Luther Spoehr, Review of Garry Wills's “Outside Looking In: Adventures of an Observer” (Viking, 2010).
Sometimes I think Garry Wills writes faster than I can read. For half a century, with over 40 books, plus countless articles and reviews in the “New York Review of Books” and the like, to his credit, Wills has been a constant, valuable, original participant in conversations about American political history, philosophy, and religion. His highly readable interpretations of political figures from George Washington to Ronald Reagan all command respect (for my money his “Nixon Agonistes,” published in 1970, is still the best single volume on that complex, conflicted president); his “Lincoln at Gettysburg” won the Pulitzer Prize. And his writings on the Bible and Christianity, particularly his own Roman Catholicism (“Why I Am a Catholic”), bring energy and vitality to a topic that is too often dismissed by more secular scholars.
Wills’ latest book is not his first memoir, but it is his most personal and revealing. He at least partially undermines his book’s title by telling anecdote after anecdote about his encounters and friendships with notables in politics, journalism, and show business: he gets too far into their worlds to be entirely an outsider. But a part of him always remains the “observer”—his analytical eye never sleeps.
In the book’s introduction, “A Bookworm’s Confession,” Wills portrays himself as the proverbial “constant reader” even as a child. Plunging into higher education, he trained as a classicist, then was lured away from academia by William F. Buckley, Jr., who launched him into the pages of “National Review.” A decade of friendship and immersion in the Buckley way of life--filled with intellectual excitement, parties, and sailing--ended in bitter disagreement over the Vietnam War and the social movements of the ‘60s. But by then Wills was well on his way to establishing himself as a unique combination of academic (with appointments first at Johns Hopkins, then at Northwestern) and journalist, writing for a wide variety of publications. (After 30 years, Wills and Buckley renewed their friendship, and one of the best pieces in this book is a warm appreciation of his early conservative patron. With Wills, the personal often trumps mere politics.)
Looking to the other end of the political spectrum, Wills provides an engaging portrait of Chicago’s prickly icon, the radio personality and oral historian Studs Terkel. The very personal, generous, and vivid chapters on Buckley and Terkel—along with Wills’ amusing and touching narrative of his courtship and marriage, and a commentary on his complicated relationship with his father—are also the only extended essays in the book. The remaining chapters dispense anecdotes on loosely defined topical themes (“Voices,” for instance, is about opera singers; we also get “Carter and Others” and “Clintons”). But the stories are all well told, interesting, and telling. One of the few villains of the piece, Mark Lane, the JFK assassination conspiracy theorist, comes across, not surprisingly, as a bully. On the other hand, Wills was prepared to dislike movie director Oliver Stone--he considers Stone’s movie “JFK” a “laughable distortion of history”--but Stone won him over with “Nixon” because it presented “the picture of an emotionally wounded man who rises to power without ever becoming a full human being.”
An opera buff, Wills liked soprano Beverly Sills from the start—and the pride he takes in his friendship with her is palpable. How he has time for opera, in light of his staggering productivity, is hard to figure. And how somebody who doesn’t follow sports closely can come away with something worth reporting from a conversation with Raymond Berry, Johnny Unitas’ favorite receiver, is even harder. But Wills brings it off.
This book, discursive and feather-light but entirely charming, has something for virtually anyone interested in recent American culture. Think of it as an aperitif. If you’re not already familiar with Wills’ writing, it will whet your appetite. And if, like me, you’ve read much, but hardly all, of his oeuvre, you will welcome the chance to get better acquainted with the man behind 50 years of shrewd analysis and lively prose.
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