Criticism was his calling
It is a quirk of personal history that I spent the evening of Sept. 11, 2001, at dinner with John Leonard and his wife, Sue, in a restaurant on New York’s Upper East Side, as out the window flatbed trucks bearing earth-moving machines rolled south.
Perhaps the charged atmosphere negated what was said, for I no longer recall our conversation, although John was a talker to his core. Their generosity is what has lingered, their offer of a place to stay if I wished, the same generosity that led them to encourage many young writers in their years as co-editors of the Books & the Arts section of the Nation in the late 1990s.
I had known John for years, through editing his cultural criticism and literary reviews at the Nation, writing that was not only generous of heart but that also regularly left one marveling at its verbal play and conceptual frisson. Much of this work can be found in his books of essays, including “Lonesome Rangers,” “The Last Innocent White Man in America” and “When the Kissing Had to Stop.”
When John died Wednesday at age 69 after an extended battle with cancer, he had been working on a memoir and was anticipating publication of yet another set of essays, under the provisional title “Swimming With the Snarks.”
He leaves behind not just that material but also what was a calling as much as a career. Over time, he served as New York magazine’s television critic; as editor of the New York Times Book Review in the early 1970s; as a contributor to “CBS Sunday Morning,” where he stretched the vocabulary of television to its very limits; and as a columnist at Newsday, and earlier at Esquire, as a fill-in for Dwight Macdonald.
Through it all, John weighed in as a signal cultural critic, writing for the Nation and in recent years a book column for Harper’s while he showcased longer work in the New York Review of Books.
John was a smoker and a laugher and a talker who was given to waving one hand as he spoke. The laughter was infectious and his major chord. If it did not emerge, indignation -- usually politically related -- did.
He felt the tensing of the times more acutely than his peers -- no one could accuse him of lack of affect, as the passion that infuses his writing makes clear. In a literary sense, he took it as his mission to drive the money-changers from the temple and to feed the multitudes, or at least try.
John famously championed writers now acclaimed, including Toni Morrison and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, before their reputations were firmly established. His collection “This Pen for Hire” includes his 1970 review of “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” which he declared to be “a cathedral of words, perceptions and details that amounts to the declaration of a state of mind.”
John’s prose is capable of raising almost anything from the dead, and its referents are so various and learned that he seemed legion then and now, perhaps even superhuman. (He could get crabby, so I won’t insist on “superhuman.”)
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.”
He was to the end highly acquisitive of terms and social details as if still in childhood; indeed, in one of the seemingly out-of-order poignancies in life, John has predeceased his mother, Ruth Smith, who raised him as a single parent.
In the introduction to his collection “Lonesome Rangers,” John described himself as “an American bookie who is paid more to opinionize about visual arts like movies and television.” But the riff that follows catches him more truly. Speaking of Americans, he asserts: “On a tour, we seek a cultural fix, as if the past were a boutique into which we wandered with a shopping list -- Greek light, Russian soul, German sausage, French sauce, Spanish bull. On a quest, much more problematically, we like to rub our fuzzy heads against the strange and see if something kindles -- Zen koans, hearts of darkness, blood of lambs. Or if we can’t leave home, we bolt like Alice down an inky rabbit hole. So what if, crossing borders and changing funny money, we lose a few idioms? We collect a lot of frequent flyer miles.”
John, you see, was a flier, and he was too busy to sweat the small stuff.
So read him for the big stuff.