Prompted by Vanity Fair’s yearly essay contest to define a “national reality” in a country with such a rich virtual one, Ventura resident Kipling Buis instinctively turned to 19th century travel writing — “a great vehicle for satire,” he says — to focus specifically on the prompt’s secondary question regarding reality: “Did we ever have a grasp of it?”
Buis’ historical understanding of American society in the 1800s shaped his examination of the present. As he ran through the list of the prominent voices in cultural criticism — Alexis de Tocqueville, Charles Dickens — he landed on an out-of-print author whose fame was ultimately overshadowed by that of her son, Anthony. For Buis, Frances Trollope’s scathing Domestic Manners of the Americans, published in 1832, was a handy guidebook in tracing the origins of America’s paradoxical reality.
The 35-year-old technical writer was rewarded handsomely for his familiarity with the now-obscure etiquette expert Trollope, winning Vanity Fair’s top prize and a byline in the June 2007 issue of the magazine. More than his resourcefulness, however, he was recognized for his smooth style: a sleek balance of academic exploration and biting skepticism that seems at home nestled between the columns of Michael Wolff and even the publication’s enfant terrible, Christopher Hitchens.
While Trollope slammed the average, upper-class American’s self-congratulatory habit of extolling the virtues of liberty while brutalizing his own slaves, Buis writes, “In fact denial, more than Christianity, is probably the true American religion. You need nothing short of religious faith — untainted by godless fact and logic — to slap a no blood for oil sticker on the bumper of your S.U.V. and fail to see the irony.”
“This sort of contrast between one’s self-image and one’s public image has always been the stuff of comedy,” he continues, “but it’s getting harder and harder to laugh about the gap between appearance and reality in America.”
Buis deftly responds to the charge that Americans simply don’t read (a charge most recently made by Al Gore in promotion of his latest book, The Assault on Reason), writing, “Books, by imparting a sense of continuity and context, can enlarge the imagination and enable you to weigh evidence, compare, contrast, and make important connections — in short, to exercise skepticism.”
That Buis himself is well read helped him pull together what might have initially been disparate threads of reasoning. Buis spent only two days writing the essay itself, while his approach to the topic had been marinating in the weeks since he had first read the prompt. Within the confines of just over a thousand words, Buis had far more argument stowed in his war chest. He explains that beyond Trollope’s words of censure against American hypocrisy, she also expressed concern for the flimsy levees of New Orleans.
“Practically every page has something prophetic like that,” he says.
He gave the editors of Vanity Fair enough to work with, however.
“One of the editors called me and told me that I won,” Buis says. “Then we went through a little editing process and fact-checking. I was really impressed with how meticulous they were. They basically went over every word of my article. I had to defend everything. I’m glad I didn’t try to fake it by writing about de Tocqueville — they would’ve exposed me in an instant.”
Recognition for Buis’ airtight essay includes $15,000, a trip to Tuscany and entry into an esoteric literary enclave not even a decade old: the tower at Santa Maddalena, where Baroness Beatrice Monti has established a selective writers retreat that entertains the likes of novelist Zadie Smith and Gore Vidal. The unspoken gift within the trip to Italy is an introduction to the well connected Monti, whose reputation as an old-world literary career-maker precedes her.
“I’m planning on getting really serious this summer and cranking out the great American novel,” Buis says, “so I’ll have the manuscript to work on this fall.”
Buis has read Vanity Fair avidly since the July 2005 issue, which famously outed Mark Felt as Deep Throat, the source whose leaked information brought down President Nixon for his involvement in the Watergate Hotel break-in. Although Buis had once dismissed the magazine as a puffy fashion rag, he was quickly won over by its substantive reporting.
“Dick Cheney denounced Vanity Fair. He said it was one of the most hostile and anti-Bush publications in the country,” Buis says, listing the magazine’s virtues. “You do see stuff in there that’s really scathing, more scathing than what you see in an old leftist rag like The Nation. You don’t really see too much muckraking anymore.”