Joe Sobran, who left this world on Sept. 30, was perhaps the most brilliant man I have ever known. Not brilliant in all ways, of course, and even obtuse in some, but in his power to see the essential, to lay bare hypocrisy, to capture an idea with a turn of phrase, to mock with gentle humor, and to treat the heaviest subjects with the lightest touch, I have never met his equal and never expect to.
Like so many others, I first met Joe through his writing, specifically, his "Pensées: Notes for the Reactionary of Tomorrow," which appeared in the December 31, 1985 issue of National Review. A friend had sent them to me, but I set them aside. The article ran for 35 magazine pages, for heaven's sake, and I was put off by the murky title. My friend insisted, however, and so I first encountered the mind of Joe Sobran. Today the essay is only slighted dated by its Cold-War-era tone; its central wisdom and insights will never go stale. Joe cared about permanent things, and asked questions that demand answers. Here is just one: "What we really ought to ask the liberal, before we even begin addressing his agenda, is this: In what kind of society would he be a conservative?"
Joe was a very approachable man, however, and it was not long before we met at his house in a woodsy part of Arlington, Virginia. I will never forget two things about that first visit: the tip in which he lived, and the sparkle of his conversation. Practically every square inch of that house was knee deep in newspapers, books, letters, clothes—all in complete disorder. One got from room to room through narrow channels where bits of floor were still visible, but otherwise Joe lived in a landfill.
Like so many conversations I had with him since, I wish I had jotted down the dazzling observations he seemed to throw off so effortlessly. I remember two: "The purpose of a college education is to give you the correct view of minorities, and the means to live as far away from them as possible." The other was a little story, which hinted at where his interests were heading, and that I will paraphrase as best I can remember it:
"There are lots of squirrels out here where I live. They are interesting little creatures, and I'd like to get to know them better. I suppose it's natural for them to be suspicious of any animal that is so much bigger than they are, but you just can't get close to them. They see anti-squirrilism everywhere."
Later I also moved to Virginia, and Joe and I got better acquainted. We saw each other at conferences and meetings, and he must have been to my house for dinner a score of times. My wife grumbled that he came empty handed and never reciprocated. I tried to explain to her that there are limits to the entertaining powers of most middle-aged men, and that she would be risking her health to set foot in his house, anyway. I was always the debtor no matter how often he came to dinner. It was at one of those evenings that I heard another Sobranism I have often trotted out as if it were my own: "In their mating and migratory habits, liberals are indistinguishable from members of the Ku Klux Klan."
It was this light touch, this sparkle that, I believe, lifted Joe's writing from the merely admirable to the genuinely great. I write too, but if I really care about something, I get grimly serious, and the sentences scowl. Not Joe. He cared deeply about things—Lord, how he cared—but he could write about the most awful stuff with sentences that smiled. This was a gift Joe shared with only a very few: men like H. L. Mencken and Mark Twain. I rarely envy a man's writing, but I envied Joe's.
There were swathes of Joe's life, though, that were unknown territory to me. It was not that he kept people out; our interests simply diverged. Joe's devotion to the church, his concern about abortion, his interest in Israel, his veneration of Shakespeare—these things took him in his own directions.
On this last point, though, I remember talking to him about the sonnets. I told him I had been baffled in high school because so many seemed to be love poems addressed to a man. I had asked my English teacher about that, but he gave me some tortured explanation I don't even remember. Not Joe. As always, he went where few would dare. He was among those who doubted the Stratford-on-Avon man could have been the real bard, and he had his own candidate: Edward De Vere, Earl of Oxford—who, he had concluded, was homosexual. When Joe's book on the Shakespeare authorship question, Alias Shakespeare, appeared in 1997, he lamented that try as he might, he couldn't get the publisher to use what he was convinced was a brilliant advertising line: "He's queer. He's here. He's Edward De Vere."
The great turning point in Joe's career, of course, was his quarrel with National Review and William F. Buckley, Jr. Joe believed Buckley had sacrificed him for cowardly reasons, and he wrote about it—several times. He wrote in his usual deft way, but there was a sting to his words. That is why I felt a pang when I started yet another column by Joe about Buckley, in which he wrote he had just learned Buckley had emphysema and that the outlook was bad. I was half expecting Joe's own dulcet version of "serves the bastard right," but to my surprise and everlasting admiration, Joe devoted the column to telling us how fine a man Buckley was. I knew Buckley only from the back of a lecture hall, but Joe's column was a living portrait of generosity and even nobility. That column was, for me, an inspiring expression of Joe's own nobility.
Joe was not always noble, of course, and as his health declined and his circumstances grew straitened this could not help but narrow his perspective. But nothing could keep Joe from being Joe. I had not seen him for some time before he died, but I hear that he kept his courage and dignity to the end, that he died ready, confident that he would meet his Maker. I am confident that I will never meet his like again.
Jared Taylor (email him) is editor of American Renaissance and the author of Paved With Good Intentions: The Failure of Race Relations in Contemporary America. (For Peter Brimelow's review, click here.)