Saying Farewell to a Man of Letters

The late John Leonard was a one-man cultural-studies symposium. Scott McLemee reminisces...

November 12, 2008

On the morning after John Leonard died, I put a couple of his books in my bag to read over coffee -- taking care to remove the dust jackets (now fragile after two or three decades) but somehow forgetting to bring my reading glasses. Half an hour later, there was little else to do but stare at my cup while running the whole episode through the familiar paces of The Psychopathology of Everyday Life.

Quite right, Herr Doktor Freud, quite right: John Leonard was a father figure. Within about 24 hours of arriving at my dormitory at the University of Texas at Austin as a freshman in 1981, I went over to the library and checked out, among other things, This Pen for Hire, a collection of his critical pieces that Doubleday published in 1973, when Leonard was the boy-genius editor of The New York Times Book Review. That factoid was not known to me at the time. Anyway, I was 18 and would not have considered someone in his early thirties to be a wunderkind.

But the book had been on the shelves alongside other volumes of cultural criticism, and the table of contents showed that the author had written about Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and sociology, and the New Left, and television, among other things. That was recommendation enough. None of the professors I would study with over the next few years would have much sense of this guy. (Another title plucked from the shelves that day, Derrida’s Writing and Difference, proved a better investment in that very limited regard.) The fluency and variety of Leonard’s intelligence, his knack for finding the gist of a book and pinning it down in a few quick lines -- these were the precise opposite of the virtues instilled by the academic habitus. And he knew it, and regretted nothing.

“A book reviewer isn’t really a critic,” he confessed in the opening pages of that collection. “He may want to be one, seizing each tome in his teeth like a beaver and dreaming the dam he could build with a little gnawing here and there. But he hasn’t a critic’s space, a critic’s time, or a critic’s audience. The editors of his newspaper and the readers of his column aren’t interested in his system-building impulse. They want a combination of plot synopsis and consumer guide, and they want it in 800 entertaining words.”

This fosters, he said, “an 800 word mind, which comes in handy at literary cocktail parties and symposia on The Sclerosis of Modernism.” But the urge to gnaw out a weltanschauung persists, even so, at least for anyone bringing a degree of seriousness to the work: “If the reviewer, the critic manqué, hasn’t the habit of mind and craft to ask what such-and-such a book implies in a social and moral context, he is about as useful to the species as a no-deposit, no-return bottle of non-caloric soda pop.”

Fifteen years later, John Leonard and his wife Sue would be the literary editors at The Nation and (unlike others in their position, known to brag that their Rolodexes were a map of all available talent worth knowing) constantly on the lookout for young writers. By that point, I had been publishing for several years, for the most part in tiny journals only ever read, it sometimes seemed, by their own contributors. Certainly I did not feel young. But they, it turned out, had been reading those tiny journals, and they wanted me to write for them, too. At some point I ended up in their living room, confessing debts of gratitude that dated to adolescence, and holding out copies of John’s books for him to sign. With the two of them, you never got the sense that raw enthusiasm was something you needed to hide behind a pose of sophistication. If you wanted to, that was your business, but they were in it for the joy of connection.

The coffee cooled. I stared off into space. John, of all people, would have understood the reflex of trying to analyze the unconscious implications of forgetting my glasses on this, of all occasions. "I've been promiscuous with my problematics, transparencies, synoptic recitations, and gratuitous actings-out," he once wrote. "The more we know, the more we see; the more we see, the greater our pleasure."

That morning it was too soon to read him, because it was too soon to accept that reading would be the only way to have any contact with him from now on.

Looking at the inscription in one of the books, I could make out that it was in two different colors of ink. Memory is cinematic: A quick dissolve to the scene of him taking the volume and finding that the first pen dried up halfway through the dedication. Which then meant fishing another one out of the desk in the crowded little office at the front of his house. It was packed with books and page proofs. He must have written millions of words in that office but it was hard to imagine him turning around without knocking something over.

We met or talked by phone every so often over the years. It always felt like I was interrupting. All the more so the last time, in early 2007, when he was already very ill but at work on the memoirs that everyone who knew him had long hoped he would write.

His proudest memory, he said, was being one of the guests that Toni Morrison invited along when she received her Nobel Prize for Literature. (He was one of the first critics to recognize and champion her work; likewise with his piece on One Hundred Years of Solitude.) Another tale that would presumably end up in the memoir was about how he’d once gotten Lionel Trilling, that quintessential New York intellectual, to admit that he did not simply own a TV set but watched it, and particularly enjoyed the show "Kojak."

John had already committed the latter recollection to print, somewhere; but listening to him repeat it now, it was less interesting to focus on the paragon of High Seriousness as fan of Telly Savalas than to try to picture my friend decades younger, challenging one of the Olympians.

He was sick and he looked it, and I sat listening with very mixed feelings, guilt among them. Treatment for lung cancer left him without much energy after late morning. Our visit was cutting into whatever time he had left to write that day. He didn’t seem to mind. No, wait that’s wrong; understatement can be misleading. There was more vital force on his end of the conversation, more appetite, than I know how to convey. He had a stack of books to review for Harper’s; he talked about them with gusto. That afternoon, he would watch videos of TV programs to write about them for New York magazine.

He was an entire cultural studies program housed in one body, and the seminar was not going to be canceled just because of some bad news. Along the way he reminded me that he read this column. Well, sure -- what didn’t the man follow? But it was clear that he wasn’t just making nice. His comments showed he had been paying close attention, from week to week. He said he liked the fact that he could never predict what my topic would be. At the same time (and this gets complicated) I suspect he could tell how much of an inspiration, a guiding influence, his own work had been. He was the ideal reader. He was my ideal, period.

“Imagine getting paid each day to sit around reading books,” he wrote 35 years ago, “and then having a column all your own to tell everybody what you think about those books. Even a pessimist would enjoy it, provided he liked to read and write. It is one of the few pleasures -- one thinks of sex -- that can’t be taxed, although the Internal Revenue Service has been making noises about all those free books a reviewer receives.... Perhaps we should pay our taxes in the form of first novels, and let the Treasury Department sell them to the Strand Book Store.”

Now I put down the volume in which these words appear: Even with glasses, I can barely see to type.


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