172 American Autobiographies: Buckley; Hillerman; Medved

In 1951, when William F. Buckley published God and Man at Yale, there were millions of ordinary “conservatives” who lacked an intellectually vigorous forum for their ideas. When Buckley soon thereafter launched The National Review, they found both a forum and a spokesman who greatly shaped what is now arguably the dominant political position in the country. To understand the man who, for 50 years, has written and inspired an amazing array of writers and politicians, young and old, Buckley’s Miles Gone By: A Literary Autobiography (Washington, DC: Regnery Publishing, Inc., c. 2004) proves indispensable. Like the man himself, the autobiography is a bit unconventional, for Buckley simply strings together various previously written items to tell his story. “The design of this book,” he says, “is to bring together material I have written over fifty years, with an autobiography in mind” (p. xiii). Thus it is episodic rather than linear, refulgent with remembrances rather than chronological specifics. But the book is strangely effective, for one sees, through the passages presented, the world as Buckley saw it at very specific times. And one learns, while reading, who he is and how his ideas have shaped his life.

Buckley was blessed with virtuous parents. His father, he says, “was the most admirable man I ever knew” (p. 12). He prospered greatly, sired a large family, and presided over both business and family affairs with dignity and discernment. Importantly, his son remembers, he “was wonderful with children (up until they were adolescents; at which point . . . he took to addressing us primarily by mail, until we were safe again at eighteen)” (p. 35). He demonstrated “a constant, inexplicit tenderness to his wife and children, of which the many who witnessed it have not, they say, often seen the like” (p. 49). High praise for an archetypical “patriarchal” father! His mother, a vivacious and attentive woman, “never lost a southern innocence” (p. 51) and was ever determined to do “the will of God” (p. 52). “There were rules she lived by, chief among them those she understood God to have specified. And although Father was the unchallenged source of authority at home, Mother was unchallengeably in charge of arrangements in a house crowded with ten children and as many tutors, servants, and assistants” (p. 52). Amidst all the stresses and strains of caring for such a brood, she remained resolutely cheerful. Indeed, she refused to ever “complain; because, she explained, she could never repay God the favors He had done her, no matter what tribulations she might be made to suffer” (p. 54). His remarkable parents revered education, culture, and the Catholic faith, and they effectively reared their children accordingly.

Buckley’s collegiate education took place at Yale University, an experience recorded in God and Man at Yale, the book that brought him national attention (which I reviewed in issue #158 of my “Reedings.”) Twenty-five years later he was asked to write an introduction for an “anniversary edition” of the book, and now (looking back 50 years) “To young inquisitive friends, I say: Don’t bother to read the book, but do read the introduction” (p. 58), which is reprinted here. Trends evident at Yale, shortly after WWII, soon swept the country. Caving in to the fashionable notion that “all sides” of every issue deserve a hearing, insisting that “tolerance” and “diversity” are crucial components for academic respectability, most universities had lost their “mission.” A commitment to “academic freedom” had replaced their original raison d’etre. But to Buckley, only a focused “mission” justifies the existence of any university!

A surprising amount of Miles Gone By is devoted to sailing and skiing. While I cannot share Buckley’s fascination with the former I fully identify with the latter! The first day he skied (aged 29) he “thought seriously of abandoning journalism, my vendetta with the Soviet Union, my music, and my sailing, and settling down in Vermont, working five years to qualify as a ski instructor, and spending the balance of my life on the slopes” (p. 192). Fortunately he thought better of the idea. But thereafter he routinely took vacations in Switzerland and Utah, finding delight in both the beauty of the scenery and the challenge of the sport, skiing into his eight decade. “I know of no sport, no hobby, no avocation, as indulgent as skiing in giving you exactly the combination you wish of challenge, relaxation, thrill, exhilaration” (p. 195). Amen!

In a fascinating section, entitled “People,” Buckley celebrates “Ten Friends”–David Niven, the superb actor; Ronald Reagan, the president; Henry Kissinger, the diplomat; Claire Boothe Luce, the congressman; Tom Wolfe, the novelist; Vladimir Horowitz, the pianist; Roger Moore, the movie producer; Alistair Cooke, the historian; Princess Grace, the movie star turned Princess of Monaco; and John Kenneth Galbraith, the liberal Harvard economist. What’s amazing about this list is their prominence and diversity. Like Will Rogers, Buckley seems to genuinely “like” people and successfully established lasting friendships with various sorts of them.

Ever readable, ever enlightening, this “literary autobiography” is a fitting testament to its author.

In Nearer, My God: An Autobiography of Faith (New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, c. 1997), William F. Buckley gives readers insight into his soul. Almost blissfully, he reports: “I was baptized a Catholic and reared as one by devoted parents whose emotional and intellectual energies never cloyed” (p. xx). His “mother was a daily communicant. Father’s faith was not extrovert, but if you happened on him just before he left his bedroom in the morning, you would find him on his knees, praying” (p. 4). Consequently, he declares: “My faith has not wavered, though I permit myself to wonder whether, if it had, I’d advertise it . . . . “I wish I could here give to my readers a sense of my own personal struggle, but there is no sufficient story to there to tell” (p. xx). Righteous examples, particularly parental, surely matter–eternally!

As a Catholic attending Yale, he found little to trouble his faith but much to dissipate his hope for higher education! Colleges such as Yale had, before WWII, abandoned any commitment to Christian doctrine, assuming that a decent percentage of pious professors would maintain a suitable “religious atmosphere” of some nebulous sort! “When I left Yale in 1950,” says Buckley, “I had become convinced that it, and presumably, other colleges like it were engaged in discouraging intellectual and spiritual ties to Christianity” (p. 36). Half a century later, this trend is distressingly evident even in the formerly Christian prep schools of New England, where “there is today another God, and it is multiculturalism” (p. 37). More broadly, and ominously, he thinks: “What has happened, in two generations, is the substantial alienation of the secular culture from the biblical culture” (p. 233). That process now gains speed and threatens the very foundations of our society.

Buckley’s own theological convictions are rooted in thinkers such as John Henry Newman and were invigorated by challenging, far-ranging conversations with the likes of Sir Arnold Lunn (a skiing companion), Whittiker Chambers, Russell Kirk, Richard John Neuhaus, Jeffrey Hart, Malcolm Muggeridge, Chuck Colson, and Eugene Genovese. Ever eclectic in his friendships, he seems able to draw and distill insights from some of the world’s finest thinkers. And it’s clear that “faith” to Buckley is primarily an intellectual conviction regarding the truth of Christian doctrine. Nearer, My God contains none of the “personal experiences” so central to evangelical memoirs, little of the “strangely warmed” heart moments pietists prize. But it does make clear the author’s conviction that “anyone who is looking for God, Pascal said, will find him” (p. 85). That Buckley has found God is most evident in this treatise.

A writer of a different sort, Tony Hillerman, tells his life story in Seldom Disappointed: A Memoir (New York: HarperCollinsPublishers, c. 2001). Hillerman’s mysteries–The Blessing Way; Listening Woman; Skinwalkers; Coyote Waits, to name a few–are set in Navajo country and provide an effortless way to understand something of Navajo culture.

Born to an impoverished farm family in Oklahoma, Hillerman profited from the example of hard-working, devout parents. His father, he believes, literally worked himself to death and died young. His mother gave him an enduring example of courage and resolve. In the midst of depression and poverty, she refused to be daunted. To her, children “had nothing to worry about except maintaining our purity, being kind to others, saving our souls, and making good grades. With Papa’s help, she persuaded us that we were something special. We weren’t just white trash. Great things awaited us. Much was expected of us. . . . whining and self-pity were not allowed” (p. 46). Whatever happened, Mama would say: “Offer it up.” Give it to God and keep on keeping on! “We were born, we’d live a little while, and we’d die. Then would come joy, the great reward, the Great Adventure, eternal life” (p. 46).

Hillerman managed to graduate from high school and gain entrance to Oklahoma A&M, just as WWII was erupting. He soon joined the Army, went to Europe, and fought with his buddies through France and into Germany. Seriously wounded, losing an eye and walking with a limp thereafter, he received multiple decorations. All of this he describes with a wry, self-deprecating sense of humor, making light of his “heroism” and military life in general. He tested and confirmed the fact that there’s much “truth behind the axiom: ‘There are two ways of doing things. The right way and the Army way'” (p. 151). After months in various hospitals, he finally returned to Oklahoma, entered the University of Oklahoma, and studied journalism. Happy to maintain a “Gentlemanly C” grade point, his academic career was notably undistinguished, though he profited from at least one of his journalism professor’s instruction regarding “tight” writing. Use the right words! Eliminate adverbs and adjectives!

More important than professors, however, was a woman he met at OU in his senior year! Marie Unzner instantly enchanted him, and he persuaded her to become his wife. She proved a great blessing, for she “had more confidence in my writing than I did” (p. 260). Ever cheerful and optimistic, she continually encouraged him to pursue his dreams. Whereas his parents had nurtured him early in life, setting him on the right track, heading toward “that Last Great Adventure, and understanding that the Gospels Jesus used to teach us were the road map to make getting there a happy trip,” the final half-century of his life was “filled with love, joy, and laughter by a wonderful wife, partner, and helpmate named Marie” (p. 320).

Degree in hand and a wife to care for, Hillerman sought work. The position he found was in Borger, Texas, located “sixty miles north of Amarillo on rolling, almost treeless tundra of the high end of the Texas Panhandle” (p. 179). A more inauspicious beginning for a fledgling writer could not be imagined. But he started working, covering local stories and (importantly) observing people in all sorts of situations. Decades later some of the characters in his novels are based upon some remarkably admirable people he knew in Borger. Soon he found a better job in Lawton, Oklahoma, then moved to Oklahoma City to work for the United Press. That led, in 1952, to an assignment as UP Bureau Manager in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he would work for more than a decade.

While recording the news, Hillerman sensed a deeper longing to write more creatively, to be a novelist. Despite a growing family of six children (all but one adopted), with his wife’s encouragement he decided to change careers and moved to Albuquerque to pursue a degree in English at the University of New Mexico. Once there, the opportunity to teach in the journalism department opened up, and he settled into the academic life for 15 years. Ever discerning, he discovered that the faculty was divided into two groups. Pragmatic “Organization” folks, with whom Hillerman sided, taught hard sciences and history; they mainly wanted to help the university survive and secure their salaries. Their antagonists, the “Crazy Bus” crowd–mainly representing such departments as Education, Sociology, and Anthropology–”was a mix of 1930 Marxism, Nihilism, Hedonism, and disgruntlement” who greatly troubled the state’s tax payers (p. 243). Infused with the vapors of the ’60s, they were out to change the world.

Hillerman found satisfaction teaching in the ’70s. “Students were interested, grade mania and the resulting grade inflation had barely emerged, the curse of political correctness had not yet paralyzed deans and department chairmen and corrupted the faculty” (pp. 262-263). He actually had “fun.” But the ’80s changed things. “The numbing dogma of PC hung over the campus, tolerating no opinions except the anointed ones. With free speech and free thought ruled out by inquisitors running Women’s Studies and the various minorities studies, the joy of learning had seeped out of students. With it went the joy of teaching. Time to quit” (p. 263). So he did! “One day after delivering a lecture so bad even I knew it was boring, I decided to quit academia and return to the real world” (p. 250). That meant writing and publishing novels!

Fortuitously, he found his métier–the mystery novel set in Navajo country. He also found agents and editors who enabled him to sell books. In time he flourished as his fans spread the news and his peers awarded his craftsmanship.

Michael Medved, known to many through his popular talk show, looks back on his life as a series of Right Turns: Unconventional Lessons from a Controversial Life (New York: Crown Forum, c. 2004). He structures the book with a series of 35 “lessons,” generally chronological but essentially thematic, to show how he has developed as a pundit, a very public intellectual, from a thoroughly radical leftist–opposing the Vietnam War and working for the ’72 McGovern campaign at its “Jewish desk”–to a deeply conservative Orthodox Jew, father and media figure. Importantly, he says: “This book isn’t about ‘my truth’; it’s about The Truth, to the extent I can apprehend and explain it” (p. 5). This puts him “counter to all trendy notions of moral relativism, which suggest that someone with different life experiences will inevitably read different conclusions, and that these conclusions deserve no less respect than mine” (p. 5).

Medved was born in Philadelphia, the grandson of industrious Jewish immigrants. One his grandmothers “grasped, and passed along, one of the greatest truths of life: it doesn’t matter how much you earn, so long as you spend less than you bring in” (p. 35). His parents soon moved to the Point Loma area of San Diego, where he went through the city’s public schools and imbibed liberal Democratic values from his parents. Such values were, however, early challenged by one of his uncles, Moish, an unusually erudite, self-educated and successful electrician, who was born in Ukraine in 1905. Taking him aside for a “man-to-man” talk, Uncle Moish warned young Michael against Communism, the “Scarlet Plague” that was ruining millions of people around the world, and “‘the people who are most likely to get sick, and who are going to suffer the most, are the brightest minds, the biggest idealists, the natural leaders of this world. They are people just like you'” (p. 47).

But young Michael hardly heeded (though he remembered) his uncle’s admonition for many years. While attending Yale, awash with radical students in the ’60s, he observed youngsters in the Students for a Democratic Society who vividly illustrated the “Scarlet Plague.” He also witnessed, as a sophomore, the impact of the drug-addled counterculture that swept through the university in 1966. Medved seemed temperamentally hostile to the “dopester dementia” and listened to a different melody, finding a healthy alternative by hitchhiking, almost every weekend, through sections of the “flyover world” disdained by the academic elitists. He also began, at Yale, a slow return to the faith of his fathers, Judaism, discovering, as he titles one chapter, “You Can Go Home Again.”

Following his graduation from Yale, he entered Yale Law School (getting acquainted with Hillary Clinton) but quickly decided he was not really interested in being a lawyer. So he returned to California, married, and enrolled in a writing program at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1972. Here he confirmed the truth that “Liberal Heroes Aren’t All Heroes” in the person of Ron Dellums, a “Castroite” congressman representing Berkeley and Oakland. Medved accepted a staff position in the Dellums’ campaign and grew quickly disillusioned with his candidate, who “reminded me of another tall, lanky, hugely ambitious, humorless pol I had known (and disliked) years before: John Kerry” (p. 170).

Barely arrived in Berkeley, Medved experienced another wake-up call–his home was burgled. The police caught the thief, who was a career criminal routinely released to practice his craft at public expense. The typical Berkeley intellectual’s sympathy for criminals, evaluated from the perspective of a victim, was simply “mad.” The cops, Medved decided, not the UC professors, see things as they really are. Consequently, Medved abandoned, in the ’70s, the vacuous ideologies and “utopian promises of the youth counterculture, while embracing traditional Judaism, entrepreneurial adventure, cops, and even Christians” (p. 204). He also read “Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s harrowing masterpiece, The Gulag Archipelago” (p. 209), a timely gift from his uncle Moish. Realizing that the “Scarlet Plague” explained both the USSR’s gulag and the counterculture’s fanaticism, he felt “guilty and heartsick for my country and for the so-called peace movement in which I had played such an active part” (p. 213).

Relocating to Los Angeles, where his folks now lived, he wrote, with a friend, a successful book, What Really Happened to the Class of ’65? and gained entrée to the media world. He wrote more books and became a noted film critic, interacting on a regular basis with the Hollywood elite. He also moved steadily toward Orthodox Judaism, getting involved in synagogue activities and taking seriously the precepts of his faith. His childless first marriage had collapsed, and he now shared, with his second wife, Diane, the conviction that “children represented an explicit focus of our relationship, giving us a sense of purpose, of destination” (p. 297). They came to strongly oppose divorce and abortion, enlisting as partisans in the “culture war” that divides America.

Addressing this “war,” he said, in an off-the-cuff 1990 speech: “This is the very nature of the cultural battle before us. It is, at its very core, a war against standards. It is a war against judgment. It’s proponents insist that the worst insult you can offer someone today is to suggest that he or she is judgmental” (p. 344). This is dramatically evident in the realm of art, where “ugliness has been enshrined as a new standard,” where “the ability to shock” is as admired as “the old ability to inspire” (p. 345).

Given the opportunity to do talk radio, Medved moved to Seattle determined to “inspire” listeners to embrace the “right” way he has found. This book certainly clarifies the message he wants to impart and enables one to understand the messenger.