Life is barren enough surely with all her trappings; let us be therefore cautious of how we strip her. The life of reason is our heritage and exists only through tradition. Now the misfortune of revolutionists is that they are disinherited, and their folly is that they wish to be disinherited even more than they are.
—George Santayana, quoted by John Buchan
“You think that a wall as solid as the earth separates civilization from barbarism. I tell you the division is a thread, a sheet of glass. A touch here, a push there, and you bring back the reign of Satan.”
—Andrew Lumley, in Buchan’s The Power-House
“Really?” I believe that was my cautious response when a friend urged me to read John Buchan’s memoir Pilgrim’s Way. It was, he said, “a remarkable spiritual testament,” or words to that effect. Hmm. The source of the recommendation was unimpeachable: one of the most intelligent and least frivolous people I know. Yet I had read Buchan—probably the same books you have: The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915), for example, the short, bracing spy thriller (or “shocker,” as Buchan called it) in which the dashing Richard Hannay battles a perfidious German spy ring and—after a series of wild, pulse-rattling cliffhangers—emerges triumphant in the nick of time. I had also read Greenmantle (1916), the somewhat longer, but still bracing, spy thriller in which the dashing Richard Hannay battles a perfidious German spy ring and—after a series of wild, pulse-rattling cliffhangers—emerges triumphant in the nick of time. I had even read Mr. Standfast (1919), the moderately long spy thriller in which a dashing Richard . . . German . . . wild . . . emerges . . . nick of time.
I hasten to add that the preceding sentences are not fair to my experience of reading those books. I gobbled them up gratefully if heedlessly. And that, I suspect, is precisely how Buchan intended them to be read. His biographers make a point of telling us that he disliked talking about his “shockers.” He was pleased that people liked them—pleased that they sold—but at bottom they were a bit of a lark, a recreation rather than a vocation.
Buchan once said that if there were six literary categories from “highbrow to solid ivory” he belonged in the middle, to the “high-lowbrow.” He understood perfectly that his popular fiction was a species of “romance where the incidents defy the probabilities, and march just inside the borders of the possible.” That indeed was part of its attraction. As the critic John Gross observed in his review of Janet Adam Smith’s biography of Buchan (1965), “one of the main reasons for enjoying Buchan is because he is so preposterous.” But do note that the emphasis here is as much on “enjoyment” as on “preposterous.”
In any event, there is nothing that prevents the preposterous from possessing contemporary relevance. I reread Greenmantle two years ago, just after al Qaeda destroyed the World Trade Towers. It really is an extravagant period piece. But I am surprised that the book has not made a conspicuous comeback. The story turns on a German effort to enlist and enflame a radical Islamist sect in Turkey, where things are touch and go for the Allies. Sir Walter Bullivant of the Foreign Office summons Hannay and puts him in the picture. “The ordinary man” believes that Islam is succumbing to “Krupp guns,” to modernity. “Yet—I don’t know,” Sir Walter confesses. “I do not quite believe in Islam becoming a back number.” Hannay agrees (natch): “It looks as if Islam had a bigger hand in the thing than we thought. . . . Islam is a fighting creed, and the mullah still stands in the pulpit with the Koran in one hand and a drawn sword in the other.” Indeed. Later in the book, another character observes,
There’s a great stirring in Islam, something moving on the face of the waters. . . . Those religious revivals come in cycles, and one was due about now. And they are quite clear about the details. A seer has arisen of the blood of the Prophet, who will restore the Khalifate to its old glories and Islam to its old purity.
Greenmantle was published in 1916. Perhaps we’ve finally caught up with it.
Buchan often deliberately poached on contemporary historical events and places in his shockers. He was aiming less at verisimilitude than at the piquancy that the appearance of verisimilitude provided. He did it all with a wink. In the dedication to The Thirty-Nine Steps, Buchan explains that, convalescing from an illness, he had exhausted his supply of thrillers—“those aids to cheerfulness”—and so decided to write one of his own. He tossed it off in a matter of weeks in the autumn of 1914 and was duly startled by its immense success. (An earlier shocker, The Power-House, had been serialized in 1913 but wasn’t published in book form until 1916.) A million copies of The Thirty-Nine Steps sold, I read somewhere, and that is an old figure. Timing played a part in the huge sale. The book was published in October 1915, early in the First World War. Tales about brave chaps hunting down dastardly German spies had an audience primed and waiting.
But the success of The Thirty-Nine Steps was not due to timing alone. It is a remarkable book. Like Mr. Hannay himself, the book hits the ground running and barely stops for breath in the course of its 110 pages. On your mark (first sentence): Hannay, back from South Africa having made his pile, is “pretty well disgusted with life”; he contemplates Albania, “a place that might keep a man from yawning.”
I made a vow. I would give the Old Country another day to fit me into something; if nothing happened, I would take the next boat for the Cape.
Get set (a few pages later): Hannay comes home to find the man with a dark secret he’d met a few days earlier murdered in his apartment. Go: Hannay, pursued by both the police (who suspect him of the murder) and the bad guys (who done it), races from London to Scotland, clambers over endless Scottish moors, is caught by the baddies, escapes, and zigzags back by the cliffs of Dover to reveal the secret of the Black Stone. Whew: “All Europe” had been “trembling on the edge of an earthquake.” Not to worry: Hannay nabs the spy; England is safe. (In his famous 1935 film version of the book, Alfred Hitchcock took many liberties with the text, but he did manage to preserve Buchan’s uncanny union of velocity and menace.)
The Thirty-Nine Steps recounts all this with an urgent but evocative economy. It owes as much to Sir Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson (fellow Scots and two of Buchan’s models) as E. Phillips Oppenheim (a less august though no less favored model: “my master in fiction . . . the greatest Jewish writer since Isaiah”).
Buchan did not invent a genre with The Thirty-Nine Steps. Conan Doyle, Wilkie Collins, and others beat him to it. But he did supply some novel furnishings, a distinctive tone and atmosphere instantly recognizable as the Buchanesque. The scholar Robin Winks called Buchan “the father of the modern spy thriller,” a genre whose beneficiaries include Graham Greene, Ian Fleming, and John le Carré. The chase scenes, the villain who belongs to the upper reaches of respectable society, the breeding and derring-do of the hero: they’re reasonably fresh in Buchan, overripe in Fleming, often a bit rancid in later authors.
But the Buchanesque involved other elements. It has something to do with his breathless plots and flat but somehow compelling characters—not only Hannay (modelled, it is said, on the young Edmund Ironside, later Field Marshall Lord Ironside of Archangel), but also figures like Peter Pienaar, the wiry Dutch hunter; Dickson McCunn, the retired Glasgow grocer; Sir Edward Leithen, the high-powered lawyer. None is three-dimensional; none seems “real”; all are curiously memorable in the context of their actions. I suspect that Buchan would have agreed with—let’s see, Aristotle, wasn’t it?—that plot is “the first principle and, as it were, the soul of the ‘shocker’; character holds second place.”
The Buchanesque also has something to do with the way place and landscape are woven into the bones of his stories (vide Stevenson here). John Macnab (1925) is in the form of a Buchan shocker. But it does not present a tale of high-stakes espionage. Instead, it tells the story of three middle-aged Buchan characters, Sir Edward Leithen, Palliser Yeates, and Lord Lamancha, who, at the pinnacles of their careers, find themselves bored and (like Hannay in The Thirty-Nine Steps) “disgusted with life.” They need a challenge, the stimulus of danger, what William James called “the moral equivalent of war.” So they betake themselves in secret to Scotland, where, under the name of John Macnab, they announce to some local grandees their intention of poaching two stags and a salmon over the course of a few days. The penalty if caught is public humiliation. As the historian Gertrude Himmelfarb observes in her classic essay on Buchan, there is a sense in which “the hunting and fishing scenes, . . . described in great and exciting detail, are not appendages to the plot; they are the plot.” The relation between man and landscape, his behavior toward the land and its bounty, are part of the moral compact of society. One is not surprised to discover that Buchan was an avid, almost a compulsive walker. Ten, twenty, thirty miles a day—like Richard Hannay or Peter Pienaar, he also clambered over hill and dale, scouring the horizon, registering the lay of the land. Richard Usborne notes in his book Clubland Heroes (first published in 1953) that Buchan’s characters “are attracted to exhaustion as a drinker to the bottle.” It was an attraction that Buchan himself seemed to share.
John Macnab is a tour de force—some regard it as Buchan’s best novel—an adventure story in which the McGuffin (to use Hitchcock’s term) is deliberately reduced to a minimum: fish and fauna instead of foul play. Yet the result is more than a sprightly, slightly absurd adventure tale. Its theme, as Himmelfarb notes, “is not only the natural and rightful authority exercised by some men by virtue of their breeding, experience, and character, but also the natural and rightful impulse to rebel against authority.” That dialectic—the implication of authority and independence, of conformity and innovation—are at the heart of Buchan’s world view.
It is one version of the Tory creed. Democracy, Buchan believes, is all well and good. In fact, he is a passionate democrat. But it is essential to remember that (as he puts it in Pilgrim’s Way) “Democracy . . . is a negative thing. It provides a fair field for the Good Life, but it is not itself the Good Life.” Buchan’s view of democracy owes more to Athens than to Jefferson. It is a political arrangement that encourages striving and excellence—the agon of superior achievement—but not the levelling imperative of equality. This sobering truth is at the heart of John Macnab: “It is a melancholy fact,” a character muses, “which exponents of democracy must face that, while all men may be on a level in the eyes of the State, they will continue in fact to be preposterously unequal.” All of which is to say that if Buchan is constitutionally a Tory, he practices a slightly seditious—some might just say “Scottish”—redaction of Toryism: its benediction is not upon the pastness of the past but its compact with the energies of the present. Hence Buchan’s (qualified) admiration for such robust but un-Toryesque figures as Cromwell, to whom he devoted a biography in 1934:
His bequest to the world was not institutions, for his could not last, or a political faith, for his was more instinct and divination than coherent thought. It was the man himself, his frailty and his strength, typical in almost every quality of his own English people, but with these qualities so magnified as to become epic and universal.
As this passage suggests, another element of the Buchanesque involves highminded moral earnestness. Usborne notes that there is throughout Buchan’s fiction “a slight but persistent propaganda for the decencies as preached by the enthusiastic housemaster—for cold baths, for hard work, for healthy exhaustion in the playing-field, for shaking hands with the beaten opponent, for the attainment of Success in after-life.” In Mr. Standfast (remember The Pilgrim’s Progress?), Hannay has a clear shot at the evil Moxon Ivery, who is planning to infect the British army with anthrax. He doesn’t fire because Ivery is sitting down and facing away from him: a sportsman does not shoot a man in the back. In Greenmantle, when it’s clear that the bloody battle of Erzerum is going the right way, Hannay’s sidekick Sandy Arbuthnot exclaims, “Oh, well done our side!” It wasn’t only Waterloo that was won on the playing fields of Eton.
Usborne rather deprecates the public-school, “success ethic” in Buchan. It is I suppose easy to mock, though perhaps less easy to replace (apart from the cold baths, I mean). Buchan’s characters are the best-est, most-est at whatever they do. The financier Julius Victor is “the richest man in the world.” Sandy Arbuthnot was “one of the two or three most intelligent people in the world.” Everyone has made, or is about to make, a “big name” for himself. Of a character at a dinner party of luminaries, “it was rumored that in the same week he had been offered the Secretaryship of State, the Presidency of an ancient University, and the control of a great industrial corporation.” That is business as usual in Buchanland. Likewise Buchan’s villains. In Mr. Standfast, the good guys are not just hunting bad chaps, they are “hunting the most dangerous man in all the world.” Hilda von Einem (Greenmantle), Dominick Medina (The Three Hostages, 1924), Moxon Ivery (a repeat character): When they are bad, they are very bad indeed (though few are without a redeeming dollop of courage). Buchan was writing a species of romance, not tragedy, but perhaps here, too, he followed Aristotle and aimed at presenting men “better than in actual life.” At first blush, anyway, it is easy to see why Buchan was an author approved by parents, teachers, pastors. As Usborne put it, he “backed up their directives and doctrines. Buchan wrote good English. Buchan taught you things. Buchan was good for you.”
In fact, I believe that Buchan probably is good for you, especially considering the alternatives on offer. The question is whether the Buchan doctrine can still resonate meaningfully. In her essay on Buchan, Himmelfarb described him as “the last Victorian.” What she had in mind was that extraordinary British amalgam of seriousness and eccentricity, energy and lassitude, adventurousness and propriety, world-conquering boldness and coddling domesticity; industry, yes; duty, yes; honor, yes; even a certain priggishness—all that but so much more: the whole complex package of moral passion at once goaded and stymied by spiritual cataclysm that made up (in Walter Houghton’s phrase) “the Victorian frame of mind.” Buchan, son of the manse, occupied a late-model version of that frame as magnificently as anyone.
One tends to think—I certainly thought —of Buchan primarily as a writer of thrillers. But that is like saying Winston Churchill was a painter. He did a few other things as well. In fact, Buchan comes closer than almost anyone to fulfilling Sydney Smith’s definition of an “extraordinary man”: “The meaning of an extraordinary man is that he is eight men in one man.” Born in 1875 in Perth, Scotland, Buchan was the eldest of five children. Buchan père, a minister in the Free Church of Scotland, was, his son later recalled, “a man of wide culture, to whom, in the words of the Psalms, all things were full of the goodness of the Lord”—solemn, perhaps, but with “none of the harshness against which so many have revolted.” It was a close family, with the tensions but also the emotional bounty that closeness brings. In Pilgrim’s Way, Buchan described his father as “the best man I have ever known” and noted that “not many sons and mothers can have understood each other better than she and I”—“indeed,” he continues with a smile, “in my adolescence we sometimes arrived at that point of complete comprehension known as a misunderstanding.”
The Buchan family, of decidedly modest means, moved south in 1876 to Pathhead, near the Firth of Forth. Buchan’s childhood was instinct partly with the magic of bonny braes and burns, tarns, haughs, and other burry ornaments of the Scottish countryside, partly with the magic of a gentle though unwavering Calvinism. The Bible and The Pilgrim’s Progress loomed large, rich literary and rhetorical as well as spiritual reservoirs.
Buchan conjectured that his “boyhood must have been one of the idlest on record,” yet he managed to get through one or two books.
Early in my teens I had read Scott, Dickens, Thackeray, and a host of other story tellers; all Shakespeare; a good deal of history, and many works of travel; essayists like Bacon and Addison, Hazlitt and Lamb, and a vast assortment of poetry including Milton, Pope, Dante (in a translation), Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats, and Tennyson. Matthew Arnold I knew almost by heart; Browning I still found too difficult except in patches.
If Buchan was idle, what are we?
In 1888, the Buchans moved to Glasgow. John was educated at Hutchesons’ Grammar School and then (from 1892–1895) at Glasgow University, where he studied and became friends with the classicist Gilbert Murray. In 1895, he won a place at Brasenose College, Oxford, an institution of barely a hundred students and known chiefly for rowdiness and prowess at games. Buchan distinguished himself in other areas. He just missed a first in Mods but managed a first in Greats the following year. He won (after a few tries) both the Stanhope and Newdigate Prizes. He was elected President of the Union and, by 1899 when he was graduated, already had six or seven books to his credit, including a novel, a collection of essays, and an edition of Bacon’s essays. He was, Janet Adam Smith speculated, possibly the only person in the 1898 edition of Who’s Who whose occupation was listed as “undergraduate.”
Brasenose both extended and mollified Buchan’s temperament. Growing up, he recalled in Pilgrim’s Way (Memory Hold-the-Door in England), he instinctively subscribed to Lord Falkland’s famous dictum: “When it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change.” But his exposure to philosophy led him to become “skeptical of dogmas,” which he more and more looked upon “as questions rather than answers.”
The limited outlook of my early youth had broadened. Formerly I had regarded life as a pilgrimage along a strait and steep path on which the pilgrim must keep his eyes fixed. I prided myself on a certain moral austerity, but now I came to realise that there was a good deal of self-interest in that outlook, like the Puritan who saw in his creed not only the road to heaven but the way to worldly success. I began to be attracted by the environs as well as by the road, and I became more charitable in my judgment of things and men.
Buchan considered staying on at Oxford and becoming a don or professor. He concluded that he was not sufficiently devoted to any subject to give up his life to it. “I wanted a stiffer job, one with greater hazards in it, and I was not averse to one which offered bigger material rewards.” So after four years he traded Oxford for London and philosophy for the law.
In 1900, Buchan was in London working for The Spectator, reading for the Bar, and, as always, writing, writing, writing. (One sees different figures for his total output: one plausible sum is 130 books.) In 1901, he was called to the Bar, practiced briefly, but then accepted an offer from Lord Alfred Milner to join him in South Africa. Buchan became a distinguished member of Milner’s “Kindergarten,” the brilliant young men who helped the British High Commissioner for South Africa establish order in the aftermath of the Boer War and raise the standard of civilization among the natives.
The youth and inexperience of Milner’s staff raised eyebrows, but he knew what he was doing. “There will be a regular rumpus and a lot of talk about boys and Oxford and jobs and all that,” Milner wrote to a friend.
Well, I value brains and character more than experience. First-class men of experience are not to be got. Nothing one could offer would tempt them to give up what they have. . . . No! I shall not be here for very long, but when I go I mean to leave behind me young men with plenty of work in them.
Buchan was one such, and South Africa was a revelation to him. For one thing, invested with enormous administrative responsibility during his two years in South Africa, this bookish youth discovered that “there was a fine practical wisdom which owed nothing to books and academies.” He met Cecil Rhodes when the great imperialist was at the end of his life. Rhodes was a fount of pragmatic wisdom. “You can make your book with roguery,” he told the young Buchan, “but vanity is incalculable.”
Buchan was the perfect acolyte for Milner’s reformist zeal and benefits-of-Empire campaign. And if Milner discerned great potential in his youthful recruits, at least some of his kinder returned the admiration. Milner, Buchan noted, was an administrative genius. “The drawback to a completely rational mind is that it is apt to assume that what is flawless in logic is therefore practicable. Milner never made that mistake.” He possessed an unerring “instinct for what is possible. . . . He could do what the lumberman does in a log-jam, and pick out the key log which, once moved, sets the rest going.”
Buchan’s stint in South Africa—reading Euripides on the veldt, absorbing that surprising new landscape—plumbed a current of almost mystical feeling that, in fact, is an aspect of Buchan’s character often overlooked on account of his worldly competence and the practical can-do bustle of many of his heroes. In South Africa, Buchan reported in Pilgrim’s Way, he enjoyed “moments, even hours, of intense exhilaration.”
There are no more comfortable words in the language than Peace and Joy. . . . Peace is that state in which fear of any kind is unknown. But Joy is a positive thing; in Joy one does not only feel secure, but something goes out from oneself to the universe, a warm, possessive effluence of love. There may be Peace without Joy, and Joy without Peace, but the two combined make Happiness. It was Happiness that I knew in those rare moments. The world was a place of inexhaustible beauty, but still more it was the husk of something infinite, ineffable, and immortal, in very truth the garment of God.
I cannot recall Richard Hannay expressing such feelings, but they are on view in other books by Buchan—The Dancing Floor (1926), for example, or his last, posthumously published novel, Sick Heart River (1940, published in America as Mountain Meadow).
In 1903, Buchan returned to London, resumed work for The Spectator and the Middle Temple, and wrote, among other books, The Law Relating to the Taxation of Foreign Income (1905), a work I have no intention of reading. In 1906, he became a partner in the publishing firm of his old Oxford friend Tommy Nelson. The following year, Buchan married Susan Grosvenor, a granddaughter of Lord Ebury, and great-great-grandniece of the Duke of Wellington. It was a splendid match, which brought four children and much happiness. “I have,” Buchan wrote toward the end of his life, “been happy in many things, but all my other good fortune has been as dust in the balance compared with the blessing of an incomparable wife.” Susan was not rich, but she was well-connected and her marriage came as an agreeable surprise to some. One friend wrote, “So you aren’t going to be a fat Duchess after all. I had always looked forward to being given one finger to shake at one omnium-gatherum garden-party by your Grace, and now you’re going to marry something like a genius instead.”
From his perch in the publishing world, Buchan naturally came into contact with many writers and public figures. “With G. K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc and Maurice Baring,” Buchan reports with Chestertonian slyness, “I never differed—except in opinion.” He knew Kipling and Lord Asquith, Stanley Baldwin and Lord Balfour (“the only public figure for whom I felt a disciple’s loyalty”).
Pilgrim’s Way is a sort of memoir, but an impersonal one; it is less an autobiography than a portrait of an age. With typical decorum, Buchan leaves out of his account contemporaries who were still living. Much of the book is devoted to sketches of Buchan’s Oxford friends who died in the War: Tommy Nelson, Raymond Asquith, and Auberon Thomas Herbert, who was a model for Sandy Arbuthnot.
Buchan’s recollections are invariably affectionate but seldom uncritical. Of the famous lawyer Richard Haldane, Buchan noted that “to differ from him seemed to be denying the existence of God.” Haldane was steeped in the philosophy of Hegel and his arguments, though brilliant, gave to the uninitiated “No light, but darkness visible,” as Milton might put it. Buchan recalls one episode when the bench mistook Haldane’s use of the word “antinomy” to mean the metal “antimony.” It is clear that Buchan admired Haldane. It is also clear that he regarded him as a sort of object lesson in the dangers of Teutonic intellectualization. “A man who has been nourished on German metaphysics,” Buchan observed, “should make a point of expressing his thoughts in plain workaday English, for the technical terms of German philosophy have a kind of hypnotic power; they create a world remote from common reality where reconciliations and synthesis flow as smoothly and with as little meaning as in an opiate dream.” This is an observation that aspiring graduate students in the humanities ought to memorize and repeat three times daily before breakfast.
Although a man of immense intellectual cultivation, Buchan had his feet planted firmly on the ground. He understood the dangers of political as well as intellectual infatuation. He understood that responsiveness to the unexpected—which means responsiveness to reality—was a key political asset. Of Prime Minister Asquith, Buchan concluded that he possessed “every traditional virtue—dignity, honor, courage, and a fine selflessness. . . . He was extremely intelligent, but he was impercipient.”
New facts made little impression on his capacious but insensitive mind. Whatever ran counter to his bland libertarianism seemed an impiety. I remember, when the audacities of Lytton Strachey’s Victorian Studies were delighting the world, suggesting to Mr. Asquith that the time was ripe for a return match. It was easy, I said, to make fun of the household of faith, but I thought just as much fun could be made out of the other side, even with the most respectful and accurate presentation. I suggested a book to be called “Three Saints of Rationalism” on the lines of Eminent Victorians, and proposed for the chapters John Stuart Mill, Herbert Spencer, and John Morley. He was really shocked, as shocked as a High Churchman would be who was invited to consider the comic side of the Oxford Movement.
That “Three Saints of Rationalism” is a volume still waiting to be written.
“Experimentalism” in art (or life) had little appeal for Buchan. In the the late Teens and early Twenties, he made an effort to read his contemporaries. “Alas! I had put it off too long. My ear simply could not attune itself to their rhythms, or lack of rhythms.” T. S. Eliot’s poetry he regarded as “a pastiche of Donne” that reproduced “only his tortured conceits . . . not his sudden flute notes and moments of shattering profundity.” Still, Buchan’s intelligence admitted the merits of the great modernists, though his heart did not respond. On Proust, for example: “I disliked his hothouse world, but it was idle to deny his supreme skill in disentangling subtle threads of thought and emotion.” Buchan befriended T. E. Lawrence (“a mixture of contradictories which never were—perhaps could never have been—harmonised”) and Henry James. Although he did not care for James’s late novels (“tortuous arabesques”), he “loved the man” and “revelled in the idioms of his wonderful talk.”
Once Buchan acted as host at a relative’s country house where James was a guest. He knew that James, like most sophisticated New Englanders of his day, would appreciate a good Madeira. The house had a wonderful cellar. Buchan promised James something special.
He sipped his glass, and his large benign face remained impassive while he gave his verdict. I wish I could remember his epithets; they were a masterpiece of the intricate, evasive, and non-committal, and yet of an exquisite politeness. Then I tasted the wine and found it swipes. It was the old story of a dishonest butler who was selling famous vintages and replacing them by cheap stuff from a neighboring public house.
On another occasion, an aunt of Buchan’s wife, the widow of Byron’s grandson, asked Buchan and James to examine the archives in order to write an opinion on the quarrel between Byron and his wife. Over the course of a summer weekend, Buchan and James “waded through masses of ancient indecency, and duly wrote an opinion. The thing nearly made me sick, but my colleague never turned a hair. His only words for some special vileness were ‘singular’—‘most curious’—‘nauseating, perhaps, but how quite inexpressibly significant.’”
When Buchan was five years old, he fell out of a carriage and fractured his skull when the back wheel rolled over his head. He spent the better part of a year in bed recovering, but Buchan himself attributes a long run of good health to the episode. Before, he had been “a miserable headachy little boy”; afterwards he was in a nearly continuous bloom of health until 1911. From then until his early death in 1940, Buchan was beset by painful stomach problems. The onset of World War I found him in bed for three months recovering from an operation for a duodenal ulcer.
Buchan was too old for the infantry, but he served the war effort well, first as a correspondent in France for The Times, then working for Lord Beaverbrook as Director of the Department of Information and, briefly, as Director of Intelligence. In order to keep the presses of Thomas Nelson and Sons running, he also undertook Nelson’s History of the War, which was published in twenty-four volumes from 1915–1919. I have read in several places that Buchan’s quota was 50,000 words a fortnight. That depressing number works out to 5,000 words a day, Monday through Friday. Try it sometime, especially when you are Director of your country’s intelligence service, raising a family, and writing a clutch of novels and a volume of verse. Buchan’s History is no piece of makework, either. For sheer narrative verve, it may outdo even Churchill’s multivolume history of the Great War. Buchan had a genius for making military operations clear to the layman. Writing as events were unfolding, in the confusing smoke-and-mirrors chaos of war, he nevertheless managed to see beyond sorties, troop movements, and individual campaigns. His deep reading in history allowed him to keep the larger picture in view. The larger picture concerned civilization: its requirements and enemies. Summing up toward the end of his final volume, Buchan optimistically suggests that one benefit of the war was to have shaken the world “out of its complacency.” The ensuing years showed how resilient a trait is human complacency. We are never done with it—a fact that Buchan implicitly acknowledged when he observed that “The world is at no time safe for freedom, which needs vigilant and unremitting guardianship.”
Andrew Lownie said in his biography of Buchan, The Presbyterian Cavalier (1995; shortly to be reissued by David R. Godine), that the War left Buchan “physically and emotionally shattered.” That seems to me to overstate things. He suffered the loss of many close friends (including Tommy Nelson, who fell at the Somme). His stomach problems had become chronic. But shattered men do not continue turning out the books; they do not become Director of Reuters, as Buchan did in 1919, or buy and restore a manor house, as Buchan did with Elsfield near Oxford that same year. In 1927, when he was first elected Conservative MP for Scottish Universities, Buchan was working on five books. In 1929, he finally resigned from Nelson’s. A few years later, he was created High Commissioner to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, the representative of the Crown to the Church. (In 1929, Buchan had co-authored The Kirk in Scotland, so he was prepared by industry as well as background for the pomp-filled post.) The apex of Buchan’s public career came in 1935 when he was created Baron Tweedsmuir of Elsfield and was appointed Governor General of Canada, a post he held until his death in Ottawa in February 1940.
Buchan was schooled to an intelligent toughness—to an independence bred in reverence—that would twist and bristle in the self-self-self moral atmosphere of today. There was a strong streak of lyricism in his make up, yet candor and forthrightness were among the primary virtues he cultivated. Heckling, he noted with some pride, was an art “pursued for the pure love of the game” in the Border Country. Candidates were sometimes heckled to a standstill by their own supporters. Buchan recalled an incident shortly after Lloyd George’s Insurance Act had been introduced. A speaker was defending the welfare policy on the grounds that it was a practical application of the Sermon on the Mount. A shepherd rose to chivvy the speaker:
“Ye believe in the Bible, sir?”
“With all my heart.”
“And ye consider that this Insurance Act is in keepin’ with the Bible?”
“Is it true that under the Act there’s a maternity benefit, and that a woman gets the benefit whether she’s married or no?”
“That is right.”
“D’ye approve of that?”
“With all my heart.”
“Well, sir, how d’ye explain this? The Bible says the wages of sin is death and the Act says thirty shillin’s.”
Of the Border folk he represented in Parliament, Buchan said he particularly admired their “realism coloured by poetry, a stalwart independence sweetened by courtesy, a shrewd kindly wisdom.” These were qualities that by most accounts Buchan himself embodied.
One cannot read far into the commentary on Buchan, however, before encountering some stiff criticism of some of his attitudes and language. The criticism resolves into three main charges. Buchan was a colonialist, a champion of the British Empire. Buchan was a racist: he said and believed unpleasant things about Negroes. Buchan was an anti-Semite: he said and believed unpleasant things about Jews.
On the first matter, Buchan must stand guilty as charged, though “guilty” is assuredly not the right word. Buchan was a partisan of the British colonialist enterprise; he did believe in the civilizing mandate of the British Empire. The only question is whether that is something of which Buchan ought to have been ashamed. In fact, what was already crystal clear in the early 1900s when Buchan was with Milner in South Africa has become sadly, grimly reinforced in recent decades: everywhere Britain went benefitted immensely from its wise and beneficent intervention. Were there mistakes? Yes. Were there unnecessary cruelties, stupidities, miscalculations? You bet. But the British colonial adventure was an incalculable gain for the colonized. The British brought better hygiene, the rule of law, better schools, roads, industry, manners. Santayana was right about the colonial rule of the Englishman: “Never since the heroic days of Greece has the world had such a sweet, just, boyish master. It will be a black day for the human race when scientific blackguards, conspirators, churls, and fanatics manage to supplant him.” What’s happened in Africa in the period of de-colonization—better call it rebarbarization—is stark evidence that Santayana was right.
But what about the other charges against Buchan? In Mr. Standfast, when Richard Hannay is asked to pose as a pacifist, he objects: “there are some things that no one has a right to ask of any white man.” You’ll find similar locutions salted through Buchan’s novels. You’ll also find, as you will in the novels of Mark Twain or Joseph Conrad (for example), the use of the word “nigger.” Is that objectionable? Today it would be. Indeed, a few decades ago a publisher refused to re-issue Buchan’s adventure novel Prester John (1910) because of the “N” word.
You will find similar language about Jews. At the beginning of The Thirty-Nine Steps, Franklin Scudder is ranting about the international Jewish conspiracy and conjures up the evil figure of the mastermind behind the scenes, a “little white-faced Jew in a bath chair with an eye like a rattlesnake.” Of course, Scudder is potty and winds up a few pages later with a knife in his back. But Buchan’s portrayal of Jews, at least in his early novels, is not glamorous. With some exceptions, they are rag dealers or pawnbrokers or else nefarious anarchists or shady financiers. There are exceptions—Julius Victor, for example, “the richest man in the world,” who is a thoroughly noble chap. But then he is described by the dyspeptic American John S. Blenkiron as “the whitest Jew since the apostle Paul.” It was meant as praise, but still . . .
Buchan’s biographer Lownie said that “It is difficult to find any evidence of anti-Semitism in Buchan’s own personal views.” Well, maybe. It’s much more likely that—up to the 1930s, anyway—Buchan was anti-Semitic (and anti-foreigner) in the way nearly everyone in his society was. At the time, Gertrude Himmelfarb notes, “Men were normally anti-Semitic, unless by some quirk of temperament or ideology they happened to be philo-Semitic. So long as the world itself was normal, this was of no great consequence. . . . It was Hitler . . . who put an end to the casual, innocent anti-Semitism of the clubman.” And by the time the Nazis came along, Buchan had abandoned any casual aspersions against Jews in his novels. Moreover, he publicly denounced Hitler’s anti-Semitism in 1934. (Which was one reason, no doubt, that he was on the Nazi’s post-invasion list of people to be imprisoned for “Pro-Jewish activity.”) Like Milner, Buchan was ardently pro-Zionist, and his name was later ceremoniously inscribed in the Golden Book of the Jewish National Fund.
Buchan wrote at a time less constrained than ours by the imperatives of political correctness. He didn’t try to second-guess his audience. He had confidence not only in his knowledge, but also, as Himmelfarb observed, in
his opinions, attitudes, intuitions, and prejudices. What he wrote for the public was what he felt in private; he did not labor for a subtlety or profundity that did not come spontaneously, or censor his spontaneous thoughts before committing them to paper. He had none of the scruples that are so inhibiting today. He was candid about race, nation, religion, and class, because it did not occur to him that anything he was capable of feeling or thinking could be reprehensible. . . . What some have condemned as insensitivity or condescension may also be taken as a forthright expression of opinion—or not so much opinion, because that is to dignify it as a conscious judgment, but rather impression or experience.
In The Three Hostages, Sandy Arbuthnot gives voice to feelings of exasperation that, I suspect, come close to Buchan’s own feelings:
“The old English way was to regard all foreigners as slightly childish and rather idiotic and ourselves as the only grown-ups in a kindergarten world. That meant that we had a cool detached view and did even-handed unsympathetic justice. But now we have to go into the nursery ourselves and are bear-fighting on the floor. We take violent sides, and make pets, and of course if you are -phil something or other you have got to be -phobe something else.”
It was precisely that unreasoning attachment to ideology—to the grim nursery of human passions—that Buchan resisted.
Himmelfarb described Buchan as “the last Victorian” because the world that could nurture such a character has long since vanished. But one may hope that Buchan will have successors, for the creator of Richard Hannay, Sandy Arbuthnot, and the others was a great and potent friend of civilization. Robin Winks remarked that “What Buchan feared most was unreasoning passion”—that, and the complacency which renders passion toxic. In his biography of Augustus (1937), Buchan wrote that the Emperor’s “true achievement . . . is that he saved the world from disintegration.” At the end of his life Buchan saw the world once again threatened by a storm of irrational violence and hatred. Yet again it was revealed that (as his character Dickson McCunn put it) “civilisation anywhere is a very thin crust.” Nevertheless, what Buchan feared above all was not “barbarism, which is civilisation submerged or not yet born, but de-civilisation, which is civilisation gone rotten.” In his posthumously published memoir, he describes a “nightmare” world in which science had transformed the world into “a huge, dapper, smooth-running mechanism.”
Everyone would be comfortable, but since there could be no great demand for intellectual exertion everyone would be also slightly idiotic. Their shallow minds would be easily bored, and therefore unstable. Their life would be largely a quest for amusement. . . . Men would go everywhere and live nowhere; know everything and understand nothing. . . . In the tumult of a jazz existence what hope would there be for the still small voices of the prophets and philosophers and poets? A world which claimed to be a triumph of the human personality would in truth have killed that personality. In such a bagman’s paradise, where life would be rationalised and padded with every material comfort, there would be little satisfaction for the immortal part of man. It would be a new Vanity Fair. . . . The essence of civilisation lies in man’s defiance of an impersonal universe. It makes no difference that a mechanised universe may be his own creation if he allows his handiwork to enslave him. Not for the first time in history have the idols that humanity has shaped for its own ends become its master.
Buchan thought the dictators of the 1930s and 1940s had paradoxically “done us a marvellous service in reminding us of the true values of life,” awakening men to the dangers of complacency.
Yet Buchan knew that, whatever questions the war answered, the compact of routinization and unruly passion—the marriage of hyper-rationalization and irrationality—was a problem that transcended the savagery of war. It was a problem built into the nature of modernity. How that problem would be solved—or, rather, how that unthinking version of life was to be avoided, for it was not a problem susceptible of any one solution—was something Buchan regarded with a mixture of foreboding and faith. He regarded the extinction of eccentricity, the homogenization of the world with a distaste bordering on horror. What he feared was failure bred in success: “a deepening and narrowing of ruts” that technological and economic success regularly brought in their wake. “The world,” he wrote towards the end of Pilgrim’s Way, “must remain an oyster for youth to open. If not, youth will cease to be young, and that will be the end of everything.” Buchan speculated that “the challenge with which we are now faced may restore us to that manly humility which alone gives power.” The campaign against genuine individuality is much further advanced today than it was in 1940 when Buchan wrote. We seem further than ever from the “manly humility” he prescribed. Which is one reason that rereading John Buchan is such a tonic exercise. His adventures are riches that help remind us of our poverty. If, as Montaigne wrote, admonition is the highest office of friendship, that counsel is a precious bounty.
- Note: This is an expanded version of the essay on Buchan that appears in the September 2003 issue of The New Criterion, pages 16–23.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 22 Number 1, on page 16
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