The Right’s Philandering Sooner
Heaven Can Indeed Fall: The Life of Willmoore Kendall, by Christopher Owen, (Lexington Books: 2021), 256 pages.
Willmoore Kendall is one of the most important and most forgotten architects of the American conservative movement. He was, at different times, both friend and enemy to all the major players of a nascent American conservatism, most notably William F. Buckley, whom he taught at Yale. His friendships were as volatile as his thought, which bounced around the political spectrum throughout his life. Despite this volatility, a consistent populist strain runs throughout Kendall’s work. Given the contemporary American right’s populist tinge, a book-length treatment of Kendall’s political thought would be an important contribution to our current moment.
Christopher Owen’s Heaven Can Indeed Fall is not that book. Owen, a history professor in Oklahoma, instead approaches the work of his fellow Sooner through the medium of biography. The approach is both limiting and illuminating. Owen’s depiction of Kendall’s political thought is woven into the narrative of the conservative luminary’s personal life, providing only a sporadic guide to his work. But for those with a prior familiarity with Kendall’s thought, Heaven Can Indeed Fall offers a fuller understanding of a man whose work is more relevant than ever.
Kendall was no libertarian. He praised Keynesian economics, criticized the Bill of Rights, and stressed the limits of free speech and academic freedom. Neither was he a traditionalist. He included Russell Kirk among the targets of his book-length criticism of conservative contemporaries, The Sages of Conservatism, and bristled at his friend Brent Bozell’s increasingly religious approach to politics. Upon Bozell’s launch of his new Catholic magazine Triumph, Kendall wrote to his friend, “Get my name the hell off the masthead of that damn rag.”
Owen does an admirable job of extracting his own fifteen-point definition of Kendallian conservatism. It includes tenets that fit uneasily with the conservatism that has dominated the postwar era. For example:
3. It is the business of government in the United States to promote a just, not an equal distribution of rewards and privileges.…
11. Organized religion plays a valuable role in the life of American society and should be regarded with favor even by American conservatives who are not themselves believers.…
13. Conservatism rejects both individualism and collectivism on grounds of reason.
The very fact that, as Owen writes, his definition is extracted apophatically, indicates the conflictedness inherent to Kendall’s thought. Despite his intellectual brilliance, Kendall was more reactive and combative than coherent. These traits derive directly from Kendall’s life—one that is quintessentially American.
Willmoore Kendall was the son of a blind, theologically heterodox Methodist preacher. Reverend Kendall’s progressivism had more impact on his son than did his faith. Willmoore Jr., an intellectual prodigy, made headlines across his native Oklahoma for graduating high school at the age of 13—and again when he was arrested for public drunkenness at age 20. Like most of the younger Kendall’s relationships, the one with his father was both messy and intense. Reverend Kendall was at different times immensely proud of his son and immensely disappointed. He discouraged his son from an academic career, but was ecstatic when Willmoore Jr. received a Rhodes scholarship. As Owen writes, “the special relationship between the two men had profoundly—though not always positively—shaped them both.”
Kendall’s relationship with his family mirrored that with his place. Despite his wide travels, he was a true son of Oklahoma and the American South. Though Kendall would often leave his home state in disgust, he “would remain emotionally connected to—even haunted by—the Sooner State.” Indeed, during Kendall’s time as a Rhodes scholar in Oxford, he sought out fellow Oklahomans to befriend, and “yearned for American simplicities like steak and potatoes.” He moved frequently throughout his career but was consistently drawn back to the South, first to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, then to Richmond, Virginia, before finally settling at the University of Dallas. His final resting place is in the red heartland dirt of his native Oklahoma.
A tragically rational thinker, Kendall was consistently torn between the universal and the particular, attempting to reconcile his love of home with his considerable intellect. His politics shifted rightward in the late 1940s, after stints in the intelligence community and military during the war and before his appointment to a faculty position at Yale. His personal life was as unpredictable as his political views. His marriage to his first wife, Katy, was strained by both of their professional pursuits—and rumors of Willmoore’s womanizing. Their divorce was finalized in 1951. Kendall quickly moved on, marrying a former graduate student, Anne, a year later. That marriage ended only four years later, amid accusations of “drunkenness and philandering.”
Before Kendall’s second divorce became final, he converted to Catholicism. This was no doubt due to the influence of Bill Buckley, a former student and close friend of Kendall’s, who served as Kendall’s sponsor into the Church. But Buckley was hardly the only Catholic influence in Kendall’s life: Upon news of his reception into the Church, French political theorist Bertrand de Jouvenel wrote to Kendall, saying, “What has happened to you is the most important thing which can happen in a man’s life.”
Jouvenel is correct. It’s undeniable that Kendall’s conversion to Catholicism had a profound influence on his thought and life—which makes the omission of any real inquiry into Kendall’s conversion in Heaven Can Indeed Fall all the more puzzling. Owen notes that “Kendall took his new faith seriously enough that—even as he contemplated his second divorce—he was thinking about obtaining annulments.” Indeed, Kendall spent the better part of ten years pursuing annulments, enlisting the help of Buckley and his employers at the traditionalist Catholic University of Dallas to petition Rome so that he could legitimize his relationship with his new flame, Nellie. But Owen also reports that had Kendall’s final annulment not been granted by Rome, he “was prepared to marry Nellie in the Orthodox Church,” which has a more permissive theology around divorce and remarriage. All of which begs the question: How sincere was Kendall’s Catholic faith? What prompted him to convert? And how did his conversion influence his political thought? Curiously for a biography, Heaven Can Indeed Fall leaves these questions unanswered.
Despite this omission, Owen’s work remains a valuable contribution to the project of reclaiming an authentically American conservatism. Kendall has been denounced and (more often) forgotten by left and right alike—perhaps because his thought will, at different times, chafe against each side’s orthodoxies. Take the lectures Kendall gave in the fall of 1956. Owen writes:
Kendall argued that an unholy trinity of self-proclaimed experts—bureaucrats, academics, and journalists—dominated American society and politics.… Instead of emphasizing class conflict, Kendall focused on conflict between the ruling elites and the people, tout court.… By controlling elite universities, leading media, and the federal bureaucracy, these groups—all dominated by liberals—monopolized not just how important political questions were decided but even how they were framed and the factual narratives underlying them.
What Kendall observed over a half century ago is all the more prevalent now. It’s no surprise that it was Kendall, the son of Oklahoma and champion of its people, who was able to offer such trenchant analysis. The “unholy trinity” Kendall identifies is bipartisan, and remains ruinous to the interests of those in our heartland. Those seeking to understand our present discontents—and chart an authentically conservative path forward—would be wise to rediscover Kendall’s work. Christopher Owen’s book is a noteworthy contribution to that project.