Waugh and Two Noteworthy 1950s Americans

Recent stories feature Waugh’s attitude toward two Americans who rose to popular fame during the 1950s (and in one case descended into infamy). Waugh’s position on each of them is not what one would have expected. The first is described by Olivia Rutigliano on the website CrimeReads in an article entitled “Evelyn Waugh loved Perry Mason with all his heart”. The article opens with this:

In this life, it’s rare to love anything as much as Evelyn Waugh, the great English novelist of Brideshead Revisited and Vile Bodies, adored Perry Mason, the popular Los Angeles-set mystery series written by Erle Stanley Gardner, about a defense attorney who helps the wrongfully-accused-of-murder. In a 1949 interview with Harvey Breit in The New York Times, when asked the name of his favorite writer, Waugh replied “The best American writer is, of course, Erle Stanley Gardner…Do I really mean that? By all means.” According to his wife Laura, he read every single one of Gardner’s books, and considered a comparison to Mason to be the sincerest compliment, writing to his agent D.A. Peters, “You grow more like Perry Mason daily. I know no higher praise.”

According to Linda Kelly, a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, Waugh was not the only famous literary admirer of Gardner’s series, with the comic poet Ogden Nash having mentioned his commitment to the books in one of his poems, and the novelist John Updike having admitted to reading forty of the novels ravenously as a young man. And the English writer Graham Greene was also evidently a fan, as evidenced by letters he exchanged with Evelyn Waugh.

She goes on to describe and quote the correspondence between Waugh and Gardner, who was equally as surprised and suspicious as the NY Times correspondent at Waugh’s praise for his writing.

The other noteworthy (or in his case, notorious) 1950s American is Senator Joseph McCarthy who made a career of hounding those he disliked by labelling them as “Communists”. His story is retold in a recent book Demagogue: The life and long shadow of Senator Joe McCarthy by Larry Tye reviewed in this week’s TLS by Geoffrey Wheatcroft. It would be hard to imagine an opponent of Communism more dedicated, outspoken and sincere in his opposition than Evelyn Waugh. He knew first hand what mischief the Communists were capable of based on his experiences in Yugoslavia at the end of WWII when they ruthlessly took over after the defeat of the Nazis. When McCarthy rose to fame, Waugh was still ranting at every opportunity against Marshall Tito who had become the darling of Cold War politicians because of his denunciation of control by the Soviets–but as Waugh kept repeating, he never held a free election or denounced totalitarian Communism.

Wheatcroft notes Waugh’s position on McCarthy somewhat obliquely:

As McCarthy swung out more and more erratically, he hired as a consigliere the young lawyer Roy Cohn, a Mephistophelean figure who would leave his seamy spoor through American life from McCarthy to later days, when he served Trump among others. In April 1953, Cohn and his sidekick David Schine set off for Europe to scour out communistic literature in American official overseas libraries. This farcical jaunt was greeted with derision by Europeans, as indeed was McCarthy himself. It’s true that Evelyn Waugh wrote to Nancy Mitford, “I do wish McCarthy would start his good work here on the Mountbattens”, but that was what in England is known as a “joke”. A former prime minister was brisker. “We are pardonably annoyed at being instructed by a beginner like Senator McCarthy”, Clement Attlee wrote. “The British Labour party has had nearly forty years of fighting Communism in Britain, and, in spite of war and economic depression, the Communists have utterly failed.”

In fact, Waugh reviewed favorably Richard Rovere’s 1959 exposure of the evils of McCarthyism in The Spectator (5 February 1960). Unfortunately, this review has never been reprinted.  It should perhaps be explained that Waugh had objections to the way the book was organized and written but not to its conclusions on McCarthy:

He had certain likable, rascally qualities: a gambler and a drunkard who was unshakably loyal to his cronies and often magnanimous to his enemies. He was devoid of patriotism and political principle. He was a man of no outstanding abilities who rose to the top, or very near it, by representing a mood of frustration and dismay among his countrymen and by fantastically exaggerating suspicions that were not without some foundation. He had the essential demagogue’s gift of identifying the scapegoat and performing public sacrifice […] What seems certain is that McCarthy never discovered a spy or even an active Communist […] It is arguable, I think, that McCarthy on the whole prospered the Communist cause.

Waugh’s description of McCarthy and Roy Cohn will resonate with contemporary Americans for reasons explored by Tye and Wheatcroft. Waugh’s review was not the end of his encounter with McCarthyism, however. The review appeared just as William F Buckley, Jr. was becoming the popular voice of conservatism while retaining his admiration for McCarthy. Buckley wrote to Waugh urging him to change his position as reflected in the Rovere review, but Waugh refused to budge. Buckley did finally succeed in securing some articles by Waugh in his fledgling National Review. But, to his discredit, Buckley never disowned his defense of McCarthy (or if he did was rather quiet about it).

UPDATE (11 December 2020): The posting originally stated that Geoffrey Wheatcroft’s review appeared in The Spectator. It was in fact in the TLS (to which it was correctly linked) and the text has been corrected accordingly.

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