I think in Liebling’s case it also came from living in another culture (specifically France) and learning another language (specifically French). Learning another language teaches you to be clear in your own. You can’t talk like you’re double-parked! And living in another culture makes you think more about the way things are done in your own. It’s interesting, Liebling was a New Yorker, he had the city in his DNA, yet he was still curious about it.
Although he writes about a wide variety of things in this volume alone—boxing, politics, journalism, food—his voice is remarkably consistent.
Yes. If he were standing in a bar talking to me about this stuff (which is very unlikely), the voice would be the same. Another thing: he never tried to sound like Hemingway, which was very common back then. That was supposed to be the ultimate American style. It was spare, it was tough, it wasn’t Henry James clearing his throat every time he thought of a comma. But I’m sure Liebling got more out of Stendhal than out of Hemingway.
Which piece in this book would you call an especially good encapsulation of Liebling’s methods as a reporter?
Let’s take “The Earl of Louisiana.” Liebling is a New Yorker, he knows the outline of the story from the newspapers. But like any good reporter, he goes down to Louisiana without making his mind up before he leaves. He listens to Earl Long, listens to them all—even the racist types, some of them so absurd you have to laugh out loud—and finds something valuable as a writer. And he comes back with this marvelous thing, which is still lively and true of New Orleans to this day. Liebling went to what was essentially a foreign place—and it turns out not to be, it’s just another parish.
What does Liebling have to say to the current generation of journalists?
I hope the new generation of journalists will see that there’s a way to bring the world to life for the reader. The reporter is going somewhere the reader can’t go, or will never go. The press card is still a passport to worlds that are beyond most people.
And what do you think Liebling would make of beleaguered state of the news industry?
I don’t think he would ever say, gee, I refuse to work for the Huffington Post. I think he would see it the way I do, as something inevitable: the delivery system is changing. Probably he would speak for keeping journalism alive, keeping reporting alive. He would insist on professionalizing the process, and making sure there are editors, and that people get paid a living wage. This is not a hobby.
With any luck, these LOA reissues will bring his work to a new audience.
I hope so. Liebling does have a great lesson to teach: that there’s a way of describing the world we all live in by focusing on the things that are often ignored. And judging from the emails I get from total strangers, the key word is delight. You can learn something and be delighted too.
A final question. How did you get involved in the LOA editions of Liebling’s work?
It was simple: they asked me. And I said, “When do I start?” The war reporting I put together in the first book is also terrific, I should say. Liebling is willing to put in the boring parts, and what happens in the tent the night before the battle is always as interesting as the battle itself.
So you went back through it all.
It was a joy to be paid to reread all this stuff in a sustained way. When you get to my age, (I’m seventy-four), you start to reread all the books you read when you were young. Some of them are embarrassing. But some are better than you remembered, because you had a life in between. Rereading Liebling was a delightful trip.