Cheerful Chronicle

Confessions of a Conservative

by Garry Wills
Doubleday, 231 pp., $10.00

Garry Wills
Garry Wills; drawing by David Levine

Confessional literature is an established tradition of which Augustine and Rousseau are exemplars. What distinguishes such kinds of writing from mere autobiography or from memoirs is that a confession is the story of a soul. It is an invitation to enter into a degree of intimacy with the writer that would in many circumstances be embarrassing. Indeed, one can be the recipient of confessions that are unwanted, indelicate affronts to one’s sense of decorum. A set of confessions designed for common circulation will triumph, if it does, through its style, through the unifying passion that fills the writing. This is so with Augustine and Rousseau, with Pepys and Boswell and Newman and Kilvert and parts of Mill’s Autobiography and, now and then and always enigmatically, in A Small Boy and Others and Notes of a Son and Brother. It is true that Pepys and Kilvert had no notion they would ever be published; but each was in himself a perfect audience. Confessions of this order are works of art, and this is why they don’t violate our sense of decorum. And they may be concerned not simply with inviting us into the penetralia of the soul but also with explanation, accusation, and defense.

Mr. Wills is a devoted student of Augustine and Newman. I therefore find it troubling that he should use the word “confessions” in his title and then default on the implied promise. These are memoirs that never tremble on the edge of personal disclosure; even the story, a good one so far as it goes, of his first meeting with his wife is related without a trace of inwardness, rather like run-of-the-mill Hemingway. After the memoirs, which occupy less than half of the book, come remarks on the sociology of American politics and a discussion of some of Augustine’s themes in political philosophy. These sections have nothing confessional about them, except in so far as they tell us something about the author’s mind.

The material in the first seventy pages of Confessions of a Conservative is such that one would have welcomed something in the confessional mode. Here is a young man, fresh from a Jesuit seminary, full of themes he gets from Newman and Chesterton, who finds himself taken up by William Buckley, Frank and Elsie Meyer, and others of the National Review crowd. One wants to know what it felt like to move into such a group at such a time and what the great issues were that attracted the young Wills into such company. These were men and women who in the McCarthy years were, no doubt with many subtle reservations, more for McCarthy than against him; who saw the catspaws of communism everywhere in American public life; who were, some of them, and notably Buckley himself, Catholics infatuated with laissez-faire ideals of society, traditionalists in religion, extreme liberal individualists in economic and social matters.…

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