Conservatism’s Mozart

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Joseph Sobran: The National Review Years, Articles From 1974 to 1991, edited by Fran Griffin, FGF Books, 191 pages

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.

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