“Liebling does have a great lesson to teach: that there’s a way of describing the world we all live in by focusing on the things that are often ignored.”
That’s from “The Art of Listening,” the interview Pete Hamill gives James Marcus at the Columbia Journalism Review. Hamill edited the two volumes of A.J. Liebling’s work -- World War II Writings and The Sweet Science and Other Writings -- published by the Library of America. As a young reporter, he had the honor of meeting Liebling, in the last year of the great writer’s life, at the Patterson-Liston fight in Chicago in 1962. Liebling even complemented the young reporter on some of his stories in the New York Post – a blessing to last a lifetime.
Hamill’s lesson from Liebling – “describing the world we all live in” by writing about “things that are often ignored” -- was precisely Liebling’s bequest to me as a reporter and now as a freelancer and blog-tender. I never wanted to write about mayors or captains of industry, who seem inherently tiresome – pompous, flatulent, inarticulate and beside-the-point. Power and fame hold no attractions for this writer. My loyalties are with the obscure, peculiar and unnoteworthy – a sentiment inexplicable to newspaper editors.
Almost 20 years ago I wrote a profile of a tattoo artist in upstate New York, a biker who looked like Allen Ginsberg’s obese cousin, complete with Uncle Sam hat. His nom de plume was “Critter.” I watched him fill in one of the remaining blanks on the epidermis of a fellow biker who wore a leather loin cloth. The story ran and El Jefe called me into his office. He started unctuously, praising my enterprise, but advised me to dwell less on the “raffish side of things.” Inflating a little more, he said, “Such things never last,” which reminded me of Dr. Johnson’s verdict on Tristram Shandy: “Nothing odd will do long.”
For all my proselytizing for Liebling’s books among fellow journalists, only one ever took me up on it. He liked politics and wanted to read The Earl of Louisiana (1961), Liebling’s book-length profile of Gov. Earl Long. The only copy I then owned was included in Liebling at Home, a paperback compendium published in 1982. For months my colleague said nothing. Finally I asked if he had enjoyed what is, after all, a wildly funny book. No, he hadn’t gotten around to reading it yet, maybe sometime soon. More months passed and I asked again and got the same answer. Later, without comment, I found the book in my mail box at the newspaper. The spine was split and one volume had turned into five or six. My colleague told me he had never found the time to read The Earl of Louisiana.
Both anecdotes supply small, incomplete explanations for the long-simmering extinction of newspapers. But leave the final word to Liebling. On Oct. 6, 1962, in The New Yorker, he published “The Morest” (collected in A Neutral Corner, 1990), his account of the Patterson-Liston fight in Chicago where Hamill met his hero. Here’s the final sentence:
“Courtesy, urbanity, good humor, wealth, self-satisfaction, and other destructive elements of civilization had descended upon Liston like the Asian flu, and Ibn Khaldun, that matchless Tunisian diagnostician, would have instantly recognized the symptoms of what is in store for him.”