Critical Mass

Remembering John Leonard


Andrew Leonard:

“All this past weekend, in the shower, on airplanes, watching college football with my sister (my father was a fan), making small talk with New Yorkers come to honor his memory, that invocation, writers write, has tolled in my own head. The clangor intimidates. As has been noted many times in the outburst of obituaries and memorials that my father’s death incited, my father treated words as if they were gems in the hands of a crazed master jeweler. Every noun, verb and semicolon fit into place with absolute precision and sparkled immaculately in the light, but there were so many and they were all so excited! A baroque profusion; a tsunami without a ripple gone awry; a memory palace and a labyrinth.”

Art Winslow:

“Anyone who reads John will see that his protean mind browsed a worldwide web of his own construction, driven by curiosity and great will; he was equipped with a neurological search engine that could give Google a run for its money. Looking at his work over time, one can see his sentences grow in complexity and register, intensifying their allusive aspect, to the chagrin of many a fact-checker.

“His writing generally constituted an outward-linking, morally tinged argument of great conviction, one whose literary interests embraced globalization long before it was an economic buzzword. If he flushed too strongly here and there, it was always out of love.

“He loved language mostly for its plasticity, I suspect, since a good part of his fun was in pushing that maximally, and he was eager to grope (yes, with titillation) the curious parallels or cul-de-sacs of culture. In a piece titled ‘Dreaming the Republic,’ to be found in ‘When the Kissing Had to Stop,’ he remarks offhandedly: ‘I review Atlantis books once a decade, whether they need it or not.’”

John Freeman:

“For readers and writers alike, Leonard was a beacon in a time when orienting lights were embarrassingly dim. His enthusiasms were vast and million-candled, and in a lean cuisine critical market Leonard always had a buffet table to himself: several thousand words in which to spread out and graze.”

Scott McLemee:

“We met or talked by phone every so often over the years. It always felt like I was interrupting. All the more so the last time, in early 2007, when he was already very ill but at work on the memoirs that everyone who knew him had long hoped he would write.

“His proudest memory, he said, was being one of the guests that Toni Morrison invited along when she received her Nobel Prize for Literature. (He was one of the first critics to recognize and champion her work; likewise with his piece on One Hundred Years of Solitude.) Another tale that would presumably end up in the memoir was about how he’d once gotten Lionel Trilling, that quintessential New York intellectual, to admit that he did not simply own a TV set but watched it, and particularly enjoyed the show ‘Kojak.’”

UpdateWyatt Mason:

“This weekend, I propose you spend some time with three reviews by Leonard. The first is an essay for The New York Review of Books on Joan Didion’s “The Year of Magical Thinking”….

“Leonard could also reproach. In the New York Times Book Review (which he edited superbly during the 1970s, making regular reviewers of Guy Davenport and Leonard Michaels) he took to task a critic who’d taken to taking meanly and emptily at writers:

Think of it: with a whole world of worthy targets—Rupert Murdoch, Michael Eisner, Donald Trump, Conrad Black, Eli Manning, Shell Oil, Clear Channel, Condé Nast—he mugs a man who has spent the last quarter of a century staying poor by reviewing other people’s books, who has read more widely, warmly and deeply than the vampire bat fastened to his carotid, who should be commended rather than ridiculed for a willingness to take on a review of a new translation of Mandelstam’s journals, and who, even though he wrote a regrettably mixed review of a book of mine in these pages, deserves far better from the community of letters, if there is one, than Peck’s bumptious heehaw: ‘With friends like this, literature needs an enema.’”