One Man’s Intellectual Blossoming
By Tatiana Sanchez
How the work of famed writer James Baldwin lit a fire in scholar Nick Buccola ’01, who highlights the author’s legacy in his award-winning book.
It was a legendary debate that pitted two of America’s most influential figures against each other on a world stage. In February 1965, James Baldwin, the leading literary voice of the civil rights movement, faced off with William F. Buckley Jr., an influential intellectual known as the father of modern American conservatism.
Born just 15 months apart but from vastly different worlds, Buckley and Baldwin epitomized the political and racial tensions of their time. That day, in a packed auditorium at the University of Cambridge, they debated the idea that, “the American dream is at the expense of the American Negro.”
“I picked the cotton, and I carried it to market, and I built the railroad under someone else’s whip for nothing,” Baldwin famously stated. “The Southern oligarchy, which has still today so very much power in Washington, and therefore some power in the world, was created by my labor and my sweat, and the violation of my women and the murder of my children. This, in the land of the free, and the home of the brave.”
That tension and passion electrified Linfield University Professor Nicholas Buccola ‘01 decades later. Buccola spent a year researching Baldwin for an essay he published in a 2017 volume that closely examined the scope of Baldwin’s literary work. Though he had previously read some of Baldwin’s pieces in an English class at SCU, Buccola’s research for the essay plunged him completely into the world of the legendary activist and author.
An essay on Baldwin’s career wouldn’t suffice, he thought.
In 2019, Buccola authored the first book to closely focus on the debate. “The Fire is Upon Us” explores the vastly different identities of both men, the details of their historic faceoff and the significance it holds today.
“I was just obsessed and transfixed,” Buccola said. “You have these two guys who have such radically different worldviews, such radically different life experiences. And then they’re on this international stage at the high tide of the civil rights movement. The story there was just so powerful.”
“In a way you have this huge, super important, super urgent conflict in American history there on the stage in the form of these two people,” Buccola continued.
He won an Oregon Book Award for the book in May.
That Buccola— an esteemed political theorist, author and educator— is so enthralled by that moment isn’t surprising. His love for politics, philosophy and justice is evident in the books he writes and the courses that he teaches at Linfield in McMinnville, Oregon. It’s in his DNA.
That journey began at Santa Clara, where Buccola was a gifted standout whose work left a lasting impression on his professors and ultimately landed him in academia.
With encouragement from professors, thought-provoking courses and transformative experiences in Washington, D.C. and abroad, Buccola blossomed into a passionate and sharp student. His political theories and essays didn’t just impress his professors but in some instances inspired their work. Some used his writings—including his senior thesis on Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas—as samples in their courses years after Buccola graduated.
Today, Buccola lives at the intersection of philosophy, law, ethics, politics and social justice as the Elizabeth and Morris Glicksman Chair in Political Science at Linfield. He teaches coursework in political theory and public law and created the major in Law, Rights, and Justice—a passion project he said was influenced by his experiences at SCU.
Buccola also founded the Frederick Douglass Forum on Law, Rights, and Justice at Linfield, which allows students to participate in conversations about conceptions of justice, the rule of law and individual rights.
At its best, Linfield, like Santa Clara, is a place where compassion and community radiate throughout the campus, he said.
“There’s only four of us in the political science department, we get along really well, and our students are the envy of the campus in terms of the sense of community that we have,” said Buccola.
Buccola says his experiences at SCU helped shape his perspective on politics and law and ultimately inspired him to pursue a career in academia—a profession that once seemed unattainable.
“When you have a student that is clear on their commitment to scholarship and the life of the mind, that's something you really remember,” said Professor Timothy Lukes, who taught Buccola. “He really distinguished himself because of that resolution, that steadfastness, because of that serious maturity as a thinker. That really impressed me. It also meant that I needed to go a little harder on him.”
The Fox and the Hedgehog
Buccola didn’t exactly hit the ground running when he started at SCU in the late 1990s.
A quiet student with average grades who rarely participated in class, Buccola admits he was a late bloomer who discovered his passion later on in his college career.
He spent much of his freshman year working off campus and figuring out where he fit in socially. Both were important for his development but distractions from his school work, he said.
“By the time I got into my senior year I was taking nothing but political science and philosophy. I was in my element and I thrived,” Buccola said. “There is that old saying that ‘the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.’ I am a hedgehog.”
He struggled to engage in math and science courses early on. But after taking philosophy, ethics and politics courses in his junior and senior years, Buccola was hooked. He knew he belonged in that world.
As his advisor and mentor, Professor Terri Peretti said she had a front row seat to Buccola’s “intellectual blossoming.”
“It was really quite profound,” Peretti said. “As a freshman he was kind of quiet. He didn’t stand out. I think he earned decent grades. I liked Nick and thought he did well in class, but you really had to encourage him to speak up. That was profoundly different by his senior year.”
Peretti said Buccola’s transformation was sparked in part by a semester at American University in Washington, D.C. While the experience was a turning point for him intellectually, Buccola said it was a six-week trip throughout Italy with the late Professor Victor Vari that marked “a point that redefined my sense of the possible.”
“I grew up more in those six weeks than I had in the previous six years,” he said. “I was a political junkie when I arrived in D.C. in August 2000, but during the course of time there my relationship to politics changed. I loved that all we did all day, every day was talk about politics and everything was intensified by the heat of the 2000 election. But I was in the midst of becoming less sure of my own political convictions. I found myself playing more of a Socratic role (just like Dr. Lukes taught me in Political Science 30): asking a lot of questions and through that process learning a lot more about myself.”
‘SCU Pulverized My Sense of Certainty’
In his last year at SCU, Buccola enrolled in Peretti’s senior seminar, a 10 to 15-person course on constitutional theory and politics.
“He was just amazing in that class,” she recalled. “He participated at a high level, had a really deep interest in the topic and would bring in questions and comments and would write critical thought papers. I remember thinking, ‘I need to save this for the next time I teach it,’ because he would have these great insights.”
It was she who encouraged Buccola to go to grad school. They remain friends today.
“That was really a crucial moment for me because she said, ‘if you’re interested in potentially going into academia, this could be an option for you,’” recalled Buccola. “I thought being a professor would be totally cool but did not think it was a feasible life plan for me. She helped me pick out some schools that seemed like a good fit.”
Buccola earned a master’s degree and a Ph.D from the University of Southern California before moving to Oregon to teach at Linfield.
Though he grew up in a family that held mostly conservative political views, Buccola said his politics changed as he grew older—a result of the diverse perspectives, intellectual challenges and thought-provoking coursework he received at SCU. Though perhaps in previous years he may have identified with Buckley, these days he said he sees himself most in Baldwin.
“My study of politics, philosophy, and history at SCU pulverized my sense of certainty,” he said. “I had to revise so much of what I thought I knew. My core convictions to justice and human dignity remained the same, but I began to rethink how to realize those things in the world. Baldwin said his primary moral and political concern was the freedom and dignity of all human beings and that nothing annoyed him more than ‘the doctrinaire, those who were untroubled by doubt.’ Those two things sum it up for me: I want all people to be free and treated with dignity.”