Regular readers are aware that I am a big fan of William F. Buckley, Jr. WFB is a vivid and impactful figure in the history of American conservatism. His life is a fascinating tale of multiple careers intertwined: founder of the flagship conservative magazine of the 20th century; host of the longest running show on public television; successful novelist; syndicated columnist and word-smith; accomplished sailor and author of numerous books and essays on sailing; music lover and occasional public performer.
I have been fascinated by his life and work since I was a freshman in high school. I own all of his books and have read them all except for the collections of his columns. It goes without saying that he deserves a serious biographer. Many literary bloggers have been unhappy with the tenure of recently appointed New York Times Book Review editor Sam Tanenhaus. Not being a regular reader of that publication I am not similarly troubled, but I was bothered that in order to take up those duties he had to postpone his planned biography of WFB. His excellent book on Whitaker Chambers seem to indicate that he would take on Buckley with the appreciation but critical eye that he deserves, but alas that prospect is no on hold.
One of the burdens of auto-biography is that it requires a great deal of time and a good bit of self-reflection. WFB’s career and personality have never pointed toward a grand auto-biography. He has already written a number of biographical type works (two “a day in the life” type memoirs, a couple of books on his adventures in sailing; one describing his run of NYC mayor; one on his time at the United Nations, etc.) and so much of his life has been in the public eye that it would almost seem redundant. Plus, Buckley has never been one to engage in long drawn out writing projects (his books are produced in a couple of months in Switzerland).
So what does all of this mean? It means that those interested in Buckley’s life must content themselves for now with his recently released “literary autobiography” Miles Gone By. Miles Gone By (MGB) is a collection of what Buckley calls “scenes and essays” he has written over fifty years and in which he figures prominently. They cover “personal experiences, challenges and sorties, professional inquiries, and memories beginning in childhood.” Long time fans of Buckley will not be surprised by anything in this collection but they will obviously want it in their collection. Each reader will probably bring a unique interest and taste to the collection, but the collection is surprisingly personal and not particularly political. The quality and impact varies, but overall I found it to be an interesting look back at the life of a unique American through the lens of his own writing.
MGB is divided into sections delineating broad categories for the essays. At Home centers around WFB’s childhood, education, and family. People includes sketches of friends and famous acquaintances while Remembering includes obituaries of important people. Getting About relates various adventures and travels.
You get the idea.
Personally I found the early essays about his childhood and family the most interesting. Perhaps because I have followed so much of his later public life that these seemed fresh. At times the sailing sections dragged for me. I enjoyed reading his books on sailing, but I didn’t need to go over it all again. Clearly sailing (and skiing) are a big part of his life, however, so for the uninitiated these sections certainly give insight into his life and personality.
Two of the most interesting essays are included in a section entitled Social Life. Querenica: On coping with Social Tedium is a dryly humorous piece on dealing with the stress and difficulty of the endless social gatherings Buckley attends. Buckley’s personality comes through: the fascination with unusual words, the impatience, the feisty but droll sense of humor, etc. Why We Don’t Complain is also a fascinating piece of Buckleynalia. As the title makes clear, the essay ponders why American’s are so passive as they slide through life. Although I will admit that it seems clear that American’s have learned to complain since Buckley wrote the essay (1961). It is an interesting reflection on the social pressure not to make a scene or to complain when something is obviously wrong and it shows Buckley at his nimble and playful best.
It seems to me that Miles Gone By is best suited to two types: dedicated Buckley fans and those who are interested but largely ignorant of his life outside of his political columns. Dedicated followers will want to add this to their collection and will enjoy looking back on Buckley’s adventurous life. Those who don’t know much about him outside of his syndicated column or a few past glimpses of the Firing Line, will enjoy reading about Buckley’s non-political life and personality. Of course, those interested in sailing, wine, language, and Yale might enjoy Buckley’s essays on those subjects, but they might not be willing to wade through everything just to hit the subjects they enjoy. I guess what I am saying is that Miles Gone By is a reflection of Buckley’s life and personality but packs little impact outside of that arena. Those wanting a the broad scope and insight of a traditional biography will have to wait for a scholar who can do William F. Buckley justice.