It is a shame that few people read A.J. Liebling. A real shame because with his pencil firmly clamped between his teeth, his jowls tense, the man would put the final touch on his work, never failing to deliver on the deadlines. The cover for Just Enough Liebling captures him in this bulldog pose. He knew he was good, but not in an egotistical or boorish sort of way. In April of 1965, Tom Wolfe, already staking his sartorial territory in his signature white suit, tied the cravat tight around William Shawn’s editorial neck, on the pages of the Herald Tribune. He would cinch the knot and take Shawn, the ‘gentle despot’ Editor-in-Chief at The New Yorker, to task for letting the magazine go to hell. Wolfe didn’t mice words in his broadside, accusing Shawn of having failed to deliver the best of America’s writers. Esquire and The Saturday Evening Post did that, he said. Couched in Wolfe’s legendary lament was the loss of A.J. Liebling, who had died in 1963. With Liebling’s passing, so went The New Yorker and with it, Wolfe wrote, “those confounded curlicues of the man.” Wolfe had viewed Liebling as a model writer and considered him an influence on his own writing.
Wolfe’s remark might seem insensitive since Joe Mitchell, a great stylist in his own right, would outlive his dear friend by another thirty-odd years. One wonders whether the life went out of Joe Mitchell after his friend died. Mitchell last publication was Joe Gould’s Secret (1964). Wolfe’s criticism of Shawn in 1965 anticipates Joan Didion’s last sentence in her preface to Slouching Towards Bethlehem: Writers are always selling somebody out. The italics are her emphasis. Wolfe would substitute ‘editor’ for ‘writers.’
Worth an aside and relevant to Liebling — Didion’s essays are bare, honest, and spare; they are informed, unobtrusively erudite, but at the chaotic heart of it all she questions the ethics of writing, the purpose of it all. In the Preface, she wrote: “If I was to work again at all, it would be necessary for me to come to terms with disorder.” She admits to finding solace in gin and hot water and Dexedrine. What I find beautiful about this naked admission is the juxtaposition of ‘work’ and ‘disorder.’ The writer ‘works’ and produces ‘work.’ I don’t think that Didion alludes so much to writer’s block or performance anxiety, but rather to the meaning of it all. The purpose. Liebling understood his purpose. I just don’t think he gave a damn in the way Didion did.
Before I continue with Liebling, the one image in Slouching’s chapter “On Morality” is a compelling one. A husband and wife come upon an accident. The wife drives the injured woman across Death Valley to a hospital while the husband stays with body of the dead man. Like writing, Didion addresses the point beyond morality.
Whether or not a corpse is torn apart by coyotes may seem only a sentimental consideration, but of course it is more: one of the promises we make to one another is that we will try to retrieve our casualties, try not to abandon our dead to the coyotes. If we have been taught to keep our promises – if, in the simplest terms, our upbringing is good enough – we stay with the body, or have bad dreams.
At this point you may wonder what any of this has to do with Tom Wolfe, Joe Liebling, or William Shawn. Wolfe felt that Shawn had let the readers of The New Yorker down. Shawn succeeded Harold Ross (1892-1951). Ross hired Liebling in 1935. Joe Liebling represented, for Wolfe, the great essayist, in the grand tradition. As a spokesperson for the ‘New Journalism’ Wolfe saw Joe Liebling as a man of the world, a man of wit, and a master of language.
The New Journalists, with Wolfe as their spokesman, were reacting against the avant-garde modernists and their self-referential novels. Wolfe and a cadre of writers such as Jimmy Breslin, Truman Capote, Norman Mailer, and Hunter S. Thompson saw themselves as reporters of the world around them, like Balzac, Dickens, and Fielding, the realists. The hybrid approach is that of journalists reporting facts – the objective – and the novelist’s numerous techniques – the subjective. The exemplar of ‘New Journalism’ is Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. The author relayed the facts of a murder in Kansas like a reporter and entertained readers through narrative like a novelist. For those who seem taken aback by journalism as literature, labeled as ‘New Journalism,’ I’d point to that genre now called ‘creative non-fiction.’ The ethical debate between Truth and Fiction is legitimate, possibly not covered by the disclaimer on every first page in which the publisher’s lawyers write, “All characters and persons…”
Wolfe did not articulate the tenets of ‘New Journalism.’ Orwell set that example in Down and Out in Paris and London (1933). Wolfe mourns the death of the essay, whose master is Montaigne, and whose heir is a rotund little man with an oversized appetite for many things. Joe Liebling understood the essay. He was fond of Pierce Egan and William Hazlitt. He emulated British writers and he saw the daily newspaper as a species of literature and information. He wrote hundreds of articles, conducted numerous interviews, from chatting with Casey Stengel to pinochle with Louis-Ferdinand Céline.
The essay is the public journal of the educated mind. The writer conveys, illustrates the real world around him or her and comments on the observation in an intelligent, often witty way, Liebling, born into a wealthy Jewish family, had German governesses. He recalled his childhood as a procession of Fräuleins. The writing is meant to inform and educate, refresh and illuminate. It does not pander. The purpose is to demonstrate the broad swath of humanity. Through the exhibition of his writing the reader can sense that he modulated the writing according to genre. His style was ethical.
Liebling had the audacity to say that Proust fell short of the mark. Had Marcel had a bigger appetite, Liebling says, he “might have written a masterpiece.” Who else but Liebling, when he wanted a job at a prestigious paper, would hire out a Norwegian sailor to parade up and down the street with sandwich boards that said ‘HIRE JOE LIEBLING’? Liebling was a gourmand, whose descriptions of food rival that of Andrea Camilleri’s Salvo Montalbano. I suspect that both Joe Liebling and Vázquez Montalbán, the inspiration for Commissario Montalbano, suffered from synesthesia.
Liebling wrote about everything that interested him. He admired French culture, covered D-day and rode into Paris to cover its liberation. His war reportage is intense, moving, and at times, painful. In the shadows of Murrow and Pyle, I wonder whether it is read at all. Beneath Liebling’s mordant wit were anxiety and personal pain. He worried about money. He did not have a happy marriage until he married his last wife, Jean Stafford, and even that one was not smooth. Like Sinatra’s kindness to Ava Gardner, he paid all of his first wife’s medical bills long after they had parted ways. Their marriage broke under the strain of her bouts with schizophrenia. Like Joseph Mitchell, his comrade-in-arms at the typewriter, his greatest love was New York City.
In Slouching, Didion reports her discomfort with the world around her. Her essayistic explorations mirror the decay around her. There is a sense of dread. Her quote from Yeats for the title sets the tone. Liebling’s writing is reflective but upbeat and humorous. True, Joan Didion was writing five years after Liebling’s death. I would not dare suggest that the difference in temperament between these two essayists is a matter of gender or character; both writers maintain resilience, show determination and intelligence. Didion may drift into the melancholic, but I suspect that Joe hid his sadness beneath the mask, the persona of the man who loved boxing. Therein may lay his metaphor for his own life: boxing.
Liebling may have known Paris well; he may have opined on gastronomical delicacies; convulsed the reader with the travails of his con man Colonel John Stingo in the novel, The Honest Rainmaker, or brought you into the world of Louisiana politics in his novel on Huey Long’s brother, Ed, in The Earl of Louisiana; but the boxing gym on Eighth Avenue was his university. His coverage of the cut-and-bucket men and pugilists is on par with Jack Fiske at the San Francisco Chronicle and Eddie Muller at the San Francisco Examiner from the Forties to the Seventies. To Abbott Joseph Liebling, boxing was La Dolce Scienza, The Sweet Science. Who else but Liebling can entitle the legendary confrontation between Rocky Marciano and Archie Moore as “Ahab and Nemesis”? Only the bald-headed bulldog with a pencil for a bone, ripping pages off of the roller of his Remington typewriter, could see boxing as an endeavor with noble lineage:
It is through Jack O’Brien, the Arbiter Elegantiarum Philadelphiae, that I trace my rapport with the historic past through the laying-on of hands. He hit me, for pedagogical example, and he had been hit by the great Bob Fitzsimmons, from whom he won the light-heavyweight title in 1906. Jack had a scar to show for it. Fitzsimmons had been hit by Corbett, Corbett by John L. Sullivan, he by Paddy Ryan, with the bare knuckles, and Ryan by Joe Goss, his predecessor, who as a young man had felt the fist of the great Jem Mace. It is great thrill to feel that all that separates you from the early Victorians is a series of punches on the nose. I wonder if Professor Toynbee is as intimately attuned to his sources.
Returning to Didion and New Journalism, I recall one criticism that I read of Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem on Amazon that I imagine might also be applied to Liebling and that is that the essays may seem ‘dated.’ I disagree. Didion’s opening sentence from The White Album (1979) has been quoted often as a justification for writing: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” but the threat to the essay form is in this Didion passage:
The only problem was that my entire education, everything I had ever been told or had told myself, insisted that the production was never meant to be improvised: I was supposed to have a script, and had mislaid it. I was supposed to hear cues, and no longer did. I was meant to know the plot, but all I knew was what I saw: flash pictures in variable sequence, images with no “meaning” beyond their temporary arrangement, not a movie but a cutting-room experience. In what would probably be the middle of my life I wanted still to believe in the narrative and in the narrative’s intelligibility, but to know that one could change the sense with every cut was to begin to perceive the experience as rather more electrical than ethical.
I conclude with this quote. Didion and Liebling are different, indeed, but both are true to Montaigne’s idea of reporting what they see and reflecting on it. Wolfe responded to a change in literary quality as he saw it changing at The New Yorker. Whether the ‘New Journalism’ is a clever way of cutting the storytelling both ways, using reportage and creative writing, is an ethical debate, best left to others. I think the Didion passage above warns of the real danger, which is not the writer’s subjectivity, but writing seen as frames in a film in which the editor can refashion the story, one at odds with the writer’s intention.