July 23, 2004,
Miles Gone By: A Literary Autobiography by William F. Buckley Jr. (Regnery, 592 pp., $29.95)
In Miles Gone By, Bill Buckley brings together material written over the past fifty years “scenes and essays,” he tells us, “in which I figure directly. What I have attempted is in the nature of a narrative survey of my life at work and play. There are personal experiences, challenges and sorties, professional inquiries, and mem¬ or¬ ies beginning in childhood. There would be no point in contriving an autobiography from scratch. Why? I have already written about the events and the people that have shaped my life; any new account would simply paraphrase these. I hope that this volume achieves the purpose, and that it will give pleasure.”
It does. As a literary autobiography it showcases his great versatility and talent as a writer, and there is nothing that gives greater pleasure than reading a first-rate writer at the top of his form. And beyond that, as the survey of a life, it captures the essential nature of the man the goodness and decency, consistently there since the earliest years; the piety, the reverence for his parents, and the total delight and pride he has taken and takes in his family, and they in him; the simplicity and humility underlying that confident and sometimes snarkish surface that can reduce opponents in debate to gibberish; the joy in nature as a force, and in physical and intellectual challenge; the love of art and learning; the high intelligence, powerful convictions, and sheer presence that gave shape and coherence to a publication and then to a movement that touched nearly every public and poli¬ tical aspect of American life a movement that led directly to the election of one president, a devoted reader of NATIONAL REVIEW, and a great and good friend of Bill’s whom God took home in June; a second president who was vice president to the first; and, finally, a third who is son to the second. As the first president might have put it, “Not bad at all, Bill.”
Miles Gone By opens on a summer evening in Sharon, Connecticut, where Bill’s father a Texas lawyer and oilman who had lived and done business in revolutionary Mex¬ico and Venezuela had acquired a house, Great Elm, to accommodate his growing family.
Summers at Great Elm are idyllic. But in 1938, Bill’s father sends down an edict: Bill and two sisters will be sent to boarding school in En¬gland because they mumble. “In England we would learn to open our mouths when we spoke.” Later, after the war, they learn that the real reason their father wanted the younger children away from home was that their mother had become pregnant again at age 43 and might not survive the birth. She did, and lived until 1985.
Two of the most difficult human qualities for a writer to capture and person¬ ify are goodness and beauty. Buckley does both.
“My mother worshipped God as intensely as the saint transfixed,” he wrote. “And His companionship was to her as that of an old and very dear friend. Perhaps somewhere else one woman has walked through so many years charming so many people by her warmth and diffidence and humor and faith. If so, I wish I might have known her.”
Her love for her children and her husband was absolute. When Will Buckley died in 1958, “her grief was profound, and she emerged from it through the solvent of prayer, her belief in submission to a divine order, and her irrepressible delight in her family and friends.” Then her daughter Maureen died at 31, followed by her oldest daughter, AloEFse, and then her son John.
Then, the final scene: “Five days before she died, one week having gone by without her having spoken . . . the nurse brought her from the bathroom to the armchair and (inflexible rule) put on her lipstick, and the touch of rouge, and the pearls. Suddenly, and for the first time since the terminal descent had begun a fortnight earlier, she reached out for her mirror. With effort she raised it in front of her face, and then said, a teasing smile on her face as she turned to the nurse, ‘Isn’t it amazing that anyone so old can be so beautiful?’
“The answer was, Yes, it was amazing that anyone could be so beautiful.”
In his portrait of his mother Bill shows us a woman of goodness and beauty. And he does the same in the sketch of his sister Priscilla, who at¬ tended Smith with Nancy Davis Reagan, went from college to the graveyard shift at UPI, covered sports, was sent to Paris, came home to help out during the early days of the magazine, and soon became not only the ablest but, hands down, the prettiest managing editor on East 35th Street. “She does everything,” he writes. “For the magazine, for its editors and staff, for her friends. . . . [W]ithout her, life is, well, unimaginable. On top of everything else, at NR we don’t have to worry when the lights go out, because Priscilla is smiling.”
This ability to characterize with quick strokes just the right metaphor, distinctive physical characteristics, a snippet of dialogue, the tone and pitch of voice, the quirks and idiosyncrasies the ability to make us see and hear runs through all the pieces in this book, from boyhood to epilogue.
Here is one of his professors at Yale: “A tall, ruddy-faced man with crew-cut hair who wore a hearing aid. He spoke the kind of sentences John Stuart Mill wrote. Never a misplaced accent, qual¬ ifier, verb; sentence after sentence of preternatural beauty, formed as if in a magical compositors’ shop, by golden artisans.”
At times, characterization comes through action, as when he first meets Ronald Reagan. The oc¬ casion was a speech in Beverly Hills in a high-school auditorium. Reagan was emcee. “His assignment was to introduce me to the assembly . . . But entering the hall we came on a huge bump in the road: not only was the sound system not on, the room where you turned it on was locked. . . . That’s when I espied True Grit in the future president. He ascertained that the window at the end of the stage overlooked a parapet about a foot wide, which extended . . . to the window of the control room. So he climbed out the window, arms outstretched for balance, and edged his way above the roaring traffic to the critical window, broke it open with his elbow, climbed into the room, found the switch, and flipped it and the show was on.”
At other times, it’s a simple phrase or sentence. Of his former colleague and mentor Willmoore Kendall: “Willmoore made it a practice never to be on speaking terms with more than one friend at a time.” Henry Kissinger, he tells us, taught a course at Harvard in the 1950s “taken only by students who intended to become prime minister or emperor.” And he writes of Whittaker Chambers’s “sadworldiness” and his “link to the heavy machinery of history.”
There is a touching tribute to Frank Meyer, “who would rise sometime in midafternoon and begin his working day, most of it over the telephone.” (Those of us who owed him a review would wake up cowering when the phone rang at 2 A.M.) There is an ap¬preciation of James Burnham, “the dominant intellectual influence in the development of [NATIONAL REVIEW]),” and of his role as guide and teacher to all of us including our editor-in-chief who worked as writers at the magazine.
A similar tribute is paid to Henry Regnery, publisher of God and Man at Yale, a man who was important to Buckley as “a friend, a publisher, a mentor,” working with him in those “very happy days in which book publishing was something of a personal partnership between publisher and author.” In later years, Henry and Eleanor liked to reminisce with this writer about the days when Bill would visit them in Illinois and delight their four children with “Variations on Three Blind Mice” on the piano.
In these sketches and in the other pieces in Miles Gone By a one-paragraph description of his home in Stamford, as visual as a painting; any of his descriptions of his boats and life at sea; his appreciation of his wife, Patricia, “beautiful, bright, humorous . . . and I will love her always”; his son, Christopher, a man of “singular warmth and grace” and “tough gentility”; his grandchildren, who “are works of art” the touch is that of a writer of the first rank.
Finally, there’s the man himself, and the spirit the boundless energy and enthusiasm and joy that he brings to all his pursuits and to life, a life that has been full, fast, and active. Among the many adventures he chronicles here are his sail, with six friends in a 71-foot boat, across the Pacific Ocean; his descent to the ocean floor with the French team investigating the Titanic; his attempt, while a freshman in college, to master flying a single-engine plane; and, most nerve-wracking of all, his brief career as a harpsichord soloist with major symphony orchestras.
That spirit the boundless energy and enthusiasm and joy permeates this book. But there’s another quality here, an undertone a tone, a shading, perhaps just a whiff of melancholy. It’s especially evident in a piece called “Aweigh,” in which he tells us why last fall he decided to sell his boat. This is an important piece, for sailing represents for him much of the very best of what he has found to be good in life, both in nature and in “social pleasure” “So that deciding that the time has come to sell Patito and forfeit all that is not lightly taken, bringing to mind the step yet ahead, which is giving up life itself.”
In his epilogue, in a lyrical and moving passage that approaches the spiritual, sailing is the image for that “step yet ahead.” And while we acknowledge its force and beauty, the inclination is to say, Let’s not rush it. There’s plenty of time ahead for that last cruise. And in the meantime, there are miles still to go before we sleep.
There may be a certain apprehension here. John Kenneth Galbraith put it this way to Bill: “My fear is that the day will 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.” But there should be no worry on that count for Bill. If that day were ever to approach, there’d be plenty of people dancing around the bonfire, delighted to blow the whistle.
In the meantime, we can say, on reading Miles Gone By, as William Shawn, editor of The New Yorker, said on reading WindFall: “The Buckley style, the innate goodness, is intact, and the hu¬ mor is undiminished.”
This is a splendid book, with a deeper layer that bodes well for future works. I envy the reader who is experiencing Bill Buckley’s style, wit, talent, and innate goodness for the first time. In the years ahead, as he inevitably cuts back and gears down, he can, as he puts it, “still ski on his keyboard.” And all of us who love fine writing will benefit from that.
Mr. Coyne, a communications consultant based in Chicago, is a longtime NR contributor, a former White House speechwriter, chief speechwriter for Amoco Corp., and the author of five books. He is currently at work on a sixth.