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February 27, 2008

A Man of Letters

William F. Buckley Jr. has passed on.

letters.jpgIf you admired the man, you will perhaps enjoy this essay written about him recently in the Wall Street Journal. I hope I may be forgiven for excerpting it in toto. I do so in tribute to a great talent who will be sorely missed:

I don't think I'm giving away any trade secrets when I say that, in many magazines, the letters page is not quite what it appears to be. The ruse is less noticeable in daily newspapers (particularly this one!), where the editors rely on feedback from their readers and labor to put together a letters page that lets off steam even as it provides genuine interest.

It's a different story, though, in the high-end glossies, the ones that are fat with ads and self-regard. In their slick, rubbery pages, it's more often the editor himself (or herself) who benefits from the illusion provided by a letters page. He does, after all, get several pages of copy that he doesn't have to pay a writer for. His Platonic ideal of the perfect contributor--the writer who hands in his article and is then run over by a bus before he can complain about the editing--comes to life in the letter-writing reader, who is advised in the fine print that while the publication "welcomes letters to the editor" it nevertheless "reserves the right to edit the letters for length and style." (Meaning: Send us whatever you want; we'll print whatever we want.) At the same time, the editor gets to appear egalitarian and concerned, flattering his readers by making a show of seeming to care what they think when all he really cares about is whether they drop the $85,000 for the Lexus advertised on page 187.

One reason the old New Yorker magazine--the one with A.J. Liebling and E.B. White--was so unusual was that it refused to print letters to the editor at all, thus making the editor's disdain utterly transparent. (The magazine didn't run corrections, either.) The message was unmistakable, and you could almost hear it through the lockjaw of that foppish, monocle-wearing Eustace Tilley on the cover: "It seems scarcely possible, dear reader, that any letter you write could be of any interest to us whatsoever. We write, you read." So just be still and go back to that eight-part series on glaciers.

Another nervy, equally admirable approach was conceived by William F. Buckley Jr. In addition to his duties as columnist, TV talk-show host, lecturer, novelist and Manhattan boulevardier, Mr. Buckley was founder and, for 35 years, the editor of the magazine National Review. In this role, as in others, he was an innovator. Instead of merely parking all the letters to the editor in a few pages at the front, in the editorial equivalent of a mud room, he set aside a special department in the middle of the magazine to showcase the ones that caught his eye. And then, more often than not, he would gut the letter writer right there on the printed page. At NR the letters page became an abattoir.

Mr. Buckley called his department "Notes and Asides," and he has now gathered between hard covers a "best of" collection culled from the years 1967 through 2005, when the department was discontinued. In "Cancel Your Own Goddam Subscription," we find the whole range of letters to the editor: complaints and condescending jibes, lame jokes and wry observations, galloping know-it-all-ism and--always a favorite of letter writers--nitpicking. The tone varies with the subject, of course, but certain notes recur.

"You ridiculous ass," begins one early letter. Another opens: "You are the mouthpiece of that evil rabble that depends on fraud, perjury." And another: "You are a hateful, un-Christian demagogue." "You are the second worst-dressed s.o.b. on television." Mr. Buckley's responses are equally pithy, though slightly higher toned and always more allusive. To one disgruntled reader who identifies himself, in his righteous indignation, as the Second Coming of Jesus, Mr. Buckley warns: "And I am the second coming of Pontius Pilate." He sometimes composes his insults in Latin--a bit of one-upmanship that even Eustace Tilley would envy.

Arthur Schlesinger Jr. writes to complain about some perceived slight: "I might have hoped that you would have had the elementary fairness, or guts, to provide equal time; but, alas, wrong again." "Dear Arthur," Mr. Buckley replies. "I should have thought you would be used to being wrong."

Not all the exchanges are purely contentious. The literary scholar Hugh Kenner writes in to critique a single sentence--a long, zig-zaggy construction that Mr. Buckley wrote to open an essay in Esquire magazine. Abashed, Mr. Buckley protests that the sentence was "springy and tight."

" 'Springy and tight' my foot," says Kenner. "Those aren't springs, they're bits of Scotch tape." What follows is several pages of literary dissection, with Kenner attacking vigorously and Mr. Buckley defending his published sentence with slackening strength. If it sounds fussy, it isn't. It's a miniature tutorial in rhetoric and style from one of the century's most rigorous critics directed at one of its most accomplished journalists. You can't imagine finding it in any other letters column.

Over time "Notes and Asides" became a grab bag of odds and ends, a way for Mr. Buckley to clear his desk. There are speeches, random squibs, and tributes to the living and the dead. A lot of this material is included here along with the letters, and given Mr. Buckley's unrelieved involvement in the public affairs of his time, the book stands as a kind of informal intellectual history of the final third of the 20th century. These items of Buckleyana are good to have in more permanent form, but I bet it's the letters to the editor that readers will savor most--even those magazine readers who have once or twice been duped, by distant editors, into writing a letter to the editor themselves.

Posted by Cassandra at February 27, 2008 01:45 PM

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The man taught me the value of a well appointed dictionary. His will be a tough act to follow.

Posted by: spd rdr at February 27, 2008 02:04 PM

He will be missed indeed.

Posted by: bthun at February 27, 2008 04:49 PM

He has gone to the Algonquin. I loved reading the NR from time to time. It was well written,
well edited and unabashedly conservative.

Ditto on the dictionary use. I think I heard my brain wrinkle the first time I read an editorial in the NR and had to underline the words I wasn't familiar with. I am ashamed to say there were quite a few.

Posted by: Cricket at February 27, 2008 07:37 PM

Well, you know me.

I love words. I will never use them with such elegance, or such unabashed delight. But it is good to know there are some who can.

Posted by: Cassandra at February 27, 2008 09:45 PM

I was somewhere in the region of being a teenager at the time I first discovered Mr. Buckley on PBS and did he make an impression on this southern hillwilliam.

Watching WFBjr. on Firing Line with his head tilted back, his eyes gazing upwards, his number 2 pencil hovering around his chin while he examined, disassembled, or otherwise destroyed the arguments of his guest was a delight. And the tests of knowledge,vocabulary and the eloquent verbal fencing that would result between Mr. Buckley and his guests were quite often as good in their discussion and/or debate as was the Cassius Clay vs. Ken Norton fight to boxing. A thing of beauty.

Posted by: bthun at February 27, 2008 11:25 PM

What I loved most about Buckley -- aside from his capacity to slash to the bone of a problem in one cut -- was his willingness to use Latin in normal writing.

That's something we could use more of. It is a direct tie back to everything that makes the West.

Posted by: Grim at February 27, 2008 11:34 PM

I loved the man because he NEVER, EVER apologized for being conservative. He wore it like a crown and dared the world to try and knock it off (metaphorically speaking).

That and he reminded me so much of my Grandfather. Their minds and word usage ran in the same direction. I was reading some of my Granddad's editorials in the various newspapers he used to write for and his prose was eerily similiar to Mr. Buckley's although my Granddad was the elder statesman of the two. I guess that Emory education in those olden golden days was comparable to the Ivy Leagues. Before the wussification of the institutions of higher (lower) education. Amazing how many bright young officers we got from those esteemed halls of higher learning back then as well.

Fair Winds Sir! The conservative cause and the nation has lost a great defender of all that pertains to common sense! The passing of an era is about complete.

Posted by: JHD at February 27, 2008 11:58 PM

It would appear that his passing is a popular topic right about now...which is testimony enough in and of itself to his greatness.

Posted by: camojack at February 28, 2008 01:37 AM

He stood "athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so ...."

"Time and tide wait for no man."

"The wheel is turning and you can't slow down,
"You can't let go and you can't hold on,
"You can't go back and you can't stand still,
"If the thunder don't get you then the lightning will."

Posted by: Incredulous Reader at February 28, 2008 01:16 PM

Feeling ghoulish today?

Posted by: Barack Obama at February 28, 2008 01:22 PM

Came back to read this piece again.
God help me, but I do so miss Mr. Buckley.

Posted by: spd rdr at March 16, 2011 05:14 PM