The cover of this book describes the late Joseph Sobran as “one of the greatest essayists of the twentieth century” and notes that he has often been compared with G.K. Chesterton and H.L. Mencken.  As a lifelong admirer of Mencken and his work, I must say that I find the comparison an unfair one—unfair to Joe Sobran, that is.  Great as Mencken could be at what he did best (and that was a lot), he simply cannot compare with Sobran in intellectual depth and wisdom, although he is certainly a match for him in style (however different) and in wit.  In respect of Chesterton, however, I think the comparison overgenerous to Sobran.  It is true that, page for page, MJS (as he was known at National Review in the days when I worked there) was indeed the equal of GKC.  Nevertheless, he simply cannot begin to match the great Englishmen in versatility, breadth, and sheer bulk of achievement.  Chesterton, of course, was more than one of the greatest essayists of the 20th century; he was also a prolific and accomplished  poet, playwright, short-story writer, novelist, journalist and columnist, biographer, autobiographer, apologist, and travel writer, whose corpus must number at least a score of books.  (I counted as high as 16, but the G.K. Chesterton Society in Toronto can supply you with the exact number.)  Sobran, on the other hand, had published a single volume of essays, hundreds of newspaper columns and magazine articles, and a book (in which he argued that Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, authored the plays literary history attributes to William Shakespeare) before his untimely death in 2010 at the age of 64.  (He outlived Chesterton by two years.)  In literature, literary range and volume of production do matter.

Still, writers of the first rank, like Joseph Sobran, deserve to be considered by, and for, themselves.  Sobran’s subject, from start to finish, was modern liberalism as expressed and applied by what you might call working liberals: politicians, journalists, and other writers, artists, university professors, and academics generally.  Indeed, it was perhaps his only subject (Shakespeare excepted).  A half-century ago, Kenneth Minogue published a book, The Liberal Mind, in which he laid out the formal philosophical theory of liberalism and explained its conceptual basis.  Sobran, by contrast, was an expert in the process, content, structure, strategy, and application of liberal thought and rhetoric at the popular level, about which he knew as much or more than anyone, including George Orwell.  (Orwell was, after all, a type of liberal himself: Ann Coulter suggests that Joe Sobran understood liberals better than liberals understand themselves.)

Liberalism, then, was Sobran’s subject as a writer; the essay was his preferred literary form.  The shape of his essays, in terms of their structure and design, is essentially formal.  (Tom Bethell finds Sobran more organized than Chesterton in this respect.)  Yet the style is always relaxed, often colloquial, on occasion even vulgar in the strict, nonpejorative sense of the word.  In the early days of his career—the 1970’s, when he was writing the brilliant essays for Jim McFadden’s Human Life Review that were my own introduction to his work—the Sobran style was elegantly condensed, even crystallized, in the manner of poetry.  This quality, combined with a perfect balance between a light rhetorical touch and a great gaiety conjoined with a sense of grave purpose, made the writing absolutely irresistible to all those who recognized great writing when they saw it, and to many who didn’t.  Ann Coulter’s revelation that Sobran coached her in her own work, advising her to write as if she were conversing with a friend, shows that the author’s common manner, or mannerism, was as much self-conscious and intentional as it was natural to him.  This aspect of his style grew even more pronounced after M.J. Sobran, the essayist who had been to school with Milton and Dr. Johnson, became Joseph Sobran, the syndicated columnist.  As a companion and a conversationalist, a writer, a radio broadcaster, and a public speaker, Joe Sobran was always entertaining; in the end, I think, he became an entertainer, fond of, and even satisfied with, the one-liner, the punch line, the apt phrase—always crafted to be followed by the big laugh.  This weakness helped neither his writing nor his thinking; but by now, as Bethell notes, his great gift was on the wane.  “Then he had to make big efforts to do what he once did effortlessly.”

A major influence on the man, and therefore the thought and the style, was popular culture—baseball, Hollywood movies, television, tabloid journalism, stand-up comics, rock music, country music—which Sobran, as an “intellectual,” never disdained but rather appreciated for what he found of genuine value in it, while hilariously skewering the cheapness, the pretentiousness, the hype, the dishonesty, and the hypocrisy.  During the period he was detailed by Bill Buckley to fill the role of NR’s television critic, he made the daily descent by bathysphere into the deepest trenches of the popular psyche as intuited by the hucksters in Hollywood and New York to encounter such strange, lurid, and unformed monsters of the deep as Mary Tyler Moore, Lou Grant, Ted Baxter, and Phil Donahue, and resurface to write about them the next day, never suffering as a result a case of the bends.  Joe Sobran, remember, had what amounted to a blue-collar upbringing, hailed from the suburbs of Detroit rather than the East Coast, and was graduated from public school and Eastern Michigan University, not prep school and the Ivy League.  Low-brow culture was an integral part of his native milieu, like the junk food of which he was also fond.  Junk food helped to do him in, but in his mind and in his hands junk culture, which would have corrupted a weaker and much less flexible and discriminating intelligence and talent, became a lens through which a brilliant critic was able to view, experience, and evaluate aspects of the modern world, generally, and the liberal culture, in particular, with which he needed to familiarize himself in order fully to master his chosen subject.  Sobran was a man who could turn from writing brilliant critiques of performances by Sir John Gielgud and Sir Lawrence Olivier to producing equally brilliant sendups of Donahue and Hugh Hefner without diminution either of his artistic and intellectual taste or his critical equipoise—a feat his colleague at the magazine, the film and theater critic John Simon, hardly attempted nor aspired to do.

Essentially and at heart, MJS was “a jolly journalist” in the great tradition of GKC himself.  All essayists, no matter the extent to which they develop their argument at a generalized level, require particularity for their starting point.  Joe Sobran, in his reportorial capacity (which he assumed more often than many people know), needed what popular journalists call a “peg”: some highly specific contemporary incident on which to hang the developing “story”—or, in Sobran’s case, from which to develop the gleaned insight, something he never failed to do with a virtuosity distinguished by brilliant improvisation, the literary equivalent of coloratura in singing.  Every extended Sobran essay is a stunning display of the author’s ability to proceed by what seems almost like free association from one level of argumentative development to the next, and always without an audible grinding of gears.  On the other hand, this almost musical process of development (Joe Sobran was on intimate terms with the classical tradition) appeared to have a natural length or term—say, 5,000 or 6,000 words.  At that point, the writer was finished with his subject and his improvisation, both.  It was time to start anew, to discover another peg and proceed from there.  This meant, for Sobran, a new article or essay, not a new chapter in an extended treatment of the subject, or pursuit of the object.

Here is why he never succeeded in producing a magnum opus in the field of his specialty (really his own, barely disputed field).  In part it has to do with a certain mental and emotional short-windedness, the general disorganization of his personal and professional life, and his desire for immediate gratification in terms of applause.  Yet the innate form his gift assumed finally provides the best and most satisfying explanation.  Like Flannery O’Connor in fiction, Joe Sobran was a natural miniaturist powered by a vast talent designed to operate in small scope.  Bethell describes how his old friend would seat himself at the typewriter to write a column and rise after 30 minutes with a first draft that was a finished draft as well.  It is true, as Ann Coulter recalls (and as anyone who ever spent time with Joe knows), that he had so thoroughly rehearsed his next article in conversation that, when he sat down at last to write, his ideas flowed rapidly through his improvised hunt-and-peck action at the keyboard to arrange themselves in perfect order on paper or the computer screen.  But this facility in composition prompts the question: If Joe Sobran could turn out a printable column in half an hour, why couldn’t he produce a book chapter during what remained of his working day?

The answer must be, He didn’t because he couldn’t.  Why not?  No one will ever be able to say, of course.  It is true, however, that writers belong—rather strictly, in my experience—to two basic types: the self-preservative and the self-destructive.  His longtime mentor, boss, and hero, William F. Buckley, Jr., obviously belonged to the first category.  Joe Sobran, just as obviously, belonged to the second.  What friends and acquaintances who visited his various residences called “the landfill” got him in the end—or rather, he allowed it to get him: to draw him in, pull him down, smother him, bury him.  “The Life and Death of Joseph Sobran” is, finally, a dramatic tragedy in small scale.  But, as his lifelong immersion in Shakespeare’s plays surely taught him, there are worse things—far worse—than to fill the role of the tragic hero.  And Joe was, indisputably, a hero of modern American letters.  He did not fall to his own personal Assommoir alone.  When Edward Abbey said that the writer who finds himself unprepared to write the truth as he sees it has a duty to find something else to do with his life, he might have been speaking of Joe Sobran, whose readiness, amounting to temerity, to say exactly what he thought was nevertheless a principled temerity.  And perhaps, even, something greater.  As Flannery O’Connor said, the prophet should expect only the very worst.

I see that what I have written here is not a formal review of The National Review Years.  I have neither indicated which articles representing a period of 17 years have been selected by Fran Griffin for inclusion, nor quoted from the many marvelous passages of which they are comprised.  It was not necessary, I think, to do so.  Readers glancing through this book should find explicit documentation or illustration of the arguments I have made in this essay, and all the aspects of Joseph Sobran’s career I have touched on.  I wished to write, not a review of a book, but a brief assessment of the thought, character, personality, and style of its almost hopelessly original author, the man I knew.  I trust I will disappoint neither his publisher, nor his shade, in having done so.


[Joseph Sobran: The National Review Years—Articles From 1974 to 1991, by Joseph Sobran, Foreword by Patrick J. Buchanan, Afterword by Ann Coulter, Preface by Tom Bethell, Edited with an Introduction by Fran Griffin (Vienna, VA: FGF Books) 193 pp., $25.00]