underlay the controversies. “A great nation,” Bill wrote in 1959, “can indulge its little extravagances; but a long enough series of little extravagances can add up to a stagnating if not a crippling economic overhead.” I wish he were with us today to contemplate and comment upon the very big extravagances being indulged by our masters in Washington.
What, to employ Lenin’s great question, is to be done? What Bill said fifty years ago strikes me as hugely pertinent to our current embarrassments:
“What then is the indicated course of action? It is to maintain and wherever possible enhance the freedom of the individual to acquire property and dispose of that property in ways that he decides on. To deal with unemployment by eliminating monopoly unionism, featherbedding, and inflexibilities in the labor market, and be prepared, where residual unemployment persists, to cope with it locally, placing the political and humanitarian responsibility on the lowest feasible political unit. . . . And then let us see whether we are better off than we would be living by decisions made between nine and five in Washington office rooms, where the oligarchs of the Affluent Society sit, allocating complaints and solutions to communities represented by pins on the map.
Is that a program? Call it a No-Program, if you will, but adopt it for your very own. I will not cede more power to the state. I will not willingly cede more power to anyone, not to the state, not to General Motors, not to the CIO. I will hoard my power like a miser, resisting every effort to drain it away from me. I will then use my power as I see fit. I mean to live my life an obedient man, but obedient to God, subservient to the wisdom of my ancestors; never to the authority of political truths arrived at yesterday at the voting booth.”
I couldn’t put it better. There’s a lot more where that came from in Athwart History. Pick up–or download–a copy today.
Thanks to Roger for helping us observe the publication of the book today in style.