Five Favorite Garry Wills Books

Whose fame by now is more than mine?
Of my work all can quote a line
--from Martial's epigram No. 83, translated by Garry Wills

Our era will pose a problem for future social historians: They'll drown in material. Understanding wars and politics won't be so hard. But social history -- how will they know where to begin? With TV shows, pop music, blogs, sociological surveys, census data, sales records, company personnel files, hospital charts, Facebook pages? Everything is recorded. It's a giant case of TMI, too much information.

But I have a solution: a lens to see what was really going on in American society at any particular time from the 1960s to 2009 and, possibly, beyond. It's called Garry Wills.

Yes, Garry Wills -- the emeritus professor of history at Northwestern who writes often for the New York Review of Books. Wills is an amazing one-man band. He translates Greek and Latin, is steeped in Christian theology (he spent six years in a Jesuit seminary), has written prize-winning books about Lincoln and America's Founding Fathers, was once a drama critic (for the National Review) and comments with equal fluency on Shakespeare, medieval art and contemporary politics. His own politics are not easily categorized: He has long called himself a conservative, but others sometimes peg him as a liberal. No one can dispute that he's an extreme polymath, as true a Renaissance man as we possess today.

He's also prolific. By my count, he's written about 40 books so far. Wills can write about virtually anything he chooses. Publishers, seemingly, will put out anything he writes (witness last year's handsome volume of Martial's epigrams. How many of those do you think Viking will sell?)

So what does he choose to write? That's the lens. If you look back at Wills's books, in chronological order, you can't help but see that they are a rolling catalogue of what's roiling America, beginning in 1968 with his first journalistic book, The Second Civil War: Arming for Armageddon, about race relations and the possibility of a race war after the 1967 riots. (The point here is NOT that he's always right, but that he's reflects what's worrying the country).

Of course, I haven't read them all, not by a long shot. But here's my short list of classic Garry Wills texts:

Nixon Agonistes: The Crisis of the Self-Made Man (1970).
Richard Nixon was our national enigma, our national shame, our national polarizer. Rick Perlstein's Nixonland, which came out last year, captured Nixon's visceral dividing effect on the country. But Wills absolutely nailed Nixon's character, and not unsympathetically. He noted, for instance, that Nixon revered Woodrow Wilson, the only Democrat whose picture hung in Nixon's oval office. Although Nixon was "not a convincing moralist," Wills explained, he was nonetheless (like Wilson) a moralist by conviction: "He does not woo the Forgotten American cynically; he agrees with the silent majority." You couldn't read Nixon Agonistes in the 1970s without silently mouthing "aha" after "aha," and it still has that effect today.

Confessions of a Conservative (1979).
Just in time for the Reagan revolution, Wills laid out a thinking man's version of conservatism, qualms and all. He seemed amused by -- but was quick to appreciate the influence of -- the neo-cons he met at National Review, many of whom had once been liberals of one stripe or another. Their "work as leftists tended to be far superior to what they were doing now," he wrote.

Cincinnatus: George Washington and the Enlightenment (1984).
Wills quickly picked up on the thirst among U.S. readers for readable portraits of the Founders and explorations of key documents in American history, beginning with Jefferson's drafting of the Declaration of Independence in Inventing America (1978). The most famous of his books of this ilk is Lincoln at Gettysburg(1992), for which he won a Pulitzer Prize. In a recent essay in Book World on books about Lincoln, the literary biographer Fred Kaplan wrote that Lincoln at Gettysburg "spawned a genre of books focusing on single speeches and remains the most intellectually exhilarating of them." Future historians will properly ask why at this particular time there was a strong popular urge to revisit the views of the Founders and the classic texts of American democracy: Was there an underlying, uneasy sense that the nation had drifted from its moorings?

Papal Sin: Structures of Deceit (2000).
Wills wrote this book two years before the scandal over sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church erupted in Boston. But like many Catholics, he was aware of a certain level of dissonance between the church's teachings on sexuality and the reality of sexuality, including homosexuality, in the priesthood. "The life of church authorities," he wrote, "is lived within structures of multiple deceit. It is not surprising that priests are unwilling to impose moral claims on others, in areas like contraception and the role of women, when they daily live in contravention of what the Pope claims about sex and their own celibacy."

Why I Am a Catholic (2002).
After the scandal broke in Boston, and as it was spreading rapidly across the country, Wills felt impelled to explore and explain his faith in this, his most personal book. "I am not a Catholic because of the pope," he wrote. "I am a Catholic because of the creed....... We flawed believers live with our flawed fellow believers, even with flawed brothers like the pope." As fundamentalist Christianity began to play a rising role in U.S. politics in the Bush era, Wills turned out a series of books -- What Jesus Meant, What Paul Meant and What the Gospels Meant -- making the case for an understanding of the gospels that is at once orthodox (the Resurrection is real, not metaphorical) but not literal ("To read the gospels in the spirit with which they were written, it is not enough to ask what Jesus did or said. We must ask what Jesus meant by his strange deeds and words.") Ironically, these passionate defenses of faith have cemented the view among some Catholics and evangelicals that Wills, who began his career at National Review and wrote Confessions of a Conservative, is a neo-liberal.

-- Alan Cooperman

By Alan Cooperman |  February 26, 2009; 12:40 PM ET Alan Cooperman
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Please email us to report offensive comments.

Wills is, indeed, one of a kind. What I admire most about him is his relentless curiosity. He explores a subject from all sides. Take his criticism of the works of Henry Adams. Wills has authored a magnificent and typically learned study of Adams' history of the Jefferson and Madison administrations. At the same time, he has written and spoken convincingly and eloquently on Adams' novels (see his marvelous lecture as part of the Tanner Series, "Henry Adams: The Historian as Novelist," which can be found on the University of Utah Web site).

Posted by: billbrantley | February 26, 2009 3:56 PM

The man is truly a marvel--not only the books, but just watch him sometime being interviewed.

He's clearly no neo-con, if a conservative at all. The New York Review of Books asked Wills (along with others) for their comments prior to the 2008 election. Two selections from Wills's response:

"The stakes are staggering. That is why the Republicans are so desperate to win this year. If they fail, not only will their previous encroachments be endangered, but the investigation of illegal acts will be removed from protection by presidential veto."

"There is something terrifying in the fact that a sweeping presidential power that is rejected even by an early advocate (Steven Calabresi) of the unitary executive is now accepted by four of the nine Supreme Court justices. Add a fifth justice to them, and the Constitution will be under the severest siege in its history. There can be no higher stakes."

Posted by: lheffelkcrrcom | February 27, 2009 11:36 AM

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