52 Books/52 Weeks

52 Books/52 Weeks: William F. Buckley, A Torch Kept Lit

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A Torch Kept Lit: Great Lives of the Twentieth Century
William F. Buckley, Jr
Edited by James Rosen
Crown Forum

Writing an obituary is not an easy task. To write a remembrance about one’s life—especially if said person lived life in the public sector—requires a great deal of tact and decorum, yet one must also not play fast and loose with the truth. To wit: the passing of Fidel Castro provided the opportunity to look at the man’s controversial life, with a common criticism being that in death a whitewash of the man’s history often diverged from the realities of who he was. A seeming political correctness regarding Castro’s regime was at play, and many obituaries and eulogies felt like bland agitprop. 

William F. Buckley, Jr. had a way with words. As the founder and publisher of National Review, he served as the standard-bearer for political writing and discourse during the Cold War. He was also a gregarious sort, moving between political, literary, and entertainment social circles; as a result, he often had the responsibility of eulogizing his friends and foes. A Torch Kept Lit: Great Lives Of The Twentieth Century, the latest posthumous collection of Buckley’s writing, is dedicated solely to his obituaries and eulogies, and it provides an excellent case study in the delicate nature required when writing them.

In his thoughts on the death of President John F. Kennedy, Buckley remarked that, “…while it is correct that an individual’s weaknesses should be buried with him, it is not ever possible to bury the public issues on which a public figure committed himself.”  That is true. It is doubly true if said individual’s reason for public recognition is due to infamy; it would not be possible to discuss Alger Hiss without mention of the questions over his claims to not have been a spy, nor would it be possible to discuss President Richard Nixon without discussion of his involvement in Watergate. Historians and political experts will continue to debate each men’s role in their subsequent scandals; it would be negligent to not address them in memoriam. Furthermore, it would have been a glaring omission had Buckley not made comment on the passing of political foes such as Eleanor Roosevelt and Nelson Rockefeller, or his political rival John Lindsay. To have said nothing would have been worse than saying something damning; fortunately, Buckley sails through the complex waters of his relationships with such figures and is never less than diplomatic.  

For Buckley, his columns offered him the chance to ponder aspects of popular culture he did not appreciate. He did not understand the Beatles, he admits in his obituary of John Lennon, but he appreciates the sadness that comes when one’s childhood idol passes. He has no common ground with or interest in the Grateful Dead, but he recognizes that Jerry Garcia brought happiness to millions, even if his music and art also brought self-destruction to some of his listeners. He ponders Elvis Presley three decades after his 1977 passing, contemplating on the tragedy of what Presley’s seeming American Dream life brought to him.

Furthermore, Buckley also uses these moments to air personal regrets. He states bluntly that he wished he had formed a friendship with historian and political adversary Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., as he realizes that he missed out on the joy that came with being his friend. He regrets the self-destruction of Truman Capote, a man whose company he enjoyed, but watched with sadness as he committed social suicide by publishing a damning tell-all short story, to which he delved into heavy alcoholism and drug abuse as a result, robbing the world of a truly talented writer.  He feels saddened to know that his friendship with Norman Mailer wasn’t fully appreciated, thanks to a seemingly ongoing public feud. Yet the regret and loss is palpable in his obituaries for his wife, his father, and his brother-in-law, and his farewells to friends such as David Niven, Whittaker Chambers, and John Kenneth Galbraith illustrate a man with a cast-iron public image to let his guard down and stand athwart history, yelling “farewell.” 

A Torch Kept Lit: Great Lives of the Twentieth Century illustrates the complex nature of saying goodbye in public. Buckley was a controversial, polarizing figure, but his superb writing skills and his gift for tact and diplomacy are on display here. This collection serves not only as a reminder of Buckley’s talents for the written word, but should serve as a textbook on the complexities of writing about public figures.

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