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The End of Liberalism 
by chilton williamson jr. 
st. augustine’s press, 167 pages, $18

Chilton Williamson Jr. has been a significant man of letters in the conservative world for nearly fifty years. A prose writer of distinction in expository, analytical, descriptive, and narrative modes, he has also been an influential editor, starting out as history books editor at St. Martin’s Press in 1973. In his latest book, The End of Liberalism, he offers a jeremiad against “late modernity” in the U.S. and the West. 

Born in 1947 in New York City, he was raised there and educated at Columbia University (as were his father and uncle). Instead of finishing his doctorate in history at Columbia, Williamson worked at St. Martin’s and also began writing reviews and essays for New York publications such as The New Republic, Commonweal, The Nation, Harper’s, and National Review. He became literary editor of National Review in 1976 and served in that capacity until 1989. During that time, he published narrative and descriptive books about Block Island and Wyoming, to which he moved in 1979 to work on the oil rigs. He later lived in New Mexico for two years. The book on Wyoming, Roughnecking It: Or, Life in the Overthrust, was published in 1982; Williamson loved the wilderness life of the remote mountain West and chose to stay. Not altogether unlike the Puritans who settled New England 350 years before, he undertook an “errand into the wilderness.”

His first novel, Desert Light, set in the West, was published in 1987. In the years after, Williamson published several more novels, one of them a satirical-comic but sympathetic picture of the new mountain West, The Education of Héctor Villa. Of his other novels that I have read, Mexico Way is deeply moving in characterization, narrative, and description, reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy, though without his terrifying violence. 

Making regular visits to New York, he continued as literary editor of National Review until 1989, when he took on the same role at the conservative monthly Chronicles, a position he held until 2015. In his positions at National Review and Chronicles, Williamson published dozens of essays and reviews as well as analytical and polemical works such as The Immigration Mystique (1996). An example of Williamson’s literary criticism at its best is his 1988 review of the Library of America's collected works of Flannery O’Connor (“The Ungarbled Word,” National Review). O’Connor is clearly a model for him as a fiction writer.

She probably also had something to do with his midlife conversion to Catholicism, a commitment evident in his novels Mexico Way and Jerusalem, Jerusalem! as well as in his political and social commentary. His own “errand into the wilderness” must have entailed periods of introspection and isolation that riding, fishing, hunting, and camping alone in the high mountains intensified. Subsequently, adherence to the Catholic religion, singing as cantor at services, and a good marriage probably brought a measure of peace to a brilliant but turbulent spirit.

For Williamson’s cultural critique, developed and articulated over half a century, is a somber view of “late modernity” in the United States and the West. The basic theme of The End of Liberalism is what Malcolm Muggeridge called “the great liberal death wish.” Williamson argues that the secular-liberal attempt to maintain or improve upon the values, virtues, and civilization rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition has been and continues to be a failure. Its very attempt to sustain the fruits of this tradition withers its roots, and deforms the fruits themselves in an endless series of false notes and priorities, including passionate moral inversion that issues in secular “great awakenings” of violent denunciation and virtue-signaling.

Williamson’s own response in The End of Liberalism is a form of the American “jeremiad,” from the New England Puritan tradition—a homiletic denunciation of decadence and divergence from the central, saving tradition. The jeremiad has long had great literary and cultural power. And in secular forms it has been central to post-Protestant American literature: Herman Melville, Henry Adams, and Mark Twain all developed the jeremiad to great heights and depths of power and pathos; we can add T. S. Eliot and Alexander Solzhenitsyn and the tragic Ezra Pound.

In Williamson’s move from New York City to the remote Rocky Mountain West, perhaps the operative analogues for his jeremiad are his fellow New Yorker Melville and the Boston Brahmin Henry Adams. In The Education of Henry Adams, Adams contrasts medieval Catholic coherence (the cult of the Virgin, the French Gothic cathedrals, Scholastic philosophy) with the blind, miscellaneous violence symbolized by “the dynamo” in modern life, bringing “a surge of supersensual chaos” that deforms and undermines personal sanity, social peace, and all settled philosophical and moral ideas. Since Adams’s death, extremes of authoritarian ferocity and libertine nihilism have waxed, as the central trajectory and momentum of human civilization weaken.

To call Williamson’s new book a jeremiad is thus not to insult it or to deny its power. It contains numerous brilliant insights and sharply etched arguments; the writing has vigor, vehemence, and velocity. If it skirts the apocalyptic, so too do much daily life and world politics in the year of our Lord 2023. 

But for this long-time reader, and admirer, of Williamson’s body of writing and editorial achievements, one question urgently proposes itself. Can he really think that Donald Trump is any kind of remedy to these grievous problems and negative dynamics? A white-collar criminal who repeats the big lie that he won the 2020 election and that it was stolen from him? There are signs that Williamson is now unhappy with Trump (a recent blog post, “Two Tigers”) and that he wishes he were in our past; but the current book demonstrates no such ambivalence.

We ought to value persons for their habitual qualities and their achievements. Chilton Williamson’s character and accomplishments are in many respects exemplary; not only a writer, he is a man of letters. Unlike Melville, Twain, and Adams (and Pound), his jeremiad is not without hope, as he is apparently a serious Catholic Christian. These other men of letters lost the faith or (as in Twain’s case) never had it. Against the blind violence of the contemporary world, Chilton Williamson came to realize that “not from chance our comfort springs.”

M. D. Aeschliman is the author of The Restoration of Man: C. S. Lewis and the Continuing Case Against Scientismrecently published in new editions in English and French. 

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