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.

Illustration by Derf Backderf.

Illustration by Derf Backderf.

Whenever you hear a child question whether journalistic criticism can sing with deep thought and high art, brandish a copy of John Leonard’s Reading for My Life and resist the urge to spank him with this canonical document. Take the humanistic approach instead. Open the volume at random and read aloud. If the child does not respond favorably to the pure music of this performance, then the child is uneducable, and it’s time for drastic action.

Troy Patterson Troy Patterson

Troy Patterson is Slate's writer at large and writes the Gentleman Scholar column.

The book picks up 50 pieces of the amazing mind of the late John Leonard, who wrote with a great gift for rich reference; who peered through books with X-ray laser eyes; who read politics with clarity and passion, like the last principled urban liberal, as opposed to the wayward Third Way type; who ranks as the great critic of television—of the signal medium of the American experiment—precisely because he had read all the great books and most of the bad ones and that background helps to place both Twin Peaks and the ash heaps of cable news in high relief.

120228_BOOKS_readingForMyLife
Reading for My Life: Writings, 1958-2008
by John Leonard
Viking

Leonard wrote these pieces as a reviewer for the New York Times, as the television critic at New York, as the literary editor of The Nation, and as something or other everywhere else. “I like to think of myself as having published in the New York Review, the New Statesman, the Yale Review, and Tikkun,” he once wrote. “But there was also TV Guide.” He surveyed the Imperial City. His tag sometimes was Cyclops.

"I have more eyes than most flies," he wrote in September of 2001. Before the reek of charred electronics had even cleared, he was sniffing out life in the new surveillance state and the putrid consensus manufactured by the feed: “After a couple of days of doing what they do best, which is grief therapy, the television networks and cable channels reverted to what they do worst, which is to represent the normal respiration of democratic intelligence.” Earlier, riffing on Ed Sullivan and his legacy and the squandering of it, he was characteristically prophetic. “As television expanded—let a hundred channels bloom!—the culture fell apart. It was as if the magic once so concentrated in a handful of choices had managed somehow to dissipate itself, like an expanding universe after the Big Bang, into chaos, heat, and fractals. … Who needs Ed when we can become famous for nothing more compelling than having already been on television?” He wrote that sentence in 1992, when the Real World/Road Rules Challenge was but a glimmer in the TV eye.

In the book’s introduction, E.L. Doctorow profitably references Frank Kermode: “Every piece of literary criticism rewrites the text it examines.” In that 9/11 piece, Leonard wrote that “our intellectual responsibility is to read our own minds.” The triumph of Leonard’s practice was to unite these principles in his performance. He called New Journalism “zoot-suited prose,” and his approach shares similarities with those reporters’. (Not incidentally, this book includes pieces on both Gay Talese and Tom Wolfe, both of whose suits get rumpled. Dismantling Thy Neighbor’s Wife, Leonard pans the me-decade decadence of the sexual revolution. Analyzing The Bonfire of the Vanities, he walks around the block in Sherman McCoy’s shoes and returns with fascinating insights about Wolfe’s insights on style.) Leonard tended to dress his own ideas in outfits that are less zooty than boho tending to wizardly. The many long list-sentences here play to incantatory effect—some like Beatnik shopping lists, some like Homer’s catalog of ships.

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This greatest-hits package doubles—and triples and scores—as a history of global culture and American literature, as a shadow canon and an intellectual history. Here come the big boys: Robert Stone, Don Delillo, Thomas Pynchon; Richard Powers, Jonathan Lethem, Michael Chabon; Roth and Ellison; Mailer (but not Updike?); Toni Morrison and Joan Didion and Ms. Steinem. And, fine, I suppose there’s no way around finally cracking open Maureen Howard, after reading her described as “Mary McCarthy … grown up to be Nadine Gordimer.”

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