- Living on Fire: The Life of Brent Bozell, Jr. by Daniel Kelly
The late Daniel Kelly, the author of a well-regarded biography of conservative National Review editor James Burnham, has written an excellent, lucid, and brief overview of the life of L. Brent Bozell Jr., a major influence on National Review conservatism and the founder and editor of the “radical conservative” Catholic magazine Triumph, which was published from 1966 to 1975. Bozell is one of the few central figures in the conservative intellectual movement to be without a biographer, and in Kelly’s skillful narrative, the oversight has been rectified at last.
The apt title of the book demonstrates not only Bozell’s passion and belief in the conservative cause in America but also his eventual disenchantment with movement conservatism by the 1960s and 1970s. A Yale-educated, Catholic convert, Bozell was long overshadowed by his prominent debate colleague, coauthor, and brother-in-law, William F. Buckley Jr., who gained more notoriety as a result of his status as National Review editor and conservative celebrity. Kelly depicts how Bozell resented Buckley’s greater fame and influence, especially as Bozell’s began to wane by the mid-1960s. Eventually, the two men broke with one another over Bozell’s embrace of traditional Catholicism and his dissatisfaction with NR’s response to the Second Vatican Council reforms as well as Buckley’s sharp critique of Bozell’s decision to embrace a traditional Catholic conception of American life.
What is most surprising in this biography is that Bozell turned so strongly away from not only American conservatism but also American constitutionalism and society in general (his book, The Warren Revolution, remains a well-regarded conservative critique of modern Supreme Court jurisprudence). But by the late-1960s, Bozell regarded America (which he took to spelling with a k, similar to the New Left) to be morally bankrupt and the Constitution a document that encouraged [End Page 830] such moral drift. Finding solace in Catholic Spain and in the Carlist movement, Bozell founded Triumph magazine in 1966 and dedicated the remainder of his public career to create a traditional Catholic position in the United States.
He failed to do so. As Triumph floundered in the mid-1970s, Bozell turned more to Spain as a place to build a Catholic movement that would educate young Catholics in traditionalism. The result of this was the founding of a Catholic college in Escorial, later renamed Christendom College when it moved to Front Royal, Virginia.
Increasingly, Bozell was plagued by the demons of alcoholism and a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, which led him to suffer from manic episodes that contributed to myriad health problems. Kelly describes several of these episodes, which caused his ten children and wife, Trish, much grief and worry. With treatment, Bozell remained out of the public spotlight until Mustard Seeds, a collection of writing from Triumph, was published in 1986. The remainder of his life was spent living the Gospel of Christ, ministering to the poor, the downtrodden, and AIDS victims in Washington, DC, the fire of his early years as a combatant for conservatism and traditional Catholicism fading like his fiery red hair. Later a Third Order Discalced Carmelite, Bozell found an inner peace lacking in his passionate and restless life, dying reconciled to his brother-in-law and to his family, and with God’s grace, as Kelly attests, in 1997.
Bozell has been a neglected figure in the story of the development of American conservatism. A staunch anticommunist who worked for Joseph McCarthy, a tremendous speaker who was quite popular on campuses in the 1960s, Bozell’s work and life are well captured and documented by Kelly in this biography. Living on Fire is an important addition to the literature on conservatism and to a brief episode in Catholic history in America as well.