Culture

Great 20th-Century Lives, Through William F. Buckley’s Eyes

(Cover image: Crown Forum)
The man knew how to live and how to love, as James Rosen’s new anthology of his writings makes clear.

Rarely is a writer’s greatest book published nearly a decade after his death. Nevertheless, Christopher Buckley believes this may well prove the case for A Torch Kept Lit: Great Lives of the Twentieth Century, an anthology of his late father’s eulogies edited by Fox News chief Washington correspondent James Rosen.

Going through the volume’s 50-plus remembrances, the reader quickly understands Christopher’s assessment. There was something about the eulogy as a form that brought out the best in William F. Buckley Jr.’s writing. His already engaging literary style became all the more so, his passion for the subject at hand shone through all the brighter. In an interview with National Review Online, Rosen says that this had to do with Buckley’s own gift for friendship and a zest for life that transcended the nitty-gritty of politics. “His purpose in writing these eulogies was not simply to fill space or to generate content as we might today, but really to conjure the departed, to savor them one last time as he had savored them, to open up a window for his readers onto the extraordinary experiences that he had had in knowing all of these extraordinary people.”

The assortment of lives remembered in A Torch Kept Lit is indeed extraordinary. Buckley maintained personal friendships with many of the book’s subjects, and he had some form of personal connection to nearly all of them. Want to know what it was like to keep an annual lunch date with Vladimir Nabokov? To coax the greatest pianist of the 20th century into playing you a private recital after dinner? How about watching an impatient Ronald Reagan catwalk across the side of a building and break into a locked sound room to turn his microphone on? This anthology contains a multitude of such anecdotal gems.

Rosen first got the idea for the volume when doing research for a National Review piece on Richard Nixon’s centenary. Consulting William Meehan’s 2002 bibliography of Buckley’s writings, he noticed an aside in the introduction by George Nash that singled out Buckley’s obituary essays for special praise: “A very interesting book could be compiled from these columns. I hope that Bill finds the time someday to do so.” Rosen contacted NR about carrying out the project himself and soon thereafter began using both the NR digital archive and Hillsdale College’s online archive of all Buckley columns to sift through his hundreds of eulogies for the selection process. He has grouped the final selection into categories such as “Presidents,” “Friends,” “Arts and Letters,” etc., rather than listing them chronologically, and has added a helpful preface to each eulogy (in some cases, there is more than one included for a given individual), putting it in proper context and providing useful background information.

Any reader of A Torch Kept Lit can’t help but notice that Buckley never wavered in his appreciation of friendship. (Fittingly, as Rosen notes, the last obituary essay he would ever write was for arguably his closest friend, Van Galbraith, who was, among other things, ambassador to France under Reagan.) Indeed, many of the book’s most powerful pieces are written for personal friends who had no public presence or media footprint to speak of. “One of the hallmarks of his work on these eulogies was that it didn’t matter if the subject was a famous person or not,” Rosen says. “Buckley still used all of his gifts to remember these individuals properly, to pay appropriate tribute to them. And it often makes for devastating reading.” Asked to name any personal favorites in the book, he points to a piece on Tom Hume, a Yale classmate and sailing buddy of Buckley’s who would eventually suffer a debilitating stroke. “Buckley’s writing about this man and his unsung struggle just to communicate with his own children is extremely affecting.”

*****

Many of the book’s most powerful pieces are written for personal friends who had no public presence or media footprint.

“Weariness, Bill: You cannot yet know literally what it means,” Whittaker Chambers wrote in 1961 in what would be his last letter to Buckley. “One day you will know true weariness and say, ‘That was it.’” While Buckley was well known for his multifarious interests and the maddeningly fast pace at which he lived most of his life (“Try reading his memoir Overdrive without experiencing vertigo,” Christopher Hitchens once wrote), age and deteriorating health would take its toll on him, and Rosen noticed a creeping weariness in his eulogies that became more apparent in the NR founder’s later years:

When you yourself are young, the death of a contemporary is more of a shocking thing, and the effort to conjure the departed, to reckon with their passing, will inevitably reflect that sense of shock. Whereas, when you’re a much older person in your 70s or 80s, when your contemporaries pass, there isn’t much shock associated with it. One can discern that evolution in Buckley’s writing about the recently departed.

Still, despite the physical suffering and personal losses he experienced at the end of his life, Buckley never ceased writing, taxing as it may have been for him. And he never ceased giving of himself, or cherishing his many friends. Reflecting on his own initial exposure to Buckley, Rosen notes: “The more I got to know about him, the more I learned about him, the more one could see how exemplary a life lived his was. It’s just an extraordinary honor for me to have my name associated with his in any way.”

Buckley’s writing was a torch that illuminated many things — a keen sense of politics, a passion for the arts, a love of friends and family, an unwavering Catholic faith. In editing this anthology, Rosen has guaranteed it will be kept lit for the next generation.

Nat Brown — Nat Brown is a deputy web editor at Foreign Affairs and a former deputy managing editor of National Review Online.

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