A Torch Kept Lit: Great Lives of the Twentieth Century
by William F. Buckley Jr.,
edited by James Rosen.
Crown Forum, 2016.
Hardcover, 336 pages, $22.

Reviewed by William F. Meehan III

William F. Buckley Jr. had published forty-five books by the time his only volume about Catholicism, Nearer, My God: An Autobiography of Faith, appeared in 1997. Buckley admits in the Introduction that the work, which had been in partial draft form for five years, was nothing new. The arguments, he writes, were “imperfectly done” and used frequently by others, while his lack of qualifications as a theologian or Church historian along with his argumentative tone might leave the reader wanting a version more gratifying. “I am not,” Buckley explains, “trained in the devotional mode, nor disposed to it.”

Similarly, readers of Buckley’s numerous syndicated columns about Catholicism and Christianity—the topics he wrote most about in his thrice weekly articles—also might desire something more pleasing, for Buckley usually rumbled in the controversial arts. A May 1979 column that ventured into death and dying, “Justifying Inactivity,” showed the witty Buckley inveighing against a physical fitness routine prescribed by his doctor while acknowledging the inevitable: with life comes death.

As James Rosen demonstrates in this wonderful and significant collection, however, it is in the eulogy where Buckley attained a tone that “so closely fused his religious faith and literary gift.” In fact, Buckley’s eulogies contain an unmistakable quality not seen elsewhere in his oeuvre. Explains Rosen: “The solemnity of these occasions, their emotional impact, summoned him to greatness, demanded he use his gifts fully, and he answered the charge.”

Buckley wrote his first obituary in May 1957 (Roy Campbell) and his last in November 2007 (Norman Mailer), three months before his own death. As to some yearly production numbers, eleven obituaries in 1967 and 1987 top the list; then nine in 1979 and 1985; eight in 1983, 1989, and 1994; and so on, writing them every year except 2005 when, incidentally, he wrote 147 other articles. Each of Buckley’s more than 250 obituaries were published in National Review, usually toward the front following “The Week,” and all but six appear with the title “Name of Deceased, RIP.” Besides historian George H. Nash, who suggests that the obituaries exhibit Buckley’s “gift for personal portraiture,” few other than perhaps close friends, family, and National Review staff have recognized Buckley as obituarist. Until now.

Rosen, White House correspondent for FOX News and a true Buckleyite, compiles fifty-two of Buckley’s final thoughts about a newly deceased into what he calls “a panoramic view of the twentieth century” and organized in six chapters. The subject of a Buckley eulogy, in general, was someone he liked—or disliked—but typically a friend of National Review or an historic, political, or cultural figure of some importance. As no two articles by Buckley are similarly written, each obituary is unique. “Often drawing on his own experiences or private correspondence,” Rosen writes, “WFB recalled memorable moments spent with The Departed, revealed their hidden sides, heralded their greatness—or, as occasion warranted, reminded the living why certain individuals, not withstanding that grace that death can bestow, should be remembered as abject failures or, worse still, evil.” While many of the obituaries also appeared in Buckley’s occasional anthology over the years and thus might be familiar to his audience, readers of A Torch Kept Lit benefit from a preface to each entry not only explaining Buckley’s relationship to the deceased but also adding a feature or two of that relationship omitted in the obituary.

Readers might start by chapter or eulogy. Fans of heavyweights Truman Capote, Johnny Carson, Milton Friedman, Jerry Garcia, John Lennon, Norman Mailer, Vladimir Nabokov, or Elvis Presley might begin with “Arts and Letters”; those with an inclination for world affairs and the wilderness of mirrors might start with “Generals, Spies, and Statesmen,” where they can pick Winston Churchill, Princess Diana, Allen Dulles, Barry Goldwater, E. Howard Hunt, Golda Meir, or Jacqueline Onassis; and obituaries for Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy (from where the book’s title comes), Johnson, Nixon, and Reagan will delight Americans of all political stripes. Readers also will find a jeweler’s eye commentary on six infamous characters in the book’s final chapter, “Nemeses”: Alger Hiss, John V. Lindsay, Ayn Rand (Rosen might have mentioned Buckley’s novel Getting It Right), Nelson Rockefeller, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. Moreover, the four obituaries comprising “Family” not only provide insight into Buckley’s childhood but also enrich an appreciation of the love for his wife, father, mother, and brother-in-law L. Brent Bozell, Jr. (How was younger sister Maureen omitted from the collection?)

It should be no secret that Buckley was a master at the fine art of friendship, and the eleven obituaries for “Friends” are lyrical expressions of pure tenderness. Buckley’s friends ran the full spectrum of beliefs because, he maintained, there is always something to talk about besides politics. Liberal economist John Kenneth Galbraith, for example, was a friend since 1966 and a skiing companion in Switzerland, where Buckley wrote his books: “There are among his friends those who weep that he is now gone.” Another Galbraith and no relation to the economist is the ambassador to France, Evan, who became Buckley’s closest friend when they met as classmates Yale in 1948: “Everyone he knew came up upon his brightness of spirit.” Also in this chapter (How did Clare Booth Luce not make the cut?) are socialite Nan Kemper (“She has no successor”); actor David Niven (“I remember the evening with him years later in Monaco. We had drinks in the palace with Prince Rainier”); Firing Line producer Warren Steibel (“When he died, there was a stillness at National Review”); and of course Whittaker Chambers (a voice “magnificent in tone, speaking to our time from the center of sorrow, from the center of the earth”).

One eulogy, however, stands out, perhaps as much as affirmation for the true meaning of friendship as to the memory of the eulogized, Richard M. Clurman. No eulogy evokes in Buckley the grief Rosen describes as “palpable” than the one for the Time editor and (utterly inept) mate on Buckley’s four ocean cruises, who also makes a brief appearance in the ninth Blackford Oakes novel Tucker’s Last Stand (1990). Buckley found it impossible to think of Clurman’s absence, revealing “that I have always subconsciously looked out for the total Christian, and when I found him, he turned out to be a non practicing Jew.”

Buckley feared boredom and thus never bores when he sits down at the keyboard, even to write a eulogy. With anything written by Buckley, there’s always the added excitement generated by his elegant prose style, and the obituaries do not disappoint. The Buckley intellect shines and the idiosyncratic sentences (and fragments) impress, although the obscure words are lacking. A Torch Kept Lit, in short, will reward readers looking to enrich their leisure time and fulfill their entertainment needs because, as Rosen points out, Buckley consumed the principles of New Journalism and made full use of literary techniques usually reserved for writers of fiction.

Buckley exhibited a flair for expressing gratitude, which is more than a recurring theme in his vast reservoir of work—he, in fact, wrote a book on that very topic, arguing for the debt Americans owe their country. On the lecture circuit, for example, Buckley used the commencement address to encourage high school and college graduates to be thankful not only for their country but also their friends and family, and their fellow humans—for whom, he says, they can perform acts of kindness. In a speech at the all girls’ Chapin School in New York City on June 4, 1969, however, Buckley furthered the idea, proposing to the graduates that they must acknowledge “other individuals’ superiority to ourselves.” To what end, then, for the eighteen-year-old? “Doing so,” he explained, “gives us the vantage point whence, simultaneously, to judge our own limitations, our own potentialities, and the acutest needs of the world we live in.” Buckley displays this respectful orientation in his obituary for Russell Kirk, included in the “Arts and Letters” chapter, when he recalls their first meeting, at Piety Hill: “I confess I was very nervous. Although Russell was a few years older, at 28 I felt an entire world lay between us, the wide gulf between his learning, and my own.” It is thus from this perspective that such a fine collection becomes a thoroughly enjoyable reference book for learning how to praise others.  

William F. Meehan III is editor of William F. Buckley Jr.: A Bibliography (ISI Books, 2002) and Conversations with William F. Buckley Jr. (University Press of Mississippi, 2009).