Every writer is an autodidact, for reasons that are fairly obvious when you think about it. First, the business of writing (as distinguished from composition) cannot be taught but must be learned by imitation and by practice. And, second, unless he is a scholar, newspaper journalist, or technical-scientific writer, a writer must discover his proper subject for himself—or, rather, it must discover him. Thus, formal education is the background, not the training, for the writing life—a thing hardly worth the misery and travail if it is nothing more than a career. For this writer, for whom education and educators have always been irritants, and ignorance boredom in its most complete form, writing is more than the ideal occupation; it is a godsend, a type of earthly salvation.
Schooling, for me, was always an affliction. Somehow, I endured 22 years of formal education. Only 14 of them were mandatory. Why did I inflict another eight elective ones on myself? Dropping out of school, in the context of the 60’s, seemed a vulgar thing to do, for one thing. For another, it amounted to hurling myself into the Armed Forces’ massive intake duct. (While plenty open to adventure, then as now, I had in mind the romantic life of a buckaroo on an Australian cattle ranch, not the slogging existence of a GI suffering gunshot wounds and jungle rot to deliver “freedom” to the Vietnamese, Thais, Cambodians, Laotians, and the other domino peoples of the world.) Lastly, the lecture system became less intrusive as I rose into the ranks of the upperclassmen, since (after 1968, especially) few members of the Columbia faculty bothered themselves with attendance taking. A lifelong distaste for all things academic might seem hard to reconcile with the fact that (a faculty brat myself) I did extremely well at the academic racket, scoring high marks in all but those subjects (mathematics and the theoretical sciences) that seemed to me at the time, as they do still, as unreal and remote as the Wars of the Roses are to Norman Podhoretz. Doing well in school, I ought to have enjoyed it. But for me, that was precisely the point. If I were capable of doing well in school, then why did I need to be there in the first place? Christ came to minister to the sick, not to the well. And so I have always thought school to be, as an unbelieving grandfather of mine used to say of church-going, for people in need of it—meaning not the stupid, necessarily, but those whose minds run along a track of a certain type, or gauge.
Today, in middle age, I still resent being made a captive audience to lengthy verbal assaults, whether in the form of academic discourses or of political speeches, my own included. (Why? I want to ask. If what you have to tell me really is important, please set it down in writing and give it to me to read, the printed word being my sole approach—music excepted—to intellectual concentration.) But during my 12 years at the Trinity School in New York City, where we were introduced to French in Grade One and Latin in Form I (seventh grade), I quite enjoyed the rote learning so many people find tedious: memorizing vocabulary lists, noun declensions, and verb conjugations at the strenuous insistence of Mr. Frank G. (Willie) Smith, an Englishman with a degree in classics from Balliol College, and the more genial cajoling of M. Paul Philippe Bolduc, a native Parisien educated at the Sorbonne. And, when it came to developing my skills in a living language by exercising them, I found speaking French to be an intoxicating delight. (Not a single word of English was ever permitted to be spoken in French class, in M. Bolduc’s homeroom, or at his table in the lunch hall; those benighted students who had elected to study Spanish instead either kept their traps shut or learned a few words of the language of Racine, Chateaubriand, and Baudelaire.)
My enthusiasm for Latin and French was caught partly by contagion from the exuberant personalities of these two born teachers—by far the best instructors I ever had, men whom I not only respected but revered and remember today with the greatest affection—and partly from a natural affinity for language. Unfortunately, I missed out on Greek (being already in my senior year at Trinity when Mr. Smith consented to offer the language at the behest of the parents of a single student named James Trilling). The school also failed to offer instruction in Italian, an oversight I came to resent several years later when, in college, I decided I had a great future as an operatic tenor, found myself a voice teacher, and began a serious study of the operatic literature. Lacking a Signor Bolducci or Fabbro, I attempted to make up for lost opportunity by listening to records while following along with vocal scores and libretti. Yet, it was the mental training and habits beaten into me at Trinity (Mr. Smith pitched a Latin grammar with the speed, accuracy, and generally devastating effect of Sandy Koufax) that I had to fall back on decades later: first, in the late 80’s, when I was writing a travel book about the Southwest border and set myself to study Spanish each night in the motel room; and, again, ten years later, when I began traveling to Italy and discovered the need to acquire a grammatical structure on which to arrange my Italian vocabulary and pronunciation. By now, I was a mature man, well past the age where the grinding, repetitive, and, above all, unimaginative discipline of memorization is either easy or pleasurable. However, I had also become something of an adept over the years at exploiting my past formal education as long-completed background; and so the going, in both Spanish and Italian, was far from being as gruesome an ordeal as it might otherwise have been.
I have never taken so much as an introductory course in economics, government, or political “science” and was already halfway through college before I ever opened a newspaper. Wholly apolitical as a boy, and disconnected almost entirely from the contemporary world, my consuming intellectual interests were literature and history—subjects that offered a quasi-imaginative world in which to live, while providing continuity with the reality of a determinedly retrospective upbringing. It took the antics of Commandant Rudd and his hairy but weak-chested barbarian cohorts to rip me from my warm apolitical womb; by my late 20’s, however, when I joined the staff of National Review, I had developed strongly reactionary political opinions—ideas entirely detached, however, from any activist impulse. (It seemed to me 30 years ago, as it does today, that, for a man of my peculiar temperament and talents, writing is the most complete and effective type of political activism.) I had managed to acquire a working knowledge of European and American history. What I lacked, on going to NR, was a familiarity with the literature of specifically conservative political theory, past and present, and of Catholic social and political thought. (This had much to do with my father’s lifelong preoccupation with historical scholarship rather than with contemporary politics and my essentially agnostic, though culturally Protestant, upbringing.) The professional—and, even more, the social—company of such colleagues as James Burnham, Bill Buckley, Jeff Hart, Joe Sobran, and Kevin Lynch caused to me feel my deficiency keenly, and I set out immediately after my arrival at the magazine to remedy it. The editorial offices at 150 East 35th Street served also as a temporary warehouse and distribution center for boxes of reprinted conservative classics, which the staff was at liberty to rifle in the interest, I imagine, of rendering us more efficacious foes of an ignorant, shallow, and ahistorical establishment. More importantly still, perhaps, I was a beneficiary of the tutelary generosity of Joe, who, in conversation and by means of pertinent suggestions for further reading, provided me with what amounted to an informal introductory course in conservative thought. And he offered something of infinitely greater value as well: an introduction, not so much to the Catholic Faith itself but to the way in which Catholics think—and have thought, for 2,000 years. No matter what has become of NR in recent years under the direction of a replacement staff and editorial board, there is no denying that my 13-and-a-half years with the magazine planted the mustard seed of my faith, in part by giving the Faith a face, and with it a band of companions in belief, a sense of corporatism, and of personal belonging.
The civilized minority of the human race can be divided, roughly and generally (though by no means equally), into two broad, overlapping categories: the educated and the self-educated. Educated people tend to believe in Education with a capital E and in what is called Continuing Education: They are those who help to support and maintain the modern community and four-year college system and the universities, where they enroll themselves in one series of courses after another in the endless quest for “self-improvement” through “adult education.” Self-educated people, by comparison, being temperamentally averse to course studies, prefer to place themselves in the way of experience and avail themselves of whatever comes along by keeping an alert and open mind, while cultivating the humility required to take advantage of serendipitous opportunity.
My introduction, 29 years ago, to National Review was the beginning of the first postformal stage of my education. The second stage was my arrival, three years later, in Wyoming, where education of a completely different sort lay in waiting, just behind the nearest sagebrush hills. The one was basically familiar, insofar as it represented a furtherance of my intellectual development; the other, less so, despite the rural aspect of my upbringing on the family farm in Vermont. This time, the curriculum was experiential and social; my mentors, oil-field roughnecks, ranchers, outdoorsmen, and sportsmen, in place of intellectuals and writers. Once again, I was strongly aware of my deficiencies; once again, I felt at a powerful disadvantage, knowing I had a great deal to learn in (so it seemed to me) a very short time. All that I could do was my best, and so I did my best to do it.
In common with the occasionally petulant Ronald Knox, I have a dislike of being “shown things”—castles, quaint towns, ruins, and so forth. But I am most appreciative being “shown how” to do things I do fairly, poorly, or not at all by people who know what they are doing when they do these things. I am willing, in other words, to be led—a psychological trait that does nothing at all for the development of what are praised as “leadership qualities” but is a powerful help in this business of “self-education.” Unfortunately, it involves a certain deference, misunderstood by many healthy and active males as an expression of weakness, timidity, and self-doubt. And so, perhaps, it is. On the other hand, I am convinced that, were it not for my readiness to be shown, I could never have made the rural West my own, even to the extent that I have succeeded in doing so, as a man and a writer both. At issue is not expertise—not, anyway, expertise at the level that means expertness. I am no expert hunter, fisherman, marksman, horseman, hiker, or outdoorsman. On the other hand, I am more or less competent at hunting, fishing, shooting, hiking, and navigating in the backcountry without getting hurt or lost, and I am very good at some of these activities—as well as having a greater versatility and breadth of experience than many people I know who really are experts at one or another of them. (Breadth and versatility are, after native talent and developed skills, the qualities most valuable to a writer.) From Jack Mootz, I learned a great deal, more than a quarter-century ago now, about riflery, during the year we worked together in the oil patch; from Tom Sheeley, more recently, about backpacking; from Ed Detrixhe about handloading ammunition; from Ed Van Kirk, an animal scientist at the University of Wyoming, about fly casting; and so on. In no instance did I receive “lessons” from anyone (it would never have occurred to me to take “classes” in fly fishing or horseback riding); always, it was a matter of informal hints, tips, example and observation, imitation, and practice. One way or another, I have contrived to learn a great deal; what I have learned, I have succeeded in making my own, personally and professionally, in the way (say) that a singer makes a operatic role his own. A writer needs no degree of expertise greater than what gives him the ability to describe its application plausibly and vividly.
The singer’s art requires musical literacy, a technical knowledge of vocal production, interpretive understanding, and substantial athletic skills, most of which must indeed be taught with formal rigor. Still, singing offers a way back to the subject of writing—emphatically a self-taught, or learned, art by which every one of the writer’s other activities or accomplishments, whether taught or self-acquired, informs and merges itself with his primary aim and occupation. Of this unity of the writerly life, Hemingway would have been the perfect example, had he not wilfully blown his own hard-acquired unity to bloody fragments of bone and tissue, using a very costly and sophisticated instrument with which, as with his Corona typewriter and his quite irreplaceable brain, he had acquired a considerable degree of skill.
Hemingway, it is true, never went to college. Yet modern colleges have been infinitely more successful in providing their students with a philosophy conducive to blowing their brains out than they have in teaching them the literary formulae necessary to create the contemporary equivalent of The Sun Also Rises. Here, it seems to me, is an object lesson worth thinking about.