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Just Enough Liebling
Not so perfect Liebling
By Steven Martinovich
I've long had a suspicion that revivals serve only for one generation to trumpet its influences to another that the elders believe isn't worshipful enough of a past master. In one of those misguided attempts to prove that things today just aren't as good as they used to be, they periodically trot out some institution of graying reputation to show us how it's really done. Sometimes old bones are better left laying at rest.
Just in time for his centenary on October 18 is the release of Just Enough Liebling, an anthology of New Yorker writer A.J. Liebling's thoughts on food, World War II, boxing, New York, newspapers, and Earl Long. As Slate's Jack Shafer pointed out in a column this past August, Liebling occupies a peculiar place in American journalism. Although he inspired many writers, including Thomas Wolfe, many would argue that few have ever equaled his prodigious talents at combining insightful commentary, humor and word play. "Liebling invented, almost from scratch, the journalistic genre of literary press critic, but because he wrote as well as he did, he seems to have closed the door on the way out," wrote Shafer.
That Liebling was a remarkable writer is not in any doubt. In his finest pieces, such as his story "Quest for Mollie" -- an investigation of a dead American soldier with a larger than life reputation, Liebling was capable of crafting scenes and sentences that could leave an admirer of the language breathless. His ability to paint a complete picture of a subject with a few well-placed words was a skill that few ever had.
Just Enough Liebling reveals, however, that while Liebling was capable writing well about a subject, he sometimes didn't understand it, a contradiction that sometimes befalls great writers. As an example, although he has a well-deserved reputation as a boxing writer, Liebling's own prejudices blinded him to only appreciating certain boxing styles. A fan of bare-knuckle brawlers and men like Rocky Marciano, Liebling seemed puzzled by a young Cassius Clay, almost disappointed that Clay's natural talent and fluidity overwhelms a hardworking boxer named Sonny Banks in 1962. One wonders what Liebling would have made of the Muhammed Ali era in boxing.
Liebling's press criticism, the reason why so many journalists hold him in such high regard, also betrays a blind spot. As his fans know, Liebling's targets were often the men who owned newspapers, the press empires they built and the coverage their newspapers provided. Given his reputation as a liberal, it is not surprising perhaps that Liebling's criticism had a populist tenor. He disliked press barons and thought it corrosive to the industry that they owned so many newspapers. Conservatives were ruthlessly -- and entertainingly -- eviscerated while those on the left were treated somewhat kinder. Although he gleefully attacked journalists for the practice of speculation in their new stories, he seemed oblivious to the dangers of press bias, from either the left or right.
The reproachable aspect to Liebling's attitudes comes through in Just Enough Liebling's excerpts from The Earl of Louisiana, his near-fawning 1960 book on Earl Long and the American south. Corrupt and uncouth, Long nevertheless comes across as a folksy politician who cuts ethical corners but always works for the common good. Worse yet, Liebling's reporting of southern politics at the time betrays little hint that the civil rights movement was about to become the most important issue of the day. It is an issue -- though it makes several appearances -- that seems unworthy to or misunderstood by Liebling.
As Just Enough Liebling proves, however, that when Liebling got it right, he did it better than most anyone else. His dispatches during World War II strike the right balance between the seriousness of what was at stake and the humanity of the protagonists, whether it was the humblest private or a distant general. His essays on food are a celebration of eating as an art, an activity that has all but disappeared thanks to our twin compulsions of fast food and maniacal exercising. And although it sometimes seems that Liebling has punched up his copy to levels that sometimes makes him read like a bad parody of Damon Runyon, his observations of the seedier side of New York City life are a glimpse at a world long since vanished.
A little Liebling today would improve journalism, even if measured only by the increase in the average quality of writing. And it is doubtless that journalists could learn much from Liebling in how to tell a story. Just Enough Liebling proves, however, that there is one constant in journalism that escapes no practitioner: The greats, when viewed through the filter of time, make the same mistakes that journalists make today. In Liebling's case, he at least had the talent to make most overlook his failings.
Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada.
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