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):
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.
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
* 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.