Living on Fire: The Life of L. Brent Bozell Jr.
By Daniel Kelly,
ISI Books, Wilmington, 2014
I have already written on this blog some notes on the history of Traditional Catholicism in this country. In that saga, no individual is of greater significance than Brent Bozell, the founding editor of Triumph magazine. For, from 1966 till its demise in 1975, Triumph was the voice of Catholic conservative opposition to the leftward avalanche in the Church and the country. Now the late Daniel Kelly has provided us with a new biography of this critical figure of the post-conciliar Church in the United States.
This is a much-needed work. Kelly, for the first time, gives us a coherent narrative of Bozell’s life. It is an amazing story. He worked with Bill Buckley (his brother in law) to found National Review for which he wrote extensively. He was the ghostwriter for Goldwater’s The Conscience of a Conservative – the single biggest success story in conservative publishing of that era -which helped launch Goldwater’s national political career. Later, he authored a respectable work on the Warren court.
Yet Brent Bozell was becoming disenchanted with the proto-“libertarian” doctrine of “mainstream” American Conservatism (although in that day the received opinion considered Buckley and his cohorts denizens of the far right). A period of residence in Spain in the early 1960’s had opened Bozell’s eyes to the still extant beauties of a Traditional Catholic society and culture. By 1966 he had split from the National Review circle, and had founded his own magazine – giving it a title deliberately calculated to enrage Catholic progressives, then and now: Triumph. After extraordinary vicissitudes the magazine collapsed in 1975 and Bozell descended into madness and alcoholism. Later, he partially recovered and ended his days in spiritual peace.
Kelly does a good job of “connecting the dots” of Bozell’s life, digging up a host of fascinating details and putting it all into a readable narrative. I could claim to be somewhat familiar with broad outline of this story yet I found many new and important facts. For example, I knew there had been a connection between some of the Triumph stalwarts and Christendom College, I didn’t know that that institution sprang directly from a Triumph summer program. Throughout the book, Kelly sets forth succinctly and clearly what Bozell, Buckley, etc. thought and wrote over the period covered by the biography – critical for what is primarily the history of an intellectual.
It is truly said de mortuis nil nisi bonum. Yet I have to report that, in my opinion, Living on Fire exhibits serious defects that prevent it from being more than a first essay on the subject. First, Kelly provides inadequate historical and intellectual context for the life and opinions of his protagonist. Living on Fire seems to presume familiarity with American history of the 1950’s through the 70’s as well as the details of the development American conservative movement. That can no longer be presumed of younger but interested readers. Moreover, failure to provide historical context tends to diminish the significance of Bozell’s Triumph years. For 1966-75 were years of the greatest social and intellectual change in America. It was a radical, public shift to the left in politics, culture and morality – opposed only in an incomplete way by the counterattack of Nixon and the “silent majority.” In the Church, there was the parallel conciliar revolution. Seen in this context, Bozell’s shift from the conservative focus on anti-communism and the defense of capitalism to the criticism and reform of culture looks remarkably prescient – even more so if historical developments since the 70s are also taken into account. The positions of Bozell, which in this book often appear as a series of strident ideological assertions, take on an entirely different and more favorable aspect in the historical setting of the craziness of the 1960’s in Church and society, .
Second, Kelly does not consistently provide critical evaluation of the positions of Bozell. Now Bozell was an intellectual – despite Kelly’s assertions, repeated several times in this book, that he could have attained high electoral office, Bozell’s vocation was that of a writer and editor in the fields of religion and politics. Essential to assessing such a man is judging whether the opinions he voiced were in fact correct. Kelly shares his opinions only here and there. Some are perceptive, others obtuse, such as his repeating uncritically contemporary descriptions of Bozell as “Anti-American.” However, from the author’s tone of detached irony – and his extremely favorable portrayal of William F. Buckley throughout this work – one gets the sense that, for Kelly, Triumph and all that it stands for was an aberration, a unfortunate departure from Bozell’s promising conservative career – perhaps motivated by rivalry with Buckley and even incipient mental problems.
Third, I am not totally persuaded by Kelly’s’ attempts to flesh out the personalities of Bozell (and of others covered in this book) and to provide psychological motivations for their opinions and actions. His narrative is too summary and disjointed to be totally convincing in this respect. For example, Bozell in 1962 suddenly moves his family to Spain. We are then informed for the first time that Trish, his wife, is an alcoholic – and that Bozell suffers from some kind of drinking problem as well. The book quotes letters written by Bozell on this tragic subject that are moving and eloquent in their language which stands out startlingly from Kelly’s surrounding gray prose. Then, upon the Bozell family’s return to America, the subject of alcoholism is dropped – only to be taken up again 14 years later when Brent Bozell succumbs to mental disorders. Was this something that afflicted both Brent and Trish only in moments of extreme stress? We do not know from this book. In another example, Thomas Molnar is depicted as a “voice of reason” in contrast of the “radicalism” of Bozell. That’s a very strange role for someone whose “anti-Americanism” exceeded anything Bozell put to paper. One longs to see the original interview notes of Kelly. (Molnar also is revealed to be a significant player at the foundation of Triumph yet then disappears – without explanation.)
What is to be said about Triumph? The apparently disdainful judgment of Kelly – and of American conservatism – is refuted by the very content and tenor of this book. Triumph offered the first critical reviews of the new mass and of the “liturgical renewal.” It forcefully advocated what were later called “pro-life “ positions years before Roe v. Wade. Above all it understood the unbridgeable and ever widening gap between the American establishment and the Catholic faith. It discerned very early on the processes that were gradually turning the United States in to a quasi-totalitarian progressive state. Bozell accomplished all this by gathering a team of gifted writers – a team that has never been duplicated since. And we should not underestimate the courage it took to criticize the Church establishment and the implementation of the Council. As one enraged reader wrote to the magazine:
“I hope your magazine will either never appear or very soon be forbidden to appear. How can grown-up intelligent Catholics be such an obstacle to the workings of the Holy Ghost?”
(The writer was Baroness Maria von Trapp of Sound of Music fame)
Yet the grand venture of Triumph failed. Living with Fire helps us identify some of the reasons. Especially after 1970, the editorial stance of the magazine became consistently more critical of the “American way of life.” That in my view was entirely appropriate. But at the same time Triumph increasingly opposed to American society a vision of Catholicism that verged on fantasy. The magazine that had been one of the most perceptive critics of the liturgical revolution became more and more an apologist of the papacy of Paul VI. The core of the Triumph staff had emerged from the conservative political movement; they would have needed need more liturgists, theologians and historians of the Church to understand what was going on. For the same destructive forces at work in the United States and that Triumph so eloquently denounced were also active in the Church. Bozell and his colleagues could never totally understand that. Instead, they engaged in an increasingly Quixotic effort to present the conflicted, crumbling Catholic Church of the 1970’s as the panacea for the social evils of the United States. Indeed, despite the talk of “Radicalism” and “Anti-Americanism” there was something eminently American in Triumph’s effort to make “the Catholic thing” a political program and to quickly create a ”Catholic culture” on these shores – something that had taken a thousand or more years in Europe.
Yet despite the limitations, Triumph was a great adventure and a great accomplishment. Kelly’s book – despite the reservations of its own author – makes that clear. For the issues that Buckley and Bozell addressed at National Review in the 1950’s and early 1960’s belong to another world and to an America that has ceased to exist. The issues addressed by Triumph are with us to this very day. Kelly’s book is good introduction to the subject – but I would refer all interested readers to the original texts of Triumph.