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Garry Wills

Take a sharp mind, a keen interest in history, and a total lack of respect for conformity, and you have cultural critic Garry Wills.  Born May 22, 1934, in Atlanta, Georgia, Wills grew up in a conservative Roman Catholic family, calling himself "a Catholic cold warrior, praying after Mass every day for the conversion of Russia."  His father was an appliance salesman who believed that reading was a waste of time.  As a result, he actually paid Wills not to read.  But Wills couldn't stop.  Reading had become part of his life.

When Wills went off to study for the priesthood at St. Louis University, he had a sudden revelation and switched his major at the last minute to philosophy.  When he was only twenty-two years old, he sent a parody of a Time magazine article to the conservative publication, National Review.  Editor William F. Buckley Jr. read the essay and made Wills a regular contributor.

Wills worked for Buckley for ten years.  During the 1960s, he began traveling around the country, writing about protests and race riots.  He argued against the War in Vietnam and lobbied for support of the federal Civil Rights Act.  He continued to call himself a conservative, but other conservatives called him a traitor.  He became an endangered species: a political writer who possesses the unique ability to be able to anger both liberals and conservatives with equal ease.

Wills argued that government could solve people's problems but also that religion should play a role in public life.  His first important book was Nixon Agonistes (1970), about Nixon's 1968 campaign for the presidency.  Since then he has written more than 30 books about religion, as well as Witches and Jesuits: Shakespeare's Macbeth; The Kennedy Imprisonment: A Meditation on Power; Inventing America: Jefferson's Declaration of Independence; Reagan's America about the presidency of Ronald Reagan; John Wayne's America: the Politics of Celebrity; Lincoln at Gettysburg, and the power of the Pope in Certain Trumpets: the Nature of Leadership.

In 1999, alone, Wills published two books; finished a third; produced sixty-seven syndicated columns for newspapers around the country; and wrote several long essays about Lincoln's second inaugural address, American leadership abroad, and Jesse Ventura.  Critic John Leonard said of him, "Books fall from Garry Wills like leaves from a maple tree in a sort of permanent October." 

One of Wills' most recent books is Saint Augustine's Sin, which came out in 2003.  In it, he examines the life of the bishop and saint, whose collected works total 13 volumes, and sets out to demythologize Augustine.  Hardly a central figure in 4th-century Christianity, Augustine was "peripheral in his day, a provincial on the margins of classical culture," who didn't even know Greek, the intellectual's lingua franca of his day.  Augustine also shied away from the Episcopal finery for common clothes and instead "dressed in the gray clothes of a monk." 

Far from being a self-righteous pontificator, Augustine was "impatient with all preceding formulations, even his own."  He wrote, "Since it is God we are speaking of, you do not understand it.  If you could understand it, it would not be God."  Wills also lays bare more detailed information about Augustine's mistress and the son they raised together than other biographers have presented since Louis De Wohl's biographical work, The Restless Flame

Wills is a regular contributor to the New York Review of Books and was the winner of the 1998 National Medal for the Humanities.  He is an adjunct professor of history at Northwestern University.

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