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Remembering a forgotten man, and his forgotten book

He was once a major figure in British colonial politics, the governor-general of Canada and author of “The Thirty-Nine Steps,” which Alfred Hitchcock made into a famous film. But today the name John Buchan prompts no ripples of recognition. He is a figure from a fast-receding past — a time when dash and daring were recognized and revered, when Kipling and Stevenson were read and remembered.

Perhaps, as we approach Monday’s centennial of the birth of John F. Kennedy, it is time to rediscover Buchan, known later in life as Lord Tweedsmuir. Surely it is time to rediscover his memoir, published in the United States under the title “Pilgrim’s Way.”

This volume, a brisk 336 pages, was Kennedy’s favorite book. He read and re-read it, lived by its precepts, adopted its worldview. Now, 100 years after his birth, it is easy to see why.

The book has portraits of some of the great figures of Buchan’s time: Alfred Milner, Richard Haldane, Raymond Asquith, all stalwarts of the British Empire, all but forgotten today, especially here. It is full of wisdom, knowing asides and smart perceptions — like this one, which he said Milner, for whom Buchan worked as assistant private secretary in South Africa during the Boer War, understood: “The drawback to a completely rational mind is that it is apt to assume that what is flawless in logic is therefore practicable.”

Buchan’s book is possessed of perhaps as many quotable insights as any work since Alexander Pope — who, like Buchan, viewed mankind as “the glory, jest and riddle of the world.”

Here are some Buchan insights that deserve reflection in his time (1875-1940), as in ours:

I had had a better education, came of better stock, and had better health than most — these were my sole advantages. 

Born in Scotland and emotionally rooted in its seascapes and woodlands, Buchan’s progression in life was eased by his childhood landscape — plus the fact that his father had an enormous library. Surrounded by books, he came to worship the written word. He understood the most fundamental truth of all time, the surpassing value of health and education, the gifts that keep on giving and that sustain us in our passage in the world.

During my four years at Oxford I read hard, and finished with a considerable stock of miscellaneous knowledge. That mattered little, but the trend which my mind acquired mattered much.

This is a much-ignored, much-ridiculed ethos of education, especially today when so much emphasis is placed on professional training over pure education. Training has great short-term utility; it prepares a young person to enter a career. But education — the act of fostering trends in the mind, ways of looking at a changing world — has enormous long-term utility. It prepares the intellect for what is unknown rather than filling it with what is known.

(There are some men whose brilliance in boyhood and early manhood dazzles their contemporaries and becomes a legend. It is not that they are precocious, for precocity rarely charms, but that for every sphere of life they have the proper complement of gifts, and finish each stage so that it remains behind them like a satisfying work of art.

This is part of a long meditation on the life of Raymond Asquith, son of a prime minister, a glittering young man of promise whose death in World War I shattered his friends, including Buchan, and symbolized the end of idealism in, and about, the Great War.

It is a reminder, too, of how gilded youth sometimes perishes before its time; perhaps the young John Kennedy saw in Raymond Asquith his own brother, Joseph Kennedy Jr., destined, or so his family thought, for the presidency but for his death as a bomber pilot in a secret mission in World War II. He may especially have admired this phrase describing Asquith: “Debonair and brilliant and brave, he is now part of that immortal England which knows not age or weariness or defeat.”

He disliked emotion, not because he felt lightly but because he felt deeply.

This is another Buchan observation about Raymond Asquith, one that Kennedy speechwriter Theodore Sorensen employed to explain the 35th president. Like the elder President Bush, Kennedy offered almost no public displays of emotion.

Even so, both men were moved by deep emotion. Though today’s personalized style of politics rewards emotion, only a handful of American presidents — Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson and Bill Clinton but few others — displayed public emotion. Those six plus one unlikely president, the taciturn Calvin Coolidge, who lost his son while in the White House and who wrote to another bereaved father, “To Edward Hall, in recollection of his son and my son, who have the privilege, by the grace of God, to be boys through all eternity.”

The world was undergoing mysterious chemical combinations in which no element was left unchanged. The constituents of society were being altered, both in proportion and quality. The old economics were going out of date, since they were deductions from a state of things which had ceased to be.

This reflection on the period before World War II is apt for every age of great change, including our own. It reminds us that with great peril do we hew to a permanently fixed view of the world, and it is a great proof of the aphorism that follows:

I have small patience with the antiquarian habit which magnifies the past and belittles the present. It is a vicious business to look backward unless the feet are set steadfastly on a forward road.

Never a better time to remember this than President Kennedy’s centennial. Never a better time to rediscover Buchan than now.

David Shribman

David Shribman

David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Post-Gazette (, 412 263-1890). Follow him on Twitter at ShribmanPG.

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