EDITOR’S NOTE: These excerpts from Miles Gone By–A Literary Autobiography appeared in the August 9, 2004, issue of National Review.
Life at Great Elm
In 1923, after years spent abroad in Mexico and in Europe, my father bought a house, called Great Elm, in Sharon, Connecticut, and moved his family there. I was born in 1925, the sixth child.
Outdoors it was very very still, and from our bedroom we could hear the crickets and see the fireflies. I opined to my sister Trish, age 12, that when the wind dies and silence ensues, fireflies acquire a voice, and it is then that they chirp out their joys for the benefit of the nightly company, visible and invisible.
“Why do they care if it’s quiet outside?”
I informed her solemnly that it was well known to adults that fireflies do not like the wind, as it interferes with their movements. Inasmuch as I was 13 and omniscient, my explanation was accepted.
“I just hope they bite all of them,” she said. Her reference was to our five older siblings, whose shouts and yells we could hear through the chorus of crickets. They were still out there at the swimming pool playing games, one whole hour past bedtime for the four of us under 14. I consoled her. I reminded her that I had invited her, not one of them, to crew with me the next day. We would compete on my sailboat at 2 in the afternoon at Lake Wononscopomuc (also known as Lakeville Lake), a mile-square spring-fed crystal-clear lagoon lying five miles north of our home. We raced every Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday, seven hot-blooded contestants of whom I was by far the youngest, and my proclamation of whom I had tapped to crew with me the next racing day was eagerly awaited by qualified supplicants. It gave me great pain that only two of my seniors particularly cared whether they were invited or not. I handled that snub by telling Trish that they were, in fact, not truly qualified to serve.
Summers were seasons of unmitigated pleasure for us, in the late Thirties, in Sharon, a small village that would be designated by the Garden Club of America as the most beautiful town in Connecticut, after Litchfield. My Texan father had brought his brood to rest while he continued a peripatetic life in the years since he left Mexico.
One obsession governed almost all of us: horses and horse shows. There was one of these almost every week, somewhere within forty miles of us. Our groom was fiercely competitive. Whenever we failed to place in a contest, he surmised that skulduggery was on the throne. Obviously if one of us captured the blue ribbon, it meant that the judges were both honest and acute. If we captured the red ribbon, it meant that they were either honest or acute.
We would leave for the horse shows in two or three cars, the horses having traveled the night before in their trailers. We were properly dressed in riding habits–boots, jodhpurs, tweed jackets. If it was a day on which we would be competing in a jumping tournament, or running fences on the outside course, there were butterflies in my stomach, pacified by hot black coffee. But most of the equestrian events were mere “horsemanship” contests, in which you displayed your degree of mastery over your steed, first at walking or single-footing, then trotting, then cantering. There was the occasional “family” class, in which parents could enter as many of their children as they liked. Here, with six contestants in the field, we regularly overwhelmed the opposition, if not by horsemanship, then by sheer juggernautery.
Some of the horse shows were also social occasions, calling for elaborate picnics and other forms of fraternization. Every year in Rhinebeck, New York, a few miles north of Hyde Park, the box alongside my father’s was occupied by the President of the United States, who played the country squire at least once every season at the Dutchess County Horse Show. I remember the afternoon when Trish won the blue ribbon. Protocol requires the winner to ride around the ring to receive the plaudits of the spectators. When she rode by the president’s box, FDR applauded lustily, whereupon Trish abruptly turned her pigtailed head to one side. A moment later, blue ribbon and riding crop in one hand, she came buoyantly to the family box.
“Why didn’t you nod to the President?” my father whispered to her.
“I thought you didn’t like him!” Trish’s face was pained with surprise.
In those days, in rural New England, only the principal arteries connecting the villages were macadamized. The side roads were dirt, so that Sharon was a network of leafy pleasure and opportunity for the horseman. No day went by at our place without two or three hours’ wandering about through the woods and pastures, sometimes at full gallop. (Though never when within sight of the stables. Ed Turpin drove the point home to us: If you let a horse do that once, he will want to do it from that point on. Horses, like hunting dogs, are eager to set out, and eager to go home.) Horse sweat, for some reason, has always seemed healthier than human sweat, wholesome even. In midsummer the horses’ lather was white and soapy, but the emanations suggested only the earthy satisfactions of an inspiriting physical workout. The young riders, by contrast, would rush to efface the traces of their exertions, plunging into the pool. At lunch, those who had chosen to play golf or tennis in the morning would join the riders and we would plan the afternoon–though Mademoiselle (Mademoiselle Jeanne Bouchex, our governess) was there to see to it that no outing stood in the way of the 45 minutes required of every one of us at piano practice. There were five pianos in the house and one organ. It was never absolutely clear whether the sound was worse when all the pianos were being exercised jointly or when only one of them was being played.
It was about that time that I came upon nature’s dirty little secret. It was that beginning on the 21st day of June, the days grew shorter! All through the spring we had had the sensual pleasure of the elongating day, coinciding with the approach of the end of the school year and the beginning of the summer paradise. My knowledge of nature and nature’s lore has never been very formal, and so, whereas my older brother Jim knew all about the vernal equinox and hummingbirds and for that matter snakes and fishes and what-makes-it-rain, I came to the conclusion from the evidence of my senses that in late July it was actually getting dark when it was only 8:30! I wondered momentarily whether we were witnessing some sign of divine displeasure. The only relief I had, during the humiliating meteorological briefing from my brother, who told me about the Earth’s orbiting habits, was that Trish wasn’t in the room to hear him. She’d have been dismayed by such a demonstration of my ignorance, given that I knew everything about fireflies.
I did care very much to penetrate the secrets of the wind, because my boat did moderately well in a good breeze and extraordinarily well in a brisk breeze; so that immediately upon waking on racing days I would run to the window and look out on the hundred elm and oak and maple trees visible from the bedroom, studying the movement of the leaves. Usually at that hour they were listless. I had to train myself to remember that in the foothills of the Berkshires the winds tend to sleep late, beginning to exercise themselves only in midmorning. But whatever the wind did, the racers would be at the starting line at exactly 2:00 p.m. Eagerly, my crew and I would gulp down our lunch so that we could get to the lake a full hour before the starting gun, to do a few flashy turns when the wind was brisk; or to practice self-effacement when the wind was light–the objective was to reduce windage by lying flat on the deck or crowding inside the little cockpit. It meant exhilaration or despair, how many seconds after the starting gun went off I was safely across the line. The seven contestants fought fiercely for the trophy, which the winner got to keep for the whole winter season, returning it in the spring to the Commodore for safekeeping until it was awarded to the next summer’s champion.
The trophy was a gift from the local drugstore to the Wononscopomuc Yacht Club, whose entire other assets comprised one box of stationery on which was written “Wononscopomuc Yacht Club.” It was used by the Commodore, a retired naval officer with a master sergeant’s temperament. Once a year, he would write to announce the season’s schedule. The Yacht Club’s annual party, at which the cup was awarded to the boat that had accumulated the largest number of points, was held at the house of one of the contenders. The grown-ups brought their own beer or paid the host fifteen cents for a bottle of his. I don’t remember if I had to pay for my Coca-Cola. It is hard to think of anything I have ever coveted so much as to see the name of my boat engraved on the Wononscopomuc Yacht Club Trophy (achieved in 1940). But there are few desires so intense as the child’s. Or disappointments so bitter, as when–it happened every single night of every single month between May and October–Mademoiselle clapped her hands at the swimming pool right in the middle of a game of Red Rover, to announce that it was bedtime for “les petits.”
My English setter, Ducky (it infuriated me that my oldest sister teasingly referred to him as “Unducky”), slept on his turf, between my bed and Trish’s. He could come and go at will because one part of the screen hung loose, allowing him to leap through the open window onto the porch, or back into the bedroom. But Ducky was not as content as Trish and I were, because he was waiting for the fall to come, which meant pheasant-shooting, every morning before school. Hunting with Ducky was a lot of fun but hunting meant goodbye to summer, and the change was drastic; because now it was still dark when I rose to go to the pheasant farm, and the dreadful school year had begun, and, on top of that, before the end of the year Trish and I would learn through bureaucratic family channels that she was being moved across the hall to share a room with an older sister, and my younger brother would be moving in with me.
I would in due course instruct him, age nine, about the secrets of the fireflies.
Reflections on Life after Yale
A self-interview, for the 50th-anniversary yearbook. If the questions were wrong, that was my fault.
Q: Fifty years ago, at Yale, you were a pretty big wheel, right?
A: Yes, I was chairman of the Yale Daily News. That was a singular experience, because everybody had to read your paper and so brush up against its editorials. In the mid-Sixties Yale had its cultural revolution and two things changed at the Daily News. First, the chairman was dethroned. For a few years, as when Stalin and Julius Caesar died, a troika came into being as successors, to guard against such concentrations of power. Eventually an editor-in-chief gestated, though with diminished authority. The consolidated idea being, one gathers, that “chairman” was too august a title, never mind that the revolutionists at Harvard, noblesse oblige, let the chairman of the Crimson survive. The other change during that period was that students who wrote for the OCD (we called it that, Oldest College Daily) no longer had to know how to write, merely to opine.
Q: You speak provocatively about the period in question.
A: As about most things. A curse. Halfway through my time as chairman we published a letter from Professor Norman Holmes Pearson protesting my editorials and instructing us to cancel his subscription. When, ten years later, a subscriber to National Review wrote to say the same thing, I published the letter with the editorial note, “Cancel your own goddam subscription.” I have to admit it, the license to make such responses brings absolute joy to an editor’s heart, but of course publishers don’t like it. For understandable reasons.
Q: Given your odd political positions, were your contacts with the Yale faculty nevertheless pleasant?
A: Oh sure, though there was some off-premise merriment at my expense. I remember hearing about Professor Tom Mendenhall, who taught European history to a big class at Linsley-Chittenden. At a fellows’ dinner in the spring of 1949 he regaled his colleagues with the story of his crashing disappointment that morning. “I had prepared a lecture centering on all the delinquencies of the Catholic Church in Europe, and after I was well launched on it I looked up to feast on the expression on Buckley’s face. But the son of a bitch wasn’t there!” I made friends among the faculty, some of them lifelong, most notably Thomas Bergin, who was head of the Italian/Spanish Department. I taught Spanish and Bergin was my boss–great eminence; among other things, the supreme Dante scholar. We exchanged probably two hundred letters before his death in 1987 (an odd locution, “before his death”–as if you could exchange letters after somebody’s death).
First day, freshman, 1946, with roommates
But, yes, there was a little genteel consternation about the OCD’s editorials, but after it was all over, Dean DeVane wrote me a terribly nice letter, which I saved. “As you come to the end of your editorial duties, you deserve the congratulations of the entire community for making the News the most lively college newspaper in the country, past or present. Of course, neither I nor a lot of other people agreed with your editorial position on a lot of points–but the paper was alive and could not be ignored. As a matter of fact, it was read eagerly because significant things were said, important issues debated. That, I believe, is the summum bonum of journalism. Heartiest congratulations.”
Q: What was it that prompted you to write your book God and Man at Yale?
A: The catalyst was the annual Alumni Day event in February of my senior year. There was always an undergraduate speaker, and in 1950 I was selected. I wrote out my talk and gave an advance copy, as requested, to Dick Lee. He was then press secretary for Yale, before becoming the more or less perpetual mayor of New Haven. When I handed it to him he said in his captivating way, “What do you have to say in the speech, Bill? Nothing, I hope.” Well, word was passed to Woodbridge Hall that the talk was unfilial. There was great static–the event was scheduled for Saturday–so I sent a message to Mr. Seymour offering to withdraw as speaker; offer accepted. But the ideas I had explored in that speech took root. I graduated, got married that July, returned to Yale in September, resumed teaching my Spanish class, and took on the book, which I finished in January. It was accepted for publication by Regnery Inc. in Chicago and was published in October–routine scheduling. It came out just as Yale was celebrating its 250th birthday, and much indignation was worked up to the effect that I had all along planned to subvert Yale’s celebration, which was on the order of saying that a baby born on Christmas Day was designed, last March, to get in the way of festivities.
Q: What did you make of Yale’s responses?
A: I thought them remarkably virulent, but then the book got very intensive treatment all over. Saturday Review, which was then the dominant litweekly, gave it no fewer than three reviews (one of them cordial, to my astonishment). The OCD’s handling of it–a barrage of reviews by faculty and students–was pretty hostile. I certainly won’t rehearse the arguments of that book, but I do recall with sad satisfaction what I was told by (the Reverend) David Gillespie, at our 45th reunion. He reminded me that I had read out the section on religion at Yale to him and a few others at Dwight Hall. “I thought you were wrong about religion. Unfortunately, you were right.” Having said that, I add quickly that manifestly the Class of 1950 didn’t end up voting the socialist ticket.
Q: You went on to found National Review in 1955. You began a syndicated column in 1962, and your television program in 1966. National Review continues, and presumably will do so on into the future. Your column continues. You folded Firing Line last December. Why did you do that?
A: My flippant answer, given in the press release, was that I did not want to die onstage.
There were real concerns, one of them being that raising money to finance the program was always a headache. Television stations will not put up money these days for educational fare; they expect to get it free, and usually do. That means one has to line up a foundation or other donors. I truly admire people who are willing, year after year, to go out and raise money. I’ve always found it agonizing. But another reason for giving up Firing Line is the progressive exasperation one feels over sciolistic preparation and exegesis. It was better when the show lasted a full hour. The client stations backed the one-hour format for decades, but a lot of them were very unhappy about such an egregious interruption in their way of life. And it wasn’t just the philistines. When Harold Macmillan was my guest in London, after about forty minutes of shooting he turned and said, “I say, isn’t this program over yet?”
When I shortened the program to a half hour time spent on research was reduced by 80 percent. The first half hour of a television exchange on almost any subject–abortion, tax, war, Hollywood, education, God–pretty much rolls out from your general involvement in workaday discourse. But when the show goes on a second half hour you find yourself probing territory that your guest is truly expert in, while you most often are not. I remember Senator Gore (I speak of Al Gore, Senior). During the short pause for a commercial back in 1966 he leaned over to me and whispered, “You know something, Mr. Buckley?–I know more about the TVA than you do. I wrote the act.”
And then, too, there is creeping fatigue.
Q: Is that something you feel distinctively? Or do you put it down to age, which all of us feel?
A: Can’t answer that. The classmates I see most frequently seem pretty inexhaustible, though I remember with relish reading an interview with Vic Henningsen after I took him on my sailboat as crew in a Bermuda race. “A great experience,” he told the inquiring reporter. “A once-in-a-lifetime experience.” That was an Aesopian way of saying, “Dear dear Bill, it was fun, but don’t invite me again!” And quite right: Vic was introducing the factor of fatigue at a slightly different level. I did four Bermuda races but would shoot myself if I had to do a fifth. On the other hand there are all those people out there, older than we are, who sally forth on Bermuda races every time. Has anybody ever seen Van Galbraith out of breath? Or Bill Draper? Paul Lambert? . . . So yes, I think I am a little tireder than the luckier few.
Last day, senior, 1950: Class Day Orator
Q: Does it affect the quality of your work?
A: Aha, you coony old bird, I thought you’d get to that.
Let me back off, because the memory of this admonition is so searing for me. About ten years ago John Kenneth Galbraith, who is a close friend with whom I’ve shared a great deal, confided to me that he lived his apparently untroubled professional life with a single cloud off in the horizon, safely distant but conjecturally menacing. “My fear is that the day may come when I write less well than I now do, and nobody will tell me, and I won’t have the faculty of knowing it for myself.”
Happily, there is no exact correlation between that kind of thing–a lessening of mental skills–and biological attenuation, which is pretty steady. After a four-month-long flu a couple of winters ago that weakened me to the point where I couldn’t even ski, I took to answering friends who asked how was I doing by reporting, resignedly if not cheerily, “I am decomposing.” However, I don’t think my mind has suffered correspondingly. So to speak, I can still ski on a keyboard. In addition to the other stuff, I do a book while in Switzerland. I write quickly, a faculty that coexists with a vexatious, antipodally slow reading speed. I could never have got through such vast material as Bob Massie had to master for either of his great books, nor come up with his art. Which reminds me, if you detect a decline in the quality of my writing in the years, or days, ahead, you have my license to stop reading me. Or, where applicable, to postpone beginning to read me. Maybe when I lose such powers as I have, reading me will be easier, like playing beginner’s music on the piano.
Q: You speak of the piano. Do you still occasionally perform as soloist with an orchestra?
A: No. I gave up doing so after I played for my 45th Yale reunion. I made so many mistakes, notwithstanding that I had practiced the Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue diligently, that I was forced to face up to it: I wasn’t good enough, reliably enough, to perform publicly. That was my ninth public exposure, including one performance with the Yale Symphony in which I got through the F-minor concerto without total embarrassment, except maybe to J. S. Bach, if he was listening.
Q: You haven’t said anything much about your personal life.
A: You haven’t asked me anything about my personal life.
Q: All right. Let’s stop playing games.
A: On July 6 I’ll have been married fifty years. My wife, Patricia, is beautiful, bright, humorous, often quite impossible (as most wives sometimes are; as most husbands sometimes are), and I will love her always. My son, Christopher, is a resplendent public figure as a writer, humorist, and editor. Just yesterday I heard his first book, Steaming to Bamboola, acclaimed by a discriminating history professor as an enduring account of life in the merchant marine. What isn’t widely known–how could it be?–is his singular warmth and grace, his tough gentility. He is our only child. The two grandchildren, aged twelve and eight, are works of art, which requires that I acknowledge the role of their mother, the lovely Lucy Gregg Buckley, which I proudly do.
Oh, I almost forgot. I live in a most wonderful property, acquired in 1952, on the waterfront in Stamford, Connecticut, in which providence perhaps accidentally, perhaps on purpose, contrived the most dazzling light changes, seascapes sometimes sleepy, sometimes robust, even tumultuous when hurricanes come along; cherry and birch and pine and oak trees frame just the corner of a swimming pool by the sea embedded in old brick; little boats, sail and power, pass by day and night, and we can see all of that from our bedroom, with its twenty-foot-wide, 180-degree windows, or from the music room, whose east side is all glass, with shifting light changing the perspective and the colors every few minutes, causing this happy inhabitant to wonder at the wonder of it all.
Q: And to thank God?
A: Yes, God and Yale coexist. I wrote a book about God three years ago, and as I think back on it I wonder that any apologetics need go any further than the remark I ran into while at Yale, I forget at whose prompting. It recorded a crusty academic believer, his back to the wall at the dizzy height of the Darwinian offensive a hundred years earlier. How could he still believe in God? He answered, “I find it easier to believe in God than to believe that Hamlet was deduced from the molecular structure of a mutton chop.” I wish I had said that.
Thoughts on a Final Passage
I was asked by a friend and sailing companion who read the manuscript of my book WindFall why I thought to subtitle it “The End of the Affair.”
The voyage I chronicled in that book began almost immediately after my formal retirement as editor of a magazine I had founded as a very young man; and I would, on this passage, enter senior-citizenship. Practically the whole of my professional life had centered on that magazine, and when I left New York, having just then put my last issue to bed, I felt a certain sadness, a deracination almost, as one would expect to feel, even though at no point was it so keen as to make me wonder whether I had made an unwise decision in retiring.
Then, also, I couldn’t predict whether, five years later, I would be in shape (physical, or psychological) to crank up the energy required to organize a fifth ocean crossing. The odds were against it, I felt, never mind whatever buoyancy continues to sustain me as I write. I am much struck by sentences in a letter I had from Whittaker Chambers, the more so since it proved to be the last one I’d receive from him. “Weariness, Bill–you cannot yet know literally what it means. I wish no time would come when you do know, but the balance of experience is against it. One day, long hence, you will know true weariness and will say: ‘That was it.’” I have very little in common with Whittaker Chambers, having suffered so little by comparison, my link to the heavy machinery of history so greatly attenuated alongside his. He put it this way: “Our kind of weariness. History hit us with a freight train. But we (my general breed) tried to put ourselves together again. Since this meant outwitting dismemberment, as well as resynthesizing a new lifeview (grandfather, what big words you use), the sequel might seem rather remarkable, rather more remarkable than what went before. But at a price–weariness.” Even within that weariness, Chambers found the exotic contentment he believed Sisyphus to have found, though consigned to labor every day to roll the huge stone up the hill only to see it roll back to the bottom again, requiring him to renew his labor, indefinitely.
Yes, said Chambers, he thought Albert Camus correct, that in manual labor, and in the “strangled cry” described by John Strachey, who had fought his way free of Communism, there was satisfaction–better than that: Katow, who in the novel of Malraux sacrificed himself by giving away his cyanide to a younger man, must now, without alternative means of ending his own life, walk into the fiery furnace prepared by his executioner. He “walks toward the locomotive through a hall of bodies from which comes something like an unutterable sob–the strangled cry. It may also be phrased: ‘And the morning stars sang together for joy.’ It may also be phrased: ‘I1 faut supposer Katow heureux,’ as Camus wrote: ‘I1 faut supposer Sisyphe heureux.’ For each age finds its own language for an eternal meaning.”
I do not anticipate a Sisyphean end, except in the sense that all of us are condemned, always, forever, to renew our labors; and I have never courted, let alone been stricken by, the sadworldiness that afflicted Chambers. My life, on the whole, has been joyful, and my passages at sea have been pleasures so marked that I thought it impudent to suppose that, as though it required merely the setting of the clock, I might have yet another such an experience, with my friends, five years later.
And, as I related in WindFall, the nature of my companionship with my son had changed, as it ought to have done, and I had no clear sense of it that were I to suggest another passage to him in five years, he’d have joined me eagerly. At his age, one should expect he’d find alternatives that would be more beguiling. On the other hand, in the unlikely event of a prospective ocean passage, I might find his absence critically discouraging to the enterprise.
Oh yes, and there is the navigational point. About fifteen minutes after the appearance of my book, we could expect that navigation at sea would cease to be more than an antiquarian exercise. Probably a Trimble hand unit powered by a couple of flashlight batteries will tell you exactly where you are, day or night. And when that happens, what would I have to fret over on a long passage? . . . Ah, but the sea always has something lying in wait for you. Perhaps, in my last years, I’ll deny it the opportunity to vex me.
But if so, how can I draw from it those fleeted moments? You have shortened sail just a little, because you want more steadiness than you are going to get at this speed, the wind up to 22, 24 knots, and it is late at night, and there are only two of you in the cockpit. You are moving at racing speed, parting the buttery sea as with a scalpel, and the waters roar by, themselves exuberantly subdued by your powers to command your way through them. Triumphalism . . . and the stars also seem to be singing together for joy.