John Leonard Died for Our Sins

March 22, 2012 | 6 6 min read

coverFor John Leonard, books were nothing less than an essential source of life, every bit as important as food, or oxygen, or love. For this reason, the title of the new posthumous collection of his essays and reviews is perfect: Reading For My Life: Writings, 1958-2008.

Here’s Leonard, brainy, wise, and self-effacing, painting his own self-portrait of the critic as a young man:

Like lonely kids everywhere, I entered into books as if into a conspiracy — for the company, of course, and for narrative and romance and advice on how to be decent and brave and sexy. But also for transcendence, a zap to the synaptic cleft; for a slice of the strange, the shock of an Other, a witness not yet heard from, archaeologies forgotten, ignored, or despised; that radioactive glow of genius in the dark: grace notes, ghosts, and gods. It’s an old story, and I won’t kid you: I became an intellectual because I couldn’t get a date.

And here he is on the way books shaped his sensibility:

I picked up my plain American style from Mark Twain and Ernest Hemingway, my dreaminess from Greek myths and The King James Bible, my social-justice politics from John Dos Passos and Ralph Ellison, my nose for phonies from J.D. Salinger, and my delusions of grandeur from James Joyce. At first I wanted to be Huck Finn and Holden Caulfield, not to mention Prometheus…After a fast start, I haven’t published a novel in twenty years. The public has a way of letting you know that it will pay more for you to discover and celebrate excellence in other people, and rather less for your own refined feelings.

coverSo that is what he spent his life doing: discovering and celebrating excellence in others. It would be impossible for any reader to agree with all of Leonard’s opinions, not because they tended to be left of center, but because he had so many of them on so many topics — literary, political, cultural, personal — and he didn’t just hold them, he tended to brandish them. (I say that as a compliment.) He regarded Milan Kundera as a genius. I say no way, unless you equate cleverness with genius. Leonard also loved the ancients, epics, myths, fairy tales, the wisdom of primitive man. He disliked the Beats after a while (“the spoiled spawn of college literary magazines” dressed in their black turtlenecks and dirty white sneakers), and he positively loathed Richard Nixon. Reviewing Six Crises, Leonard had this to say about the slush-fund scandal that led to the Checkers speech: “The Fund was a nasty little business, a third-rate scandal, really, and rather minor all the way around. But out of it emerged Nixon the cliche machine, the mechanical dispensary: drop in your coins, and out gurgles a wet and sticky sentimentality, a poisonous brew concocted out of mother, America, dogdom, cloth coats, really folks, and all the Technicolored garbage of the boy next door.” That was in 1962. I’m glad I haven’t read anything Leonard wrote about Nixon after 1975. My guess is it would be like watching someone empty an Uzi into a lifeless Clydesdale.

coverConsidering how drunk he was on books — he claimed to have imbibed 13,000 in his lifetime, and I see no reason to doubt him — it’s amazing that Leonard had the time and inclination to sip on television, which he did for many years as TV critic for New York magazine and as a regular guest on CBS Sunday Morning. This book contains a shining piece of fruit from that productive sideline, an essay called “Ed Sullivan Died for Our Sins,” from Leonard’s 1997 book, Smoke and Mirrors: Violence, Television, and Other American Cultures.

In reading this long essay, two things become clear. First, Leonard was not only a brilliant critic, he was also a superb reporter. He tells us that Sullivan lived in a suite at New York’s Delmonico Hotel, with his devoted wife, a Renoir landscape and a small Gauguin. Sullivan rose at 11 a.m. and breakfasted on sweetened pears, iced tea, and a lamb chop. He had no limo. “Ed is a regular guy,” Leonard concludes. “Except…he’s made somehow of air.”

Second, Leonard was always writing about something larger than what he was writing about. In this case, he was using the story of a remarkable showman as a way to write about the atomization of our popular culture. The Ed Sullivan Show was democracy at its purest. “By being better at what they did than anyone else who did it, however odd or exotic, anyone could achieve his show, but nobody inherited the right,” Leonard writes. “Ed’s emblematic role was to confirm, validate, and legitimize singularity, for so long as the culture knew what it wanted and valued, and as long as its taste was coherent.” Along came the 1960s, and out went coherence, with a subsequent shove from cable, satellites, the Internet. What we got in place of Ed Sullivan, according to Leonard, is sulfurous remorse: “Sometimes late at night, in the rinse cycle of sitcom reruns, cross-torching evangelicals, holistic chiropodists, yak-show yogis, and gay-porn cable, surfing the infomercials with burning leaves in my food-hole, I think there must be millions like me out there, all of us remote as our controls, trying to bring back Ed, as if by switching channels fast enough in a pre-Oedipal blur, we hope to reenact some Neolithic origin myth and from the death of this primeval giant, our father and our Fisher King, water with blood a bountiful harvest of civility.”

Reviewing Smoke and Mirrors in The New York Times, Sven Birkerts expressed admiration, surprise, and disbelief. The admiration: “John Leonard is a writer of such consummate grace, wit and provocation that it almost doesn’t matter what he settles on as his subject.” The surprise: “I’m surprised at how little of Mr. Leonard’s invective is directed at the corporate octopus that lurks behind every wall plug.” And the disbelief: “Does he really believe that the medium shows us who we are rather than what a group of mammoth corporations thinks we’ll agree to pretend we are?” Good question, and I’m afraid the answer, too often, is yes.

Yet Leonard’s writing about television can also be almost painfully personal and acute. He tells us that while battling alcoholism he couldn’t bear to watch episodes of St. Elsewhere or Cheers because he didn’t ever want to see the insides of another hospital or saloon. The man knew pain and he cared about everything, even sitcoms.

But let’s get back to Leonard’s writings about books, which is where he shines brightest. His love of good writing is not only infectious, it’s also mind-expanding because his tastes were so elastic and catholic. He champions many of the usual American suspects, including Robert Stone, Don DeLillo, Philip Roth, Thomas Pynchon, Richard Powers, E.L. Doctorow (who wrote an introduction for this book), Michael Chabon, and Joan Didion. He also torches a few, including Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese, Norman Mailer, and Jonathan Lethem. His boyhood delight in the shock of the Other led him to reach way beyond our razor-wired national borders to embrace Günter Grass (Germany), Jacobo Timerman (Argentina), Amos Oz (Israel), Gabriel García Márquez (Colombia), Edward Said (Palestine), Eduardo Galeano (Uruguay), and Václav Havel (Czech Republic). And before it was fashionable, Leonard was a champion of many women writers, including Maxine Hong Kingston, Cynthia Ozick, Nan Robertson, Maureen Howard, and Doris LessingToni Morrison was so grateful for Leonard’s support that she invited him to accompany her to Stockholm when she accepted her Nobel Prize. As Mary Gordon writes in the appreciations that close this book, “This is what John did for so many of us: He made us believe that the reader of our dreams is out there, waiting for us, listening, supporting, understanding, seeing, hoping always for our best, never relishing our missteps but cheering us on in this ridiculous enterprise in which we are involved.”

Edmund Wilson was often extolled as one of America’s greatest critics, but he insisted he was just a working journalist. I view Leonard the same way — not as some vaporous highbrow, but as a prolific, wide-eyed, and deeply erudite observer of the passing contemporary scene, equally at home writing about sitcoms and Nobel laureates, happy to show his face on television, and as willing to cash a paycheck from Playboy as from The New York Review of Books. For him, it was always the message, never the medium. He died of lung cancer in 2008 at the age of 69, and when I look at the blasted landscape of American book publishing and pop culture today, I can’t help but think that John Leonard died for our sins.

In a blurb on the back of Reading For My Life, Colum McCann calls Leonard a “national treasure.” I agree with him, and I almost agree with Sven Birkerts. John Leonard was a writer of such consummate grace, wit, and provocation that it doesn’t matter what he settled on as his subject. Note that I’ve elided Birkerts’s qualifying word almost.

is a staff writer for The Millions. He is the author of the novels Motor City Burning, All Souls’ Day, and Motor City, and the nonfiction book American Berserk. His writing has appeared in numerous publications, including Granta, The New York Times, The (London) Independent, L.A. Weekly, Popular Mechanics, and The Daily Beast. He lives in New York City.

6 comments:

  1. “he claimed to have imbibed 13,000 in his lifetime, and I see no reason to doubt him” Well, if you read about 200 books a year, and multiply that figure by 65, you get 13,000. I see no reason not to use basic arithmetic.

    As for the patently absurd Birkerts claim about Leonard being a naif who couldn’t ken that popular art was “what a group of mammoth corporations thinks we’ll agree to pretend we are” (when, in fact, he often criticized corporations), one could make the same claim about books or any other topic — were one to remain committed to chronic cynicism and staunch skepticism. John Leonard genuinely loved books to the very end. He was generous and forward-thinking enough to keep tabs on everything — including the early wave of book blogs. Birkerts, easily one of the blandest and backwards critics working today (his thoughts on digital book culture alone are laughable), is hardly the best metric. It was to John Leonard’s great credit that he wished to go on sustaining his passions so late in life His life was an example that most of today’s critics, who are mostly a risk-averse and deadened bunch that tend to burn out not long after become intoxicated by preposterous modifiers, seductive reductionism, and a sense of obligation over passion, might learn from.

  2. This posthumous selection from the work of John Leonard deserves to be widely read, but the only thing that would properly sum up the man and his career is a reprinted collection of all of his books–the novels, the criticism, the personal essays about Private Lives, and everything else. Get on it, Library of America.

  3. Hats off to The Millions and Bill Morris for reviewing Reading For My Life. (Whoever came up with the title needs to see me; it used to be the working title for my own memoir of reading. Oh well.)
    I first discovered John Leonard when I began to teach myself how to write book reviews. My first hero was Richard Eder when he wrote for the New York Times Book Review, because in every review he would come up with a sentence of truth that just took my breath away. But I was looking for how to not be boring as a reviewer (I may have read more book reviews than books and I am easily bored as it is.) John Leonard showed me how it’s done.
    I would like to be the female John Leonard, though I am pretty sure I won’t make it. I am too old, I started too late. But whenever I am stuck I read one of his reviews. I have some of his books but agree with Edward Champion (another guy who is seldom boring) that we need all John Leonard’s writings reprinted; they are hard to find.

  4. Here’s one specific example from the book in response to Birkerts’s outrageous suggestion in 1997 (especially silly, seeing as how Leonard did commentaries for many years on CBS SUNDAY MORNING) that Leonard was merely some agreeable, populist-minded critic that he could not fathom how corporate tendrils snaked their way around the medium. It’s from “Ed Sullivan Died for Our Sins” (and, yes, isn’t that a marvelous essay?):

    “Even the Golden Age of TV drama was full of home-shopping Ibsens like Paddy Chayefsky and greeting-card Kafkas like Rod Serling, of bargain-basement Italian neorealism and kitchen-sink Sigmund Freud, where everybody explained too much in expository gusts, yet all were simultaneously inarticulate, as if a want of eloquence were a proof of sincerity and an excess of sincerity guaranteed nobility of sentiment. And how clean were they, really? So clean, that Chayefsky’s own family in THE CATERED AFFAIR had to be Irish instead of Jewish, as the butcher in MARTY was somehow Italian. So clean that when Serling wanted to tell the story of Emmett Till, a black Chicago teenager lynched for whistling at a Mississippi white woman, U.S. STEEL HOUR turned it into a pawnbroker’s murder in a Thornton Wilder sort of OUR TOWN. So clean, that the Mars candy-bar company would not allow a single reference on CIRCUS BOY to competitive sweets like cookies or ice cream, and that THE ALCOA HOUR was so solicitous of a good opinion about aluminum it wouldn’t let Reginald Rose set a grim teleplay in a trailer park, and, most famously, the American Gas Company insisted on removing any mention of ‘gas chambers’ from a Playhouse 90 production at JUDGMENT AT NUREMBERG.”

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