These are the times that try men’s scruples, especially the scruples of reviewers. Fact A: I knew Joe Sobran, from 2003 to 2008, well enough to sabotage such hopes of critical detachment as I might otherwise have retained concerning his oeuvre. Fact B: any non-American will be handicapped when discussing the authentic literary heir of Mencken and Ambrose Bierce. Fact C: I made a small donation toward the cost of producing this compendium, a donation recorded with disconcerting solicitude on its 167th page.
Here, then, we go. Nuts to critical detachment.
Joe Sobran’s talents included a rare—indeed a unique—mixture of button-holing informality with austere erudition. Merely to glance at the index here is to appreciate something of his versatility: under G we find “gay rights,” “genocide,” “German/Germany,” “ghetto,” “Gielgud, John,” “Glazer, Nathan,” and “Gnosticism.” Examining any other letter would produce a similar outcome.
The National Review Years serves to remind audiences of how formidable an authorial presence Joe had become before he turned 30. “What is extraordinary about this book of essays,” Patrick Buchanan’s foreword explains, “is the range of Joe’s interests and the quality of his insights.” Tom Bethell’s preface says it best:
He was the intellectual equivalent of a natural athlete who can reach Olympic standards with no training. … Often, Joe seemed to have little understanding of the quality of his own writing and he quickly forgot what he had written. It was as though he was a mere conduit through which his genius was transmitted.
From around 1988 I had encountered a few of Joe’s columns through two channels. First, the U.S. Information Service in Sydney had a public-spirited librarian who made a point of letting neophyte Australian scribblers pore over as many National Review back issues as they wanted. Second, Joe had a long-term Melbourne admirer in the elderly Catholic activist B.A. Santamaria, who now and then would reproduce various Sobran aperçus in his magazine, News Weekly. (With typical foolhardiness, I never bothered to inform Joe of the Santamaria headquarters’ esteem for him, and I must hope that he discovered this admiration from other sources.)
Neither from News Weekly nor from the USIS did I glean the protean nature of Joe’s intellect. That appreciation came only when I happened on his small masterpiece of invective “Victims of Music,” which appeared in the January 1998 issue of the Sobran’s newsletter, although I first saw it on a syndicate’s website. Somehow I discovered Joe’s email address, wrote to him in praise of this article—and received from him, in return, the astonishing information that he only vaguely recalled writing the thing! Such blissful creative unselfconsciousness had something Mozartean about it.
When he joined National Review in 1974, Joe was still only 28 years old. He no more required obvious formal tuition in his art than Mozart did in his. If he ever suffered from those deleterious literary influences that napalm the average 20-something scribbler’s brains, they cannot have troubled him for more than about 10 minutes. Finger would hit typewriter keyboard and suddenly Joe would spring forth, fully armed, from—as it were—the head of Joe.
Back then, I now realize, National Review probably constituted Joe’s perfect periodical outlet. As Joe himself commented in 1975: “Who but NR’s editors would begin the first issue after Kennedy’s murder by announcing, regretfully, that their patience with President Lyndon Johnson was exhausted?” The sheer bookish insolence of this reproach communicated eloquently to Joe.
Max Beerbohm mused about an aspiring wit: “He must have invention keeping pace with utterance. He must be inexhaustible. Only so can he exhaust us.” Those sentences eerily prefigure Joe’s stylistic method. As he wrote, so he spoke. His conversation abounded in ornate aphorisms that could have come from his columns.
Another Mozartean feature of this material: its predominant cheerfulness. Many Cold Warriors discerned leftists’ and cultural revolutionists’ malice; Joe, almost alone, discerned their inability to master even the pretense of logic.
How long ago it all seems, and how easily, how mercifully, forgotten! Carter Agonistes in the White House as the hostage crisis concluded (“He [Carter] wanted intimacy with 226 million people at once”); the anti-Reagan peacenik protests, marked by inability to voice any but the mildest criticisms of Andropov; the early 1980s’ Phil Donahue mania (“Phil’s constituency is 40 million housewives plus Ashley Montagu”); the whole “Roots” televisual cult, where even suggesting—never mind affirming—Alex Haley’s plagiarism remained verboten; such doyennes of de jure Catholic and de facto feminist theology as Mary T. Hanna pontificating in Commonweal (reading between the lines, Joe characteristically said of Miss Hanna’s glutinous verbiage, “sure beats reading the lines”)—who, in 2012, remembers any of this? Où sont les neiges roses d’antan?
Well, not even Joe can overcome the problems we shall experience in remembering yesteryear’s snows, but his dispatches from the Cold War front infallibly make us care, afresh, about them.
On one topic, provincial distance might give an Australian reader an advantage. Not only did I have no dog in the Howard Beach fight when it occurred, to screaming national headlines, in December 1986; I managed to remain blissfully unaware that there even was a fight—though Australians could not escape noticing the subsequent Tawana Brawley brouhaha. Joe devoted to the improbable subject of Queens race-relations ten tough, implacable pages without a wasted syllable. They’re all preserved here.
Mencken, when asked why he insisted on living in America while famously deriding it, retorted: “Why do men go to zoos?” Here Joe parted company with Baltimore’s sage (for whom, he once surprised me by saying, he had limited patience). It is true that once, driven to convulsive fury by Dubya, Joe announced to me and others via email his grand plan to exile himself by becoming the first illegal immigrant in the history of Haiti. This scheme died aborning—the triumph of experience over hope—and doubtless we should be grateful that Haiti never got to exercise on him the devitalizing charm with which Mexico seduced Malcolm Lowry. Or should we? The collapse of Joe’s career after 1991 had several causes, but aggravating the agony of them all was (I now sense, on the strength of the present anthology) his overwhelming, filial love for an America that no longer loved him back. During Clinton’s climactic bimbo eruption, Joe warned his compatriots: “It’s his country now. You and I are just paying the rent.” He could not have written that during the Cold War.
When Joe eulogized “the Republic of Baseball,” he treated the game as his secondary religion; as, one might almost say, his primary religion’s Eighth Sacrament. I can apprehend—however clumsily—something of Joe’s sports-related pietas, just as mere Australians can in part detect the magic of Norman Rockwell’s parallel universe, although that universe accorded with nothing in antipodean history. On NR’s cover for June 11, 1990 (helpfully reproduced here), there stands Joe, attired in Yankees uniform and wearing on his face an expression of shining beatific gratitude such as he never managed, however high his spirits, after I came to know him.
Above, I reflected: “As he wrote, so he spoke.” But those six words don’t convey the half of it. Anyone who ever knew Joe will have, while perusing this chrestomathy, the surreal experience of hearing Joe’s voice ring forth in every line, as if through a superb stereo system. Tennyson poignantly mourned “the touch of a vanished hand, and the sound of a voice that is still”; but he did nothing to prepare us for the timbre of Joe chastising, chortling, lauding, joking, and snarling, large as life and twice as natural. That timbre is the predominant tone of this book. Plenty of essays by him remain uncollected, though they must be filed away somewhere. There remains, therefore, abundant scope for a Volume Two, and a Volume Three, and…
R. J. Stove is the author of César Franck: His Life and Times.