There are several books that have defined and shaped the conservative movement including “The Revolt of the Masses” by José Ortega y Gasset (1929), “The Conservative Mind” by Russell Kirk (1953), “Conscience of a Conservative” by Senator Barry Goldwater (1960), and “Revolution” by Congressman Ron Paul (2008). There are few books, if any, that review a wide variety of published works by and of interest to conservatives — from fiction to religion and from economics to politics.
A few years ago columnist and author Chilton Williamson wrote such a book. I have just re-read “The Conservative Bookshelf: Essential Works That Impact Today’s Conservative Thinkers” (Citadel Press, New York, 2005), and again it has proven to be an invaluable tour guide of traditional conservative ideas and ideals. The author lays out his 52 recommended readings in a collection of brief chapters on classic works (“classic” does not include authors who are Republican cheerleaders or neo-conservative operatives). The first chapter is on the Bible; number 52 is “Treason: Liberal Treachery From The Cold War To The War On Terrorism” by Ann Coulter (I would have stopped at 51).
Williamson is a prolific wordsmith who writes with passion and wit. A former oil rigger, history editor for St. Martin’s Press, and book editor for National Review, he is now a senior editor for Chronicles magazine and a columnist for Middle American News. He explains how the book concept came together when he writes:
“Unlike Marxism or even liberalism, conservatism is both a way of life and of thinking about life, what the American novelist and story writer Flannery O’Connor called a ‘habit of being’ — not a plan, program, or even a programmatic way of thought. For this reason, and because conservatism is finally a cultural phenomenon and all culture is by definition conservative, I did not hesitate to include fiction, narrative nonfiction, and poetry in my version of the conservative canon.”
Williamson provides good summaries of these books, explaining their content and putting them into context. Let me emphasize here this is not “Cliff’s Notes for Conservatives,” but serious cogitation about the values and vision that make a difference in defining ourselves and our movement (if there is a “conservative movement”). Almost all the authors whose works are discussed should be familiar, although some did not come to mind when I thought about the underpinnings of conservatism: Phyllis Schlafly, Richard Weaver, and even John C. Calhoun of course, but Pope Leo XIII and the poet Edward Abbey were among the surprise entries.
Some of the classics he reviews include the familiar and the difficult: “The Federalist Papers,” Hilaire Belloc’s “The Servile State” are alongside “Considerations on France” by Joseph de Maistre and the “Meditations of Marcus Aurelius.” I interviewed Williamson a few years ago and asked him if there were any titles he had trouble leaving out. “Aristotle’s Politics,” he quickly replied, “The thought of discussing Aristotle in 2,500 — or even 5,000 — words defeated me.”
Among chapters are essays on William Buckley’s “God and Man at Yale,” F. A. Hayek’s “The Road to Serfdom,” and “Witness” by Whittaker Chambers — the story of the Alger Hiss spy case. Of “Witness” he observes: “Had [the former Communist] Chambers lived into the 1970s, he would have been surprised by the emerging signs of ‘convergence,’ suggesting that the Soviet Union and the United States were on approach to one another — politically, economically, and socially — as the Soviets attempted to re-create for themselves the economic miracle the Americans had achieved, and the Americans sought to extend the concept of ‘socialism in one country’ to their own.” That was penned five years before Mr. Obama nationalized U.S. banks.
Describing James Burnham’s thesis in “Suicide of the West” he writes: “The element of guilt, added to liberalism’s egalitarianism, universalism, and internationalism, is the activating ingredient that makes the liberal compound such a deadly one for the Western world. Guilt, when it becomes obsessive for the liberal, flowers as a generalized hatred for his own country and the wider civilization of which it is a part; it is hatred that causes him to sympathize with their enemies, toward whom he is already inclined by the fact of liberalism’s intellectual kinship with socialism and communism.”
“The Conservative Bookshelf” addresses issues ranging from practical politics to philosophy, and provides a peek into the way Williamson’s mind works. As a writer and a reader, the author once noted that some of the books “nearest my heart are probably Waugh’s ‘A Handful Of Dust,’ O’Connor’s ‘The Habit Of Being,’ Hemingway’s ‘The Sun Also Rises,’ Faulkner’s ‘The Bear,’ and Abbey’s ‘Desert Solitaire.'” Discussions of all these titles are included in “The Conservative Bookshelf.” He told me, “Last winter I re-read all seven volumes of the Narnia series and I try to read ‘Huckleberry Finn’ every couple of years.” I asked him if there were books in his childhood that made a life-long impact. “‘Treasure Island,’ all of Mencken, ‘Born Free,’ Albert Payson Terhune’s ‘Lad: A Dog,’ and all of Laura Ingalls Wilder.”
Readers of “The Conservative Bookshelf” will discover why the author asserts: “High-powered, high-pressured modern society has largely succeeded in reducing conservatism from a broadly informed religious, intellectual, moral, and aesthetic tradition to a narrow and shallow party politics that often amounts to nothing more than a party line.” He states boldly that:
“With this book, I have attempted to present a vision of conservatism having little or nothing to do with the caricature version signified by fat men in top hats and generals with swords that has seemed indelibly stamped on the popular mind since 1789. The conservative tradition has never been an apology for ignorance, superstition, despotism, war, power, wealth, or privilege: Rather it has been their scourge, their mortal enemy. Nor is the conservative tradition a narrow and restricted one; instead, it is as broad and varied as life, having all of life and of human experience in it though rooted in a specific culture, that is Western culture.”
He backs up such sentiment with an impressive list of 52 books that he knows intimately.
If you are anything like me, burdened with the good intention of re-reading or discovering the conservative classics and maybe encountering some thought-provoking volumes outside politics along the way, this is an opportune time to read “The Conservative Bookshelf: Essential Works That Impact Today’s Conservative Thinkers.”
This article originally appeared May 1, 2009 on the website CampaignForLiberty.org