Sunday, March 01, 2009

`The Ones That Can Be Read and Reread'

“The run-of-the-mill critic is a Linnaean; he likes to pop his specimens into plainly labeled phials, and [Stephen] Crane, genus Doomed Genius, went into the one labeled `Edgar Allan Poe.’”

That’s A.J. Liebling nailing the sort of critic (and unaffiliated reader, I suppose) who fetishizes taxonomy, forcing books and authors into reductive categories stinking of formaldehyde. It’s from “The Dollars Damned Him,” a book review Liebling published in 1961 in his longtime literary home, The New Yorker. In reviewing biographies of Crane and his wife Cora, Liebling writes out of a deep sense of identification with his subject. While Crane was more severely cash-strapped, Liebling was forever in hock to “editors and creditors” (as a former newspaper colleague of mine once put it). More significantly, both were crammed into misleadingly constrictive literary categories that have cost both writers some of their best readers.

With the Library of America at last giving Liebling the same Pleiades treatment it afforded Henry James and Willa Cather (and H.P. Lovecraft, for God’s sake) -- World War II Writings and The Sweet Science and Other Writings – perhaps the Linnaeans will at last acknowledge that genera and species are often mutable. This is a matter of “opening the canon” but not in the customary politicized sense. A canon worth opening is a canon based on quality – literary quality. David Myers, a Liebling admirer (I covet his first edition of The Sweet Science), puts it like this:

“I love Democracy in America, for example, and Anne Frank’s Diary; Michael Wyschogrod’s Body of Faith, a theology of Judaism, and Mark Bowden’s Black Hawk Down; A. J. Liebling’s boxing reports and Karen Horney’s studies of neurosis; Michael Oakeshott’s philosophical essays and Ronald Knox’s history of Enthusiasm. Each of these is a literary masterpiece, I would argue.”

Liebling’s prose ranks with the best written by Americans -- with Thoreau’s, Lincoln’s and James’. The Liebling quote above comes from Liebling at The New Yorker: Uncollected Essays, edited by James Barbour and Fred Warner, and published in 1994 by the University of New Mexico Press. Only one of the 34 pieces assembled by Barbour and Warner (who also edited A Neutral Corner, boxing pieces not included in The Sweet Science), appears in the Library of America volumes. Most of Liebling’s favorite beats are represented – horse racing, war, food, France, the press, plus several crime stories. The only piece also found in the LoA’s World War II Writings is “Pyle Set the Style,” a 1950 review of a biography of Ernie Pyle, the war correspondent Liebling had known in North Africa and France. He welcomes the book’s revelations of Pyle’s heavy drinking, agnosticism and marital troubles (more of Liebling’s deep identification with a troubled writer) because the Pyle he knew was “abstinent and resolutely Philistine.” He writes:

“…his appearance of placed, pawky normality seems to have been as deceptive a dickey as ever concealed a troubled breast, and I like him a lot better for it, and for keeping his troubles to himself.”

The Barbour-Warner volume closes with The New Yorker obituary anonymously written by Liebling’s oldest friend, Joseph Mitchell, who includes an excerpt from the eulogy he delivered Dec. 30, 1963, two days after Liebling’s death. It remains the best, most Lieblingesque assessment I know of the writer’s work:

“Shortly after I heard Joe was dead, I went over and looked at his books in a bookcase at home. There were fifteen of them. I looked through The Road Back to Paris and reread `Westbound Tanker,’ which is one of my favorite stories of his, and when I finished it I suddenly recalled, with great pleasure, a conversation I had had some years ago with the proprietor of one of the biggest and oldest stores in the Fourth Avenue secondhand bookstore district. I had been going to this store for years and occasionally talked to the proprietor, who is a very widely read man. One day I mentioned I worked for The New Yorker, and he asked me if I knew A.J. Liebling. I said that I did, and he said that every few days all through the year someone, sometimes a woman, sometimes a young person, sometimes an old person, came in and asked if he had Back Where I Came From or The Telephone Booth Indian or some other book by A.J. Liebling. At that time all of Joe’s early books were out of print. `The moment one of his books turns up,’ the man said, `it goes out immediately to someone on my waiting list.’ The man went on and said that he and other veteran secondhand bookstore dealers felt that this was a certain sign that a book would endure. `Literary critics don’t know which books will last,’ he said, `and literary historians don’t know, and those nine-day immortals up at the Institute of Arts and Letters don‘t 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.’”

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This is such welcome news. I almost thought I was the last person on earth who remembered and revered Liebling. I found him almost by accident, while I was still a working journalist, courtesy of an old collection of "Wayward Pressman" pieces. Over the years I've found that I keep recalling bits of his "wayward" writing, which seems to have wandered into many corners of my mind, and made itself useful there.