- Writing from Left to Right: My Journey from Liberal to Conservative by Michael Novak
Michael Novak’s memoir, Writing from Left to Right: My Journey from Liberal to Conservative, focuses on his life in politics and economics, with a particular emphasis on the time he left the [End Page 77] seminary in early 1960 to the end of the Reagan administration. For those who are familiar with his writings, many of the stories that he highlights here will ring familiar; on more than one occasion he has written of his intellectual development, often concentrating on his move away from his socialism to capitalism and his growing alienation from the Catholic left. This book consolidates many of these tales and in doing so provides a cohesive narrative for understanding his life in politics and in the Catholic Church in America.
The book is divided into three sections, each of which roughly correlates with a specific decade, beginning with the 1960s and ending with the 1980s. The first section highlights some of the tensions that emerged in his political worldview during the sixties, while the second explores his shift to the right and the consequences, both intellectually and personally, that this shift entailed. Both sections emphasize his involvement with political campaigns throughout these two decades. Not surprisingly, the final section focuses primarily on his involvement with Reagan administration, but also highlights the influence of Pope John Paul II on his life.
There are some areas that could be improved upon. Throughout his narrative, Novak has the unfortunate tendency of slipping into name dropping as he describes what famous people he had dinner with or who invited him where, all along making mention of all the nice things they generally had to say about him and his work. A more glaring deficiency occurs with respect to the fact that only one chapter focuses on the twenty five year period following the fall of communism in 1989. As a consequence, this period receives much less systematic attention than his earlier years, with only a handful of pages given to either of the two Bush presidencies and even less so to the two terms of Bill Clinton. 9/11 receives hardly scant mention and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which caused significant strain within the Catholic Church, barely a passing gesture. Given the strong defense that he and his allies gave to the second war in Iraq, for example, paired with the contentious nature of that defense, one is left wanting a more systematic analysis of what occurred and what has happened [End Page 78] since. While Novak’s reasoning for not doing so and his declining to give more attention to this period is understandable – he argues that it is a period too close in time to do justice to the meaning of events that have occurred – his unwillingness to do so may leave many readers disappointed.
Despite this criticism, Novak’s book would be helpful to anyone interested post-World War II American Catholic political life and in particular to undergraduate students who are trying to become familiar with the contours of this period. It is well written and reads easily. Anyone hoping to understand the life of Michael Novak and the emergence of one of the prominent “neoconservative Catholics” – a term that, interestingly, he avoids using – this book is an important resource.