The Enthusiast

Why you should trust the literary critic John Leonard on the coarsening of our intellectual culture.
November 6, 2008

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.”

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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.

Leonard has published six essay collections — This Pen for Hire (1973), Private Lives in the Imperial City (1979), The Last Innocent White Man in America (1993), Smoke and Mirrors (1997), When the Kissing Had to Stop (1999), and Lonesome Rangers (2002) — and to read any one of them is to be struck by how the pieces speak to one another. A Leonard collection is not a miscellany. From the start, his work has expressed powerful ambivalences about inherited systems of thinking. His main strength, as a reader of fiction and literary nonfiction, is the way he complicates what are often framed as zero-sum debates. Among his best writing in recent years is an essay on Primo Levi that scrutinizes the assumption of some critics — the novelist Cynthia Ozick among them — that Levi was too forgiving of the Holocaust, too willing to put his hatred and damage aside. For those critics, Levi’s final book, The Drowned and the Saved, in which he writes about the horrors of camp prisoners’ collaborating with Nazis to avoid being exterminated, marks an ascent to form because it finally unleashes Levi’s rage and hate. But for Leonard, it is a further tragedy, the manifestation of the encroaching unbalance that led Levi, finally, to kill himself. The earlier Levi, he suggests, “argues that perhaps something of the best of us, skeptical, ironic and aware, could outlive the worst.” Why wish for those who bring us news from horror to have no sense of forgiveness?

If the primary mode of literary criticism is exposition, Leonard’s method tends to be immersion. His reviews rarely treat a single book by the author at hand; rather, he gathers together a mass of textual and biographical materials. In his essays on Saul Bellow, Bruce Chatwin, Ralph Ellison, Bernard Malamud, Bob Dylan, and, more recently, Jonathan Lethem, Rick Moody, and Jonathan Franzen, he peers closely at “those masks, sacred and profane, that the artist wears while digging up the buried bodies and playing with the bones.” Instead of merely analyzing a book, he brings to life an entire literary sensibility, warts and all, animating each writer’s larger outlook.

Leonard himself has a novelist’s knack for memorable characterization. He has called Edmund Wilson “an alcoholic minotaur,” and has described Joan Didion as a journalist writing “gnomic haikus” while “wearing a bikini and a migraine to every convulsion of the post-war culture.” Leonard is also a connoisseur of the aphorism. From a 1981 essay on literary status: “A curmudgeon is different from a snob. A snob can be disdainful in only one direction; a curmudgeon spreads his contumely around.” From a 1977 essay on literature about businessmen: “Kafka looked in the mirror and saw the modern corporation.” At times, he is diverted by insider punning and overly dense allusions — too much so, for example, in the opening of “Knee-Deep in the Alien Corn,” an essay from When the Kissing Had to Stop, in which he writes, “Forget Seinfeld — a cheese doodle of urban fecklessness in which, to every penis joke, the white bread slackers wore a prophylactic smirk.” Still, his wordplay is often illuminating and enlivening. It reminds us there are as many ways of talking about literature as there are of writing a short story.

As a critic, Leonard wants to be part of no club that will have him. He is skeptical of anyone who espouses, too avidly, an affection for postmodernism or a retreat to traditionalism. In his view, there is a distinct set of (sometimes unrecognized) writers who have furthered the idiom of American fiction. Often, but certainly not always, those are writers with an interest in American radicalism; often, but not always, their prose is incantatory, rhythmic, inventive — writers like Didion, DeLillo, Richard Powers, and Toni Morrison. Leonard, in fact, was among the first reviewers to canonize Morrison’s novel Beloved, in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, where he wrote in 1987: “Beloved belongs on the highest shelf of American literature, even if half a dozen canonized white boys have to be elbowed off.” Morrison would end up being awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, in 1993, and last spring, Beloved was named the best novel of the past twenty-five years by a panel of literary critics and novelists. In a piece Leonard wrote when Morrison received the Nobel in Sweden — he traveled to the ceremony — the critic of no club delighted in seeing a female African American author being welcomed into the ur-club.

Those who don’t like Leonard’s criticism often claim that he is, especially in recent years, too “nice.” Perhaps. “When I was young I loved to slash and burn, and that has definitely changed,” he says. “I obviously am disinclined in these autumnal days to trashing anything. Occasionally you have to write something negative, because an important writer has written a book that you feel is symptomatic of something deeply wrong with culture — like Norman Podhoretz’s last book.”

It’s a shame, in a way, that Leonard doesn’t slash and burn more frequently, since his attack on Podhoretz’s Ex-Friends, “Norman Podhoretz, Alone at Last,” is lucid, hilarious, sharp-tongued, and perspicacious, a send-up of not only Podhoretz but the broader schmoozing involved in being part of the punditocracy, and the literary world, today. “There can be no more authoritarian an intellectual,” he writes, infuriated by Podhoretz’s put-downs of gay men and feminists, “than the one who ordains that everybody else in the democratic motley must look and behave exactly like him.”

Leonard has described himself as a “lapsed Catholic,” and there’s a case to be made that his religious upbringing (or lack of it) informs his criticism. He was raised Episcopalian, but as a fourteen-year-old he found some rosary beads in a drawer and asked his mother whose they were; she told him they were his, and that she had promised his father to raise him Catholic. “So I did what any teenage boy would do, and I tried to become Catholic, in a punk, adolescent way,” he told me, and began to read the major Catholic writers — Thomas Aquinas, Augustine, Thomas Merton. Sometime later he “came out the other end, an agnostic atheist.”

Today, Leonard is sensitive to the strains of grace that turn up in writers from John Cheever to Don DeLillo. Reviewing Cheever’s final novel, Oh What a Paradise It Seems — a book no one wanted to review, because Cheever was dying, and the novel was bad — Leonard struck a middle road, critiquing Cheever’s self-cannibalizing tendencies, but looking for the motivating curiosity, and using the novel as an occasion to summarize the value of the writer’s outlook:

It seems to me that Cheever speaks not so much of failures of luck and charm and nerve as of failures of faith. How to be brave and good? He mobilizes language in the service of decencies and intuitions that are no longer sanctioned at any altar or practiced in any politics. His stories are brilliant prayers on behalf of ‘‘the perfumes of life: seawater, the smoke of burning hemlock, and the breasts of women.’’ If his church, emphatically Episcopalian, is just another ‘‘ruined cathedral,’’ then he will look for a sacred grove at Beasley’s Pond. . . . The heart is a compass; there is inside our mess of memory and desire a moral pole toward which the knowing needle swings and points. Something will be required of us: an extravagance, a surprise, a rhapsody, a proof, ‘‘the stamina of love, a presence (we feel) like the beginnings of some stair.’’ Be ready. It could happen anywhere, in the Balkans or in Shady Hill or even in Chicago. It often does, if the prayer was written by John Cheever.

This is a fabulous passage of writing as well as an astute summation of Cheever’s ethos. It reminds us that Cheever wasn’t merely a writer of suburban ennui, but a believer, of sorts. It is also metaphorical, allusive, ambivalent — powerfully drawn.

For all the stock Leonard places in the importance of reviewing, he stalwartly guards against the inflation of self-regard that encroaches on most experts. American literary critics of a strong political bent have been the worst among them, assigning a level of importance and historical necessity to their opinions that Leonard finds specious. “The Partisan Reviewers” — Philip Rahv, Mary McCarthy, Norman Mailer — “were never as important as they thought they were. Nobody could be, and intellectuals never are,” he writes in his essay on Ex-Friends.

Such suspicion of intellectual arrogance is behind the impulse to dismantle one’s pretenses in public that runs through Leonard’s essay collections; it is an impulse that all critics might take to heart. Critics, after all, play games in their reviews, often preening and primping at the expense of the writer. As Leonard put it, reviewing a biography of Saul Bellow by James Atlas, “A hoary old reviewer’s scam is to pretend you already knew all the inside stuff before you ever read the biography you’re about to quibble with by poaching from. Let me be upfront: Almost everything I know about Bellow that I didn’t guess from reading him I got from the encyclopedic Atlas.” For all his knowledge, Leonard has been able to build into his writing a form of ambivalence and questioning, and it’s this point of view that separates the good reviewer from the great critic. Writing about why he travels, he says, “I want to go anywhere, and to feel ambivalent about it,” explaining that what he most desires is to “dislocate myself.” It’s an apt summation of his critical approach.

These days, Leonard finds himself feeling a little too dislocated. He worries that the dry season of literary culture has arrived. “You talk about this and you begin to sound like an old fart,” he says. “You hear it coming out of your mouth and you wonder whether anything you’re saying is true. But it seemed there was a greater number of serious reviews. And there was certainly a better quality of book reviewing. Certainly at magazines like Time and Newsweek; it’s a scandal what they’re doing now,” he says, noting how little space they give to serious books. In his mind, it’s not just the shrinking number of pages that is the problem; it’s also the sense of opportunism and entitlement that many young critics, wanting to make a name for themselves, bring to the table. “Reviewing has all become performance art; it’s all become posturing. It’s going to have to be the lit blogs that save us. At least they have passion.” But even a fan of literary blogs may wonder if their enthusiasm is enough; passion is a crucial aspect of literary criticism, but passion alone doesn’t produce the essayists of the sort who shape our deepest thinking about our literary culture.

Leonard also believes that young reviewers aren’t encouraged to diversify their knowledge base. In one journalism class he taught, students told him they didn’t want to read some of the critics and novelists on the assigned reading list because “they didn’t want to be influenced.” Influence, in Leonard’s mind, is an asset — the way we become versed in the language of criticism. “I think a young critic has to find a situation, paying or not, where they can expand, not specialize. But you’ve got to throw yourself into deep water. You’ve got to review a writer whose other books you have to read and that means you have to find a comfortable place with an editor who is elastic enough . . . . You only find your voice by using it on a variety of subjects, not just repeating the same tune.”

The poet William Wordsworth once wrote of “The marble index of a mind forever/voyaging through strange seas of Thought, alone” — lines that Leonard recently quoted in an essay on the book Herman Melville, by Elizabeth Hardwick. One can see why these lines might appeal to a literary critic. It is not quite apt, though. John Leonard’s mind is not a marble index, but three-dimensional, contoured, and warm with the palpable energy of a life lived in the strange and complicating literary seas of ambivalence.

Meghan O’Rourke is the culture editor of Slate.