Back in the nineties, when I was living in London, I stumbled on a minor columnist of major brilliance. Now and again, I’d find him in some newspaper, writing about a television show I’d never seen or a second-rate play I never planned to see, and I’d remark to my wife how strange it was that a writer of such enormous talent should be wasting his time tossing off articles about such trivia.
One day, walking through South Kensington, I saw him on the street; I recognized him from his byline photo. I wanted to introduce myself and say something on the order of, “Look, I don’t know much, but I know a fine mind and terrific prose when I see them, and by gumbo, lad, you should lay off this irrelevant cultural fluff and write about something that matters!” Unfortunately, I have struggled with shyness all my life, and the shyness nearly always wins. I let him pass, and tragically, without my encouragement, Mark Steyn’s career vanished without a trace.
No, of course I’m joking. Even without a good word from me, Steyn went on to become a best-selling political author and commentator. He now tackles subjects that matter with a vengeance. In books such as America Alone and Lights Out, he has become a sort of Jeremiah-with-pizzazz, the tuxedoed MC of the apocalypse, employing wit and panache to herald the onrushing death of Western civilization.
I’ve still never met the man (though we were once on a podcast together for a few minutes), but I continue to have that proprietary feeling that one has about one’s discoveries. So I thought of that moment on the Old Brompton Road and of the Steyn that was, the Steyn I first encountered, the other day as I found myself reading a book he wrote back then—Broadway Babies Say Goodnight, which celebrates the rise and laments the decline of American musical theater.
If you care about the subject, as I do, it’s a wonderful book. The first half especially resonates with the author’s ardent pleasure in one of the most American of art forms. In the second half, which chronicles the musical’s decline, there’s more of the Steyn we know today—mordant and cataclysmic—but even as he laments the form’s passing, his pure delight in what American music and lyrics once were sings out of every word. It’s my favorite of his books.
Maybe that’s just me. It’s funny, but now, nearly 20 years after I first read him, Steyn’s cultural writing has come to seem more important to me than his political observations—if only for the reason that culture has come to seem more important to me than politics. Sure, politics has the seductions of urgency and relevance. We must do what we can, or our form of government will die, the nation will die, the civilization will die. Conservatives, especially, develop an almost doctorly sense of the fragility of the body politic. Systems of liberty never last more than a century or two before succumbing to the infections of power hunger and corruption at the top and dependency, laziness, and envy down below. We must rush to the scene and keep the patient breathing as long as possible. It’s all very important indeed.
But perhaps I wasn’t made to be a doomsayer. The dying of things—of art forms and civilizations as well as people—seems to me the inevitable and steady state of the world: a point of view that leaves me prone more to melancholy than to panic. What I really care about now is the immortal parts of mortal enterprise. I want to get at the spirit of human business: the wisdom and vitality of a culture’s Great Moment preserved in the artifacts it leaves behind. The irrelevant—the stuff that doesn’t matter but is simply beautiful—the music, the poetry, the pictures and storytelling—the arts—that’s where all the joy is, and it’s the joy that seems more urgent to me as the years pass.
Steyn and I travel in some of the same circles these days, so I’m likely to bump into him sooner or later. Maybe this time I’ll work up the nerve to approach him. Maybe this time, I’ll say: “Stop writing about all those things that matter. More irrelevant culture, man! It’s the only thing that counts.”