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Book Review: In "All Falling Faiths," a Respected Richmond Judge Pines for the 1950s

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J. Harvie Wilkinson, the scion of one of Richmond’s most prominent families, has written a lively memoir about his experience coming of age in the turbulent 1960s.

For years, Wilkinson has been successful and influential at whatever he’s chosen to do. For the past 30 or so years, he has been a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit. He is regarded as one of the most brilliant conservative jurists in the country.

Wilkinson studied at St. Christopher’s School, the Lawrenceville School, Yale University and the University of Virginia School of Law, ran for office and clerked for Lewis Powell, another influential Richmonder, at the U.S. Supreme Court.

He has written six books and worked as editorial page editor of The Virginian-Pilot. I knew him there when I was a young reporter in the late 1970s. I came to like his friendly, self-deprecating style, but rarely agreed with his editorials. 

“All Falling Faiths” is part personal memoir and part social critique of a decade that was a crucial turning point in American history.

It was the decade of social consciousness, civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights, the Vietnam War, loud rude protests and a stupendous reassessment of American values and institutions.

Somehow, Wilkinson has an unresolved problem with all of this. Although he understands the necessity of the turmoil and in some cases backs it, he simultaneously pines for the stability and comfort of the life he knew growing up in segregated Richmond. He sees the ’60s as responsible for much political turmoil today, such as rudeness, violence and, worst of all, the shouting down on college campuses of conservative ideas.

It’s hard to discern what Wilkinson so dislikes about that decade. He writes: “You can’t build a nation on nihilism: It takes vision and values to do that. What values? Family, church, school and country? Abiding words had altered meanings. The Sixties left no star to steer by.” That’s about as precise as he gets.

“I have gambled on making this a personal tale,” Wilkinson writes early on. “So I should start with a personal confession. Perhaps the last person who should be writing personally about the Sixties is a white, Protestant, Southern and distinctly privileged male.”

The way he describes it, he grew up in a 1950s bubble that was part “Gone With the Wind” and part British social class sitcom. He even calls his parents Father and Mother.

As a grade student at Richmond’s toniest private school for boys, he writes: “There were luncheons in the day and debutante parties often every evening, sometimes on sloped lawns, more often at The Commonwealth Club or The Country Club of Virginia. I went, because my parents’ friends were always hosting these parties, and Mother insisted, ‘no questions, dear,’ that I attend.”

So sexually repressed was Richmond of that era that young Jay ended up being sent off to Lawrenceville, an elite New Jersey prep school, because his father caught him watching “The Bob Cummings Show.” The television comedy featured a smooth professional photographer who banters saucily with curvy models.

Yale is a great awakening for Wilkinson, although Father wanted him to go to Princeton University. One reason was that “Princeton was pastoral and Wilsonian and still south of New York, the northernmost promontory where a Virginian could go and still maintain respectability.”

All-male Yale offers a buffet of ideas, great professors and activities for the young Richmonder. He sings in the glee club, plays tennis and ends up as a top official in the Political Union, a debating club whose president was John Kerry, later a U.S. senator and secretary of state.

But like most important colleges, Yale was going through the uproar that was gaining steam. John F. Kennedy had been shot, Lyndon Johnson was putting troops in Vietnam, black people were rioting in Detroit and Newark, New Jersey and just about every institution that Wilkinson had been taught to revere was under attack.

One of the most frightening elements for Wilkinson was the sexual revolution. Women were demanding equal opportunities with men. They were having sex beyond the confines of marriage and sometimes not just with men.

One of his friends kidded: “C’mon Wilk. You’re the youngest old fart I know. Just look at them. Behind every prudish mask, someone’s retching green with envy.” 

Perhaps not so surprisingly, Wilkinson chose to study Virginia history when he embarked on independent study. And, when it was time for graduate school, he naturally chose law school at the University of Virginia. There, he learned to love the law and Mr. Jefferson’s university. Life was orderly and good. The womb back in Richmond was not far away. As he writes: 

“Father’s closest friends in Richmond were lifelong Virginians. There was something vastly reassuring about them: they offered stone to build a self around, character that would not crumble. Their words were soft and muted in the habit of voices that need not be raised. They were Lewis Powell, Virginius Dabney, George Gibson — gentlemen in the true sense of being gentle men.”

What Wilkinson doesn’t mention is that Powell, a lawyer and former chairman of the Richmond School Board, was so upset by the nation’s cultural earthquakes that he wrote an infamous memo with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce urging corporations to take drastic steps to fight liberal change.

Not long afterward, young Jay was Powell’s clerk when Powell was on the U.S. Supreme Court.

Wilkinson went on to become a respected jurist himself. While not the most conservative federal appeals court in the country, the 4th Circuit is known for its reliability in defending gun rights and other similar views. It also is regarded as the most efficient circuit court in the country in terms of handling cases.

My biggest complaint with Wilkinson’s often funny book is that he never really proves that the ’60s were so awful. How are they the cause of “Falling Faiths?” I came of age during that time and regard it as a high point of my life.

The air was electric. Badly needed changes finally were happening. The country was becoming more just, more diverse and more thoughtful. Environmental disasters were being addressed. Schools were being integrated. Women were no longer trapped in the centuries-old social chastity belts.

Speaking of the 1950s, Wilkinson never acknowledges that much of the change in the 1960s actually started the decade before. Shocked by the horrors of World War II, young people returning home no longer were willing to accept old strictures. The result was Jack Kerouac, the Hell’s Angels, Elvis and black civil rights lawyers who ended segregation.

Wilkinson’s weakest chapter describes his training as an Army reserve officer. His class-based and snarky putdowns of his drill sergeant are over the top. Wilkinson finds the military dull and doesn’t go to Vietnam. As I read it, I kept thinking of another Virginian of Wilkinson’s generation — Lewis B. Puller Jr.

The son of a famous Marine Corps general, Puller volunteered to go to Vietnam as a Marine lieutenant. While leading his men, he tripped a mine. He lost his legs, an arm and part of a hand. After years of painful recovery, Puller tried unsuccessfully to get into Virginia politics.

Alcohol took over and Puller committed suicide, but not before writing one of the most powerful and graceful autobiographies I’ve ever read. In 1992, “Fortunate Son: the Healing of a Vietnam Vet” won the Pulitzer Prize for best biography. Although sincere and entertaining, “All Falling Faiths” is not in the same category. S

The title has been corrected to reflect "All Falling Faiths" not "All Failing Faiths." Style regrets the error.

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