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,
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
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.
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
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.
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."
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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