John Leonard’s Criticism Sang With Deep Thought and High Art

Reading between the lines.
March 3 2012 12:08 AM

The King of the Delirious Professions

The critic John Leonard brought a scimitar to a knife fight.

(Continued from Page 1)

Fluttering off to Montreux to check the texture of time in Nabokov’s Ada, Leonard makes an explicit claim for his practice, for rescuing the master from the academy. "Why leave the explications to the exegetes? Or the execration to those radical critics who keep trying to put N. down as some sort of recidivistic White Russian ingrate?" Finding ideas in translation, he makes profitable trips to Palestine and Israel, to Egypt and South Africa, to magic realism as practiced behind the Iron Curtain and under a Fatwa. It is telling that the collection devotes little space to British writers—almost as if Julian Barnes and his friends never happened. The implication is that those chaps can look after themselves; this author was an American spirit.

John Leonard.
John Leonard.

Photograph by Rodney Brooks.

Which reminds me: To use one of Leonard’s pet phrases—one of the constructions that looked like tics and tricks on the passing paper but sparkle in this book like leitmotifs—he died from putting burning leaves in his food hole. If we are to learn any lessons from this critic, the first should be that smoking kills.

So that covers the lungs. To understand other important rules, we move onto other vital organs. In a postscript to Reading for My Life, Leonard’s daughter shares some things that he, a baseball fan, taught her about guts. “You can always root for the underdog. … You always root against the Yankees. This rule may be modified, depending on the season and sport, to substitute the Dallas Cowboys, Notre Dame, or Duke.”

You feel on every page that Leonard took to heart Kurt Vonnegut's idea about maintaining dignity and morality in criticism: "Any reviewer who expresses rage and loathing for a novel is preposterous. He or she is like a person who has put on full armor and attacked a hot fudge sundae.” But also it must be said that Leonard—filleting a golden calf or doing a drive-by take-down of a school of thought in a subordinate clause—could write in the style of a man who has brought a scimitar to a knife fight. Or consider the piece—titled “Smash-Mouth Criticism,” and not included here—in which he took up an epée to flick the ear of Dale Peck and suggested “some hard-won guidelines for responsible reviewing”:

For instance: First, as in Hippocrates, do no harm. Second, never stoop to score a point or bite an ankle. Third, always understand that in this symbiosis, you are the parasite. Fourth, look with an open heart and mind at every different kind of book with every change of emotional weather because we are reading for our lives and that could be love gone out the window or a horseman on the roof. Fifth, use theory only as a periscope or a trampoline, never a panopticon, a crib sheet or a license to kill. Sixth, let a hundred Harolds Bloom.


Because the culture has shattered—chaos, heat, fractals—Leonard’s achievement is unrepeatable. We might yet salvage the word unique from the barbarians. We need to, if only so that we can live in a place where a people properly understand this ultimate lesson of—and this is another pet phrase—the “delirious professions.” Here is a riff in the blazing Bonfire piece:

By the “delirious professions,” Paul Valéry meant “all those trades whose main tool is one’s opinion of one’s self, and whose raw material is the opinion others have of you.” In other words, Creative People, who in New York are not merely artists and writers, actors, dancers, and singers, but journalists, editors, critics, TV and radio producers, anchorpeople and talk-show hosts, noisy professors of uplift or anomie, vagabond experts on this week’s Rapture of the Deep at the 92nd Street Y, even (gasp) advertising account execs and swinging bankers and Yuppies in red suspenders on the Stock Exchange. Each is asked every minute of the day to be original: unique. Only then will they be lifted up by their epaulets to Steinbrenner’s box in the Stadium sky, there to consort with city presbyters the likes of the late Roy Cohn, where you can’t tell the pearls from the swine.


See all the pieces in the new Slate Book Review.


The Slatest

Ben Bradlee Dead at 93

The legendary Washington Post editor presided over the paper’s Watergate coverage.

This Scene From All The President’s Men Captures Ben Bradlee’s Genius

Renée Zellweger’s New Face Is Too Real

Sleater-Kinney Was Once America’s Best Rock Band

Can it be again?

Whole Foods Is Desperate for Customers to Feel Warm and Fuzzy Again

The XX Factor

I’m 25. I Have $250.03.

My doctors want me to freeze my eggs.

The XX Factor
Oct. 20 2014 6:17 PM I’m 25. I Have $250.03. My doctors want me to freeze my eggs.

Forget Oculus Rift

This $25 cardboard box turns your phone into an incredibly fun virtual reality experience.

George Tiller’s Murderer Threatens Another Abortion Provider, Claims Free Speech

The Congressional Republican Digging Through Scientists’ Grant Proposals

  News & Politics
The World
Oct. 21 2014 3:13 PM Why Countries Make Human Rights Pledges They Have No Intention of Honoring
Oct. 21 2014 5:57 PM Soda and Fries Have Lost Their Charm for Both Consumers and Investors
The Vault
Oct. 21 2014 2:23 PM A Data-Packed Map of American Immigration in 1903
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 21 2014 3:03 PM Renée Zellweger’s New Face Is Too Real
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Oct. 21 2014 1:02 PM Where Are Slate Plus Members From? This Weird Cartogram Explains. A weird-looking cartogram of Slate Plus memberships by state.
Brow Beat
Oct. 21 2014 9:42 PM The All The President’s Men Scene That Perfectly Captured Ben Bradlee’s Genius
Oct. 21 2014 11:44 PM Driving in Circles The autonomous Google car may never actually happen.
  Health & Science
Climate Desk
Oct. 21 2014 11:53 AM Taking Research for Granted Texas Republican Lamar Smith continues his crusade against independence in science.
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.