It was Leonard’s son who yesterday identified the ten most important words in his father’s gigantic lexicon. “Freud, I’m sure,” Andrew Leonard said, “would caution against the perils involved in posthumously editing one’s father.”
And yet when Leonard taught criticism at the Columbia Journalism School, his stepdaughter, Jen Nessel, recalled, “his first assignment was to trash a classic, and his last assignment was always for the students to review their fathers.”
Nessel remembered Leonard as “a giant head, a benign version of the great and powerful Oz before the curtain’s pulled back.” His first words to his granddaughter Tiana, Nessel recalled, were “class struggle.”
Next up was Toni Morrison, who called Leonard “the first critic who took me seriously as a writer.” When she left Lorain, Ohio, Morrison had New York on her mind. She assumed the city would be “fast, smart, generous, open-minded, and free. It wasn’t all of those things all the time—but John was.”
E.L. Doctorow said he had been stunned when Leonard had tracked him down to apologize after the Times Book Review had run “a short dismissive review of a novel of mine, The Book of Daniel.”
Here was the editor of the TBR apologizing for a bad review!.…He did not draw his identity from the job he held, the institution he served. With that brilliantly capacious mind he seemed to have read everyone, and to be on top of everything. A mind of swift-moving, synaptically fired thoughts so that his sentences seemed to race along and sometimes pile up in their effort to stay abreast.…Those club-sandwich sentences.
Then Doctorow offered an example of Leonard’s capacity to eviscerate with economy, by quoting his review of Norman Mailer’s The Spooky Art: Some Thoughts on Writing in the New York Review of Books:
[Mailer wrote] “That is one of the better tests of the acumen of the writer. How subtle, how full of nuance, how original, is his or her sense of the sinister?” [Leonard asked] (George Eliot? Chekhov? Stendhal?) “Few good writers come out of prison. Incarceration, I think, can destroy a man’s ability to write.” (Cervantes, Dostoevsky, Rimbaud, Koestler, Genet, Havel, Solzhenitsyn?) “It is not only that no other man writes so well about women [as D.H. Lawrence], but indeed is there a woman who can?” (If not Doris Lessing, Nadine Gordimer, Grace Paley, Toni Morrison, or Colette, how about Shikibu Murasaki?) “It is possible that Bellow succeeds in telling us more about the depths of the black man’s psyche than either Baldwin or Ellison.” (No, it isn’t.)
Like his very close friend Molly Ivins, Leonard was adored by many of us for his unflinching left-wing principles. His review of James B. Stewart’s DisneyWar enumerates a few of them:
But those of us who grew up dreaming of teaching, journalism or nonprofit social service, for whom the point of an economy is to provide jobs, food, medicine and space for its citizens, for whom leveraged buyouts, hostile takeovers, prestaggered cash flows and capital liquidity ratios were a superstitious sort of Pythagorean number mysticism—who have always rooted for Jesse James, Calamity Jane and Willy Loman against railroads, Daddy Warbucks and J. R. Ewing, who have lined up with deerslayers and river pirates against J. P. Morgan as immortalized by Steichen, the avatars of Donald the Vulgarian and the severed ear of a kidnapped Getty—are nauseated by the celebrity chic of the megapolists who show up every year at Herb Allen’s Sun Valley media and entertainment conference to get their mugs shot by Annie Leibovitz for Vanity Fair, who would have fired Franz Kafka for looking in his mirror, seeing the modern corporation and inventing workmen’s comp, who might even have been happier in Regency England, when the poor were hanged for poaching rabbits. But then we have also wondered why the downsized and homeless haven’t stoned the smoky windows and slashed the radial tires of every stretch limo on the streets of the imperial city.
Boy was he prescient about that “superstitious sort of Pythagorean number mysticism.”