U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Writing About Emotion in USIH: Vidal, Buckley, and Tanenhaus

Sam Tanenhaus reflected yesterday, in The New York Times*, on the unexpected similarities between Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley, Jr. The piece caught my eye because I just finished a section in my manuscript on Mortimer J. Adler’s multiple Firing Line appearances and his interactions with Buckley.

In writing about both figures a prominent theme in Tanenhaus’ piece was elitism in U.S. intellectual history—the class solidarity that bound both.  He finds other parallels, which I will point out below. But I’m most interested in larger thing Tanenhaus is trying to do in the article: write about emotion in the context of U.S. intellectual history.

Before going there, let me relay the last third of Tanenhaus’ article, particularly these passages on American exceptionalism in the context of the Vietnam War (YouTube link moved here from earlier in the story):

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Buckley and Mr. Vidal both subscribed, though in very different ways, to the ideal of American exceptionalism — …[particularly its] susceptib[ility] to foreign infection. Mr. Vidal feared the evils of empire building…and warned against the decline that had overtaken other civilizations brought low by imperial hubris. 

For Buckley the threat came from global communism and “statist” domestic policies that would reduce Americans to servitude and weaken their connection to the moral values of Christianity.
It was this two-sides-of-the-same-coin idealism that led to the heated exchange in 1968. The actual topic that evening was the Vietnam War. Mr. Vidal opposed it. Buckley supported it. Again their reasons were parallel. For Mr. Vidal the war betrayed the tradition he was raised in, which sought to keep America untainted by the temptations of empire. For Buckley, supporting the war meant holding back the tide of communism. 
As their tempers rose, each seemed to be battling not so much the other as the distorted image of himself that his opponent represented. The terms they haughtily flung at each other were those other critics sometimes applied to them, only in reverse — Buckley, whose arch mannerisms were sometimes mocked as effete; Mr. Vidal, whose disdain for American vulgarity was tinged, some said, with anti-Semitism and dislike of the “lower orders.” 
Divided by so much, Mr. Vidal and Buckley were united in their iconoclasm, however uneasily.

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Again, I love the Vidal-Buckley parallels in relation to iconoclasm, elitism, American exceptionalism, cavils from critics (e.g. effete), and fears of distorted images. For me this says that the so-called conservative-liberal divide of the post-war period is more, among intellectuals anyway, of an intramural contest within liberalism.  That contest was about shades of American liberalism, not a rejection of the larger project of liberalism.

As a professional historian (but not as a person with feelings of disgust) I very much appreciated (loved?) the visceral dislike and passion in the YouTube clip. It’s rare to see that kind of open emotion, on air or otherwise. But it’s not surprising given the period. To paraphrase today’s cool kids, “That’s what Vietnam do.”

It’s hard to top the source when one is writing about events like that—hence the link to the clip in the NYT article. How are you, dear reader, capturing emotions in your USIH work? How does one write about emotions effectively, and concisely, in age of multimedia? How can a traditional media article (journal, newspaper), with its two-dimensional limitations, convey the essence of an event best remembered for the passion conveyed in three dimensions? It seems that a YouTube clip is worth a thousand words. – TL

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* Since it’s only August 2, I’m going to assume that you can read the piece because you haven’t used up your ten free online NYT viewings.

5 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Interesting subject-My take on the this exchange is that you get more emotion than substance and a strong sense these two don’t like each other. I don’t know if you recall or have seen the Norman Mailer vs Gore Vidal exchange on Dick Cavett but the results were similar. All 3 of these folks (Buckley, Mailer, Vidal) had rather prickly personas.

    I realize this is a little off topic but the
    interviews between Buckley and John Galbraith would certainly highlight a classic liberal vs conservative discussion.

    As an aside, did you look at the youtube that featured Woody Allen and Buckley. It was very funny and had a particularly interesting comment by Buckley about Israel and the “benefits of war”. I think he was really speaking to the anticipated benefits of the war in Vietnam but it provides an interesting irony.

  2. Paul,

    You’re probably right about the emotion-substance ratio. Still, we can’t underestimate emotion (e.g. repugnance!) in the spectrum of factors driving the New Right. And, having just reviewed an interview of Cavett with Mortimer Adler, I’d love to see a video or transcript of that Vidal-Mailer-Cavett exchange. If I remember right from a Vidal obit I read, Cavett turns against Vidal in that exchange.

    I haven’t seen the Allen-Buckley exchange.

    – TL

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