Garry Wills

For the American musician, see Gary Willis.
Garry Wills
Born (1934-05-22) May 22, 1934
Atlanta, Georgia, U.S.
Occupation Author, journalist, historian
Education Xavier University (MA, 1958)[1]
Yale University (PhD, 1961)
Alma mater Saint Louis University (BA, 1957)[1]
Period 1961–present
Subject American politics and political history, the Roman Catholic Church
Notable works Nixon Agonistes (1970), Inventing America: Jefferson's Declaration of Independence (1978), Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America (1993)
Notable awards Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction (1993)
National Medal for the Humanities (1998)

Garry Wills (born May 22, 1934)[2] is a prolific Pulitzer Prize–winning American author, journalist, and historian, specializing in American history, politics, and religion, especially the history of the Catholic Church.

Wills has written nearly 40 books and, since 1973, has been a frequent reviewer for the New York Review of Books.[3] He became a faculty member of the history department at Northwestern University in 1980, where he is currently an Emeritus Professor of History.

Early years

Wills was born in Atlanta, Georgia.[2] His father, Jack Wills, was from a Protestant background, and his mother was from an Irish Catholic family.[4] He grew up in Michigan and Wisconsin, graduating from Campion High School, a Jesuit institution, in Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin in 1951. He entered and then left the Jesuit order.

He earned a B.A. in philosophy from Saint Louis University in 1957 and an M.A. from Xavier University in 1958, both in philosophy. William F. Buckley, Jr. hired him as a drama critic for National Review magazine at the age of 23. He received a PhD in classics from Yale University in 1961,[1] and taught history at Johns Hopkins University from 1962 to 1980.

Personal life

Wills has been married to Natalie Cavallo since 1959: she was the flight attendant on his first flight on an airplane.[5] They have three children: John, Garry, and Lydia.[1][6]

A trained classicist, Wills is proficient in Greek and Latin. His home in Evanston, Illinois is "filled with books", with a converted bedroom dedicated to English literature, another containing Latin literature and books on American political thought, one hallway full of books on economics and religion, "including four shelves on St. Augustine", and another with shelves of Greek literature and philosophy.[1][7]


Wills describes himself as a Roman Catholic and, with the exception of a period of doubt during his seminary years, has been a Roman Catholic all his life.[8] He continues to attend Mass at the Sheil Catholic Center in Northwestern University. He prays the rosary every day, and wrote a book about the devotion (The Rosary: Prayer Comes Around) in 2005.[9]

Wills has also been a critic of many aspects of church history and church teaching since at least the early 1960s. He has been particularly critical of the doctrine of papal infallibility, the social teaching of the church regarding homosexuality, abortion, and contraception, and the Eucharist, and of the church's reaction to the sex abuse scandal.[10][11][12][13]

In 1961, in a phone conversation with William F. Buckley Jr., Wills coined the famous macaronic phrase Mater si, magistra no.[8] The phrase, which was a response to the papal encyclical Mater et magistra and a reference to the then-current anti-Castro slogan "Cuba sí, Castro no", signifies a devotion to the faith and tradition of the church combined with a skeptical attitude towards ecclesiastical authority.[9]

Wills published a full-length analysis of the contemporary Catholic Church, Bare Ruined Choirs, in 1972, and a full-scale criticism of the historical and contemporary church, Papal Sin: Structures of Deceit, in 2000. He followed up the latter with a sequel, Why I Am a Catholic (2002), as well as with the books What Jesus Meant (2006), What Paul Meant (2006), and What the Gospels Meant (2008).


Wills began his career as an early protégé of William F. Buckley, Jr. and was associated with conservatism. When he first became involved with National Review he did not know if he was a conservative, calling himself a "distributionist."[14] Later on, he was self-admittedly conservative, being regarded for a time as the "token conservative" for the National Catholic Reporter and even writing a book entitled Confessions of a Conservative.[9]

However, during the 1960s and 1970s, driven by his coverage of both civil rights and the anti-Vietnam War movements, Wills became increasingly liberal. His biography of president Richard M. Nixon, Nixon Agonistes (1970) landed him on the master list of Nixon political opponents.[15] He supported Barack Obama in the 2008 Presidential Election, but declared two years later that Obama's presidency had been a "terrible disappointment". [16]

In 1995, Wills wrote an article about the Second Amendment for The New York Review of Books. Originally entitled "Why We Have No Right to Bear Arms", that was not Wills contention and he neither wrote the title nor approved it prior to the article's publication.[17] Instead, Wills argued that the Second Amendment does not justify private ownership of guns but rather refers to the right to keep and bear arms in a military context only. Furthermore, that military context does not entail the right to overthrow the government of the United States:

The Standard Model finds, squirrelled away in the Second Amendment, not only a private right to own guns for any purpose but a public right to oppose with arms the government of the United States. It grounds this claim in the right of insurrection, which clearly does exist whenever tyranny exists. Yet the right to overthrow the government is not given by government. It arises when government no longer has any authority. One cannot say one rebels by right of that nonexistent authority. Modern militias say the government itself instructs them to overthrow government – and wacky scholars endorse this view. They think the Constitution is so deranged a document that it brands as the greatest crime a war upon itself (in Article III: 'Treason against the United States shall consist only in levying war against them...') and then instructs its citizens to take this up (in the Second Amendment). According to this doctrine, a well-regulated group is meant to overthrow its own regulator, and a soldier swearing to obey orders is disqualified from true militia virtue.[18]

Public appraisal

The New York Times literary critic John Leonard said in 1970 that Wills "reads like a combination of H. L. Mencken, John Locke and Albert Camus."[19] The Roman Catholic journalist, John L. Allen, Jr. considers Wills to be "perhaps the most distinguished Catholic intellectual in America over the last 50 years" (as of 2008).[9] Martin Gardner in "The Strange Case of Garry Wills" states there is a "mystery and strangeness that hovers like a gray fog over everything Wills has written about his faith".[20]




  1. 1 2 3 4 5 6 "Winners of the 1998 National Medal for the Humanities". Deconstructing Performance: Garry Wills's Eye on History. National Endowment for the Humanities.
  2. 1 2 Library of America.Biography of Garry Wills.
  3. Author's page for Garry Wills at the New York Review of Books website
  5. According to William F. Buckley, as told on the Charlie Rose Show on March 24, 2006
  6. Witt, Linda (April 5, 1982). "Garry Wills Dismantles Camelot and Finds Some Prisoners Within – Jack, Bob and Ted Kennedy". People magazine.
  7. Hoover, Bob (February 21, 2010). "Non-fiction: "Bomb Power," by Garry Wills". Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
  8. 1 2 Garry Wills (2003). Why I Am a Catholic. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. ISBN 0-618-38048-5.
  9. 1 2 3 4 Allen, John L, Jr. (November 21, 2008). "'Poped out' Wills seeks broader horizons". National Catholic Reporter.
  10. Garry Wills (2000). Papal Sin: Structures of Deceit.
  11. Wills, Garry (November 4, 2007). "'Abortion isn't a religious issue'". Los Angeles Times.
  12. Wills, Garry (February 15, 2012). "'Contraception's Con Men'". New York Review of Books.
  13. Wills, Garry (August 15, 2002). "The Bishops at Bay". New York Review of Books.
  14. John B. Judis (1990). William F. Buckley, Jr.: Patron Saint of the Conservatives. Simon & Schuster. p. 158. ISBN 0-671-69593-2. Wills... did not know whether he was a conservative (he called himself a 'distributionist')
  15. The complete, annotated Nixon's Enemies List
  16. Kurutz, Steven (October 20, 2010). "'Garry Wills on Obama 'Disappointment' and the Tea Party 'Zoo'". The Wall Street Journal.
  17. "'To Keep and Bear Arms: An Exchange'". New York Review of Books. November 16, 1995. 'I had no knowledge of the misleading cover title "Why We Have No Right to Bear Arms" before I read with dismay the printed issue. Of course the Amendment states a right that "we" do possess – but we possess it, as the Amendment itself says, in a "well-regulated militia."
  18. Wills, Garry (September 21, 1995). "'To Keep and Bear Arms'". New York Review of Books.
  19. Leonard, John (October 15, 1970). "Books of the Times: Mr. Nixon as the Last Liberal". Review of Nixon Agonistes. The New York Times.
  20. Gardner, Martin (2003). Are Universes Thicker Than Blackberries?. W.W. Norton. ISBN 0-393-05742-9.
  21. "National Book Critics Circle: awards". Retrieved 2016-07-21.
  22. "Pulitzer Prize Winners: General Non-Fiction". Retrieved 2008-03-10.
  23. Website of Saint Louis Literary Award
  24. Saint Louis University Library Associates. "Author Garry Wills to Receive 2004 St. Louis Literary Award". Retrieved July 25, 2016.
  25. "Laureates by Year - The Lincoln Academy of Illinois". The Lincoln Academy of Illinois. Retrieved 2016-03-07.

Further reading

External links

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