A Torch Kept Lit: Great Lives of the Twentieth Century by William F. Buckley Jr., and edited by James Rosen (Crown Forum. pp. 317. $30)
Just as Rosen, in his daily work, so admirably lets the stories on which he reports tell themselves, resisting the need to insert his own opinions as is so popular among ‘journalists’ today, he, in a similar fashion, allows Buckley, the obituary, and the life of the deceased to speak for themselves. And oh, how they speak.
Many of us, namely those in the Conservative Movement, are well-acquainted with William F. Buckley Jr.’s unmatched rhetorical capabilities and the captivating, elegant, graceful, witty prose he wielded in his books and columns. However—as if our hero did not have enough talent already—many Conservatives are probably unaware that Buckley had yet another gift: He was a master at the art of the obituary. And to James Rosen we owe many thanks for A Torch Kept Lit, a compilation of some of Buckley’s most moving, profound, powerful, and poignant obits that he would ever pen in his long, prolific life.
Buckley was a cosmopolitan fellow with eclectic interests: writing, sailing, art, music. Indeed, because of his cultured wife, Pat, and his refined tastes, Buckley often found himself among enviable company, within the circles of the high class, highbrows, and intellectual elite of New York City and beyond. As a result, Buckley had quite a few friends in high places. In fact, even those who militantly disagreed with him found it difficult to resist his charm, wit, and affability (e.g., Norman Mailer and Arthur Schlesinger Jr.). Buckley also counted figures such as Truman Capote, John Kenneth Galbraith, A.M. Rosenthal, and other vogue figures of the twentieth century as friends and correspondents. Naturally, the lives of such people were filled with enchanting experiences and magnificent accomplishments, presenting Buckley, upon their deaths, with an opportunity to whet the craft of the obituarist. And Buckley, as in so many other things, did not disappoint.
By the end of his life, Buckley had written hundreds of eulogies for friends, family members, colleagues, and nemeses alike, presenting any anthologist with the difficult task of choosing the ‘best’ ones to be included in a collection. The author, James Rosen, rises to the challenge, however, and includes some of Buckley’s most moving obits of some of the most influential individuals of the last century.
James Rosen, Fox News’s chief Washington correspondent, admits to being a big fan of Buckley (how could one not be?) and he pursues the task of reviving his writings with vigor, skill, purpose, and precision. Rosen fulfills the role of the ‘opening act,’ as it were, a crucial role indeed. For without Rosen setting him up, Buckley would likely fall flat. Certainly not because Buckley makes for dull reading, but rather because the Age of Buckley is so far gone; the time in which the great objects of Buckley’s obits were household names has long since passed. The obituaries are ipso facto elegant, to be sure; but without Rosen’s contributions, they would not elicit the pathos, would not move the reader, as they would have done, and did, at the time they were written and published. But with Rosen’s help, amazingly, it would be hard to argue that even today’s illiterate, philistine, atavistic ‘millennials,’ who tend to be contemptuous of everything not of the present, could suppress the strong desire to read about obscure names like Hugh Kenner, Warren Steibel, or Tom Hume that Rosen’s subtle yet apposite introductory remarks elicit.
Rosen preludes each obituary with a brief introduction of the individual being eulogized and a description of their occupation and relationship with WFB. Admirably, the author resists the temptation to superfluously fill the pages of this book with his own critique, commentary, and thoughts. In that laudable, journalistic demeanor that we see from him on Fox News, Rosen eschews the natural human inclination to ‘be part of the story,’ as it were. Feeling no need to establish himself as Buckley’s literary equal, nor to pen ‘Biblical lyricisms’ (a phrase Buckley invokes to describe the work of some of the objects of his obits) in his introductory remarks, Rosen simply stands afar, confers a brief and interesting background of what the reader is about to read, and hands the ball off to Buckley to do the rest. Rosen undoubtedly recognizes that less is more when it comes to setting the stage for sages of the written word like William F. Buckley Jr.
While Rosen is freed from the task of constructing stylish, droll sentences to rival Buckley’s, his task of making the people in the obituaries—people who lived seemingly so long ago and in such different times—someone readers wish to read and learn about is hardly an easy one. Yet Rosen undertakes and accomplishes it masterfully with not a word too many or too few. Just as Rosen, in his daily work, so admirably lets the stories on which he reports tell themselves, resisting the need to insert his own opinions as is so popular among ‘journalists’ today, he, in a similar fashion, allows Buckley, the obituary, and the life of the deceased to speak for themselves. And oh, how they speak.
Not to let Mr. Rosen skate by with a near-perfect review, though he arguably deserves it, we Buckley admirers—if I may be so bold as to speak for Buckley’s admirers just this once—could engagingly read the witty, elegant, free-flowing prose of WFB for the rest of time without our eyes glazing over. Unfortunately, however, in ATKL, we are limited—curtailed, even—to less than 350 pages of work. Yet, because of the unread world in which we now live, a formidable 400- or 500-page anthology of obituaries, written by a figure little known today outside of conservative circles, would, undoubtedly, fill the average bookstore shopper with apprehension. For this reason, your reviewer, in his characteristic generosity, not only pardons the author for leaving the Buckley acolyte hungry for more writing of the deceased (incidentally, who but Buckley could make one hungry for an obituary?) but, on the contrary, commends him for it. By tightly wrapping this collection in a mere 317 pages, the author has managed to compact the towering figure that is Buckley into an exceptionally readable book that anyone of any background can digest. And thus, in effect, he has brought Buckley back, however briefly, into the popular discussion.
We Conservatives are in debt to James Rosen for resuscitating William F. Buckley Jr., one of the founders of the modern Conservative Movement, for piquing the interest of those with little familiarity with him, and for making him relevant and accessible to even an apathetic, philistine culture like the one in which we now live. Indeed, it is a significant credit to Buckley and Rosen that an anthology of obituaries of writers, intellectuals, thinkers, and celebrities—largely unknown in today’s world—that were written by a man whose prominence peaked 40, 50, and even 60 years ago, could make for such an enjoyable book. But enjoyable it unquestionably is. A Torch Kept Lit is a highly desirable read for lovers of language, sentences, and words; history buffs; political junkies; and even apolitical individuals who simply appreciate good writing.
In the twentieth century, Buckley, all on his own, brought himself and his ideas to prominence and respectability, not only in conservative circles but to the entire nation. Unfortunately, however, even the greats, at some point or another, slide into obscurity and are remembered less and less with each passing day. Thanks to James Rosen, however, we Buckleyites get to see, if only for a short time, the formidable WFB and his magical capabilities with a typewriter take center stage where he and they rightfully belong. While the objects of Buckley’s obituaries, and Buckley himself, unfortunately, are long gone, Rosen has shown that the writings of a truly unique character are immortal and can be appreciated and enjoyed at any time, during any age. It brings me great pleasure to report that Rosen, even if only fleetingly, has kept the torch lit. May it continue to blaze.
— Ross Dubberly is Assistant Editor at The Arch Conservative.