A Torch Kept Lit: Great Lives of the Twentieth Century
By William F. Buckley Jr.
Edited by James Rosen
(Crown Forum, 357 pages, $22)
Had there never been a William F. Buckley Jr., American conservatism would look very different—and so might the world. “All great biblical stories begin with Genesis,” George Will wrote in the wake of an election that saw a sitting president lose—in a landslide—to a quintessentially conservative candidate named Ronald Reagan. “Before there was Ronald Reagan there was Barry Goldwater, and before there was Barry Goldwater there was National Review, and before there was National Review there was Bill Buckley with a spark in his mind, and the spark in 1980 has become a conflagration.” Twenty-five years later, Will would complete the chain: “Without Reagan, no victory in the Cold War. Therefore, Bill Buckley won the Cold War.”
William F. Buckley Jr. wrote fifty-five books in his lifetime, starting with God and Man at Yale (1951) and ending with The Reagan I Knew (2008), which he was finishing at the time of his death. In the foreword to that book, his son wrote that there continued to be interest in publishing collections of Buckley’s writings, and expected more to be released in the future, quipping: “My father writes more books dead than some authors do alive.” The latest such collection is A Torch Kept Lit: Great Lives of the Twentieth Century, a compilation—edited by Fox News correspondent James Rosen—of “more than fifty of Buckley’s best eulogies.”
That description does not quite capture the essence of the essays in the book. Those essays do not conform to the definition (taken from fifth edition of The American Heritage Dictionary, on the usage panel of which Buckley sat) of a eulogy (“a laudatory speech or written tribute, especially one praising someone who has died”), nor of an obituary (“a published notice of a death, sometimes with a brief biography of the deceased”), although they often contain elements of both. Buckley, with his jeweler’s eye for le mot juste, usually included such essays in his collections under the title “Appreciating.”
That is indeed the right word for them—appreciations—as it captures what Buckley intended to accomplish: to recognize the quality, value, significance, or magnitude of the person he was writing about.
These appreciations are often personal, sometimes “purely personal,” yet never blindingly so. Always there is a sober, evaluative element, which tends to increase in tandem with the subject’s historical eminence. Consider Buckley’s appreciation of Winston Churchill. Buckley did not personally know the great man, but he had a very personal understanding of his great achievements. At the age of twelve, in England for boarding school, Buckley happened to be at the Heston Aerodrome when Neville Chamberlain, arriving back from Berlin, deplaned with his misbegotten “peace for our time” paper bearing the signature of Adolf Hitler. Buckley was grateful for Churchill’s resolve in defeating Hitler—under Chamberlain’s leadership, he had to be fitted for a gas mask—but regretful of “the final imperfection of Churchill’s life”: that Churchill had been “incapable of seeing that everything he had said and fought for applied alike to the Russian, as well as the German, virus.” That is, Churchill had failed to recognize in the Communists the evil he had recognized in the Nazis. Buckley ends the essay with a thunderclap: “May [Churchill] sleep more peacefully than some of those who depended on him.”
Writing well about the deceased is an “elusive art form,” as Rosen notes in his introduction, but one at which Buckley excels. The safest approach is to be bland and formulaic. Buckley is never either. Witness his appreciation of Nan Kempner, the New York City socialite who was his wife’s good friend. Buckley seems to have been at once bemused and enchanted by Kempner, whom he describes as helping herself to food on his plate (“What one thought one’s own food, she considered common property if she was seated anywhere near you”) and inviting herself to stay at his home (“‘I’m coming to you for a week,’ she would say”). She had a “near-sensual devotion to the art of clothing” and an “ability to enhance with her couture any scene at all.” Buckley found her “rather aloof husband” equally bemusing, if less enchanting. “Every Christmas I receive, along with 100 other recipients, one or more didactic books from him with a covering letter describing their singularity,” Buckley writes, chagrined. “You would think that after almost sixty years of companionship, he’d have elected to send around at least one book written by me.” This is all in great humor, as if Buckley were celebrating Kempner’s life in the style she lived it—with a twinkle, not a tear, in his eye.
The essays that Rosen has compiled in A Torch Kept Lit show Buckley appreciating a wide variety of people, spanning presidents, statesmen, generals, spies, academics, artists, and authors, as well as family members, friends, and nemeses. Included are historic figures such as John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon, Martin Luther King Jr., and Princess Diana; boldface names such as Truman Capote, Johnny Carson, Jerry Garcia, John Lennon, and Elvis Presley; and private persons too. All are fascinating, even those unknown to the reader, because “the greatest pleasure of this volume”—as Rosen states at the outset of this fine collection—is “Buckley’s distinct voice.”
This book review was originally published in the Alabama Policy Review on December 9, 2016. View a PDF of the print edition.