The Journal weekend edition runs a series titled "Five Best," in which an author is invited to nominate his five favorite books on whatever topic he is commonly associated with. Following publication of We Are Doomed, they asked me to nominate five books of, for, or by curmudgeons. Here is my offering.
1. Gulliver's Travels
By Jonathan Swift
One component of curmudgeonliness is the Cold Eye, seeing humanity plain. Jonathan Swift saw us rather too plain. The "savage indignation" he wrote of in his own epitaph was rooted in the disgust, physical and moral, he felt toward people. His famous satire Gulliver's Travels — about an Everyman wandering through "remote nations of the world" and encountering beings of different sizes and sensibilities — can be mined endlessly for insights into the human condition. I never hear the utterances of our high-minded PC-ocracy without thinking of Gulliver's encounter with the nation of horses called Houyhnhnms, whose sleek hides and icy rationality had none of those physical and moral failings that excited Swift's disgust. Casting his own Cold Eye on the Houyhnhnms two centuries later, George Orwell said: "The 'Reason' by which they are governed is really a desire for death."
2. Life of Johnson
By James Boswell
The chairman-in-perpetuity of the Curmudgeons' Club is of course Samuel Johnson. Cold Eye? His friend, Mrs. Thrale, recorded that: "We were speaking of a gentleman who loved his friend — 'Make him Prime Minister,' says Johnson, 'and see how long his friend will be remembered.'" Macaulay argued that Johnson's true stature was proved by the fact that even Boswell, "a man of the meanest and feeblest intellect," had not been able to subtract anything from Johnson's greatness. We now know Boswell better than did Macaulay, thanks to the discovery of his private journals in the 1920s. Our verdict on him is correspondingly kinder. He brought a dead man to life as nearly as it can be done.
3. A Mencken Chrestomathy
Edited by H.L. Mencken
How can one leave out Mencken? As generously broad as his misanthropy was, it is his contempt for our political classes that most excites one's admiration. His summary of the presidency's insipid routine should be carved on a stone tablet at the White House main entrance: "All day long the right hon. lord of us all sits listening solemnly to bores and quacks … It takes four days' hard work to concoct a speech without a sensible word in it. Next day a dam must be opened somewhere … The Presidential automobile runs over a dog. It rains." Asked why he continued living in a country whose inhabitants he despised, Mencken replied: "Why do men go to zoos?"
4. The Essays, Articles and Reviews of Evelyn Waugh
Edited by Donat Gallagher
Little, Brown, 1983
A magnificent specimen of Curmudgeonus brutalis, Evelyn Waugh detested impressively wide swaths of humanity. Americans? After the U.S. success of Brideshead Revisited: "I have momentarily become an object of curiosity to Americans and I find that they believe that my friendship and confidence are included in the price of the book." Children? "Defective adults." (And: "My wife is very good to the children, but she's more interested in cows really.") Critics? Waugh told TV interviewer John Freeman: "If someone praises me I think 'what an ass' and if they abuse me I think 'what an ass.'" ("Then why are you appearing in this program?" asked Freeman. Waugh: "Poverty. We are both being hired to talk in this deliriously happy way.") A model for us all.
5. Collected Poems
By Philip Larkin
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1989
Mid-20th-century England was rich with curmudgeons. I cherish recollections of the TV personality Gilbert Harding, whose fame, according to one obituarist, "sprang from an inability to suffer fools gladly." What a glorious thing to be famous for! The great poet of this brotherhood was Philip Larkin. A misogynist, child-hater and stone atheist, Larkin was naturally a political conservative, who said that all his life he had identified liberals with "idleness, greed, and treason." Larkin's bleak verses are, however, marred by occasional lapses from the curmudgeonly ideal. He knew, for example, that, loathsome as our fellow human beings are, solitude gets harder to bear as we age. In "Vers de Société" he wrote: "Sitting by a lamp more often brings / Not peace, but other things. / Beyond the light stand failure and remorse."