Don’t Ever Give Up

Got my mitts on the hilarious new Buckley book, Cancel Your Own Goddam Subscription, a selection of letters from the old Notes & Asides column in National Review. Some points:

(a) Waugh. Evelyn knew how to slather the hate on thick. Perhaps he felt a strange aversion to things he knew he was about to like, as sometimes happens, at least to me. Anyway, his first few letters referencing Buckley are pretty hilariously mean, almost as glibly, deliciously unfair as his treatment of Edmund Wilson in the Paris Review interview, in which he discarded the Grand Pooh-Bah of American Letters like a stray hair on a jacket sleeve. (Waugh: Is he an American? Interviewer: Yes. Waugh: I don’t think what they have to say is of much interest, do you?) Waugh to Tom Driberg:

Can you tell me: did you in your researches come across the name of Wm. F. Buckley Jr., editor of a New York, neo-McCarthy magazine named National Review? He has been showing me great & unsought attention lately & your article made me curious. Has he been supernaturally “guided” to bore me? It would explain him.

But later correspondence between the two reveals their affinity as prose stylists, Catholics, and political rightists. Waugh to Buckley: “At your best you remind me of Belloc; at your second best of Randolph Churchill.” Waugh began contributing to NR. But later he died!

(b) Style. Sam Tanenhaus was really astute when he observed that Buckley’s style resembles Nabokov’s. The connection is that neither had English as a first language—Buckley having spoken only Spanish until he entered school. (“His famous prose style, with its ornate syntax and rococo vocabulary, conveys, at times, a subtle hint of ‘foreignness,’ like that of his friend Vladimir Nabokov,” wrote Tanenhaus.) It’s their lingering separation from the language that allows them to consider language so, if this is the right word, cerebrally. A detractor would call it an affected style. But it is not affected because that word implies that the writer wants to use language as a personal decoration. With Buckley and Nabokov, it’s exactly the opposite: language is not so personal. It exists on the page and can be altered without anxiety. When rarely pulled off, this “foreignness” is certainly enjoyable.

(c) Political correctness. It’s fashionable on the right to buck political correctness, occasionally to the point of boorishness, because political correctness is a bad thing. But this book has Buckley taking a correction from Clare Booth Luce on his using “lady theologian” in a column. She calmly and logically explains how this brings the discourse down to an Archie Bunker level. He accepts this and promises only to use the “lady + x” formulation in cases where it’s a little more necessary, as in “lady wrestler.” This usage might also be too much; anyway, “female” would do better. But several personalities on Fox News and talk radio who are hardly bubbling over with refinement would sooner swear off Crest Whitestrips than yield a small point on the basis of accuracy and politeness.

(d) Death drive. From his go at the Vanity Fair Proust Questionnaire:

When and where were you happiest? Age five to seven.

If you could choose how to come back, how would it be? Stillborn.

I can’t find the clip now, but WFB told Charlie Rose a few years ago that he didn’t want to live anymore. Not, as I recall, that he craved suicide, which his religion forbids, but that he simply tired of existing. It seems odd that a man of such drive and apparent joie de vivre, who came from such advantage and yet worked so hard, should get tired—not of a certain way of life but simply of being. Or perhaps I’ve got it exactly backward. Perhaps the two drives are perfectly correlated.

(e) My favorite letter.

April 11, 1975

Dear Mr. Buckley:

I am a teacher with credentials in English, political science, history, mathematics, humanities, and Japanese, and yet I barely have the ability to decipher your vulgar prose.

I can’t recall ever having seen such an obvious search for and display or archaic vocabulary and overall obfuscation in an apparent attempt to be “the learned one.” You stink!

You are a complete joke, a pedant, a phony conservative. You’re an upstart. You may be a New Englander and a Yale man, but, in no way do you have the class of a Cox, a Richardson, or even a Kennedy.

Yours truly,
John M. Herlihy
Seaside, Calif.

Dear Mr. Herlihy: Sorry. English, political science, history, mathematics, humanities, and Japanese are not quite enough. But don’t give up, Herlihy. Don’t ever give up.—WFB