Skip to main content

Awards & Honors: 1998 National Humanities Medalist

Garry Wills

In countless articles, essays and books, Garry Wills has shared his knowledge and insight on politics, history, religion, and theater. But if you ask him, Wills, a prodigious writer and voracious reader, will tell you that most of his work has been about one thing -- performance.

“Performance in all its forms has fascinated me from early on,” says Wills. “Performance is a continuum that includes movies, theater, opera, rhetoric.” He adds, “Words and performances describe ourselves and our world.” If we understand how people interpret their world, then we can better explain their actions.

His writing has taken him from Abraham Lincoln to Richard Nixon, from Aeschylus to Shakespeare, and from St. Augustine to the Vietnam War. In his most recent book, John Wayne’s America: The Culture of Celebrity (1997), Wills examines how performance -- in the form of Western movies -- helps Americans describe themselves. Answering the question of why John Wayne remains one of the country’s most popular actors, Wills argues that Wayne is the embodiment of two contradictory American myths: Manifest Destiny and the frontier.

Manifest Destiny is a myth about expanding the nation for the greater good, Wills explains, while the frontier holds the myth about the individual’s autonomy and independence. In the hands of director John Ford (who made more than a dozen Wayne Westerns) Wayne presented both. “Wayne seems cocky and independent, but he’s always serving the troops, the community or the cause,” Wills says. Americans want to see themselves as this perfect blend of the rugged individual and active member of society.

Why write about John Wayne? Because Wills himself is a huge fan. He has seen every Wayne Western, and has even gone through the John Ford archives at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. There, one can view some of Ford’s early silent Westerns from Germany and Czechoslovakia.

In his 1993 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Lincoln at Gettysburg, Wills examines a performance that changed the course of our nation’s history. He notes that Lincoln’s famous address was not spontaneous but carefully worded and thought out. Lincoln’s 272 words struck a nerve, while the two-hour speech by orator Edward Everett is forgotten. Through that address, “Lincoln changed the way we conceive of ourselves,” says Wills.

Schooled by Jesuits, first as a seminarian studying philosophy at St. Louis University (where he received his B.A. in 1957) and then at Xavier University in Cincinnati (where he took an M.A. in philosophy in 1958), Wills studied both rhetoric and the kind of analysis that infuses all his work. His Jesuit education was capped with a second M.A. and a Ph.D. in classics from Yale University.

To this day, his education never stops. Wills reads constantly -- on planes, walking down the street.

His house in Evanston, Illinois, where he lives with his wife Natalie, is filled with books. We all wish we could say that we have read every book in our shelves. Wills can say that, and he has more shelves than most of us.

At the first landing are American novelists and poets. In the second-floor hall are Greek literature and philosophy. A converted second-floor bedroom, in which he writes, is devoted to English literature. Another second-floor room contains American political thought and Latin literature. In the third-floor hall are books on economics and religion, including four shelves on St. Augustine.

Wills begins each day at 7 a.m. by writing for several hours in longhand. He has plenty of writing deadlines to fill each morning: journalistic assignments for Time, New York Review of Books, Atlantic, and Vanity Fair; a semiweekly syndicated newspaper column; academic essays and lectures; and, of course, books.

Afternoons are spent interviewing subjects for stories and haunting libraries and bookstores. He also continues to teach one course a year at Northwestern University, often on a topic destined to fill his next book. Much of the rest of the time he reads -- newspapers, periodicals and countless books. He takes few notes in his research, relying primarily on his memory.

A performance passion of another kind fills many of his evenings -- listening to and attending the opera. He recalls the enthusiasm with which he listened to the Texaco Metropolitan Opera radio broadcasts when he was in high school. Wills believes that the layered complexity of opera first showed him how many layers of expression are possible through performance beyond mere words.

By Ronica Roth