An impatient man

Garry Wills talks about the wit of St. Augustine, the necessity for gun control and the arrogant ignorance of the New York Times

Published July 29, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Garry Wills is the closest thing the world of contemporary American letters has to a Renaissance man. A Pulitzer Prize winner (for his book "Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America"), he's written over 20 books, from "Nixon Agonistes: The Crisis of the Self-Made Man" to "John Wayne's America" to his latest, "St. Augustine." His erudite but never starchy essays for the New York Review of Books tackle such subjects as classical Greek arts and literature, Jesse Ventura, the city of Chicago, the Vatican, the 16th century Venetian painter Tintoretto, the Clinton scandals, Muhammad Ali and film reviews ranging from the silent pictures to "Bulworth." The seemingly inexhaustible Wills also has a new book -- an attack on Second Amendment-based arguments against gun control -- coming out in the fall.

I was going to interview Wills last May when "St. Augustine" was published. Most of what I knew about Augustine was from the Bob Dylan song "I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine" from the album "John Wesley Harding," but I'm a quick study. I skimmed Wills' book and was ready to phone when I read Dinitia Smith's May 15 interview with Wills in the New York Times. She portrayed the author as a crabby Midwesterner who "seems impatient with people who are not as well read as he is." She describes "annoyance coloring his voice" and notes his often "expressionless" face, which is only occasionally touched by "a thin smile." When Smith asked Wills how many books he had written, she reports that he snapped, "Go look it up in 'Who's Who.'"

I postponed the interview. I knew he'd eat me like candy. I spent a month boning up on St. Augustine. Then I called ...

I live in New York City, so the New York Times is more important to me than it is to you, but I'm intimidated as hell to interview you after reading Dinitia Smith's piece.

Well, you shouldn't be.

Did you two just not get along?

She spent six hours getting everything wrong.

So you're not like St. Jerome [a particularly unforgiving saint]?

[Pause] I hope not. She came out here and spent three hours with me last October. Then when I gave a talk in New York, she came to that. Then we were on the phone endlessly because she was reading back to me things that she claimed that I had said that I didn't say. She didn't tape me. She took very casual notes. And there were incredible things that she was ascribing to me.

Like what?

She said that I was drawn to Augustine because he was such a brilliant English prose stylist. [Augustine wrote in Latin.] Because I got impatient with that, she called a friend of mine in Evanston and just kept trying to get him to say over and over again that I'm impatient with people. She tried to do the same with Studs Terkel.

So when she asked you how many books you have written, did you "curtly" reply, 'Go look it up in 'Who's Who.'"?

She said, "How many books have you written?" I said, "I don't know." She said, "How would I find out?" I said, "Probably in 'Who's Who.'"

Well, whew! So you're not going to chew my head off ...

I get impatient not with people, as she puts it, "who aren't well read." The people who make me impatient are ones who combine ignorance with arrogance.

You're Catholic right?


Would you say your St. Augustine book is a Catholic book first?

No. I don't think so. There was no Catholicism in St. Augustine's day. The split between Protestantism and Catholicism -- and Orthodox Greek Christianity and Western Christianity -- hadn't occurred. He's a Christian, not a Catholic.

But there were Donatists back then [a puritanical Christian movement in North Africa during the fourth century].

They were not Protestants. They were schematics, not heretics -- local African puritans, but that's not comparable to the Post-Reformation.

Do you have a stand on Protestants?

I do, but it doesn't have anything to do with Augustine. My stand on Protestants is they're Christian. And the Reformation was unfortunate and probably justified in terms of the corruption of the church.

Are you also re-translating Augustine's works?

Translating. "Re-translating" would mean I was translating someone else's translation.

How different are previous translations from the original?

Augustine is very hard to translate because he's so full of puns. Most people don't even try to translate his epigrammatic style. He's very punchy. For example, when he's talking to Julian, who says that he's better born, Augustine replies, "Well, you shouldn't rely on birth, but on what you do." It's very hard to find an English equivalent [to the Latin]. Some people could try to do it as "Don't rely on your birth, but your worth." That doesn't quite tell you your intellectual value. In fact "worth" is kind of an aristocratic term. It's very hard to find an English equivalent. Most people don't even bother. They say, "Don't rely on your blood, but on your thought." Of course that doesn't have anything like the ring of Augustine.

So let's talk about texts written in English. There's a rumor going around town that you've taken issue with the way the Second Amendment is interpreted.

I have a book coming out in October talking about gun control. The Second Amendment was all about the militia, and the agreement that states would have militias and provide arms and training for them. That's all the Second Amendment ever meant. The "right to bear arms" is a military term. You don't "bear arms" against rabbits. The right to individual possession of firearms was not really an issue in 1776. Most people didn't have guns. They were not practical things to use for hunting. Using a rifle was such a highly complicated skill -- you had to tamp the bullet down this long narrow tube. After you fired, you were helpless for a long time until you could reload. It was not a practical hunting tool. The whole belief that the right to bear arms has anything to do with anything other than the militia is a very modern interpretation.

Where do you stand?

Guns are the most crazy things in modern American society. No other society has this cult of gun worshipers. There is a gun for every man, woman and child in America. There are five guns for every adult male in America. And here's the NRA saying, "The problem is we don't have enough guns," Charlton Heston saying everybody has to be armed in the schools so they can shoot each other.

The world now is so much better than the world I grew up in, in so many ways. The only thing that is worse is the fact there are handguns everywhere. And it's all based on the myth of the Second Amendment, the myth that the handgun tamed the West, that Westerners were gunfighters. That was all nonsense. Again, guns were not very accurate. After you fired, they spit out a big cloud of black smoke. So after the first shot everybody was in a cloud. That's why in gunfights, amazingly few people died. In fact, very few people were actually killed by guns back then because they had gun control. When cattle drovers came into town, they had to deposit their guns with the sheriff.

The way the cavalry fought Indians was they would ride up in bands of five to the point of engagement. Dismount. The fifth man would hold the horses while the four fired. And the Indians fought the same way. The whole idea that they rode around shooting from their horses -- I mean, you can't shoot a pistol from horseback. You can't shoot from the hip.

You mean, John Wayne lied to us!

John Wayne did use rifles more than pistols. The Gene Autry Museum, which is actually a very good museum, has an exhibit of a gunfight with this sign: "This is a memorial to dime novels. This never happened. There is no such thing as a quick-draw face-off down on Main Street. This never happened."

I'm so disillusioned. What about dueling? Do you know anything about its history?


Wasn't dueling kind of snobby?

Sure. Yes. You couldn't challenge another person unless you were social equals.

I was thinking -- I'm going to sound like a nut -- but dueling. Hmmm. I could get into that.

Except it was an aristocratic privilege, a way of saying, "At our level, normal laws don't apply."

You don't seem like a purist about history. Your modern, off-the-cuff references to Al Capone and Vladimir Nabokov in "St. Augustine" are great, but don't you think a purist would believe that a history must be contemporary only to the era being covered?

No. Obviously it's not. Everybody who's reading it is a modern American and comes with those mental habits. It's good to acknowledge that fact, I find. I have had a piece in the New York Review in which I was talking about the Greek galleries that have reopened at the Met. And in one of them is a little figure of a birdman, which looks like it's a reference to Aristophanes. I say it's like "a fast-food chain that gives away Batman mugs after the movie 'Batman' comes out." I think that's the only way you can say how much commercially shocking and up-to-date that little figure is. If you just say, "Like Aristophanes' 'The Birds,'" I don't think most people would make the connection that this little play had that certain kind of popularity. You understand it better if you draw a modern parallel.

The modern reference I thought was most useful in "St. Augustine" was the one to Philip Roth's "Portnoy's Complaint" that shows the way sex is considered faintly comic. Philip Roth says, "I get a hardon in all the wrong places." I think that's the way Augustine saw it.

What I love best about your book "Nixon Agonistes" is that it was written pre-Watergate. So you didn't know how his story ended.

That book put me on Nixon's enemies list.

What was your rift with William Buckley about?

It was a falling-out over a number of things about the war.

You just wrote for him at the National Review -- you didn't hang out, right?

As a matter of fact we did. I sailed a lot with him. Partly by accident. I was in graduate school at Yale. Like a lot of rich people, he likes to sail. But most people have to work. I was handy and so he would say, "Want to go sailing?" I could take time off from graduate school and go sailing.

You've buried the hatchet since then.

Oh, yes. But we no longer hang out together.

How active were you against the Vietnam War?

I was arrested twice. When I had my major falling out with Buckley, I was pretty much in the thick of it.

Where were you arrested?

In Washington. I was part of a group who sat down in the Senate and said we wouldn't move until they had voted to either declare war or declare that an undeclared war should not be funded. We were arrested and spent a night in jail.

I had the opportunity to interview John Kenneth Galbraith, and he talked about his commitment to nonviolence during the Vietnam War protests. I was just a kid back in the 1960s, but I suddenly realized if I'd been 10 years older I'd probably have been one of those Weathermen blowing up National Guard centers.

I just talked to a guy who was in a Canadian commune which had been full of draft evaders and people who had done things like set ROTC buildings on fire. Now they're all lawyers. They were not as crazy as they seemed at the time.

My oldest son is 39. When he bicycled around the world, he called us from Saigon to say, "You're wrong, Mom. You said that before you'd see me come here you'd take me to Canada!"

Do you think the '60s have been given too much cultural importance?

I think the women's movement in the late '60s and early '70s is the most profound change of our time, or any time in history. The change in the status of women changed society at its most intimate nexus.

I think I agree. But didn't the whole Hillary/Bill/Monica comedy diminish those advances?

That's nonsense. The seriousness with which women have been taken in that administration is greater than any other administration. You know, Ronald Reagan made an appointment to the Supreme Court of the first woman, but women have been important at every level of this administration, both in appointments and advisors. Hillary Clinton's role around the world is very esteemed.

When I was writing about her, I followed her to the American Bar Association meeting in '92. The woman's caucus met at a lunch and the woman who got up to chair the meeting asked, "Would everybody in the audience who is the first woman in their university to edit a law journal stand up." And she asked for those who were the first woman to be made partner in their law firm. The first woman who started her own firm. The first woman to be appointed to the attorney general's office. Or to be the first federal prosecutor in her city. First local judge. First federal judge. By the end there were hundreds of women standing. This was a revolution that had taken place during the lifetime of the women in the audience. And if you reflect that the same thing is going on in the corporate world -- military, ministry. This is just an incredible change.

I guess I'm just a cynic. Didn't you call for Clinton to resign?

Yes. I called for his resignation in a piece in Time magazine which turned out to be kind of an embarrassment -- for him anyway -- when the National Endowment for the Humanities put me up for a medal which he had to give me. At the ceremony, he read a speech which was written by a historian for the National Endowment for the Humanities. "Wills has a wonderful insight over a whole range of topics," Clinton read. Then he ad-libbed, "At times I have difficulty in accepting that." He got a big laugh.

Did you spend private time with him?

Yes. There is a meeting beforehand with the family. We talked about St. Augustine.

What did he have to say?

He claimed to have re-read him recently and said Augustine was surprisingly modern. I had talked with Clinton earlier in 1992, and he said, "My favorite book is the 'Confessions of St. Augustine.'" But I think that's part of his "tell the audience what they want to hear."

How awkward was it?

Meeting with him? Not terribly. Because he's a good pol. And because Hillary was there. Actually when they came up to us, I offered to shake her hand and she said, "What! No hug?'"

By David Bowman

David Bowman is the author of the novel "Bunny Modern" and the nonfiction book "This Must Be the Place: The Adventures of the Talking Heads in the 20th Century."

MORE FROM David Bowman

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Author Interviews Books Gun Control Guns