Cultural critic John Leonard died Wednesday night at the age of sixty-nine. The following profile, by Meghan O’Rourke, was published in CJR’s January/February 2007 issue.
John Leonard was a literary prodigy who became editor of The New York Times Book Review at the tender age of thirty-two; today he is sixty-seven, and during a recent interview with Bill Moyers, sounded very much like a “lion in winter.” He has been writing cultural criticism in mainstream newspapers and magazines — among them The New York Times, New York, Harper’s, The New York Review of Books, and The Nation — since 1960. Yet for those readers who have encountered his writing piecemeal over the years — an essay here, a review there — it may be hard to trace the contours of his critical persona. Unlike James Wood, the chief literary critic of The New Republic, he doesn’t have a grand theory of fiction; unlike Michael Dirda, a senior editor at The Washington Post Book World, he is not a man of belles lettres; unlike the novelist and essayist Dale Peck, he is not a pugilist. He is neither a Freudian, nor a Marxist, nor a proponent of one aesthetic camp or another. Rather, his is the role of the discerning enthusiast, the Saturday reviewer who has read far more than most people and who writes about his discoveries with greater attention, insight, and felicity of self-expression than most of us can muster on any day of the week.
It would be fine to leave it at that, if it weren’t that the word “enthusiast” sounds dilettantish, somehow not quite serious. So let us try this: John Leonard is our primary progressive, catholic literary critic; he is also, with the exception of Susan Sontag, the best American literary critic to come of age in the 1960s, when the destabilizing forces of rock ’n’ roll and popular culture ransacked Axel’s Castle, that modernist symbol of aesthetic detachment, and began throwing parties in the inner keep. Like Sontag and Camille Paglia, Leonard has been one of the few literary essayists who can make sense of the erosion of highbrow culture, ruing elements of its loss while embracing the forces of popular culture. He is a man who loves The Beatles and Arthur Koestler, Joan Baez and William Wordsworth; and whom we can trust, now, when he worries that our intellectual culture is being, if not “dumbed down,” then coarsened. He may be an “old fart,” as he describes himself. But in outlook he is still a young progressive — the word-drunk man who has done for literary criticism what Lester Bangs did for rock journalism.
“I am aware that my own regard for books is overly worshipful,” Leonard observed in a state-of-the-culture essay from his most recent collection, Lonesome Rangers. The bluntness about his own weakness is characteristic, a sign of the deep self-consciousness that imbues his writing. That self-consciousness helped Leonard cultivate a vibrant critical voice in the 1960s and ’70s. But as the world of literary journalism is being shaken yet again — this time, by the shrinking coverage of books in the mainstream press and the simultaneous growth of the blogosphere — one wonders whether Leonard’s particular critical virtues, his combination of idiosyncratic rigor and off-the-cuff immediacy, will find ways to survive and thrive.
A critic’s reputation is usually a function of his or her authority and expertise. But Leonard came of age in an era when authority itself became suspect. Born in 1939 to an Episcopalian mother and an Irish Catholic father, he grew up in Long Beach, California. As an undergraduate at Harvard in the late 1950s, Leonard was schooled in the New Criticism, a method of analysis that focuses exclusively on a literary work’s formal characteristics. “I was hit over the head with it, but I knew I didn’t like it, because I knew I liked social context and politics and history. So I read Freud, I read Marx, I read theory. When theory takes over, I cease to be interested, but you need to try on all these glasses.”
After getting his B.A., Leonard went on to work in the antiwar movement and the civil rights movement. His reading was shaped by his politics, and his politics shaped his reading. Along the way, he began reviewing books, and writing novels, and in 1967 he came to New York as a junior editor at The New York Times Book Review.
By 1971, he had been named the Book Review’s editor in chief — “through a series of accidents, deaths,” he says. He turned it into a provocative and combative section that many still think represents a high point in the publication’s history. On the cover, he put reviews of daring novels by relative unknowns (like End Zone, Don DeLillo’s second novel), and he published thoughtful reviews of the literature of debate surrounding the Vietnam War. After he stepped down, in 1975, he began reviewing books as a daily critic for the Times, and, later, movies and TV for other venues, including CBS Sunday Morning and New York. Although he has written widely on popular culture, he considers literary criticism to be his true vocation. “I love pop culture. I reviewed TV for decades and got a kick out of it, but nobody is going to tell me that there are deeper abiding complexities and discomfitures than those I find in great literature,” he says. And it is in his literary criticism that the outlines of a powerful life of the mind truly take shape.