Out of Left Field
The immortal A. J. Liebling never goes out of style
By STAN ISAACS
I recently read of the publication of another anthology of A. J. Leiblings work. This one, celebrating anew the immortal sui generis journalist, is entitled, Just Enough Liebling: Classic Work by the Legendary New Yorker Writer.
It reminded me of the eulogy by Joe Mitchell, Lieblings buddy at the New Yorker. Mitchell told of a conversation he had had with a second-hand bookseller
The moment one of Lieblings books turns up, the man told Mitchell, it goes out immediately to someone on my waiting list. The man went on to say that he and other veteran second-hand book dealers thought that was a sure and certain sign that a book would endure. Literary critics dont know which books will last and literary historians dont know. We are the ones who know. We know which books can be read only once, if that, and we know the ones that can be read and reread and reread.
This was said at a time when Lieblings early books were out of print. Since then the publishers have wised up and we frequently get new editions that cull from Lieblings works. i.e. a book entitled The Neutral Corner which consists of excerpts from Lieblings boxing classic,The Sweet Science.
Liebling was born in New York City in 1904, grew up in Far Rockaway, Queens, went to and was dropped from Dartmouth for not attending chapel, went to the Columbia School of Journalism, worked on and was fired from the New York Times, and worked for the Providence Journal and the World Telegram before landing and ennobling the pages of The New Yorker from 1935 until he died--much too fat and much too young--in 1963.
Lieblings The Wayward Pressman, stands as the most significant press criticism of all time. He also wrote perceptively and entertainingly--he was a dazzler--about New York, Paris, England, boxing, war, North Africa, military theory, horse racing, labor, medieval history, Broadway lowlife, Stendhal, Albert Camus, Stephen Crane, Louisiana politics, Ibn Khaldun, and, most significantly, wine and food.
Whatever he wrote, said New Yorker editor William Shawn, it is safe to say that nobody ever wrote better on the subject. Liebling used to quip, I can write better than anybody who can write faster than me; and I can write faster than anybody who can write better than me.
I have always believed that in the long run I was more rewarded and had more fun reading Liebling, H.L. Mencken, Heywood Broun, Murray Kempton and Westbrook Pegler than from having waded into the novels of Faulkner, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Thomas Wolfe.
So I was delighted when I came across some copies of the quarterly Sewanee Review in which Seymour Toll, a lawyer from Philadelphia, made the argument that Liebling's reportage from World War II and about Paris was superior to that of Hemingway. He called Lieblings work a diamond-belt performance, an example of non-fiction besting fiction.
Like the legions of Liebling devotees, I have my own favorites of his passages, though it seems at times that you can dip into almost any page and come up with a gem. His most quoted comment is about publishers. Freedom of the press, he said, is guaranteed only to those who own one. And he dedicated The Wayward Pressman, his book of press criticism, To the Foundation of a School for Publishers, Failing Which, No School of Journalism Can Have Meaning.
Writing in the 1940s and 1950s, he was both a lover and severe critic of newspapers. To wit:
Even now I read five or six papers a day and try to figure out from them whats happening in the way a fellow would buy five or six tip sheets at the entrance to a racetrack and try to put them together to get himself a winner. Newspaper readers, like bettors and lovers, are hard to discourage.
Also, Newspapers can be more fun than a quiet girl.
And As an observer from outside, I take a dim view of the plight of the press. It is the weak slat under the bed of democracy. It is an anomaly that information, the one thing most necessary to survival as choosers of our own way, should be a commodity subject to the same merchandising rules as chewing gum, while armament, a secondary instrument of liberty, is a government concern. A man is not free if he cannot see where he is going, even if he has a gun to help him get there.
Also, I wonder how many important stories never get into the newspapers at all. The American press can make me think of a gigantic, supermodern fish cannery, a hundred floors high, capitalized at $11 billion, and with tens of thousands of workers standing ready at the canning machines, but relying for its raw material on an inadequate number of handline fishermen in leaky rowboats.
His Between Meals is a multi-course feast worthy of a four-star restaurant, though his obesity most likely shortened his time. Biographer Raymond Sokolov has him speculating that Proust would have written an even better book than Remembrances of Things Past if he had had a heartier appetite and had been frequently in the mood for the sort of repast that, by implication, passed down Lieblings epic gullet: a dozen Gardiners Island oysters, a bowl of clam chowder, a peck of steamers, some bay scallops, three sautéed soft-shelled crabs, a few ears of fresh-picked corn, a thin swordfish steak of generous area, a pair of lobsters and a Long Island duck.
Liebling was a swashbuckler in print. Some lines:
A British author snooting American food is like the blind twitting the one-eyed.
Reading a bad book is like watching a poor fight. Instead of being caught up in it, you try to figure out what is the matter.
The gesture would be as redundant as twisting a nymphomaniac's arm to get her to bed.
There is nothing finer to watch than a graceful animal on legs a bit too long for symmetry--a two-year-old thoroughbred, a kudu, or a heron.
The quantity of brandy in a madeline (Prousts lemon cake) would not furnish a gnat with an alcohol rub.
And, show-off that he could be, he outrageously and unselfconsciously wrote: Then I came back to the inn and sat around with Van Der Schriek. We talked about the ninth-century Middle Kingdom of Lothaire, which had included the Low Countries, Alsace-Lorraine, and what is new in Switzerland.
A Liebling description of his contemporary, John Lardner, surely could be read as a description of himself:
He made his own way. As a humorist, reporter, sportswriter and critic, he found his style--a mixture, unlike any other, of dignity, gaiety, precision and surprise. He was a funny writer and though he would never have admitted it, an artist.
©2006 by Stan Isaacs. The Stan Isaacs caricature is ©2001 by Jim Hummel. This column first posted Jan. 23, 2006.
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