Buckley and Mailer: The Difficult Friendship that Shaped the Sixties, by Kevin M Schultz
A timely antidote to vacuous times, argues David B Woolner
Norman Mailer: made it plain that he hated the liberal establishment just as much as William Buckley did.
David B Woolner
Buckley and Mailer: The Difficult Friendship that Shaped the Sixties
Kevin M Schultz
In today’s highly partisan and largely dysfunctional America, in an age when scientific evidence, reasoned political discourse and respect for one’s ideological opponent have all but disappeared, Kevin M Schultz’s book, Buckley and Mailer: The Difficult Friendship that Shaped the Sixties, serves as a kind of intellectual antidote to the vacuous times in which we live.
Brilliantly written and constructed, Schultz uses the friendship between these two unlikely protagonists to illuminate one of the most exciting – if turbulent – decades in modern American history: the 1960s.
All of the major issues that made this decade so important and dynamic are touched upon in this account, including the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War and the rise of modern feminism. But perhaps the most interesting aspect of the book is its chronicling of the evolving positions of Buckley and Mailer as the arch-doyens of American political culture; their mutual desire to shake up and fundamentally change the tenets of what Schultz calls the postwar liberal establishment; and their ultimate disillusionment with their abilities to do so; rendering Mailer’s reflection that “he had tried to become a hero, and had ended as an eccentric” all too true.
After a powerfully written and deeply moving introduction, in which the author describes a dying William F Buckley’s semi-successful effort to write an obituary for Norman Mailer that will somehow capture the essence of his impact on America, Schultz moves on to his first chapter, entitled “The Nature of Man”. Here, he chronicles the famous – but now largely forgotten – debate between Buckley and Mailer that took place in Chicago in the fall of 1962. The audience crammed into Chicago’s Medinah Temple and a myriad of newspaper and magazine editors covered the debate in the press.
Adding to the tension was the fact that the two men – one “the enfant terrible of American politics”, darling of the right and founder of the deeply conservative National Review; the other a brilliant author, co-founder of The Village Voice, and political radical who demanded nothing less than “a revolution in the consciousness of our time” – had never met.
The debate soon progressed into a hard-hitting examination of the nature of politics and ethics, built around the theme “What is the Real Nature of the Right Wing in America?” Buckley’s conservative movement was in the ascendancy in the early 1960s and was involved in attacking the seemingly permanent assumptions upon which the liberal establishment rested.
It soon became apparent, however, that Buckley was not alone in his disdain for the liberal establishment; Mailer too was deeply dissatisfied with the status quo, insisting that American liberalism “was shockingly unable to offer remedies to the messes it had created since the end of the Second World War”.
After all, it was liberalism “that had ushered in a falsely premised Cold War based on a phony commitment to Christianity. And it was the liberal elite whose corporate capitalism wasn’t bringing freedom to anyone, putting men in all those grey flannel suits and shipping them off to work for their pensions”.
The current liberal order, he went on, “had created a deterioration of desire, an apathy about the future, a detestation of the present, an amnesia of the past”. Worse still, it was a disease that “destroys flavour” and whose symptoms appear everywhere, not least in “the manipulation of emotion, the emptiness of faith, the displacement of sex, the deterioration of language, the reduction of philosophy, and the alienation of man from the product of his work and the results of his acts”.
In short, Mailer made it plain that he hated the liberal establishment just as much as Buckley did. Where they differed was in its remedy.
The mutual contempt both men shared for the “establishment” and the social constructs that supported it – what Schultz calls “the Rules” of postwar American society – turned out to be an important subtext for the Buckley-Mailer debate.
It also became the basis for the longstanding friendship that followed, for in the wake of their encounter and in an effort to discover more about what drove Mailer’s “incandescent moral energy” Buckley invited Mailer and his third wife, Lady Jeanne Campbell, to his Stamford, Connecticut home just a few weeks later. It was during this encounter that the two men discovered just how much they liked each other.
This mutual affection quickly evolved into a fast, if at times fractious, friendship that would continue for the rest of their lives.
From this point, the book goes on to describe what we might call “the long decade” of the Sixties, broken into four sections that take us from the fall of 1962 to the fall of 1976, when the two men would once again square off – this time in an 11-minute segment onGood Morning America.
Although the correspondence between Buckley and Mailer forms an important part of the narrative, Schultz expands his scope to include how each grappled with the great issues of their day.
It is also through Buckley’s and Mailer’s personal encounters with such topics as the civil rights movement and/or the Vietnam War that we gain a greater understanding of their worldview. The picture here is not always pretty. Buckley’s attitude towards the burgeoning demand for racial equality in America is shockingly racist while the crude language and chauvinism of some of Mailer’s public pronouncements do nothing to enhance his reputation as a gifted writer. The violence, drug use and paradoxical lack of intellectual substance of much of the “counterculture” Schultz depicts in these pages is exactly what renders his work so important.
Schultz closes the book by taking the reader through an astute analysis of the transition from the 1960s to the 1970s, from what he calls “a rules-based society” to a “rights-based society,” a development that contained elements that both Buckley and Mailer could embrace, but which left both men feeling as if America had lost its centre and sense of community.
This is a remarkable book. It reminds of us of a time when the United States was engaged in a profound period of self-examination, led by an extraordinary group of writers and thinkers whose main purpose was to try to improve the common good through a re-articulation and redefinition of American values.
David B Woolner is senior fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, associate professor of history at Marist College and co-editor of Progressivism in America: Past Present and Future