Outside Looking In: Adventures of an Observer


A captivating memoir from the incomparable Garry Wills, "one of the country's most distinguished intellectuals" (The New York Times Book Review)

Illuminating and provocative, Outside Looking In is a compelling chronicle of an original thinker at work in remarkable times. With his dazzling style and journalist's eye for detail, Garry Wills brings history to life. Whether writing about the civil rights movement, 1960s protests, or close-up studies of the people who have shaped our...

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Outside Looking In: Adventures of an Observer

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A captivating memoir from the incomparable Garry Wills, "one of the country's most distinguished intellectuals" (The New York Times Book Review)

Illuminating and provocative, Outside Looking In is a compelling chronicle of an original thinker at work in remarkable times. With his dazzling style and journalist's eye for detail, Garry Wills brings history to life. Whether writing about the civil rights movement, 1960s protests, or close-up studies of the people who have shaped our world, only he could bring together in one book Barry Goldwater, Daniel Berrigan, Beverly Sills, Richard Nixon, and John Waters. Wills shares, as only the best raconteurs can, stories of the fascinating people he has closely observed during more than fifty years of reporting.

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Editorial Reviews

Dwight Garner
…the most limber and humane book Mr. Wills has written in years…Outside Looking In is, most fundamentally, a series of pointed scenes from a busy life. Its vaguely oxymoronic subtitle ("Adventures of an Observer") seems misleading. No one who counted William F. Buckley, John Waters, Studs Terkel, Beverly Sills and Murray Kempton among his many friends, and who had close-up views of many of the last century's signal events, can qualify as a true outsider.
—The New York Times
James Rosen
Outside Looking In functions like an erudite jukebox, summoning amusing, tragic and telling anecdotes at a rapid clip, each well told, all enriching our understanding of postwar America's politics, passions and pieties. … [It] is essential for readers interested in this prolific and immensely gifted writer - notwithstanding his protestations that they should not be.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
This is an episodic but completely captivating collection by the prolific journalist, historian, political columnist, and practicing Catholic Wills (Lincoln at Gettysburg). Now 76, he writes an intensely opinionated re-evaluation of leaders he has encountered (surprisingly favorable for some, such as Nixon, whom he called "an intellectually serious and prepared candidate"), autobiographical reminiscences, and insightful, mostly admiring essays on important people in his life, including Studs Terkel (shrewd about politicians, generous to his friends); Beverly Sills and her popular mother, known as Mama Sills; his father (fearless, resilient, fun); and his loving tribute to his wife of 50 years. As for William Buckley, Wills began writing for his conservative National Review in 1957, but his 1960s support of civil rights and opposition to the Vietnam War produced a rupture. He describes how, with Buckley's sister Priscilla as intermediary, Wills and Buckley touchingly resumed their friendship before the latter's death in 2008. The book does not recycle old articles. although it includes outtakes, unprintable at the time, such as material about Nixon's marital troubles, omitted from an Esquire article during the 1968 presidential campaign (Oct.)
Library Journal
Wills dines with Hillary Clinton, is on John Waters's Christmas card list, and sailed often with William F. Buckley Jr. But he sees himself as a lifetime outsider, looking in on politics, contemporary culture, and religion. His "confessions of a conventional bookworm" will engage readers with the issues and people he has covered over his long career as a journalist and Pulitzer Prize-winning author (Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America). He writes lovingly of his years in Baltimore and includes remembrances of the glory days of Johnny Unitas and the Colts and his connections to the work of antiwar activists Dan and Philip Berrigan. A personal reflection on his father is both distant and warm—Wills refers to him simply as "Jack" but wraps up the section by acknowledging a small part of his own personality that is like his father's. Verdict Wills's curiosity and personal integrity shine through this intellectual memoir that is both intimate and journalistic. Readers who have followed Wills's writing career will welcome these reflections on his life and the world around him.—Judy Solberg, Seattle Univ. Lib.

(c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Kirkus Reviews

Pulitzer Prize winner Wills (Bomb Power: The Modern Presidency and the National Security State, 2010, etc.) offers up a pleasantly revealing grab bag of memories.

These rocking-chair ruminations are relaxed, intimate and impressionistic. Though he writes that he "was determined to be an outsider looking in, not a participant," he thoroughly engages with his subjects here, a number of whom were friends. These vest-pocket profiles are a genuine mix, from William F. Buckley, who emerges not as the bombastic right-winger he projected in his public life, but as a generous, risk-taking soul, a man whose "gifts were facility, flash, and charm, not depth of prolonged wrestling with a problem," to Wills's wife, who receives as endearing a love letter as the retiring Wills will likely ever openly tender. The author has canny things to say about public figures, including Richard Nixon ("an emotionally wounded man who rises to power without ever becoming a full human being"); Thomas D'Alesandro III, the hard-boiled mayor of Baltimore who cut the entitled legs out from under presidential aspirant Jerry Brown; and fellow Chicagoan Studs Terkel. But much of the best stuff concerns people at the edge of the limelight, such as organizer Septima Clark, who let Andrew Young know that arriving at a voter-registration drive in a chartered plane was "no way to join dirt-poor people getting literacy qualifications in order to vote"; opera singer Fyodor Chaliapin ("listening to the man's beautiful barking was like hearing a cave sing"); and James Bevel, the daring strategist for the SCLC who later joined Lyndon LaRouche's party and later still was convicted of incest. Only rarely do his comments fail to have bite.

Ultimately, it is Wills himself who shines brightest from these pages—owlish, ethical, skeptical of power, deep of faith and achingly honest.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780143119890
  • Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 9/27/2011
  • Pages: 208
  • Sales rank: 1,455,237
  • Product dimensions: 5.00 (w) x 7.60 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Garry Wills

Garry Wills has written many acclaimed works and is a regular contributor to The New York Review of Books. He is professor emeritus of history at Northwestern University and lives in Evanston, Illinois.

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    1. Date of Birth:
      May 22, 1934
    2. Place of Birth:
      Atlanta, GA
    1. Education:
      St. Louis University, B.A., 1957; Xavier University, M.A., 1958; Yale University, Ph.D., 1961

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Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Posted March 18, 2011

    Stories of an Observant Onlooker..

    Garry Wills' Outside Looking In: Adventures of an Observer serves as a recollection of the accounts of how a book-loving, young journalist came to know many acclaimed political figures of American history. Wills describes his encounters with great Americans such as Martin Luther King Jr., Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, and Bill Clinton in his enticing autobiography. This entertaining and touching work of non-fiction gives us new clues about how he has provided ongoing lessons as to how journalism and scholarship can combine into something bigger on its own. It also provides insight into topics including the death of Martin Luther King Jr. and urban riots in cities such as Detroit. During Wills' telling of the scene immediately following Martin Luther King Jr.'s death, I was mentally engaged in the piece and could not put it down. Although non-fiction does not usually grasp my attention as this did, I was eager to turn the page to find out what happened next. There are sections when Outside Looking In seems like a data dump -Wills goes into a lot of detail and provides too much information about some events which changes the overall tone of the book, making it feel more like a history textbook than a pleasurable work of nonfiction. He drags on about his encounters with Nixon and how he first got involved in presidential politics and provides more information than strictly necessary, which takes away from the enjoyment of the book. Also, some of the political figures referenced are unfamiliar since he references a plethora of minor events, such as the Baltimore Film Festival, that have been long-forgotten by most. Overall, Wills' accounts of his journalism career were thought-provoking and attention-grabbing - a real page turner.

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  • Posted November 16, 2010

    An interesting read. Good insight into Buckley, Nixon, Carter.

    Garry Wills, an excellent writer, interviewer, and story teller, provides a cerebral and interesting insight into the complex man that was William F. Buckley with whom he worked as a screen writer for years. And, similarly provides insight and surprises into the thoughts of great men he has interviewed including Richard Nixon, John Kennedy, and Jimmy Carter.

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