James Kilpatrick, voice of The Writer’s Art

I can’t say that I often agreed with James Kilpatrick’s political worldview. Here was, after all, a formerly staunch segregationist who editorially led the fight against desegregating public schools in the face of Supreme Court rulings.

He eventually relented on that cause, once he realized it was lost forever.

But the man could write. And his approach, like that of  his longtime contemporary William F. Buckley, was decidedly more gentlemanly than most of the current crop of writers, pundits and shouting heads.

Kilpatrick, 89, died Sunday, according to various media reports.

Kilpatrick made other contributions as well, including a syndicated column called The Writer’s Art, featuring his well-constructed views on what constitutes good writing (and, more entertainingly, bad writing). He stopped writing that column in 2009 after a long run. He would occasionally joust with his pals and fellow conservative wordsmiths Buckley and William Safire, and other writers. I found his advice to be sage and worthy of observing.

Like one of the critics quoted on the jacket of his book (or at least one version of the jacket), I thought The Writer’s Art (published in 1984) belonged on a writer’s bookshelf along with Zinsser’s On Writing Well and Strunk and White (and if you have to ask what the name of their book was, you obviously never took a journalism class in your life, and I’d call into question any English classes you took).

Kilpatrick spent much of his career in Washington and nearby Virginia. In the late ’80s he moved a little further south – to Charleston, S.C., buying a rather exclusive property near the historic Charleston Battery. That particular part of Charleston has a reputation for being very insular, but he seemed to be accepted. He had the terrible misfortune of closing on that house only a week or two before Hurricane Hugo struck in September 1989. I seem to recall that the house received extensive damage, as did much of Charleston. (I was evacuated from Myrtle Beach, some 90 miles up the coast, to Columbia while working at the The Sun News).

Detective novelist Mickey Spillane was another well-known writer, living at the time in Murrells Inlet, S.C., who was displaced by Hugo.

Kilpatrick was no stranger to controversy, particularly in his segregationist days. But like others of that now seemingly distant past era, say, Strom Thurmond or Robert Byrd, he was at least in part a reflection of his time and culture.

The New York Times reports that in 1963 he wrote an essay for the Saturday Evening Post that included the following passage: “the Negro race, as a race, is in fact an inferior race.” History intervened before that article would be published: the galvanizing Birmingham, Ala., bombing of a church that killed four black girls. The Saturday Evening Post pulled the piece, wrote the authors of The Race Beat in that 2006 book.

But it’s instructive to see, over the course of a long life, how at least some core values can change if one opens his eyes enough to see the reality before him. Sometimes even the staunchest conservative (and liberal) has to concede that the world has irreversibly changed, and maybe for the better.


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