R. J. Stove
Sobran: The National Review Years, Articles From 1974 to 1991,
edited by Fran Griffin, FGF Books, 191 pages
These are the
times that try mens 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.
we go. Nuts to critical detachment.
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.
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 Buchanans
foreword explains, is the range of Joes interests and
the quality of his insights. Tom Bethells preface says
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.
1988 I had encountered a few of Joes 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.)
News Weekly nor from the USIS did I glean the protean nature
of Joes 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 Sobrans newsletter,
although I first saw it on a syndicates website. Somehow I
discovered Joes 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
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 scribblers
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.
I now realize, National Review probably constituted Joes
perfect periodical outlet. As Joe himself commented in 1975: Who
but NRs editors would begin the first issue after Kennedys
murder by announcing, regretfully, that their patience with President
Lyndon Johnson was exhausted? The sheer bookish insolence
of this reproach communicated eloquently to Joe.
the rest of the article
© 2013 The