Chilton Williamson has taken an important step toward giving postmodern conservatism a set of respectable literary credentials.  If readers are expecting a conventional walk through the conservative “classics” or a set of reflections on the writers celebrated by Russell Kirk in The Conservative Mind, they will be disappointed.  Rather than taking tea with Dr. Johnson or fencing with the legal minds of Henry Sumner Maine or Fitzjames Stephen, readers of The Conservative Bookshelf will find themselves rubbing shoulders with a rascally set of novelists and essayists—Ernest Hemingway, Edward Abbey, William Faulkner, Edmund Wilson, and Aldous Huxley—few of whom ever thought of themselves as conservatives.

Some readers will be reassured by the presence of such reactionary liberals as Ortega y Gasset and Albert Jay Nock or the one or two legitimate conservatives thrown in (to confuse the reader?)—Cicero, T.S. Eliot, and Clyde Wilson; for the most part, however, what this book represents is an act of subversive bricolage—a patching together of disparate elements as a means of defining a tradition that cannot really be defined.  In Williamson’s hands, Edward Abbey and Edmund Wilson are inducted as involuntary soldiers in the conservative cause—and very effective soldiers, too.  His insight is impeccable.  Even William F. Buckley, Jr. is represented by his last decent book, God and Man at Yale.

Everyone would write his own book, of course, though I cannot imagine anyone really keeping Ann Coulter on any bookshelf, conservative or otherwise.  My own list would have begun with Aristotle’s Ethics and Politics, which, taken together, are the single most important contribution to conservative thought.  And, if there is room for the Stoic emperor Marcus (whose philosophy was subversive of the Roman order), why not true-blue conservatives such as Sophocles, Livy, and Plutarch?

There is a chapter on Edmund Burke, as there should be, but the British tradition produced a number of powerful conservative writers and thinkers—Richard Hooker, Samuel Johnson, Walter Scott, and David Hume—beside whom Burke, for all his brilliance, is a fairly slender reed.  I would not have represented T.S. Eliot by The Waste Land, a work of despair written before he found his moorings, and I think some room in a work of this kind might have been found for the best-selling reactionary writer of the 20th century, J.R.R. Tolkien.  But this is not my book.

Publishers who commission this sort of book generally expect a piece of routine hackwork that represents conventional opinion.  They must have been disconcerted to receive—and publish—an original contribution toward making sense of the helter-skelter traditions and movements, which, taken together, can compose a conservative tradition.  The Conservative Bookshelf’s greatest strength is, as one would predict, in the depth of common sense and in the strength of the writing.  Indeed, it is better written than many of the more recent conservative classics it has celebrated.  A healthy sale during the Holiday Shopping Season would be a sign that there are still (in Nock’s phrase) a saving remnant in America who esteem the practitioners of “Elijah’s Job.”