Garry Wills, Outside Looking In; Adventures of an Observer (New York: Viking, 2010), 195pp.
Across the last fifty years, Garry Wills (b. 1934) has distinguished himself as one of our country's leading public intellectuals. After graduate studies in classics at Yale, he's been a professor for over forty years at John Hopkins and Northwestern University. He's written forty books, and his numerous awards include a Pulitzer Prize for Lincoln at Gettysburg. Among the stories in the present volume, he recounts White House dinners, sailing and yachting with William Buckley, plane rides with presidential candidates, and friendships with the rich and famous. An outsider?
In fact, the moniker works. Wills' parents never went to college, and his mother didn't finish high school. His father never understood why he liked to read every waking hour. After graduate school Buckley hired him at the National Review, but after a dozen years of working closely with the conservative icon (Wills was to be Buckley's biographer) their friendship ruptured over Wills' support of the civil rights movement and Vietnam protests. Secular liberals, on the other hand, didn't trust his very public Catholicism. Five of his last seven books have been about the Christian faith, and every day, he says, he reads his Greek New Testament and says the rosary. As an academic professor, he never joined professional organizations or attended their meetings. Although a professor of history, he's nonetheless enjoyed a parallel career as a prominent journalist for Harper's, Esquire, and the New York Review of Books.
"I have stood to the side of events," he writes. He reported on the anti-war demonstrations but never really participated in them. He's an astute observer of politics but refused to write speeches for politicians. His daughter chides him for "dressing like a bum," he's been married to his wife for over fifty years, and describes his life as that of a workaholic bookworm who is a conventional and colorless "square." I find it especially interesting that as a brilliant polymath of a broad range of ideas, Wills nonetheless organizes his memoir around stories about people.
And what a story-teller. Wills treats his subjects with generosity and candor. He deflects any hints of self-importance with self-effacing humor. He takes his readers behind the scenes to his encounters with key people and events of American history across the last fifty years — Buckley (whom he defends), film maker Paul Schrader, opera singer Beverly Sills, Nixon, Carter, Dukakis, Bush senior, the Clintons, Jesse Jackson, Andrew Young, and Studs Terkel (my favorite chapter). In a fitting tribute, his final chapter is about his wife Natalie, about whom, he writes, "I could go on forever."