No one has ever been quite so clever about repackaging and reselling freelance journalism, but I’m deeply grateful William F. Buckley Jr. has been giving it a try. He has produced a number of anthologies over the years–mostly, I gather, collections of his columns on communism, the Panama Canal, and tattooing AIDS victims buttocks, as well as topics of similar significance. His latest effort, Miles Gone By: A Literary Autobiography, repackages a number of his writings from a large number of sources so that they rather loosely amalgamate into something like a life story–tales of his youth, his passions and enthusiasms, some of the people he has known, plus lots and lots and lots of stories about sailing, laid end to end, from childhood to maturity. As a freelance writer, I salute Mr. Buckley, and honor his efforts to profit a second time from his struggles with the blank page (indeed, some of these writings, like introductions and toasts to people given at dinners, were never remunerated in their first incarnations, so it’s high time their author got rewarded). This sort of thing should be done more often. There’s no reason that the person who bought, read, and enjoyed Cruising Speed the first time around shouldn’t buy, read, and enjoy the excerpt here; it’s not like anybody memorized the thing, did they? You go, Bill! I hope you sell a million copies!
Still, we are forced to ask, when those million book buyers part with their $29.95, what are they actually going to get out of Miles Gone By? First, they’re going to spend a lot of time with a singularly charming narrator. I have no idea what Buckley is like to live or work with, but in print he is almost always genial, witty, and self-deprecating. He has a knack for writing about fun. It’s not easy. We all have busy, eventful days that we spend going somewhere with people we like, and we end with a feeling of contentment and happiness. But that somehow escapes our ability to completely communicate to a third party why those days amounted to a good time. Buckley has the gift not exactly of describing that event, but of taking you through his memory of the event, and making that journey completely delightful.
You can’t say that he tells stories per se; there are no beginnings, middles, and ends to these boat trips, and a number of them, in the hands of a less gifted raconteur, would quickly clunk to a “I guess you hadda be there” close. There’s a lot of pleasant skimming of the surface here, by both Buckley and his boats. (Be warned: Buckley isn’t always charming in this collection. In one long chapter, an introduction he wrote to the 25th anniversary edition of God and Man at Yale, he revisits the controversy and responds to many of his critics, no doubt serious blokes in their time but invisible today, with the sort of cold, remorseless almost vengeful determination a coroner might bring to unearthing remains buried decades earlier after some unspeakable crime. Enough! we want to cry, enough! You were probably right about everything you wrote! Can we please get back on the sailboat?)
After a while, however, readers will begin to realize that for all the breeziness, not much of the inner man is revealed. We know that Buckley loved his mother and his father and loves his wife and his son–he says so here and there, not often but unambiguously–but what he really writes about is sailing. And then more sailing. And skiing. And flying. Not parenting. Not the joys, rewards, and intricacies of a long marriage. Not the emotional issues that arise from growing up in a big family.
And not a lot about himself. Not only isn’t there much of that goopy interpersonal-relationship stuff, there’s just not much about how he feels when he isn’t feeling good. Buckley writes about how he had to frequently and consistently raise money from donors to keep National Review afloat. Scratch any politician of the last quarter century, and you’ll get an effusion of complaint about having to perform various debasing songs and dances in the course of raising funds. There’s nothing here about that. There’s no real sense, in that instance or others, of having been hurt, disappointed, humbled, humiliated.
Which is fine. But if a person is going to be a great conservative, moreover a great conservative who was born rich, brilliant, talented, and gifted in innumerable ways, it would be good if in his autobiography, even his literary autobiography, he gave evidence of his capacity for feeling. He surely possesses one. The fact that many of his friends and his son accompanied him on many of his long ocean voyages speaks to his virtues and the pleasure that is no doubt taken in his company. But it says something that a writer so gifted and prolific and even avaricious should leave these fertile plots untilled.
There’s not much politics in Miles Gone By; odd in a man who has spent so much of his life observing the public realm. Still, Buckley has been by disposition a counterrevolutionary, living with his band of true believers in an attitudinal exile. Still, he did meet lots of people, and there are two anecdotes in this book that make me wish Buckley would fire up his word processor and produce one more book. In one recollection, John Tower, standing next to Buckley at a post-meeting pee in 1968, said he didn’t think Ronald Reagan had the “intellectual capacity” to be president. In another, during Watergate, after the Saturday Night Massacre, Barry Goldwater said to him over a Coca-Cola, “There is absolutely no doubt that Nixon is guilty. You know, if I had been beached ten years ago on an island cut off from the world, and a helicopter suddenly dropped down and described the mess in the White House, I’d say to myself, Richard Nixon has got to be President of the United States.”