Leonard's death is a tough loss personally because he has been a model for the writing/intellectual life that I want to lead and the bad-ass sentences I want to craft, the ideas I want to conceptualize, and the aptitude that I want my essays to display. Many a Sunday I've gotten up at the crack of dawn specifically to watch him disseminate his elegant cultural critiques on CBS's Sunday Morning. It would have been great to hear him wax on about the significance of Barack Obama's impending presidency. But, alas . . . . However, I do love his last critical gesture: Leonard was tough enough, leftist enough, citizen enough that on his last full day of life, Tuesday, 4 November 2008, he got out of his deathbed to go cast his vote.
Below I've dropped a few of my favorite paragraphs from Leonard's reviews.
John Leonard on John Edgar Wideman:
New York Times
27 November 1981
HERE are two new books - a collection of related short stories and a novel about a few of the characters we meet in those short stories - by John Edgar Wideman. They are original paperbacks, and Avon is to be congratulated, and I wish Mr. Wideman the most massive of markets because he is a fine writer.
But his earlier books had hard-cover publishers, back when being a black writer was fashionable. Can it really be that whole chunks of people, black or female or Jewish or Italian or Sapphic, go in and out of style according to a phase of the cultural moon? The black exceptions - a brilliant Toni Morrison, a strong angry Toni Cade Bambara, an Alice Walker and a Paule Marshall, an Ishmael Reed who writes wherever he wants to - are obvious. This, however, is a handful from a multitude. Are we going to spend the next 30 years, as we've spent the last 30 years, waiting for Ralph Ellison to be less invisible? Is each aggrieved sector of our society permitted a single stiff spokesman? Is there in the 1980's a new ''esthetic'' of bad faith?
Mr. Wideman pertains because, like so many gifted moderns, he is ambivalent. He grew up in black Pittsburgh and got out via a Rhodes scholarship. He has been teaching ever since. He says out loud that he is ''too self-conscious'' to like watermelon; he would prefer James Joyce. And yet he has been drawn, in novels like ''Hurry Home,'' back to the ghetto, as if to testify. He has become a black Boccaccio in search of ''a history we could taste and chew.'' He is much more than an adjective. That his two new books will fall apart after a second reading is a scandal. Of Spoons and History
Leonard on Dale Peck
New York Times
Sunday Book Review
18 July 2004
So Western literary culture went off the tracks with J. Joyce, smashed up entirely with D. DeLillo and deserves wholesale junk-heaping, from the modernists who merely twinkle-toed in the theater of war, one blood war after another, to the post-toasties who can't even tell anymore if they're being ironic. In place of the word games, Peck would bring back ''something ineffable, alchemical, mystical: the potent cocktail of writer and reader and language, of intention and interpretation, conscious and unconscious, text, subtext and context, narrative, character, metaphor'' -- novels ''illustrating the tension between society and the self,'' written by the old-fashioned sort of Author-God who ''feels guilty about causing his characters to suffer so much and offers them apologies in the form of epiphanies or the satisfaction of inhabiting a meaningful narrative.''
Scratch a commissar and you get a philistine. But I haven't mentioned Sven Birkerts, have I? Never mind DeLillo, who is smarter than all of us (except maybe Powers). Or Pynchon, whose Mason and Dixon are certainly more memorable than Peck's Martin and John. Or Whitehead, whose ''Intuitionist'' is a levitating marvel. Or Barnes, whose ''Flaubert's Parrot'' has been cunningly ignored. Never even mind Stanley Crouch, who dumped on Toni Morrison and so deserves finding out exactly what it feels like. But Peck devotes more than 30 contemptuous pages to Sven Birkerts, for the street crime and mortal sin of generosity in literary criticism.
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.''
It's the relish on this hotdog that turns the stomach. He promises never to do it again, but the very title ''Hatchet Jobs'' reeks of market niche, an underground service like fumigation or garbage recycling. His alibi for being unfair is that he's a novelist, and they lie a lot. But his reputation would have long since earned him the right at his various pillboxes and lemonade stands to review any book he chose, out of hundreds of good ones needing discovery among tens of thousands cynically published, and yet he almost always seems to pick a punching bag, or draw his own bull's-eye on the passing chump. This is lazy, churlish and even demagogic.
Leonard on Joan Didion:
"The Black Album"
The New York Review of Books
20 October 2005
If Joan Didion went crazy, what are the chances for the rest of us? Not so good, except that we have her example to instruct us and sentences we can almost sing. Look, no one wants to hear about it, your death, mine, or his. What, as they listen, are they supposed to do with their feet, eyes, hands, and tongue, not to mention their panic? If they do want to hear about it—the grief performers, the exhibitionists of bathetic wallow, the prurient ghouls—you don't want to know them. And maybe craziness is the only appropriate behavior in front of a fact to which we can't ascribe a meaning. But since William Blake's Nobodaddy will come after all of us, I can't think of a book we need more than hers—those of us for whom this life is it, these moments all the more precious because they are numbered, after which a blinking out as the black accident rolls on in particles or waves; those of us who have spent our own time in the metropolitan hospital Death Care precincts, wondering why they make it so hard to follow the blue stripe to the PET scan, especially since we would really prefer never to arrive, to remain undisclosed; those of us who sit there with Didion in our laps at the oncologist's cheery office, waiting for our fix of docetaxel, irinotecan, and dexamethasone, wanting more Bach and sunsets.
I can't imagine dying without this book.
Leonard on Toni Morrison:
Rebekkah, who has fled her hateful family and the ferocious Christian sectarianism of seventeenth-century England for marriage to a stranger in the New World wilderness of Mary’s Land, has reason to wonder after so much silence, absence, vacancy, and death: “I don’t think God knows who we are. I think He would like us, if He knew us, but I don’t think He knows about us.” Maybe not. But Toni Morrison most certainly does. Her astonishing new novel, A MERCY (Knopf, $23.95), has both X-ray eyes and telepathic powers, not to mention tree rings, ice caps, pottery clocks, carbon clouds, a long memory, and a short fuse. It dreams its way back to 1682 and a primeval America before racial hierarchies had been chiseled in stone, when “blacks, natives, whites, mulattoes—freedmen, slaves and indentured” still made common cause against the local gentry; when orphans, strays, “waifs and whelps” banded together in makeshift families against crows, wolves, weather, and cruelty; when ordinary men and women hoped that courage alone would prove enough to win dominion over their own rude lives.
The Dutch-born farmer and trader Jacob Vaark, husband to Rebekkah, will take Florens, a little black girl in silly shoes, as partial payment of a debt owed to him by a despicable Portuguese trader in human flesh. He is beseeched to do so by Florens’s enslaved mother, who must see something in Jacob’s face: not mercy but “a mercy”; not grace but decency; not a miracle bestowed by God but a favor or indulgence volunteered by a fellow human being. What happens to “love-disabled” Florens on Jacob’s farm—along with Lina, who caws with birds, chats with plants, sings to cows, and drinks rain; vixen-eyed, black-toothed, slow- witted Sorrow, rescued from opium sleep and the sea by mermaids and whales; the woodsmen Willard and Scully, indentured into servitude forever; the freedman blacksmith who might save the farm from pox if Florens can find him in time; and Rebekkah, a pillar of grief—is not a sentimental education. Nevertheless, illegally literate, Florens will write it down for us to read aloud: “My telling can’t hurt you in spite of what I have done,” she says. But it does. Like Pecola, Sula, Sethe, Consolata, Violet, and so many other women we’ve met in Morrison’s pages, Florens is a siren, pulling brave hearts overboard.
Mother love: always an absolute in Morrison’s fiction, a terrible swift sword. Ancestors: a religion of owls and the African slave trade. The Middle Passage: commodities trading and shark bait. The world of work: caulking and tanneries, milking and manure, squash and chickens. Tables of food: wild plums, pecans, suet pudding, baskets of strawberries, haunches of venison, roast swan. Out-of-doors: “trees taller than a cathedral,” “birds bigger than cows,” “a sky vulgar with stars,” “boneless bears in the valley,” blood on the snow. The whiplash lyricism: widows and raisins, mugwort and periwinkle, pine sap and cornhusk dolls, “the horror of color, the roar of soundlessness and the menace of familiar objects lying still.” Somehow all add up to a sensuous omniscience that is practically Elizabethan.
Thank you John Leonard for the excellence of your life's work.