American literary, drama and music critic Terry Teachout died earlier this week at the age of 65. It its obituary, the New York Times commented that the conservative Teachout never allowed his political views to influence his artistic judgement:
An acolyte of William F. Buckley Jr. and Norman Podhoretz, he emerged from the scrum of young urban conservatives energized by the Reagan presidency and eager to take it further; he once called for a “Ronald Reagan of culture” who could “present an affirmative vision of America’s common culture.”
But he took care to separate his politics from his criticism, and he derided those who mixed the two. Nor was he a cultural reactionary: He played bass in a high school rock band, loved the TV show “Freaks and Geeks” and welcomed the possibility that film might have replaced the novel as the dominant storytelling medium.
The Times notes at least one example of where his political and artistic judgements worked in tandem. This was in the 1980s, after he had begun living in New York City and writing for, inter alia, Harper’s Magazine, The Daily News and Wall Street Journal. According to the Times:
He fell in with a gaggle of like-minded young conservatives who felt ostracized by the liberal culture around them. He helped start a salon, the Vile Body; its name was taken loosely from a book by the British writer Evelyn Waugh, who was then enjoying a renaissance among young right-wingers.
The salon became a regular haunt for 20- and 30-something conservatives located along the Washington-New York-Cambridge axis, including Bruce Bawer, Richard Brookhiser, David Brooks, Roger Kimball and John Podhoretz.
Teachout rarely missed a chance to mention his admiration of Evelyn Waugh’s writing whenever the opportunity arose. Here is a recent example reposted from the WSJ on his webpage About Last Night:
A Terry Teachout Reader, my self-anthology, came out sixteen years ago. I’ve published hundreds of pieces on various subjects since then, and I have no plans to put together a sequel to the Teachout Reader, so I’ve launched a series of occasional posts drawn from my fugitive essays, articles, and reviews. I hope you like this one, which came from a 2004 review of Bright Young Things, the film version of Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies.
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Like so many other novelists of his generation, Waugh was keenly interested in how films “make things happen” on the screen by showing “actions and incidents” instead of allowing characters to explain their motivations at length. In Vile Bodies he translated this essentially visual approach into words on paper, depicting London in the Twenties in a tumbling rush of fragmentary scenes and spare, elliptical dialogue that suggests far more than it states. Nothing could have been so self-consciously modern. Yet the uproariously funny Vile Bodies turns out to be the darkest of “comic” novels, one whose inhabitants are all hurtling gaily toward their doom. It’s anything but surprising to learn that Waugh’s first wife left him while he was writing Vile Bodies, or that he converted to Catholicism eight months after it was published. Every page is scented with the anguish of a disillusioned young man searching for meaning in a world gone grossly wrong.