07 November 2008

Lefty Literary Critic John Leonard Dead

John Leonard died Wednesday night at the age of 69. I always liked his work.

The New York Times reports:

Although gravely ill near the end, Leonard did make sure to vote Tuesday, for Barack Obama, needing a chair as he waited at his polling place on Manhattan's Upper East Side.

''That was very important to him,'' [step-daughter Jen] Nessel said.
And here's a bit from a biography published in the Columbia Journalism Review a couple of years ago, on the current state of literary criticism:

These days, Leonard finds himself feeling a little too dislocated. He worries that the dry season of literary culture has arrived. “You talk about this and you begin to sound like an old fart,” he says. “You hear it coming out of your mouth and you wonder whether anything you’re saying is true. But it seemed there was a greater number of serious reviews. And there was certainly a better quality of book reviewing. Certainly at magazines like Time and Newsweek; it’s a scandal what they’re doing now,” he says, noting how little space they give to serious books. In his mind, it’s not just the shrinking number of pages that is the problem; it’s also the sense of opportunism and entitlement that many young critics, wanting to make a name for themselves, bring to the table. “Reviewing has all become performance art; it’s all become posturing. It’s going to have to be the lit blogs that save us. At least they have passion.” But even a fan of literary blogs may wonder if their enthusiasm is enough; passion is a crucial aspect of literary criticism, but passion alone doesn’t produce the essayists of the sort who shape our deepest thinking about our literary culture.

Leonard also believes that young reviewers aren’t encouraged to diversify their knowledge base. In one journalism class he taught, students told him they didn’t want to read some of the critics and novelists on the assigned reading list because “they didn’t want to be influenced.” Influence, in Leonard’s mind, is an asset — the way we become versed in the language of criticism. “I think a young critic has to find a situation, paying or not, where they can expand, not specialize. But you’ve got to throw yourself into deep water. You’ve got to review a writer whose other books you have to read and that means you have to find a comfortable place with an editor who is elastic enough … . You only find your voice by using it on a variety of subjects, not just repeating the same tune.”

And for words from Leonard himself, here's a passage from a review of Tillie Olsen, published in The Nation:
When she wrote Tell Me a Riddle, Tillie Olsen, like William Blake, covered paper with words "for the angels to read."

At the time, I was too young to know anything important about poor people, black people, women or history. But we enter into books as if into a conspiracy: for company, of course, and narrative, and romance; for advice on how to be decent and brave; for a slice of the strange, the shock of the Other, the witness not yet heard from, archaeologies forgotten, ignored or despised; and also for radiance and transcendence, that radioactive glow of genius in the dark. How dark it was, how dark. I could feel the darkness with my hands.... and as I journeyed upward after him, it seemed I heard a mourning: "Mama Mama you must help carry the world." The rise and fall of nations I saw. And the voice called again Alva Alva, and I flew into a world of light, multitudes singing, Free, free, I am go glad. Suddenly, we hear a different music.


As well as radiance, she gave us scruple. Looking back, it's easy to deconstruct Tell Me a Riddle as a nest of prophetic texts on race war, class animus and feminism. From a sensibility formed in the Great Depression, in stories published in '50s magazines you've never heard of, Olsen reported to the sassy '60s on where we had been before America, and on those our steerage left behind; what blue-collar work was really like on the night shift or at sea; who lost out in claustrophobic marriages, and how it felt to be broke, trapped, female and speechless; on unions, radical politics, the immigrant experience, children lost and children sold, winter rage.
Looking over Leonard's career, it's hard not to imagine that he too passed on a good bit to today's generation about "those our steerage left behind."


Anonymous said...

By the way, if you haven't read the stories collected in Tell Me a Riddle, I recommend them enthusiastically. Besides the title story there's "Oh Yes," "I Stand Here Ironing," and "Hey Sailor, What Ship?"--all memorable work. We heard her read "Ironing" once and it was one of the most moving experiences of my life. She almost never smiled--ingratiating was a lesson she had rejected, or never bothered about. She produced a small body of work but that one volume is indispensable, I think.