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Miles Gone By: A Literary Autobiography

Miles Gone By: A Literary Autobiography

4.8 5
by William F. Buckley Jr., Walter Cronkite (Introduction)

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In celebration of his 80th birthda, Regnery presents Bill Buckley's New York Times bestseller. Included are treasured essays from the beloved founder of National Review that captures Buckley's joyful boyhood and family life.


In celebration of his 80th birthda, Regnery presents Bill Buckley's New York Times bestseller. Included are treasured essays from the beloved founder of National Review that captures Buckley's joyful boyhood and family life.

Editorial Reviews

Jon Meacham
Reading Miles Gone By, his latest collection of autobiographical pieces, a book of charm and grace and wit, one finds it virtually impossible to envision Buckley as his liberal critics have for so long: as a dark Goldwaterite, even a pro-crypto Nazi (Gore Vidal's phrase), who hides his extremism beneath a sophisticated Manhattan veneer. He is a partisan combatant, a key figure in the right wing's journey from the fringes of American politics to the mainstream -- from, roughly, Joe McCarthy's sweaty brow to Ronald Reagan's sunny smile. But agree or disagree with the conservative creed he helped shape and promulgate, Buckley is the happiest of warriors, an exuberant man of the right, a Roman Catholic who has apparently taken the reassurances of Scripture to heart. ''In the world ye shall have tribulation,'' Jesus says in the Gospel of St. John, ''but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world.''
— The New York Times
This has been an especially good reading summer for devotees of American Colonial and Revolutionary his-tory. First and, in my opinion, the best of the many new books covering this period is Washington's Crossing--by David Hackett Fischer (Oxford University Press, $35). Professor Fischer is a noted historian, whose Albion's Seed, published in 1989, tells the story of those descendants of the British who settled here and helped create the United States. His Paul Revere's Ride has also been widely and justly praised.

Washington's Crossing tells the complete story of General George Washington's most daring, risky and successful venture early in the war. Following a succession of victories by the British and their mercenary forces, which had resultedin the loss of New York for the Americans, the British were within sight of Philadelphia, where the new American Congress was sitting.

Washington's army had been all but destroyed, and the British were surging across New Jersey. Washington's decision to cross the Delaware River on Christmas night 1776, when it was considered virtually impossible, was a move both bold and foolhardy. A flotilla of small boats crammed with soldiers, guns and horses somehow rowed across the river through one of the East's worst winter snow and ice storms. (The crossing as painted by Emanuel Leutze in 1851 captured this event spiritually and has become a great icon of the Revolution.) By crossing the Delaware, Washington placed the remnants of his army in a position to trap the British behind Trenton and, a few days later, to give that army and the cause for which it fought its first real victory. In many ways the shots fired atTrenton were the shots "heard round the world."

Professor Fischer conveys in a remarkably realistic way what combat and the fog of war are actually like. But, more important, he tells the story of what it was like for Washington to lead a discouraged, underequipped army that was constantly being micromanaged by a divided Congress that couldn't--at least at the beginning--decide whether it wanted independence or, simply, to get the Stamp Act repealed.

For those who still wonder how the Revolutionaries ever defeated the huge British forces arrayed against them, both on land and at sea, this book makes clear that it was the military genius and leadership of George Washing-ton that turned almost certain defeat into victory. Washington's Crossing is an essential and exciting key to a more complete understanding and appreciation of what our ancestors did to win the Revolution.

A new biography, Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow (Penguin Press, $35), is another superb book I read this summer. Hamilton served as principal aide to General Washington from the early days of the Revolu-tion. This gave him a ringside seat at the formation of the United States and its implausible victory over the British, who had deployed one of the world's finest military machines but lost to a ragtag army of upstarts.

Chernow's splendid, thorough and brilliantly written biography gives us a new understanding of Hamilton's vi-tal role during the war and immediately after as Secretary of the Treasury of this new entity on the world's stage. I doubt that many people realize how much of our country's financial structure we owe to Alexander Hamilton. This book goes beyond the standard fare offered in most American history classes. Hamilton's towering intellect, as well as his many faults, and his long, fierce disagreements with Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and many of the other Founding Fathers are presented here with almost shocking candor.

There have been other biographies of Hamilton, but Chernow's is far and away the most comprehensive and compelling of any I have read. It is a fitting tribute to the man who set the U.S. on the path that has made our nation the economic leader of the world.

Another treat for Revolutionary history enthusiasts is The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin by Gordon S. Wood (Penguin Press, $25.95). This delightful new study focuses on the actual aristocratic and elitist views and opinions of this so-called populist leader, who was one of our best-loved, most influential and renowned spokesmen to the world.

Moving away from Revolutionary times, I next read, and thoroughly enjoyed, Miles Gone By: A Literary Autobiography byWilliam F. Buckley Jr. (Regnery Publishing, $29.95). Buckley, a major founder of today's sen-sible conservatism, has led an extraordinary life, which fully matches his extraordinary talents. His subtitle is apt, as the book contains essays on sailing, skiing, music, old friends and colleagues and all manner of other diverse subjects, which are united in that they have all been of interest to one of the best minds and writers in America today.
—Caspar Weinberger

Publishers Weekly
The conservative writer and Firing Line host has published so many millions of words in five decades of polemics and public musing that amassing a sort of autobiography required little more than sandwiching a selection of 50 essays between a brief preface and epilogue. The extracts range in subject from his silver-spoon boyhood and boarding-school days to the lives and deaths of the many prominent people he has known. Fame came early, with Buckley's 1951 God and Man at Yale, excerpted here, which lambasted liberal bias at elite American colleges. (Far superior, though, is the sparkling memoir of his war-veteran class of 1950 at Yale.) An instant darling of conservatives who needed a spirited new voice, Buckley founded the National Review, whose writers became the core of his widening circle of influential acquaintances. While sailing, touring and media punditry take up much of the collection, the most memorable pieces are about such offbeat friends as the tragic Whittaker Chambers. Nevertheless, some portraits are merely laudatory epitaphs. Approaching 80, Buckley notes that his sporting days are about over, but "[s]o to speak, I can still ski on a keyboard." Like skiing, his keyboard has its ups and downs. B&w photos. Agent, Lois Wallace. (July) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.

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Regnery Publishing
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Miles Gone By

A Literary Autobiography
By William F. Buckley, Jr.

Regnery Publishing, Inc.

Copyright © 2004 William F. Buckley, Jr.
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-89526-089-1

Chapter One

Why Don't We Complain?

I conclude with an essay which is enduringly mysterious to me. I wrote it in 1961, and I am every month or so surprised-No, perhaps I am no longer surprised. A half-dozen times a year, every year, every decade, I am approached by one publisher or another for permission to reprint it, mostly in student-oriented collections and in anthologies. It is the only entry in this collection that I did not reread before choosing to include it. I didn't dare do so. I was afraid of failing to understand what it is about it that has struck so many publishers as memorable. But I place it here as, quite simply, in the judgment of the publishing world, my Hamlet, my Gettysburg Address, my Ninth Symphony. I am certainly not going to complain about its ongoing life.

It was the very last car and the only empty seat on the entire train, so there was no turning back. The problem was to breathe. Outside, the temperature was below freezing. Inside the railroad car the temperature must have been eighty-five degrees. I took off my overcoat, and a few minutes later my jacket, and noticed that the car was flecked with the white shirts of other passengers. I soon found my hand moving to loosen my tie. From one end of the car to the other, as we rattled through Westchester County, we sweated; but we did not moan.

I watched the train conductor appear at the head of the car. "Tickets, all tickets, please!" In a more virile age, I thought, the passengers would have seized the conductor and strapped him down on a seat over the radiator to share the fate of his patrons. He shuffled down the aisle, picking up tickets, punching commutation cards. No one addressed a word to him. He approached my seat, and I drew a deep breath of resolution. "Conductor," I began with a considerable edge to my voice.... Instantly the doleful eyes of my seatmate turned tiredly from his newspaper to fix me with a resentful stare: what question could be so important as to justify my intrusion into his stupor? I was shaken by those eyes. I am incapable of making a discreet fuss, so I mumbled a question about what time were we due in Stamford (I didn't even ask whether it would be before or after dehydration could be expected to set in), got my reply, and went back to my newspaper and to wiping my brow.

The conductor had nonchalantly walked down the gauntlet of eighty sweating American freemen, and not one of them had asked him to explain why the passengers in that car had been consigned to suffer. There is nothing to be done when the temperature outdoors is eighty-five degrees and indoors the air conditioner has broken down; obviously when that happens there is nothing to do, except perhaps curse the day that one was born. But when the temperature outdoors is below freezing, it takes a positive act of will on somebody's part to set the temperature indoors at 85. Somewhere a valve was turned too far, a furnace overstocked, a thermostat maladjusted: something that could easily be remedied by turning off the heat and allowing the great outdoors to come indoors. All this is so obvious. What is not obvious is what has happened to the American people. It isn't just the commuters, whom we have come to visualize as a supine breed who have got onto the trick of suspending their sensory faculties twice a day while they submit to the creeping dissolution of the railroad industry. It isn't just they who have given up trying to rectify irrational vexations. It is the American people everywhere.

A few weeks ago at a large movie theater I turned to my wife and said, "The picture is out of focus."

"Be quiet," she answered.

I obeyed. But a few minutes later I raised the point again, with mounting impatience.

"It will be all right in a minute," she said apprehensively. (She would rather lose her eyesight than be around when I make one of my infrequent scenes.) I waited. It was just out of focus-not glaringly out, but out. My vision is 20-20, and I assume that is the vision, adjusted, of most people in the movie house. So, after hectoring my wife throughout the first reel, I finally prevailed upon her to admit that it was off, and very annoying. We then settled down, coming to rest on the presumption that: (a) someone connected with the management of the theater must soon notice the blur and make the correction; or (b) someone seated near the rear of the house would make the complaint on behalf of those of us up front; or (c) the entire house-any minute now-would explode into catcalls and foot stamping, calling dramatic attention to the irksome distortion.

What happened was nothing. The movie ended, as it had begun, just out of focus, and as we trooped out, we stretched our faces in a variety of contortions to accustom the eyes to the shock of normal focus.

I think it is safe to say that everybody suffered on that occasion. And I think it is safe to assume that everyone was expecting someone else to take the initiative in going back to speak to the manager. And it is probably true that if we had supposed the movie would run right through with the blurred image, someone surely would have summoned up the purposive indignation to get up out of his seat and file his complaint.

But notice that no one did. And the reason no one did is that we are all increasingly anxious in America to be unobtrusive; we are reluctant to make our voices heard, hesitant about claiming our rights; we are afraid that our cause is unjust, or that if it is not unjust, it is ambiguous, or if not even that, then too trivial to justify the horrors of a confrontation with Authority; we will sit in an oven or endure a racking headache before undertaking a head-on, I'm-here-to-tell-you complaint. That tendency to passive compliance, to a heedless endurance, is something to keep one's eyes on-in harp focus.

I myself can occasionally summon the courage to complain, but I cannot, as I have intimated, complain softly. My own instinct is so strong to let the thing ride, to forget about it-to expect that someone else will take the matter up, when the grievance is collective, in my behalf-that it is only when the provocation is at a very special key, whose vibrations touch simultaneously a complexus of nerves, allergies, and passions, that I catch fire and find the reserves of courage and assertiveness to speak up. When that happens, I get quite carried away. My blood gets hot, my brow wet, I become unbearably and unconscionably sarcastic and bellicose; I am girded for a total showdown.

Why should that be? Why could not I (or anyone else on that railroad car) have simply said to the conductor, "Sir"-I take that back: that sounds sarcastic-"Conductor, would you be good enough to turn down the heat? I am extremely hot. In fact, I tend to get hot every time the temperature reaches eighty-five degr-" Strike that last sentence. Just end it with the simple statement that you are extremely hot, and let the conductor infer the cause.

Every New Year's Eve I resolve to do something about the Milquetoast in me and vow to speak up, calmly, for my rights, and for the betterment of our society, on every appropriate occasion. Entering last New Year's Eve I was fortified in my resolve because that morning at breakfast I had had to ask the waitress three times for a glass of milk. She finally brought it-after I had finished my eggs, which is when I don't want it any more. I did not have the manliness to order her to take the milk back, but settled instead for a cowardly sulk, and ostentatiously refused to drink the milk-though I later paid for it-rather than state plainly to the hostess, as I should have, why I had not drunk it and would not pay for it.

So by the time the New Year ushered out the Old, riding in on my morning's indignation and stimulated by the gastric juices of resolution that flow so faithfully on New Year's Eve, I rendered my vow. Henceforward I would conquer my shyness, my unfortunate disposition to supineness. I would speak out like a man against the unnecessary annoyances of our time.

Forty-eight hours later, I was standing in line at the ski shop at Pico Peak, Vermont. All I needed, to get on with my skiing, was the loan, for one minute, of a small screwdriver, to tighten a loose binding. Behind the counter in the workshop were two men. One was industriously engaged in servicing the complicated requirements of the young lady at the head of the line, and obviously he would be tied up for quite a while. The other-"Jiggs," his workmate called him-was a middle-aged man, who sat in a chair puffing a pipe, exchanging small talk with his working partner. My pulse began its telltale acceleration. The minutes ticked on. I stared at the idle shopkeeper, hoping to shame him into action, but he was impervious to my telepathic reproof and continued his small talk with his friend, brazenly insensitive to the nervous demands of six good men who were raring to ski.

Suddenly my New Year's Eve resolution struck me. It was now or never. I broke from my place in line and marched to the counter. I was going to control myself. I dug my nails into my palms. My effort was only partially successful:

"If you are not too busy," I said icily, "would you mind handing me a screwdriver?"

Work stopped and everyone turned his eyes on me, and I experienced that mortification I always feel when I am the center of centripetal shafts of curiosity, resentment, perplexity.

But the worst was yet to come. "I am sorry, sir," said Jiggs deferentially, removing the pipe from his mouth. "I am not supposed to move. I have just had a heart attack." That was the signal for a great whirring noise that descended from heaven. We looked, stricken, out the window, and it appeared as though a cyclone had suddenly focused on the snowy courtyard between the shop and the ski lift. Suddenly a gigantic army helicopter materialized, and hovered down to a landing. Two men carrying a stretcher jumped out of the aircraft, tore into the ski shop, and lifted the shopkeeper onto the stretcher. Jiggs bade his companion goodbye and was whisked out the door, into the helicopter, up to the heavens, and down-we learned-to a nearby army hospital. I looked up manfully-into a score of man-eating eyes. I put the experience down as a reversal.

As I write this, on an airplane, I have run out of paper and need to reach into my briefcase under my legs for more. I cannot do this until my empty lunch tray is removed from my lap. I arrested the stewardess as she passed empty-handed down the aisle on the way to the kitchen to fetch the lunch trays for the passengers up forward who haven't been served yet. "Would you please take my tray?"

"Just a moment, sir!" she said, and marched on sternly.

Shall I tell her that since she is headed for the kitchen anyway, it could not delay the feeding of the other passengers by more than two seconds if she took away my empty tray? Or remind her that not fifteen minutes ago she spoke unctuously into the loudspeaker the words undoubtedly devised by the airline's highly paid public-relations counselor: "If there is anything I or Miss French can do for you to make your trip more enjoyable, please let us-" I have run out of paper.

I think the observable reluctance of the majority of Americans to assert themselves in minor matters is related to our increased sense of helplessness in an age of technology and centralized political and economic power. For generations, Americans who were too hot, or too cold, got up and did something about it. Now we call the plumber, or the electrician, or the furnace man. The habit of looking after our own needs obviously had something to do with the assertiveness that characterized the American family familiar to readers of American literature. With the technification of life goes our direct responsibility for our material environment, and we are conditioned to adopt a position of helplessness not only as regards the broken air conditioner, but as regards the overheated train. It takes an expert to fix the former, but not the latter; yet these distinctions, as we withdraw into helplessness, tend to fade away.

Our notorious political apathy is a related phenomenon. Every year, whether the Republican or the Democratic Party is in office, more and more power drains away from the individual to feed vast reservoirs in far-off places; and we have less and less say about the decisions which shape our future. From this alienation of personal power comes the sense of resignation with which we accept the political dispensations of a powerful government whose hold upon us continues to increase.

An editor of a national weekly newsmagazine told me a few years ago that as few as a dozen letters of protest against an editorial stance of his magazine were enough to convene a plenipotentiary meeting of the board of editors to review the policy. "So few people complain, or make their voices heard," he explained to me, "that we assume a dozen letters represent the inarticulated views of thousands of readers." In the past ten years, he said, the volume of mail has noticeably decreased, even though the circulation of his magazine has risen.

When our voices are finally mute, when we have finally suppressed the natural instinct to complain, whether the vexation is trivial or grave, we shall have become automatons, incapable of feeling. When Premier Khrushchev first came to this country, late in 1959, he was primed, we are informed, to experience the bitter resentment of the American people against his tyranny, against his persecutions, against the movement that is responsible for the great number of American deaths in Korea, for billions of dollars in taxes every year, and for life everlastingly on the brink of disaster. But Khrushchev was pleasantly surprised, and reported back to the Russian people that he had been met with overwhelming cordiality (read: apathy), except, to be sure, for "a few fascists who followed me around with their wretched posters, and should be horsewhipped."

I may be crazy, but I say there would have been lots more posters in a society where train temperatures in the dead of winter were not allowed to climb to eighty-five degrees without complaint.


Excerpted from Miles Gone By by William F. Buckley, Jr. Copyright © 2004 by William F. Buckley, Jr. . Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Miles Gone By: A Literary Autobiography 4.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 5 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Mr. Buckley well deserves the praise he receives for sharing his extraordinary lifestyle with readers bogged with fewer connections. Go sailing and find what he discovered that seems to be lost on 'Kennedy Compound' reflective essays. Mr. Buckley was always our first choice as 'the MAN' around our Goldwater Campaign Headquarters, back in Madison County where he inspired us via 'Firing Line'. We love you, still, Mr. Buckley. Your fans, ever...Merriweather and Crew
Guest More than 1 year ago
This guy was 'liberal ' or so I thought when I was a kid. I figured he looked,sounded and acted as a Kennedy and therefore he was a raging liberal. But as I got older, wiser and more attuned to the political scene I came to realize thiat this man has spoken volumes in defense of the true American conservative. This book relects his views and I must say he is usually right on target. At times his words are big and my mind must allow slow comprehension but a worthy reading is a must for his latest book. Great man, great read. Jay ---Melbourne Florida
Guest More than 1 year ago
Yeah; listening to the guy speak CAN get a bit tiring on the ears, but I'll tell you this: Of ALL the Men and Women who are involved in the American political scene( and I mean EVERYONE ), this is the ONE person that I would be genuinely afraid to debate with one on one. I've seen this guy completely WASTE a whole panel of Democrats in one well phrased sentence. When it comes to making a point and/or proving a case; Buckley is an Immortal.
Russell_Kirk More than 1 year ago
At the very least the exposure will increase one's vocabulary.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago