Cruising Speed Essay - Critical Context

William F. Buckley Jr.

Critical Context

William F. Buckley, Jr., burst upon the literary scene in 1951 with the publication of God and Man at Yale: The Superstitions of Academic Freedom. Therefore, Cruising Speed furnishes an intimate picture of the conservative icon at roughly the midpoint in his career (although Buckley in his sixties has shown no sign of reducing speed). As with all autobiography, the degree of self-revelation is problematical. Buckley is not a man given to finding fault with himself, but his air of self-satisfaction may be in part a defense mechanism, the result of years of arguing the less popular side of the question. He states in the book that to some attacks he responds only with hauteur. He does admit to a few inoffensive imperfections: He cannot think without a pen in his hand, he reads slowly, and he has a poor memory. The first will not come as a surprise to any reader who has seen Buckley perform on television; the latter two are surprising.

His insouciance has proved maddening to more than one critic. The adverse comments on his work almost always center upon his ideology, his attitudes, his manner. Few deny that he is a brilliant prose stylist who maintains a consistently high quality of work despite the fact that he is usually writing occasional material under strict deadlines.

Buckley (who in later books would deal with the nautical enthusiasms at which his title also hints) wonders in conclusion if he can maintain his cruising speed. He was to repeat the form of a week’s diary in Overdrive: A Personal Documentary (1983) with less success, to judge by its critical reception. From the purely literary point of view, Buckley may be—like earlier Tory polemicists John Dryden, Alexander Pope, and Jonathan Swift—a writer whose political and literary enemies will be known to history only in the pages of his occasional pieces.