John Leonard was, with his wife, Sue, literary editor of The Nation from 1995 to 1998. This essay is adapted from the introduction to Reading for My Life: Writings, 1958–2008, by John Leonard, edited by Sue Leonard, forthcoming in March. Printed by arrangement with Viking Penguin; © 2012 by E.L. Doctorow.
John Leonard started out as a novelist but was diverted, presumably under the exigencies of making a living, his brilliance as a freelance writer being quickly recognized by editors and publishers, so that he found himself at a precocious age writing first for the National Review, then as a daily book reviewer for the New York Times and quickly as editor of the Times Book Review. Perhaps he recognized that his creativity was not the burrowing kind of the novelist, who lives patiently for years with a set of images and torturously realized intentions in the production of a novel. He was from the beginning a quick study, a wunderkind, writing even as a 19-year-old sophomore for the Harvard Crimson these already typically referential Leonardian lines in a piece he called “The Cambridge Scene”: “Did not Eliot return to dead cultures, ancient languages, and the Legend of the Fisher King? Did not Yeats sustain himself on the Irish folklore? Did not Lawrence traipse across continents to Mexico, seeking the meaning of the Aztecs, the wisdom of primitive man?… Yours is a motel civilization…. Your art makes no sense and your music is too loud.”
No wonder he abandoned Harvard for the University of California, Berkeley. But in the cold war 1950s, he was to touch down in New York, and his youthful longing for whatever came before, whether the authenticity of folklore or the romantic radicalism of fin de siècle Greenwich Village (“There used to be a time when John Reed and Lincoln Steffens lived at the same Village address…. No more…. The Village today is populated by the smug, the self-conscious, and the literary sycophants”), was, in a sense, the young man’s common enough generalized anxiety of influence—his fear that he and his era could never match the grand human proportions of what had been previously conceived. Or was it what he imagined had been conceived—his idealistic sense of a human greatness that he could never attribute to what he found in the world around him? He would all his life be an avowed skeptic but with a religious sensibility that would make of him a celebrant of the moments when he did glimpse something of the full expression of human capacity. And perhaps, in a kind of quest, he was to wade right in, immersing himself totally in what imaginative work his life and times had to offer, his idealism reconfigured as a very sharp, keen wit that could with authority assess books and ideas for what they are.
If you consider a collection of John Leonard’s essays and reviews as a lifelong accounting, you will have a good idea of what went on of significance in the latter half of the American twentieth century and the first years of the twenty-first. Though reviewing literary work was his calling, it did not box him in. He was a born freelance, going wherever that tenuous life led him, from the monuments of high culture that he was inspired to celebrate, to the commodities of the low, from which he would take gleanings where most of us would find none. It is difficult to understand how, with his immense reading and the sustenance his mind sought, he could have sat himself down year after year to examine the products of television. Yet there he was, considering what it meant when sitcom settings moved from the kitchen to the living room, and the family characters sitting on the living room couch, and presumably watching their television, seemed to be watching him. Or there he was, considering what these programs said about fatherhood and motherhood in America. He understood the presumptive sociology in the arrays of sitcoms and to what degree they reflected American domestic reality or in fact helped to shape it.
But the novel was to Leonard the presiding art—always in its intentions, if only occasionally in its realization, a major act of the culture. He says in the piece “Reading for My Life” that “Popular culture is where we go to talk to and agree with one another; to simplify ourselves; to find our herd…. Whereas books are where we go alone to complicate ourselves.” He is an excited first responder when the work is García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. “You emerge from this marvelous novel as if from a dream, the mind on fire…. So richly realized are the Buendías that they invite comparison with the Karamazovs and Sartorises.” One book reminding him of another is a Leonardian characteristic, as if books are antiphonal calls and responses. It is in his most exultant reviews that his words tumble forth in catalogs of ascription, as he tries to convey as much of the book as he can short of quoting the thing in its entirety: “Family chronicle, then, and political tour de force, and metaphysical romp, and, intentionally, a cathedral of words, perceptions, and details,” he says of the García Márquez, amounting to “the declaration of a state of mind: solitude being one’s admission of one’s own mortality and one’s discovery that the terrible apprehension is itself mortal, dies with you, must be rediscovered and forgotten again, endlessly.”