Against the Wind, part two
France Griggs Sloat
After graduating from Campion, Wills felt the calling to become a Jesuit priest, so he entered seminary at Saint Louis University. Almost immediately, though, he realized it wasn’t for him. He completed his degree, but at the end of the five and a half years, he left. By then it was too late to apply to graduate school, but a Jesuit at the seminary helped him get into Xavier on the condition he work to pay his way.
The summer of 1957 was hot in Cincinnati. The air was humid and thick, hanging motionless inside the walls of Schmidt Hall where Wills spent his days cooped up in the library.
His job: Compare ancient handwritten manuscripts—some in Greek, some in Latin—of the homilies of St. John Chrysostom, one
of the founding fathers of the early Church. The job supported research by former Xavier classics professor Paul Harkins. It was tedious, but it underscored Wills’ ability to work in Greek and helped prepare him for doctoral study at Yale.
But Wills was not a one-dimensional guy. Though steeped in the classics—both his master’s and doctoral theses were on the Greek playwright Aeschylus—he also wrote essays on current events during his free time. Forbidden from publishing them
while in the seminary, he mailed off five of them to magazine editors across the country once he got to Xavier in hopes of getting published.
He got four rejections and one phone call—from Buckley, who tracked Wills down in his Brockman Hall dorm room. Wills’ essay, mocking Time magazine’s baroque style, caught Buckley’s eye.
“Can you come see me?” Buckley asked.
“No,” Wills replied. “I’m working, and I have to start class.”
“What are you working on?”
“A dissertation on Greek drama.”
“Well, would you become our drama critic?”
Wills said no, but Buckley kept talking. Finally he talked Wills into covering Jimmy Hoffa’s testimony at the labor committee hearings presided over by Robert F. Kennedy in Washington, D.C.
When the hearings were called off, Buckley invited Wills back to New York to attend a party at his 5,000-square-foot, 10-room Manhattan maisonette, where intellectuals and movie stars came to mingle.
[Listen to Wills on NPR's All Things Considered about his autobiography.]
This was pretty heady stuff for a 23-year-old, small-town fellow like Wills. It almost couldn’t get any better. Then, on the flight to New York, a stewardess buckles in next to him and introduces herself: “I’m Natalie Cavallo.”She eyes the egghead book he’s reading about religion and morality, and tells him he’s too young for such complex material. They laugh.
The plane was late, so she offered to drive him to the party. She let him off at the door and drove away before he could think to get
her number. “I’m fresh out of seminary and so naïve,” Wills says. In the morning, he called Eastern Airlines and got her number. “We had our first date, and she became my wife of 52 years.”
Wills’ tree-shrouded home a block off Lake Michigan in Evanston, Ill., is a library unto itself. By his own estimate, he reads 200 to 300 books a year. Most go into boxes in the basement to be given away.
The ones he keeps are organized by room. English literature takes up the second floor study where he writes. Another room holds his collection of political thought and Latin texts. American novelists and poets occupy the shelves along one wall of the upstairs landing, Greek texts and philosophy on another.
His most prized collection is a 39-volume set of works by John Ruskin, a 19th century English writer and art critic, salvaged for him by a friend in England. It sits on the top shelf of his study. There are also copies of the Bible and writings from the early church, while a collection of Venetian and Italian art occupy a room of their own.
Wills, 77, is no longer teaching since being named professor emeritus of history at Northwestern University in 2005. He spends his days reading and working, getting up around 6:00 a.m. to write on the computer in his study, recently foregoing his preferred method of
writing in longhand. He spends afternoons in the library and reads well into the night.
His latest book, Verdi’s Shakespeare: Men of the Theater, was released in October, and he has three more in the works. He writes regularly for The New York Times Book Review and The New York Review of Books.
To relax, he listens to opera with Natalie and plans trips to Italy, their favorite destination. But even there, he can’t stop researching, often visiting the excavated underground baptistery of St. Augustine in Milan.
“I didn’t think I would be a writer,” Wills says. “I thought I would be a teacher.”
Wills has never had to look for a job. He’s been getting offers to write since Buckley found him at Xavier. The offers continued after he earned a doctorate in classics at Yale in 1961, when he was invited to join Harvard’s new Center for Hellenic Studies.
“My parents thought my field of study was other-worldly, and my mother thought I wouldn’t make a living when I left the seminary,” Wills says. “But I started making money immediately when I got my doctorate. One of the senior fellows [at the center] was at Johns Hopkins, and he hired me. I was very lucky. I was just passed on from teacher to teacher and agent to agent.”
Wills stayed at Johns Hopkins for 18 years before moving to Northwestern in 1980 to teach American history. One of his favorite topics was Abraham Lincoln. Wills had loved Lincoln since high school and enjoyed teaching about the man and his rhetoric. It became the basis of his 1992 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Lincoln at Gettysburg, which analyzes Lincoln’s address that invokes the principles of the Declaration of Independence to redefine the purpose of the Civil War.
[Watch a Conversation with History with Wills.]
A fan of Shakespeare, Wills says great presidents like Lincoln are themselves performers.
“Lincoln invited actors to the White House and read Shakespeare to his secretaries,” he says. “When he had a painter painting him, he read scenes from Shakespeare’s King John about the little boy and broke into tears because his son had just died. They all had this sense of performance. Even Nixon had this sense of performance, but he never could pull it off.”
In 1993, Wills was toasting another great American president, Thomas Jefferson, when he learned he’d won the Pulitzer for Lincoln. The Pulitzer publicists couldn’t reach him beforehand, so he learned about the award when the Washington Post tracked him down
“The guy introducing me before the toast said I’d just won the Pulitzer,” he says. “I was pleased of course. I don’t know if I was surprised. I don’t really think about those things.”