Yeah, I’m older than John McCain. And some say he’s older than dirt. Doctor asked today if I felt a 72-year-old like John McCain would be up to handling the Presidency. Physically, mentally… I’m no Republican (our doctor is) but I said, “Sure, but our vote goes for Obama.” Doctor said, “I’m a Republican, but I’m leaning toward Obama…”
Anyway, we’re talking here about a man called Buckley. In fact, two men… two Buckley’s.
In 1959 I was a waiter at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, Middlebury College, Middlebury, Vermont, walking distance from Robert Frost’s home. Frost was very much alive at the time and lectured and read from his poems at the Conference.
As a *waiter I was assigned a roommate, a non-waiter named Reid Buckley, younger brother of William Buckley. Chicago-born, fresh out of the Navy (Korean War vet on G.I. Bill), ill-educated, first trip to New England, raw, naïve, I had never heard of older brother William Buckley, author of God and Man at Yale (1951).
Still, I found Reid warm, friendly, a wonderful conversationalist and, well, educated…
Reid, I recall, was interested in what I had to say about my “studies” in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and we exchanged samples of one another’s work, his prose for my poetry. I had never met a self-declared “conservative.” Until I met Reid I had no idea what a conservative was. And the man, I learned later, was an aristocrat. Home-schooled with tutors. Independently wealthy. We could not have been more unalike.
As a conservative Reid argued that nothing genuinely new was likely to be produced in fiction or poetry. He himself was working on what he called a gothic novel. Because nothing new could be written, because it had all already been done, one might as well, Reid argued, write within a given tradition. If you wrote, or read, a gothic novel you knew where you were. Likely a castle, an old castle, maybe abandoned; the work would be pervaded by some mystery or fear; there might be women in distress, lonely women, pensive and oppressed… he seemed disappointed to see I wasn’t following “the models,” that I wasn’t employing rhyme and meter.
For my part, inspired by Walt Whitman, Edgar Lee Masters, Carl Sandburg and e.e. cummings, I was writing free verse. Good, bad or indifferent, I felt my work was, well, original… so, I recall, I was as much a puzzlement to Reid Buckley as he was to me. But I liked the guy and, as roommates go, I counted myself lucky.
In the fall of 1959 (I think I have the date right), I returned to Iowa City and the poetry workshop. And Reid and I corresponded. For a while. Then I made a fatal blunder. I mentioned my intention to vote for John F. Kennedy and made it clear I was a Democrat, a liberal.
That was it. Reid responded by saying he could no longer carry on a correspondence with me. A liberal? He had nothing further to say. So now, more than half a century later, the country more divided than ever, I think of that curiously innocent time. Though is any time ever innocent? And the oddness, so it seemed to me, that one’s political beliefs could so infect one’s aesthetic outlook… and one’s writing… That, in fact, if I believed as Reid believed that “nothing new could be written…” I’d have stopped right then and there. I was the first-generation American middle class graduate of a state University, one who, c. 1959, struck out for the New Territory (Iowa and points west). Reid, as I saw it, was the quintessential Easterner… tradition-bound, cautious, Establishment.
T.S. Eliot was the only model I had for a “conservative.” Eliot wasn’t exactly born to it, but he took specific steps in his self-definition. He converted to Anglicanism, dropped his American citizenship and became a British subject. In the preface to his book, For Lancelot Andrewes, Eliot wrote “the general point of view [of the book’s essays] may be described as classicist in literature, royalist in politics, and anglo-catholic in religion.”
But Eliot, I argued, also wrote those extraordinarily original works, Prufrock, The Wasteland… he may have been a conservative, but he was also an innovator. Yes, I read and re-read Tradition and the Individual Talent.
And as for Liberal, I think of my aunt Leah who, in Poltava, Russia, endured successive pogroms. She used the term “liberal” to describe Czar’s who did not encourage or indulge in pogroms. There were czars, tolerant “liberals,” who did not go in for pogroms. A liberal, I came to understand from Aunt Leah, was someone who maintained a live and let live attitude.
That pretty much defined my understanding of what it meant to be liberal, people who thought for themselves.
And William Buckley, to his credit, was that kind of conservative, someone who argued for tolerance, who sought to restrain, for example, others all too willing to have given vent to their prejudices. So, in that sense, William Buckley–in Aunt Leah’s eyes–would have qualified as a liberal. God bless William Buckley!
*Novelist and NPR reviewer Alan Cheuse was a fellow waiter that year at Bread Loaf. Alan has remained a friend.