RIP John Leonard
November 6, 2008 1:43 PM   Subscribe

John Leonard is dead. A literary prodigy at thirty-two when asked to edit the New York Times Book Review, Leonard oversaw the NYTBR's glory days between 1971 and 1975. Television critic for New York, monthly books critic for Harper's, regular contributor to The Nation and The New York Review of Books, he also went out of his way to help young writers.
posted by ed (14 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Awww, man. His reviews in Harper's, with four or five books blasted through in two pages, were almost too short, but typically contained all the relevant notes contained in the three-page New Yorker reviews for the same books.


at least I'm a year behind in reading my Harper's issues, so I've got quite a bit of him left to read.
posted by LionIndex at 1:55 PM on November 6, 2008


Bill Moyers interview.
posted by acro at 1:55 PM on November 6, 2008

posted by longdaysjourney at 1:58 PM on November 6, 2008


One of my favorite critics, even when I didn't agree with him (which was reasonably often).

In 1979, when Dad the Emeritus Historian of Graeco-Roman Egypt was doing something at Columbia, we house-sat for Leonard. Great NY brownstone, 13 feet wide x 100 feet long, filled with all sorts of antiques and quirky prints. (Also two cats, one of which, a Siamese, took off in high dudgeon on our arrival; she returned after we left, but Leonard didn't seem overly distraught by her departure...) Leonard received a mailsack full of books every day, and told Dad to go ahead and read whatever he wanted. As Dad soon discovered, a book review editor primarily receives cartloads of junk, primarily suitable for recycling.
posted by thomas j wise at 2:07 PM on November 6, 2008

Poor Lenord Nimoy.

posted by Balisong at 2:15 PM on November 6, 2008

Well, damn. I loved Leonard's writing when I was in my twenties, but later on I got a tad tired of his shtick; as the excellent CJR piece (second link) says:
At times, he is diverted by insider punning and overly dense allusions — too much so, for example, in the opening of “Knee-Deep in the Alien Corn,” an essay from When the Kissing Had to Stop, in which he writes, “Forget Seinfeld — a cheese doodle of urban fecklessness in which, to every penis joke, the white bread slackers wore a prophylactic smirk.”
There was too much like that, too many names dropped, too much over-the-top tapdancing for my taste. But I never lost respect for him, and I'm sorry he's gone—the man loved good writing and good writers with all his heart, he called it like he saw it, and we can't afford to lose critics like that. He wasn't wrong that good criticism in popular venues is fading fast away.

Thanks for a well-crafted post, ed.
posted by languagehat at 2:28 PM on November 6, 2008

He was also the critic for the TV show CBS Sunday Morning. How very sad. I loved his reviews.
posted by Toekneesan at 3:13 PM on November 6, 2008

Poor Lenord Nimoy.

posted by lumensimus at 3:26 PM on November 6, 2008

languagehat: There was, perhaps, a bit of florid in Leonard's water, but the man still knew how to convey insight to a mass readership with a sense of urgent passion. I'm not sure if you've seen this 2000 article (adapted from a lecture he gave) from The Nation, but it merges autobiography with a wonderful indictment of regrettable journalistic developments in that particular Leonard way: You'd start out reading a Leonard essay thinking it would be veer one direction, only to find out that it was about something else. The last "hatchet job" he probably wrote was, rather fittingly, Dale Peck's Hatchet Jobs.
posted by ed at 6:02 PM on November 6, 2008

I'm grateful for what he's left us.

posted by jokeefe at 8:40 PM on November 6, 2008

a book review editor primarily receives cartloads of junk, primarily suitable for recycling

I'm just a reviewer and I find myself wondering about constructing a dwelling out of the vast quantities of treated wood pulp that accumulate in this place. I dunno, some wall forms, stack the books in, maybe some sort of plaster to bind it together?
posted by Wolof at 10:00 PM on November 6, 2008

posted by Restless Day at 6:26 AM on November 7, 2008

I'm going to miss his reviews on the CBS News Sunday Morning show; he was a pleasure.

posted by hojoki at 7:43 AM on November 7, 2008

posted by maledictory at 10:50 PM on November 8, 2008

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