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The Master Obituarist

books and culture

The Master Obituarist

William F. Buckley’s glorious tributes to the dearly departed raised eulogy to the level of art. December 13, 2016
Arts and Culture

A Torch Kept Lit: Great Lives of the Twentieth Centuryby William F. Buckley, Jr. and James Rosen, editor (Crown Forum, 323 pp., $22)

When asked about attending services for a deceased friend, baseball Hall-of-Famer Yogi Berra retorted that, “If you don’t go to other people’s funerals, they won’t come to yours.” That same spirit may have animated William F. Buckley, Jr.’s journalistic commitment to memorializing the lives of notable public figures—some friends, some strangers—when they died. Buckley wrote as though his subjects might actually be in attendance at his funeral mass, at least in spirit, in Manhattan’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral, eight years ago.

In A Torch Kept Lit, 53 of Buckley’s most notable obituaries and eulogies are compiled between two covers. Nearly all of the entries are devoted to individuals who “mattered” and who changed the course of the twentieth century. Edited by Fox News chief Washington correspondent James Rosen, A Torch Kept Lit teaches us not only how the master “obituarist” pays tribute to an individual of note; it also offers wonderful insights into the great struggles of the twentieth century by focusing on the lives of Winston Churchill, Alger Hiss, Whittaker Chambers, and others.

I first recall being drawn to Bill Buckley’s obituaries as a teen subscriber to his National Review. Like so many others, I admired how Buckley could acknowledge his philosophical battles with the deceased while directing the reader to his subject’s most admirable qualities. Buckley never surrendered his philosophical position but managed to laud worthy intellectual adversaries with heart-warming charm. “Who was the wit who said that Nature abhors a vacuum?” Buckley asked at the funeral of the assassinated liberal icon Allard Lowenstein. “Let Nature then fill this vacuum. That is the challenge, which, bereft, the friends of Allard Lowenstein hurl up to Nature, and to Nature’s God, prayerfully, demandingly, because today, Lord, our loneliness is great.” How moving, original, poignant, and healing for all who heard or read those words. Each of these tributes was surely a source of genuine comfort for the family and loved ones of the departed.

In other obituaries, Buckley acknowledged the difficulties he had in writing about certain deceased persons. “I have been sharply reminded that I have not written about Mrs. (Eleanor) Roosevelt, and that only a coward would use the excuse that when she died, he was in Africa,” he wrote in 1963. “There are lions, and tigers and apartheid. Here, there was Mrs. Roosevelt to write about. Africa was the safer place.” Sharp eyes will spot the rare factual error in Buckley’s prose—there are no tigers in Africa.

Less than a year before his own death, Buckley eulogized his beloved wife Patricia, recalling his proposal of marriage to her in 1949. “Patricia, would you consider marriage with me?” he inquired politely over a game of cards in the library of her family’s Vancouver home. “Bill,” she replied. “I’ve been asked this question many times. To the others I’ve said no. To you I say yes. Now may I please get back and finish my hand?”

Rosen has done a first-rate job of compiling, selecting, and editing Buckley’s recollections and tributes to the noteworthy deceased. Most impressive, however, are Rosen’s comments setting the stage for each entry. Buckley was an important mentor to young Rosen, as he had been for me a half-generation earlier. Rosen’s personal relationship with Buckley helped him to write with perspective and affection. Some quotes and anecdotes are surely transcriptions of their conversations.

Buckley’s son Christopher remarked that he didn’t “exaggerate to propose that this may prove to be William F. Buckley’s finest book ever.” I can’t argue with that assessment; the book has catapulted to the top of my list of Buckley favorites. Importantly, in an epoch when news headlines are recycled several times a day in digital media, A Torch Kept Lit allows us to take a deep breath and appreciate the lives of one great writer’s friends and loved ones, alongside his reflections on men and women of historical consequence. In William F. Buckley Jr.’s life, those two categories often overlapped.

Photo by National Review

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