"It’s as if he never existed," Andrew Ferguson reports a friend recently commenting about William F. Buckley, Jr., the founder of National Review who died in 2008. Ferguson's friend mainly was referring to Buckley's place—or rather, lack thereof—among the rising generation of writers, and he goes on to suggest that "it’s not clear that younger journalists, tweeting and Snapchatting and texting and Instagramming all the livelong day, have more than a vague notion of who he was." His interlocutor is right, I think, but for reasons Ferguson might be too kind to consider directly.

Rather than blaming the digital lives of young writers for their lack of attention to Buckley, my explanation is simpler. Buckley really never wrote much of lasting significance. If you had to associate him with one form, it would be the newspaper or magazine column; the sustained work of seriously crafted books and essays eluded him. He never wrote a movement-shaping book like Russell Kirk's The Conservative Mind. His intellectual virtues, from what I've been able to discern, are those of the debater and polemicist more than the studious man of letters.

Think about it this way: If you wanted to introduce Buckley to a young writer, what book of his would you choose?

His cut and pasted "literary autobiography," Miles Gone By? His sympathetic account of Joe McCarthy's antics, McCarthy and His Enemies? A repackaged collection of his columns? One of his spy novels? Even his book exploring the Christian faith, Nearer, My God, features significant sections outsourced to friends of Buckley's like Fr. Richard John Neuhaus and Malcolm Muggeridge. (When I first read Nearer, My God, over a decade ago as a college student, I remember being especially disappointed by it's pieced-together feel.)

Ferguson mentions Buckley's posthumous reputation to riff on two recent projects in which he prominently features. For Ferguson, Kevin Schultz's new history, Buckley and Mailer: The Difficult Friendship that Shaped the Sixties, and a forthcoming documentary about Buckley and Gore Vidal, Best of Enemies, provide evidence against claims of WFB's obsolesence. See, we're still talking about him! And we'll continue to, I'm sure. (For example, the eventual publication of Sam Tanenhaus's long-awaited biography of Buckley certainly will generate further debate about his life and work.) But juxtaposing WFB with Mailer and Vidal proves my point. What writing did Buckley do that stands beside Mailer's best work? Can any of his writing really match Vidal's better historical fiction, or his more sterling essays?

Talking about Buckley because he called Vidal a queer on national television and almost punched him is not the same as revering his writing. Among those of my generation, Buckley is mostly of interest as a "personality," almost a kind of mascot. He impressed me most when I was in college, when he seemed to be what I thought a smart person should sound like. His achievements are many, but they do not include the kind of book that endures. Without that, there can be no true Buckley revival.

Matthew Sitman is an associate editor of Commonweal. You can follow him on Twitter.

Also by this author
© 2024 Commonweal Magazine. All rights reserved. Design by Point Five. Site by Deck Fifty.