The Hatchet Job review – saga of family and nation with old-fashioned artistry

Philip Salter reviews The Hatchet Job by David Bellos and David Campion – review The Hatchet Job is not a walk in the park. It is a wonderfully vivid, thoroughly researched and amusing history…

The Hatchet Job review – saga of family and nation with old-fashioned artistry

Philip Salter reviews The Hatchet Job by David Bellos and David Campion – review

The Hatchet Job is not a walk in the park. It is a wonderfully vivid, thoroughly researched and amusing history of American institutions, from the roughneck oil barons of the early 1900s to the phalanx of prison guards who stand sentinel over the rest.

It’s also not just about America. The book is a composite of fiction and historical fact that combines an old-fashioned yarn-telling style with a generally excellent writing style (though sometimes it does feel repetitious). To read an item about Donald Trump’s meeting with the Spanish prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, in Bilbao, Tenerife, without being aware of the trajectory of his life, was not surprising.

We have also come to expect major biographies to be long, and perhaps we need to be. Long life spans, wider political diversity and advances in medicine have enabled us to last longer and better than ever before, but it is harder to maintain that level of awareness all the time, and there is always more to know. In six instalments – The Hatchet Job begins at 1852 and ends with 1915 – William F Buckley Jr. identifies 27 generations, 300,000 people, of his family, and thus of the philosophy from which his father arose. Along the way there is examination of the concept of a “nation”, with discussion of everything from the earliest American travel patterns (until the burgeoning of tourism in the late 18th century, tourists would come to the cities, sleeping in the woods, and “visiting the countryside only for a week or two before they went home”) to the once ubiquitous use of Vaseline on their lips (until the 20th century) to produce “Theoretical Contour Paint”.

Campion’s subtitle is “The Plot Against Adam Smith”, but I think it’s a little too gloomy: The Hatchet Job doesn’t do much to gloss over the fact that Adam Smith, who in particular sought to illuminate the relations between nature and mankind, was a man of unquestionable integrity. He was largely dismissed by the American Establishment, who, as one contemporary remarked, simply “did not like the English gentleman.”

Campion manages to be both a fascinating tour guide to America’s past and a friend to the greats of its present. His was a forester in 19th-century Maine, his father a lawyer, his grandfather, William, the head of a dairy farm. His Dad wanted him to be a doctor, but he did well academically, and shortly before leaving home for graduate studies he was taken by his mother to New York, the land of “betty prodigy” (Buckley began his career in the literary world first with the pioneering Saturday Review) and fame. While he admits to enjoying the city and the men who do so well in it, he still thinks of it as a “shack”, dominated by “the golden-haired gentlemen”. It was in New York that he fell in love with an Englishwoman, Kathryn Hayward, and married her, travelling to London and embarking on a beautiful literary career.

There was a difficult period, however, during World War II. When Nazi Germany’s occupying forces said that the south-east of Britain was German, the government opted for England’s independence, and London’s precious unbroken British passport was confiscated. Buckley Jr was well aware of these worries, and was the first to realise that these “Raj-agents” may also be dog-collars. That 19th-century, England-centred view of life, while it was secure enough to welcome transplanted families, would not do if a large percentage of them was German.

• The Hatchet Job by David Campion and David Bellos is published by Bloomsbury (£20). To order a copy for £16 go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99

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