Sunday, January 13, 2013

`He'd Give Henry James a Run'

Dan Pinck went to work as a “legman” – researcher/factotum – for A.J. Liebling at The New Yorker in 1949. Almost half a century later, in 1998, thirty-five years after Liebling’s death, Pinck published in The American Scholar reminiscences of the man who, he says, “remains one of my teachers.” Here is the opening sentence of “A.J. Liebling, a Writer at Work”: “Mr. Liebling always wore a smile or a promise of one.” And here is Pinck’s closing sentence: “He was a sweet man.” In between is a loving, not uncritical account of a great American writer by a man who, at the time he worked for Liebling, had already served as an agent with the O.S.S. in China during World War II. Pinck can write, as most memoirists cannot: 

“Sitting behind his typewriter on a gray metal typing table, facing me, standing halfway between parade rest and at ease, he appeared to be two characters. One was a replica of Buddha, a small statue that I had bought in Peking in the fall of 1945; the other, a comfortably stout cellist, whose cowcatcher of a stomach compelled him to sit a fair distance from his typing table while, arms outstretched, he played the keys of his Royal typewriter. I thought he was overstuffed but not fat. Like many persons partially defined by girth, his feet, noticeably protruding on my side of the typing table, appeared to be stuffed into his plain, unpolished, black shoes, as though the shoes were at least one size too small. Mr. Liebling almost always wore a handsome, striped blue suit, democratically rumpled, whose jacket seemed incapable of being buttoned, or having ever been buttoned. He simply smiled. And so did I. We looked serenely at each other, he behind his wire-rimmed glasses and I behind my tortoise shells. I enjoyed being in his presence.” 

This is portraiture worthy of Liebling himself (the Buddha statue and “comfortably stout cellist” are Lieblingesque, as is “democratically rumpled”). From Liebling I learned many things as a writer and man. He was kind, humorous and hard working. The most revealing anecdotes about him, reported by Joseph Mitchell and others at The New Yorker, describe Liebling laughing with delight as he typed away at a story. He was our wittiest writer, more consistently funny than Mark Twain or S.J. Perelman, and earned the right to laugh at his own stuff honestly. He was also a phenomenal reporter with expertise in food, boxing, France, war, politics and what Harold Ross called “low-life.” Here’s Pinck on Liebling’s penchant for taking few notes (a practice I never tried to emulate): 

“Undoubtedly he carried in the library of his mind a generous investment of knowledge that buttressed whatever new information he needed that he somehow accumulated, in a mysterious fashion.” 

There’s a personal quality about Liebling’s work that seldom descended into the first-person egotism of the New Journalists. By nature, Liebling was an enthusiast. He was happiest writing about people and things he liked and admired. If he kvetched, we knew it was a joke. He didn’t write screeds against despots and newspaper publishers; he laughed at them. Fundamentally, Liebling was a writer, not a prophet or social critic. Pinck writes: 

“Liebling was no journalist. What he was was an essayist of the first order: in the style, tone, wit, and scope of the learned, imaginative ingredients he put in the bouillabaisse of his pieces. Even the titles of his pieces are significant clues that he was sailing on an essayistic tack: `How to Learn Nothing,’ `Two Pounds for a Dime,’ `Mr. Capone and Other Primates,’ `Aspirins for Atoms,’ `Down with Babushkas!’ `Antipenultimatum,’ `The Indian Pathologist,’ `Who Killed the Monkey?,’ `Potemkin Rides Again,’ `My Name in Big Letters,’ and `My Professional Career Ends’ herald the essayist, not the journalist.” 

And this, another of Pinck’s Liebling-like drolleries: 

“To consider Liebling a journalist is like labeling Virginia Woolf a journalist because she wrote so many articles and reviews for newspapers and periodicals. Virginia Woolf described this work of hers as `journalizing freely.’” 

And this: 

“An old journalistic rule is to write short paragraphs, and a corollary is to write the paragraphs in descending order of importance [known sententiously as the “inverted pyramid”]…Liebling ranged quite the other way in many of his opening, and subsequent, paragraphs. Liebling wrote some of the longest paragraphs in The New Yorker. He'd give Henry James a run.” 

In a footnote to The Honest Rainmaker (1953), Liebling formulates the only writer’s credo I could ever endorse:

“The way to write is well, and how is your own business. Nothing else on the subject makes sense.”

1 comment:

mike zim said...

Liebling was unable to follow the sensible regimen of his idol, Col. Stingo, who proclaimed: "I have 3 rules of keeping in condition. I will not let guileful women move in on me, I decline all responsibility, and I shun exactious luxuries, lest I become their slave."
This is in Joseph Epstein's Essays in Biography.