Two Cheers for A.J. Liebling (12/17/80)

Near the end of Wayward Reporter: The Life of A.J. Liebling (Harper & Row, $16.95), Raymond Sokolov notes that had the New Yorker press critic, war correspondent and lowlife/boxing/food writer lived 10 more years—Liebling died in 1963 at 59, from gluttony—“he might have written press criticism about Vietnam and Watergate,” “revisited Egypt and Israel” to cover the Six-Day War, and applied himself to the transformation of Cassius Clay into Muhammad Ali. A reading of Sokolov’s thoroughly researched biography has one unmistakable effect: it makes you wish, with some desperation, that Liebling were still on the case. Ah, you think, what vicious fun he would have had with Time‘s deathless memorial­ization of the president-elect’s Labor Day campaign kickoff (“an unseen member of the audience was destiny”)! Wouldn’t he have caught and chronicled the careful shift to the right Newsweek has pulled off over the past couple of years? Wouldn’t he, right now, be exposing for the fraud that it is the post-election rush of the press to dismiss the influence of the Moral Majority? And wouldn’t he have done these things and more without the debilitating cynicism that underlies the best press criticism currently available? “I am an incorrigible optimist about newspapers,” wrote Liebling, not very convincingly, as he wrapped up The Press, an annotated collection of New Yorker “Wayward Press” columns. Since those columns gave the reader little enough reason for optimism, perhaps it can be assumed that Liebling was saying as much about his “optimism” as about newspapers: that, for him, a life shaped by the cynicism and bitterness justified by the events he confronted was not worth the trouble it took.

Such a stance—if I’ve presented it correctly—may reveal something about both the successes and failures of Liebling’s work. There’s a lot of anger in his press criticism and war reporting, a lot of rancor and a lucid sense of betrayal: enough to keep his extraordinarily detailed reconstructions of newspaper stories or political and military incidents alive 20 or 40 years after many of the issues at hand, and many of the papers, too, have been forgotten. A consciously honed police-reporter toughness (Liebling apprenticed in a station-house press shed while a student at Columbia’s journalism school), a police reporter’s eye for the humanizing detail, and a police reporter’s insistence on linking every idea to a fact make a reader trust Liebling. Freewheeling, sometimes lethal irony and humor keep a reader reading about subjects in which he or she may have no apparent interest. A boulevardier’s delight in the hidden pleasures and diversity of life—represented by the specialities of an obscure restaurant or the hustling-is-its-own-reward strategies of Brill Building habitues—peeks through Liebling’s war writing as it dominates his lowlife writing, thus making a reader comfortable with even the grimmest events.

Out of hundreds worth cherishing, two examples. Liebling’s account of a D-Day landing, treated at length by Sokolov (who is not afraid of paling beside his subject; quotes are many and extensive), covers only the tiniest piece of an enormous operation, but as Sokolov writes, “Liebling compressed the drama of D-Day into a few feet of deck… In a series of almost Shandean divigations, Liebling had stretched out his story, stopping here for a freeze frame of the ship and its flag, there for a look at himself, foolish under his cloak of rigging, even stopping to explain how the fuel for the winch motor was filtered. All this magnificently unhurried and antiheroic information flowed from Liebling’s determination to tell only what he saw and to set down his state of mind.” Liebling’s piece—we’re given a page and a half in close type—is thrilling, terrifying, prosaic, patriotic, and never seems to be reaching for effects. It’s a military intelligence report and a Bogart war movie; it also touches the source of all war writing: Thucydides.thucydides1Just as fine, and dramatic in an entire­ly different way, is “Notes from the Kid­nap House,” a three-part, 1944 summary of the French underground press. The lead—“The only great nation with a completely uncensored press today is France”—is Liebling at his most striking. At the same time, he makes a point about the restric­tions under which his readers were living, another about the freedoms available only in wartime, throws the reader off balance and makes it impossible to turn the page. As the piece develops, you realize you’re in the hands of a master: a whole world, a world the reader likely never suspected existed, opens up. The facts, and, what is more, the nuances of press events that took place more than 35 years ago are clear, vivid, and seemingly of absolute significance—of more significance, and of greater moral portent, than the events of last week. What comes through is not only the moral caliber of the members of the French resistance, but the wonder of their organized variety (Liebling describes, with evident satisfaction, a medical resistance journal, a legal journal, craft journals, etc.), their literacy, and the use to which resistants put every aspect of their cul­tural inheritance. Liebling makes no attempt to write up to the bitter ironies or the painful, sometimes classical rhetoric of those whose writing he presents; rather, he catches the spirit of the struggle, organizes that spirit around facts of daily life under the Nazis, and conveys the sense that he felt honored to do so. Humbled himself, he humbles the reader.

But there is something missing, here and elsewhere: a certain weight. Sokolov makes it plain that, for Liebling, the Second World War was pretty well reduced to a moral and cultural struggle between France (country of light, which Liebling had loved since his father treated him to a year at the Sorbonne in 1926) and Ger­many (country of darkness, which Lieb­ling had hated since German au pairs bedeviled his childhood in New York). To put it mildly, this is a profound trivialization of what the conflict between the Allies and the Axis was all about—not to mention a profound trivialization of what Nazi Germany itself was all about. It leads Liebling, monumentally uncomfortable with his own Jewishness, away from the crimes that now seem the most important legacy of the war, and it also leads him away from hard questions central to the stories he did address—an avoidance he could justify by his principled rejection of speculative writing.road backFrench collaboration, to take the most obvious hard question, is not glossed over in “Kidnap House”—it hardly could be, since collaboration was the subject of much of the resistance press—and Liebl­ing is precise and quietly repugnant in his treatment of the matter. But within the limits of the good guy/bad guy context Liebling sets up, in “Kidnap House” and in The Road Back to Paris (a chronicle of the early years of the war), that collaboration remains close to incomprehensible, a bizarre anomaly. It’s as if, to Liebling, French collaborators were simply “un­French”—Which, in a sense, they were, but which, given the scope, depth, and damning enthusiasm of collaboration in France, they patently were not. France was both cravenly subject and heroically resistant. Liebling doesn’t deal with this question, and Sokolov, while making it possible for the reader to raise it, doesn’t do so himself.

Albert Camus was a friend of Liebl­ing’s; he was also one of Liebling’s heroes, perhaps because the edge that was always present in Camus’s journalism was often lacking in Liebling’s work. Liebling’s police-reporter toughness, his distrust of sedentary writing, his irony, humor, and partly false man-of-the-world familiarity with his subject matter led a reader into his pieces, but those qualities also gave Liebling distance from what he wrote about, and often, as with “Kidnap House,” kept him from examining his material as closely as was necessary. At worst, this produced the sort of drinking-buddy glibness that floats The Earl of Louisiana (a book about decent Southern populism, and an undergraduate favorite because it’s dazzling and shallow) so high off the ground that Liebling’s last pages about racism and privation—fruits of Earl Long’s defeat by a segregationist—fail to bring it back to earth. Sokolov explains a lot when he says that crazy Earl, whoring through the pages of Life and fighting to keep the governor’s chair, was to Liebling a Louisiana version of the New York low­life characters he’d followed for so long and with such affection. But the fate of thousands of people did not rest on what happened to, say, Col. John R. Stingo, the racing columnist Liebling celebrated in The Honest Rainmaker. That’s why a reader wonders where all those starving black children come from when, finally, they appear in the wake of a beaten Earl Long.

Liebling’s demolition of Sartre and existentialism—in “Mr. Existential Brooks,” a 1947 book column from Esquire—is a tour de force of American humor, but its fundamental premise, irresistible at first, dries up under scrutiny. After presenting a sure summary of Sartre’s philosophy, Liebling announces that the “father, or at least the foster father of the whole existentialist movement lives right here in the United States, in a place called Fontana, California.” “How could this be?” exclaims Sokolov, playing ideal reader—and the procedure is wicked. First, Liebling locates the genesis of existentialism in La Nausea, as the despairing narrator hears Sophie Tucker’s “Some of These Days,” fantasizes about what the “Jew with coal-black brows” who he imagines wrote the song must have been thinking, and decides that life is, just barely, worth living. Bringing it all back home, Liebling digs up the facts about the song’s author, who turns out to be one Shelton Brooks, “half-black, half-Cherokee… and an early practitioner of jazz piano,” and passes on the “actual circumstances of the composition of the tune… Brooks… heard a woman in the alley behind the Cincinnati vaudeville house where he was working shout at her lover, ‘Some of these days, you’re going to miss me!'” He then names Brooks the progenitor of existentialism, and thus collapses Sartre’s lofty European pessimism in a barrage of juke-joint empiricism. “The implications ramify,” says Sokolov. “Brooks was a poet who made art out of what he actually saw and heard… Sartre, on the other hand, shied away from life… he didn’t ‘report.’ He surmised, for he was an intellectual posing as an artist.”lieblingpix“The true purpose of Liebling’s arti­cle,” Sokolov continues, “was Liebling’s own performance… He meant to contrast, in the most exaggerated way, the armchair intellectual with the down-to-earth reporter. The result was satire, in the faux-naif manner of Mark Twain, but it was also an unlabeled manifesto, an unavowed advertisement for Liebling, the reporter-artist… [the] unstated point was that reporters, writers-in-the-world like… himself, were the moral and intellectual superiors of writer-intellectuals like Jean-Paul Sartre.”

The comparison with Twain is a good one—Liebling shared a lot with Twain, from a love of the tall tale to a devastating talent for the string-pulling irony, and in 1947 Liebling was likely harking back to “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses,” where realist chops romantic as efficiently as reporter chops philosopher in “Mr. Ex­istential Brooks.” But the comparison is good only as far as it goes, and it doesn’t—can’t—go very far. It leaves no room for the truth that in much of Twain’s writing one comes face to face with the sort of pessimism Liebling couldn’t stomach, with realities that do not yield to facts; nor does it allow for the truth that those realities emerge because Twain had to confront not only what he saw first hand, but also the results of his own imagination. Twain may be a great writer because he was as close to Sartre as he was to Lieb­ling.


I write skeptically, but Sokolov’s biography, which sent me in search of Lieb­ling’s hard-to-find books—Normandy Re­visited, Between Meals, The Sweet Sci­ence, and others—left me feeling skeptical. The leitmotif of Wayward Reporter, a book that does a superb job of telling Liebling’s story, is Sokolov’s pleading of Liebling’s case; his insistence, increasing in vehemence as the story progresses (as Liebling’s memorable books appear, receive minor notice, sell poorly, and go out of print), that Liebling’s work must be rescued from the condescension that attends mere journalism; that it must be rescued from the literary social register which, it seems, caused even Liebling (who had tried to write fiction as a young man, and failed roundly) to doubt his worth and his place in literature. Speaking of Liebling’s attraction to Archie Moore over Rocky Marciano, Sokolov writes that Liebling “was a writer of major skills and a ‘true artist’ [Sokolov is not hedging his bets; the quotes refer back to Liebling on Moore] Liebling possessed a first-rate literary sensibility and worked intricately in genres the world dismisses as second rate… Liebling was as much an artist in prose as any novelist of his day.”

It’s a curiously worded defense, and it doesn’t hold together; it sounds a bit like an auteurist critic trying to pump an American B-movie director into the company of European masters. Aside from the unlikelihood that “Liebling was as much an artist in prose as any novelist of his day” (supply your own counter-punch), what does “artist in prose” mean? Philip Roth is more of an “artist in prose” than Dreiser; does that make him a more important writer? Does the phrase imply that while Liebling wrote interestingly and well, he didn’t have much of originality to say—that he lacked vision? Does “intricate” work in genres that are considered second-rate elevate the writer beyond the genre, or elevate the genre itself? The term “major skills” could be better applied to Liebling than to Faulkner—and so what? To go to the heart of the matter, in what sense, really, was Archie Moore a “‘true artist'”? For a long time now, we’ve been told that everything short of gravedigging is “an art”—cooking, place-kicking, mac­rame, criticism, TV commercials—and all the inflation of such activities has done is devalue the notion of serious vocation.liebling-sokolovArt is a dimension of life in which imagination is taken to the limit of fact and vice versa; the idea of the limit is central, and that is why cooking, etc., are not art: the limit does not come into play, it is not at issue. Why should such questions be necessary when the point is that Liebling was a man of unique abilities—clearly defined and illustrated by Sokolov—enthusiastically pursued and developed—again clearly illustrated by Sokolov—and that, all literary hierarchies aside, his writing stands as proof that journalism is work worth devoting one’s life to? Liebling took as his mentors such men as Dickens, the Defoe of Journal of the Plague Year, and Pierce Egan, a 19th-century London boxing writer; like them, he found more in unlikely places than anyone else suspected was there. It’s still there, in Liebling’s books and in Sokolov’s biography, and that ought to be enough.

Sokolov’s promotion of Liebling throws Wayward Reporter askew. Much is made of Liebling as an influence on the “personal journalism,” the “new journalism,” and the “non-fiction novel” of the ’60s and ’70s, but we lose some of Liebling in the comparison, partly because the ancestor was better than his inheritors. By the end of Waywdrd Pressman, the effect of a given piece of writing on Liebling’s career comes to seem of greater importance than what the piece actually holds.

In other respects, Sokolov’s book is gratifying. Wayward Reporter doesn’t bury its subject in currently fashionable excessive detail, telling you so much about Liebling you hope never to hear of him again; the book is only some 350 pages long, and it includes no baby pictures. (There is just one photo, the frontispiece: a perfect shot of Liebling sitting in a French field in 1944, looking unhappy and indomitable.) Though this isn’t an authorized biography, Sokolov had the full cooperation of Jean Stafford, Liebling’s third wife, and he quotes at length not only from Liebling’s articles, many of them uncollected, but from his correspondence, which goes back to boyhood days.

I can’t say, though, that biography is Sokolov’s natural metier. The writing is rarely eloquent, rather faceless, and sometimes plainly off-key—what is a word like “divigations” doing in a passage on D-Day? The fact is, Sokolov is a much finer writer than one would know from this book. Best-known as a former food critic for the New York Times (his food writing currently appears in Natural History, among other places), Sokolov ought to be known for Native Intelligence, a fabulous novel, published in 1975, about the peace corps, the smartest kid in North America, and the most obscure tribe in South Amer­ica. Its main connection with Liebling is that it is long out-of-print and almost impossible to locate. Only another novel from Sokolov, a luckier one, will bring it back.

Harper & Row, which allowed Native Intelligence to disappear without even a paperback edition, has published Wayward Reporter with something less than wild confidence; the import of the excessive, eye-on-the-library-trade $16.95 price tag can be understood by reference to Harper & Row’s simultaneous publication, at exactly the same price, of a far longer, fully illustrated biography of William 0. Douglas, which can be expected to have a wider audience—or a more certain library sale. Still, Wayward Reporter is having its effect, as it deserves to. Pantheon will be republishing The Press, Seaview is putting together an omnibus of Liebling’s work on Europe (including all of Nor­mandy Revisited, which Sokolov considers Liebling’s masterpiece), and Viking may reprint The Sweet Science, Liebling’s boxing book. What could be better, save the man himself? Sokolov’s book made me painfully aware of Liebling’s absence, even though, while he lived, I never read a word he wrote.


Village Voice, December 17, 1980


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