I am reading Things Past (1979) by Malcolm Muggeridge, conservative curmudgeon extraordinaire, during my lunch breaks at work. Some years ago I read his autobiographical volumes, Chronicles of Wasted Time (1973) and his religious apologiae. I quickly found that Muggeridge was one of those authors who always seemed to be writing the same book. But even when he repeats a story it is usually worth listening to, and some extra nuance is brought out in the retelling. Muggeridge thus demonstrates the quality of wisdom rather than novelty.
But it would be wrong to think of Muggeridge as merely stodgy. He was very much a man of his time and possessed talent comparable to his political and religious contemporary, Evelyn Waugh. Muggeridge can be erudite. He can also be earthy and blunt. Like those authors who cut their literary teeth in the interwar period, he combines clarity of thought with economy of text. George Orwell comes to mind. Muggeridge is very much an Orwell of the right—a debunker, a critic, a heckler. Yet he might have ended up like other conservative recusants, a modern Swift, collapsing into the torpor of self-indulgent cynicism, hurling abuse at the mainstream. Fortunately, religion came to his rescue.
The anthology Thing Past includes some of his best excerpts, such as this item on Walt Whitman:
I have long been of the opinion that Walt Whitman, rather than Thomas Jefferson, George Washington or Abraham Lincoln, is the true originator of contemporary America, and I try to read everything I can lay hands on about this bearded, narcissistic old charlatan-pederast, who wrote adulatory reviews of his own works under a pseudonym, and paid for a national tomb to be constructed while sponging on others for his housing and sustenance. Imagine my delight, then, at receiving a magnificently printed and produced volume of his Specimen Days (Godine)the first complete edition of his autobiographical jottings to appear since the original publication in 1882. A truly wonderful book to read and to possess. Whitman was an early devotee of the camera, that instrument of moral destruction more deadly in its consequences than nuclear weapons. Many photographs of and connected with him are finely reproduced, including a remarkable assortment of him in old age, when his vanity had swollen to monstrous proportions. There is also the famous butterfly portrait, which appeared as a frontispiece to Leaves of Grass; it shows Whitman looking tenderly at a butterfly perched on his finger. Among his effects there was found the cardboard butterfly specially fitted with the wire loop which was used for this photograph.