Buckley and Mailer: The Difficult Friendship That Shaped the Sixties
Kevin M. Schultz
W. W. Norton & Company, 2016
416 pp., 17.95
Richard J. Mouw
Back in the late 1960s I read books by Norman Mailer and Herman Hoeksema in the same week. It's possible that I am the only person in the world to have accomplished that feat. The book by Hoeksema was his history of the Protestant Reformed Churches, a tiny denomination that he founded after he was defrocked by the Christian Reformed Church in the 1920s. His was a tragic story. A brilliant theologian, he spent most of his life preaching fine sermons and writing insightful theological works, but all on the margins of Dutch American Calvinism. The book that I read by Mailer was his Pulitzer-winning Armies of the Night, an account of protests against the Vietnam War.
Reading both of them in the same week was memorable for two reasons. I was struck that each of them seemed to like to write about himself in the third person. Hoeksema did it because he was writing a denominational history in which he was a key player, and the third person was a way to acknowledge the standards for historical narrative. Mailer's choice of point of view was more idiosyncratic. His book was hailed as a pioneering effort in "the new journalism"; known as a novelist, he was exploring an intermediate genre between fiction and more "objective" reporting.
The other similarity between Hoeksema and Mailer went deeper. Each of them was fond of dividing the human race into mutually exclusive categories. Hoeksema's categories were drawn from classic Calvinism. He had opposed the doctrine of common grace made popular in Calvinist circles by Abraham Kuyper. There is a radical "antithesis," Hoeksema taught, between the elect and the non-elect, with no common store of shared knowledge or moral goodness.
Mailer, on the other hand, had his own versions of the "antithesis." One of his scatological formulations had it that everyone was either to be identified with a certain barnyard substance or with those who went around kicking that substance. But the distinction that most impressed me was one he came up with in his commentary on the Kennedy presidency. All leaders, he said, were either sheriffs or outlaws. Mailer liked only the outlaws, and he placed JFK clearly in the sheriff category.
Unlike Hoeksema, though, Mailer found it difficult to stick with his exclusive categories. He was devastated, for example, when John Kennedy was killed, and he struggled with his conviction that an outlaw is not supposed to grieve over the death of a sheriff. Eventually, he came up with an intermediate category for the likes of Kennedy. He had been right to label Kennedy as a sheriff, Mailer insisted. But what he had failed to see was that Kennedy had been "an outlaw's sheriff."
Hoeksema may have been more rigid in sticking with his exclusive categories, but in my brief personal encounters with each of them, Hoeksema was clearly the nicer person. I went to hear him preach once as a seminarian, and when we shook hands at the door at the end of the service, he encouraged me to stay around for some coffee. In our half hour together, he was an engaging conversationalist.
Admittedly, my personal encounter with Mailer was much briefer. When I was studying philosophy at the University of Chicago, I learned that Mailer would be speaking at the Modern Languages Association convention in the city, paired with John Cheever. Mailer was gruff and harsh in his talk, while Cheever was both insightful and pleasant. As the session came to a close, I went to a place in a hallway near where the two speakers would be exiting the platform area. When I thanked them for the session, Mailer just brushed past me, while Cheever stopped to shake my hand.
Nearly fifty years ago, when I was reading Hoeksema and Mailer during the same week, I thought about doing a piece comparing the two of them. That thought did not last very long—maybe an hour. What I have just written about the two of them takes it as far as I can think to go with the project.
Kevin Schultz has quite a bit more to work with in writing about Mailer and William Buckley. His subtitle stretches things a bit in saying that their friendship "shaped the Sixties," but his book does persuade us that they were indeed friends. That their relationship was—subtitle again—a "difficult" one is not surprising. Buckley, the most prominent conservative spokesman of the decade and a traditionalist Catholic, and the neo-pagan Mailer, married six times (he stabbed wife number two in a drunken argument), a profane defender of most things left-wing—not an obvious pairing.
I was quite aware of Buckley in the 1960s, but had no obvious reason to like him. I had read his God and Man at Yale (1951), a critique of the secularist education he had received at his alma mater, but found little to admire in the blend of scholastic Catholicism and conservative politics that informed his criticisms of Yale's culture. A family member who apparently thought I needed some antidotes to the influences of my university studies gave me a subscription, as a Christmas gift, to Buckley's National Review, but in the two years in which it arrived by mail I seldom did more than scan the contents, usually not finding much to hold my attention.
Schultz's book has helped me to take a second look at both Buckley and Mailer. Schultz is most helpful in the way he probes beneath their surface disagreements to find some underlying commonalities. There are, of course, some obvious ones that don't explain much: both of them Ivy League, cocky, fond of humorous putdowns, free spirits with political ambitions (they each ran quite unsuccessful campaigns for mayor of New York City). Those things are probably enough to explain why, after the two of them had debated each other publicly, both in person and in print, they became friends. (The Mailers and the Buckleys socialized together enough that Buckley's wife, Pat, came to refer affectionately to Mailer as "Chooky-Bah Lamb.")
While none of that is enough to justify a whole book focusing on the friendship, it does give Schultz a springboard for probing some deeper intellectual commonalities that illuminate cultural developments in the 1960s and '70s. Mailer and Buckley, he argues, shared a deep dissatisfaction with what he labels a "postwar triptych" that held sway in the America of the 1950s. One was a "lionization of rational thought," particularly a faith in bureaucratic-technical solutions based on the presumption of the inevitability of progress. The second, closely related, was a deep trust in corporate capitalism. And then, third, a set of conventions—Schultz refers to them as "the Rules"—that dictated a culture of what Buckley derided as "intercredal amity," a frowning on any expression of strong convictions in public discourse. When religious dogma extended beyond private practice, it was seen as threatening the balanced consensus of "the American Way of Life." Buckley was openly critical, for example, of what he described as "the convention of tact" necessitating a literature in which one "does not often find oneself concerned with kings and knaves, fair maidens and heroes, treachery and honor, right and wrong."
Mailer took this critique a step further by probing, as Schultz puts it, "a darker side of the story." The liberal consensus of the 1950s was blind to the realities of "poverty, racism, corruption and a general lack of courage within the population." But liberalism also quietly tolerated what Mailer saw, particularly in the Cold War expansion of the powers of the CIA, as a growing infringement on individual freedoms. Buckley explicitly endorsed the basics of Mailer's diagnosis, even though he obviously disapproved of much of the direction of Mailer's specific prescriptions. Mailer was, he said, "a terribly good measure of the current disturbances in the air. A sort of lightning rod."
The "distubrances" to which Buckley alluded came to dominate the1960s, and they fostered a widespread rejection of the realities embodied in the triptych. The New Left directly challenged an ideologically neutral rationality. Bureaucracies, including those that controlled the academy, were promoting the designs of the military-industrial complex as embodied in corporate capitalism. And the rejection of the Rules was evident everywhere: in the sexual promiscuity of "Make love not war," civil disobedience, unshaven male faces, "burn the bra" feminists, hoistings of the Viet Cong flag, and so on.
While Mailer found much to support in all of this, he also became increasingly critical of what he saw as abuses of the kind of authentic freedom which he had been championing. And his disillusionment was not unlike what Buckley was experiencing on the conservative side of the spectrum. While Buckley was initially pleased with the nomination of Barry Goldwater, for example, he did not harbor hopes that the Goldwater phenomenon would directly cause the emergence of a healthy conservatism. Nor was Goldwater's "extremism in the cause of liberty" manifesto what he had been hoping for as an antidote to the postwar veneer of cultural niceness.
Buckley was a classic conservative in the Burkean mold. He was a lover of "high" culture, and was uncompromisingly élitist. This put him in direct conflict with the populist libertarianism of the New Right that emerged in the 1970s. As in Mailer's antagonism toward much of the "do your own thing" excesses of the New Left, Buckley saw the vocal conservatism of the New Right as encouraging an untethered celebration of individual freedom.
Each of them had earned his cultural voice as a critic of "the Rules" and the early rebellion against those postwar conventions, but neither could keep up with subsequent events and patterns. Buckley turned to writing spy novels—quite good ones, in fact—and Mailer, after some embarrassing encounters with feminist leaders who cast him as a chief villain, also turned to other subjects. He won a Pulitzer Prize in the 1970s for his novel The Executioner's Song, and he also authored a bestselling biography of Marilyn Monroe. One of his last novels, The Gospel According to the Son, focused on the life of Jesus. Schultz's portraits of his two subjects certainly reveal deep personal flaws. Mailer was a misogynist and a barroom fighter. Buckley not only opposed the civil rights movement but did so with comments about racial matters that are shocking to read today—and for which his admission toward the end of his life that he had been wrong on such matters was too little and too late.
For all of that, though (and there is indeed a lot of "that" in the book!), Schultz's narrative highlighting their common emphases and concerns is an illuminating one. In rejecting the "triptych" motifs of the postwar liberal consensus, Buckley and Mailer were anticipating what is being celebrated widely today as "the end of the Enlightenment project," and in critiquing the emergent "freedom" of both Left and Right they were also yearning for a more robust cultural alternative than what we associate these days with "the postmodern." Furthermore, in their willingness to engage each other seriously about such matters, coming as they did from very different philosophical perspectives, they—each of them having a bit of both sheriff and outlaw in them—showed an admirable willingness to live with complexities and nuances, and with a good measure of shared humor thrown into the mix.
If none of that merits treating their relationship as "The Difficult Friendship that Shaped the Sixties," Schultz's efforts nevertheless help us to understand some things about that difficult decade that we might have otherwise missed. Of course, for my own grasp of things, a good added dose of Herman Hoeksema's Calvinism would provide even further, and much needed, insights!
Richard J. Mouw was president of Fuller Theological Seminary from 1993 to 2013. He is the author most recently of Adventures in Evangelical Civility: A Lifelong Quest for Common Ground, forthcoming from Brazos Press.
Copyright © 2016 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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