Miles Gone By: A Literary Autobiography (William F. Buckley)

“Miles Gone By” is a good, but somewhat disorienting, book. It’s disorienting, first, because it’s disjointed—while divided into chapters covering different topics, it’s actually composed entirely of previously published pieces, without any attempt to knit them together coherently, in time or theme, as would be usual in an autobiography. The result isn’t bad, it’s just different, and that’s disorienting.

But the book is also disorienting for another reason. It is very much a book about people, not issues or events. And the people in it—political, literary, academic, etc.—are generally spoken of in the present tense, because they were very much “of the moment” when each piece in the book that mentions them was written, from the 1950s onward. A more typical autobiography looks backward, and places each person, whether implicitly or explicitly, in his time. At every point in “Miles Gone By,” it is the eternal present.

What results is a sense of disorientation, because, for the most part, these people who figure so significantly in the book, as colossi of their time—are forgotten. Oh, sure, they’re not all totally forgotten, though some are. But they don’t matter anymore, except, perhaps, in the memories of aging Baby Boomers. And many of them mean nothing at all, for those who knew them are all dead, and they are little different to most of us than most of the famous men of Lincoln’s time.

Let’s just pick a few names. Richard Abplanalp. One of Richard Nixon’s closest friends, or so Wikipedia tells me in a short entry. He invented the modern aerosol valve and is introduced as someone well-known. Walter Cronkite—sure, people know generally who he was, but despite what aging hippies may tell you, he is not relevant to today (and in retrospect, Cronkite was a vain, over-rated, silly, pernicious man). Adam Clayton Powell. Who was he, exactly? Wikipedia is your friend. John Kenneth Galbraith, apparently the Paul Krugman of his time, and forgotten as Krugman will be. John Lindsay, miserably failed and largely forgotten mayor of New York City (and his even-more-forgotten opponent, Abe Beame). And on and on, a long march of faded men.

Of course, there are exceptions to this obscurity—Presidents appear, and there appear, naturally given Buckley’s professional career, many highly relevant conservative figures, though they, of course, are also unknown to today’s larger culture. But certainly Whittaker Chambers is a much more important historical figure than Walter Cronkite or Adam Clayton Powell, regardless of who is remembered by more people at this remove.

That doesn’t mean these people shouldn’t be in the book. My point is that the organizational structure of the book does not weigh these people as they would be weighed in a normal autobiography, and that disorients the reader. The book works as time capsule and as a way to understand what Buckley thought and emphasized, by his choices. It is just strange to read. Not bad. Just strange.

As L.P. Hartley said, the past is a foreign country. It is a shame there is nobody like Buckley now. But there could not be. Buckley, as were the players in his book, was a creature of his time. And that was a time when serious people ran the country, who were expected to justify themselves to God and man by cogent and logical argument. Failure to do so would make you a laughingstock, not a martyr. Appealing to the supposed “privilege” of your opponent in lieu of reasoning would have gotten you a blank stare or, more likely, a well-deserved fist to the face, followed by psychiatric treatment. Today, the dominant voices in our culture look at the shoulders of giants, and instead of climbing them to stand on them, instead demand they be torn down as symbols of oppression, privilege and imperialism.

This denouement is because we let come to power bands of aging hippies, disciples of Alinsky and interested in power, not reason, whose logical and inevitable endpoint (for now—it can get worse) is Obama. That descent, combined with the coarsening of American popular culture, where the base interests and desires of the free-spending and ever-more-numerous members of the lower classes dictate that the focus and spending be on myriad atrocities like reality TV, the Kardashians and rap “music,” leaves no room for the leadership of intelligent public intellectuals, particularly when they are wealthy and borderline pretentious, like Buckley. Too bad.

True public intellectuals are now disfavored regardless of the political view of the public intellectual. Really, what public intellectuals are there today who are known outside of very narrow circles, or who have power? (Hacks like Paul Krugman and other members of the NYT editorial team are not public intellectuals, whatever they may think.) For example, today’s conservatives are not Buckley or Chambers, or any of the others mentioned in “Miles Gone By.” They mostly lack any philosophical depth, and are either shallow populists (any TV conservative) or deeper men focused on the pugilism the times require (Breitbart, dead now; Schlichter). Sure, there are some deep thinkers in the public eye today (Douthat, Dreher)—but that the former is a voice crying in the wilderness and the latter spends his days planning mass conservative withdrawal from society merely proves my point. Today, Donald Trump is known and has power, and like the demagogue Cleon in ancient Athens, he intends to use it, and not with prudence. The recent documentary “Best Of Enemies,” showcasing the TV debates of Buckley and Gore Vidal, during the 1968 Democratic National Convention, shows this clearly. The debates were mainstream TV, shown every night to the entire network audience. The masses would not watch that now, and if they did, it would be to criticize without understanding the players and their styles. The march toward “Idiocracy” continues, and Buckley would not fit, as every word of this book shows.

Oh, of course, the writing in “Miles Gone By” is excellent. The stories are engaging, and despite that the people mostly no longer matter and are barely remembered, interesting (though Buckley’s unapologetic pursuit of the pursuits of the wealthy grates in today’s egalitarian mode). The book is worth reading, but, sadly, reading it is like viewing a fly in amber—a limpid, frozen memory of a time beyond reach.


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