Praxis Circle recently had the privilege of interviewing Dr. Joseph “Jody” Bottum—author, philosopher, and intellectual with a focus on literature, religion, and politics. Formerly serving as the editor of First Things, he is now professor and director of The Classics Institute at Dakota State University.

One among many extremely interesting talents Jody demonstrated during our interview was an incredible gift in poetry and in reading poetry. Below, we share a sneak peak from our interview where Jody reads some of his own work with captivating vigor from his recently published book of poetry, Spending the Winter (2022, St. Augustine’s Press, South Bend, Indiana). It is fun!

In her introduction last month to one of his private poetry readings, Contributor Mary Eberstadt captured Jody’s spirit in describing the influence of his work. She has given us permission to share it with our audience. It is a wonderful introduction to his PC interview to be presented in full later in the year. Please click here to receive notification of its release.

Poetry, Prose, and A Mind of Winter: An Evening with Joseph Bottum

 

[Editors’ note: On April 23, Joseph Bottum gave a reading of his latest book of poetry, Spending the Winter, at the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, DC. Following is the introduction delivered by author Mary Eberstadt.]

 

The first time I had the pleasure of talking at length with Joseph Bottum was on May 24, 1997. The date is significant for three reasons. First, it was the occasion of a mutual friend’s wedding. Second, this was also the first time I met Faith Bottum—Jody and Lorena’s daughter. She was only a few weeks old, and Jody was escorting her around the wedding reception in one of those ubiquitous baby buckets. Though some mental images dim with time, this introduction to Faith did not. She was every bit as elegant as a baby as she has been ever since—throughout the girlhood that Jody has immortalized in some of his poems, during her years of college and beyond, and on up to her current gracing of operations at the Wall Street Journal.

 

The third reason I recall that date of May 24, 1997 was Jody himself. Those acquainted with the scribbling trade will understand what I mean in saying that for a writer, he cut a dashing figure. And not only because his clothes were clean. He was perfectly attired for the occasion—as I recall, in a straw-colored linen jacket. He was also coordinated, balancing sartorial flair not only with a baby bucket, but with a cigarette tracing out fairy circles in the air, constantly in motion. His hair, long and sandy brown, was likewise in motion—one more accessory alongside the baby and the smokes.

 

You’d have to consult portraits of bards to discern whether Jody’s mop was more of an Oscar-Wildean sort of coif, or a Lord-Byronic one. But its capital-R Romantic signature set the stage perfectly for this visit tonight, years later, of this visiting poet.

 

That first acquaintance also conveyed an inkling of Jody’s gifts. He had thoughts to share about literature, philosophy, Washington DC, Georgetown, New York intellectuals, and a hundred other precincts. The conversation turned out to be a quintessential opening to what would become years of friendship that my husband Nick and I have been privileged to enjoy with Jody and Lorena, his beloved late wife, and other mutual friends—first in Washington, then in New York, later via long-distance in South Dakota—punctuated by parties and conferences where one would find Jody in attendance. I mention the social ledger here in part to humanize our guest of honor this evening, whose contributions to not one, but several literary genres, might otherwise appear daunting. Following are a few areas in which Jody’s ideas have left visible marks.

 

First, his years as editor at both the Weekly Standard and First Things magazine meant that he was reading, shaping, influencing, and responding to many of the country’s best writers around during years when both magazines were critical repositories of conservative and other heterodox thought. History records editors of prestigious journals and publishing houses who made such editing their life’s work. For Jody, vital though it has been—or vital though his fellow writers hope it has been—such toil over the labors of others has been one of several signature accomplishments.

 

In another turn would have amounted to a lifetime achievement for many, Jody wrote the most penetrating analysis of the collapse of American Protestantism. This book appeared ten years ago, in 2014. No one who ventures an opinion about the state of organized religion in the United States today can speak with authority unless they first grapple with An Anxious Age: The Post-Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of America. Reviewing it elsewhere, I summarized: “Contrary to the widely held secularization thesis, according to which the decline of Christianity is inevitable, Bottum argues instead that the Puritans and Protestants of yesteryear still walk the country in new and rarely recognized “secular” guises….The mainline hasn’t so much vanished as gone underground to become what (Flannery) O’Connor once derisively called “the Church without Christ.” Writing more recently in Harper’s, Ian Buruma tacitly affirmed the book’s pre-eminence, and noted that new volumes by two well-known authors drew substantially on Jody’s analysis in An Anxious Age.

 

Or consider Jody’s potential for autobiography via his essay collected in a volume I edited in 2007, called Why I Turned Right: Baby Boom Conservatives Chronicle Their Political Journeys. Given that intrinsically interesting question—why do you believe what you believe about politics?—Jody answered, then expanded, characteristically, into other absorbing terrain, observing that “…there are other natural conservatisms built into life…Language, for instance, has always seemed to me to have something inherently conservative. Deep down in the way it works; it preserves old words, old senses, and old commitments, and when you fall in love with the way words go together, you necessarily open yourself to the old ways of understanding the world. And then there’s memory, the backward-casting struggle to keep alive those precise parts of time…[real] conservatism usually begins when you find in yourself a limit, a place beyond which you will not go.”

 

Other inventive non-fiction includes his 2011 book, The Second Spring, a volume of old verse scored by the author into original music. Literary aficionados will not want to miss his 2020 The Decline of the Novel, another dissection that answers a question everyone wonders about: what happened to good, long, literary storytelling?

 

Then there’s Jody’s poetry. Like most of us, I haven’t any formal training in the subject, and only know it when I see it. So, let’s allow the experts a word. A thorough essay by poet James Matthew Wilson called “The Neo-Latinate Imagination of Joseph Bottum,” published last year at the Acton Institute’s Religion and Liberty, delves into the technical and other intricacies of Jody’s verse. Wilson summarizes, “Bottum has a fine ear for the strong rhythms of song, an eye for the vivid phrasing that rekindles familiar details, and finally a voice blessed with a classical clarity that can speak of public and private matters, of death and politics alike.”

 

Just so. Spending the Winter, the book we’ll hear from tonight, abounds with soaring, lump-in-the-throat poetry. To listen is to understand why Jody and Sally Thomas’ new Substack, Poems Ancient and Modern, is now the fastest-growing Substack in the poetry genre.

 

We’re here to enjoy verse in a moment when intellectual and literary life is often decried as flattened. Critics point to our politics, our leaders, and our national divisions as sources of what’s said to be an artistic American wasteland. But as those gathered will know, it ain’t so. It just isn’t. Jody’s verse, like his other contributions, is testimony to the truth that it remains possible to be a man or woman of letters, after all—even now; perhaps even especially now, when unique, clear-eyed, artistic witness may be what the country needs most.

 

Mary Eberstadt is a senior research fellow at the Faith and Reason Institute.