Table of Contents
ALSO BY GARRY WILLS
What the Gospels Meant
Head and Heart
What Paul Meant
What Jesus Meant
Why I Am a Catholic
Saint Augustine's Confessions
Papal Sin: Structures of Deceit
(A Penguin Lives Biography)
Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America
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First published in 2010 by Viking Penguin, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
Copyright Â© Garry Wills, 2010
All rights reserved
A portion of this book appeared as “Daredevil” in
LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOGINGâINâPUBLICATION DATA
Wills, Garry, 1934-
Outside looking in: adventures of an observer / by Garry Wills.
eISBN : 978-1-101-44441-2
1. Wills, Garry, 1934- 2. Wills, Garry, 1934-âPolitical and social
views. 3. JournalistsâUnited StatesâBiography. 4. Historiansâ
United StatesâBiography. I. Title.
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A Bookworm's Confession
reviewer of one of my books in the 1960s said that I did not really belong to the intellectual circles of that time. Though I seemed to be educated, I showed no influence from Freud or Marx, Nietzsche or Sartre, the stars of the fashionable intelligentsia. That was true enough. I had, of course, read them, as was expected from a teacher in secular universities. But they had not entered early or deeply into my mental formation, which did set me apart from my contemporaries in the academy. I can understand why that might make me less interesting to readers, less part of the vital currents of my day. But I did not expect to be interesting. My attention was directed elsewhere, and largely to the past.
The earliest influence on me was that of Gilbert Chesterton, the Edwardian journalist, the subject of my first book, and not a usual figure in intellectual circles. Chesterton's heroes became my early heroes: Charles Dickens, Samuel Johnson, John Ruskin, William Cobbett, Robert Louis Stevensonâagain, not hot items in the period's literary world. These figures made me a kind of Anglophile, but not a snobbish one. Chesterton was far from elitist. He was a populist, a man who said that democracy is like blowing your noseâyou may not do it very well, but you ought to do it yourself. He also said that democracy means that when someone is drowning, your first instinct is not to say that “a Ph.D. is drowning” but that “a man is drowning.” And he said that the ordinary person should not be found guilty of a crime but by a jury of fellow ordinary persons.
Some thought that because I began by writing for William Buckley's
I must be a conservative. But Buckley denied that. When he asked me, at our first meeting, if I was a conservative, I said, “Is a Distributist a conservative?” He said, “Alas, no.” Philip Burnham, a
editor and the brother of Buckley's
colleague James Burnham, had assured Bill that Distributism was far from the free-market capitalism that Buckley considered the basis of modern conservatism. Distributism was the politics of Chesterton, neither capitalist nor socialist, arguing for the preservation of private property but for its wider distribution. Liberals, on the other hand, would soon be telling me that I could not belong to them either, since they were secularistsâmy religiosity disqualified me.
Born in 1934, I grew up in the 1940s, when being a Catholic still set one somewhat outside the national mainstream, ready to look inside without going there. I continued being an outsider when I was an academic looking in on journalism, or a journalist looking in on the academy, not joining professional organizations, not attending their meetings. For eighteen years I taught at Johns Hopkins University, and for twenty-five years at Northwestern University, sometimes full-time, sometimes part-time. When teaching part-time I did a fair amount of journalism, mainly for
under its brilliant editor, Harold Hayes, or for the
New York Review of Books
under its brilliant editor, Robert Silvers. Throughout, I was a classicist (Yale Ph.D.) observing modern politics, or a political observer looking back at history.
My father thought I was guaranteeing my inability to make a living when I got my doctorate in classical Greek. That, he thought, would make me a perpetual sideliner. He had always feared that my bookworm ways guaranteed that life would pass me by. It bothered him that, when caddying for him as a boy, I carried a book in the golf bag and pulled it out whenever his party was held up by those playing ahead. One summer when I was in grade school, he paid me money (I think five dollars) if I would go a whole week without reading anything. I took the offer, and used the money to buy a new book.
Far from keeping me out from life, books opened door after door, not so much for me to go through the door as to look through. The most important event in my life occurred only because I was reading a book at the time (Henri Bergson's
The Two Sources of Morality and Religion
). In my home as a child, I read books by flashlight under the bedcovers. This so worried my mother that she asked a doctor if I were not ruining my eyes by reading too much. In the Jesuit prep school I attended, I read in the john at night, the only place where lights were kept on. I was devouring Dostoyevsky novels, which my friend Lew Ellingham had pressed on me. I saved weekends for books I especially hoped to savor, beginning them under a favorite tree. One reading feast I was able to indulge when a traveling statue of Our Lady of Fatima came to the school, as part of Catholic prayers for the conversion of Russia. For three days and nights, an around-the-clock vigil was held before the statue, each student kneeling for a half hour. The lights were on everywhere all night, so I plunged into
War and Peace
and read nonstop for three days and three nights, with only short catnaps, until I finished it. Lew told me it was the greatest novel ever writtenâand he was right. It is still the novel I most often reread (in various translations)âeven more than
Sword of Honor.
In summers, when I was not caddying or mowing lawns, I worked as a stock boy in a men's garment store, unpacking shipments, hanging suits, packing purchased items. In spare time at the back of the store, I read in a cheap volume of all Shakespeare's plays (its print so small I could not read it now without a magnifying glass). At lunchtime I would read the book as I walked to a hamburger joint owned by some relatives by marriage, where I would continue reading as I ate. Over several summers, and with some time in the school year, I finished the entire book, not understanding many of the words but marveling at the music. In school I had been assigned to memorize Mark Antony's funeral oration and Shylock's speech. I also had to memorize other poems as punishment for what the Jesuits called “jugs,” for misconduct. Some of those poems I can still recite, though I do not even know who wrote them.
As a wordaholic, I was blessed by my schoolingâCatholic grade school, high school, college (St. Louis University), and graduate school (Xavier of Cincinnati). That deprived me of scientific training (I am still an ignoramus on that), but it made me grammatical. One of the false ways to praise a classical education is to say that only those who study Latin really learn English grammar. Nonsense. The way to learn grammar is to diagram sentences, as the Dominican sisters of Adrian, Michigan, taught meâsubject, verb, object on the principal line, with dependent phrases or clauses, adjectives or adverbs, on ramifying parts of the structure. Now I constantly read in newspapers or hear on television things like “The body of consultants are agreed,” though we Catholic kids of that era knew that “body” was on the main line and “of consultants” was on a subsidiary hook under the subject, so “body . . . is” must be proper. We had no problem with “who” or “whom.” No problem with “dangling” constructionsâwe knew just where they fit on the stemma of the sentence as we plotted it. When I went to a Jesuit high school, I learned to diagram Latin and Greek sentences in the same way, but English came first, not vice versa.