The historian Garry Wills has written better than anybody else about modern Americaby Sam Tanenhaus / March 11, 2013 / Leave a comment
Wills is an outsider: a practising Catholic, a proud midwesterner, a cheerful iconoclast who has infuriated friends on both the left and right © Gasper Tringale
Sooner or later, anyone who writes about America must reckon with Garry Wills. Not that it’s easy to do. The books are demanding enough—not the prose, which is graceful and elegant—but the arguments, which are unfailingly original, often provocative, occasionally subversive and, now and again, utterly perverse, yet stamped every time with the finality of the last word.
In his 50 or so books, a handful of them masterpieces, Wills has ranged further than any other American writer of his time, covering much of the western tradition, ancient and contemporary, sacred and profane. His subjects include Jesus, Paul and Augustine, American presidents old and new (Jefferson, Madison, Lincoln, Reagan, the second Bush), Shakespeare and Verdi, the outrages of American militarism, the glories and delinquencies of his beloved-despised Catholicism and—why not?—John Wayne (Wills is a devotee of John Ford’s Westerns.) For diversion, Wills extrudes densely learned articles in the New York Review of Books, the august journal that since the 1970s has been the main stage of his brutal dismantlings of inferior—that is to say, other—minds. To be reviewed by Wills, I can attest, is to feel like a vagrant caught urinating in the master’s hedges: after the initial panic, one experiences a strange, penitential relief. God, or at least one of His retainers, really is watching.
On a dour Sunday morning in December, I visited Wills, who is nearing 79 but looks 20 years younger, at his large three-storey house in Evanston, a prosperous suburb to the north of Chicago. For 30-odd years Wills has been affiliated with Northwestern, the excellent liberal arts university a few blocks from his home. Remarkably, given his proximity to the University of Chicago, that citadel of serious thought has never tried to recruit him for its faculty, despite his Pulitzer Prize, his membership of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, his National Humanities Medal (awarded by Bill Clinton the same week Wills urged him, in Time magazine, to resign over the Monica Lewinsky dalliance).
The snub pays silent tribute to Wills’s singularity. The University of Chicago favours upholders of tradition like Saul Bellow or the culture critic Allan Bloom. Wills might seem to fit. He has a…