John Leonard (critic)
February 25, 1939|
Washington, D.C., United States
|Died||November 5, 2008
Manhattan, New York City, New York, United States
|Occupation||Critic, writer, author|
John Leonard grew up in Washington, D.C., Jackson Heights, Queens, and Long Beach, California, where he graduated from Woodrow Wilson High School. Raised by a single mother, Ruth Smith, he made his way to Harvard University, where he immersed himself in the school newspaper, The Harvard Crimson, only to drop out in the spring of his second year. He then attended the University of California at Berkeley.
A political leftist, Leonard had an unlikely early patron in conservative leader William F. Buckley, who gave him his first job in journalism at National Review magazine in 1959. There, he worked alongside such young talents as Joan Didion, Garry Wills, Renata Adler and Arlene Croce. Leonard went on to be Drama and Literature Director for Pacifica Radio flagship KPFA in Berkeley, where he featured a then-little-known Pauline Kael and served as the house book reviewer, delighting in the torrent of galleys sent him by publishers. He worked as an English teacher in Roxbury, Massachusetts, as a union organizer of migrant farm workers, and as a community organizer for Vietnam Summer before joining The New York Times Book Review in 1967. In 1968, he signed the "Writers and Editors War Tax Protest" pledge, vowing to refuse tax payments in protest against the Vietnam War.
The paper promoted him to daily book reviewer in 1969 and made him the executive editor of the Times Book Review in 1971 at the age of 31. In 1975, he returned to the role of daily book reviewer, championing the work of women writers such as Maxine Hong Kingston and Mary Gordon. He was the first critic to review Nobel Prize-winner Toni Morrison and the first American critic to review Nobel Prize-winner Gabriel Garcia Marquez. From 1977 to 1980, Leonard wrote "Private Lives," a weekly column for the Times about his family, friends, and experiences.
Leonard was a voracious critical omnivore, writing on culture, politics, television, books and the media in many other venues, including The Nation, The New York Review of Books, Harper's, The Atlantic Monthly, Esquire, Playboy, Penthouse, Vanity Fair, TV Guide, Ms. Magazine, Harper's Bazaar, Vogue, Newsweek, New York Woman, Memories, Tikkun, The Yale Review, The Village Voice, New Statesman, The Boston Globe, Washington Post Book World, The Los Angeles Times Book Review, American Heritage and Salon.com. He reviewed books for National Public Radio's Fresh Air and wrote a column for New York Newsday called "Culture Shock." He hosted WGBH's First Edition, and reviewed books, TV and movies on CBS Sunday Morning for 16 years. Leonard taught creative writing and criticism at the University of Pennsylvania and Columbia University. He told the story of Japanese author Kōbō Abe in every one of these venues.
Leonard wrote extensively about television in his career – for Life and The New York Times, both under the pen name Cyclops, for New York Magazine from 1984 to 2008, and in his 1997 book Smoke and Mirrors. In addition, he authored four novels and five collections of essays.
Leonard was co-literary editor of The Nation with his wife, Sue Leonard, from 1995 to 1998, and continued as a contributing editor for the magazine. He wrote a monthly column on new books for Harper's magazine and was a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review and The New York Review of Books. Leonard rated highest among literary critics in a 2006 Time Out New York survey of writers and publishers. He received the National Book Critics Circle's Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award in 2006.
Leonard died on November 5, 2008, of lung cancer, aged 69. He was survived by his mother, Ruth, wife Sue, two children from his first marriage – Salon.com columnist Andrew Leonard and Georgetown University history professor Amy Leonard – and a stepdaughter, Jen Nessel, who heads the communications department at the Center for Constitutional Rights, as well as three grandchildren: Tiana and Eli Miller-Leonard and Oscar Ray Arnold-Nessel.
Effect on the literary world
The Columbia Journalism Review called Leonard "our primary progressive, catholic [small "c"] literary critic." Stylistically, he was, as CJR dubbed him, an "enthusiast,” known for his wit and wordplay, his liberal use of the semicolon and his impassioned examinations of authors and their works. He wrote definitive career essays on the work of writers ranging from Thomas Pynchon and Joan Didion to Eduardo Galeano, Salman Rushdie, Don DeLillo, Mary Gordon, John Cheever, Toni Morrison and Richard Powers.
Kurt Vonnegut wrote of him: “When I read anything by my longtime friend John Leonard, his voice is that of a total stranger. He is too polite in ordinary conversations, with me at least, to set off the fireworks of all he knows and feels after reading and comparing and responding to, in the course of his long career as a literary critic, a thousand times more books than I have even heard of. Only in print does he light the night sky of my ignorance and intellectual lassitude with sizzles and bangs, and gorgeous blooms of fire. He is a TEACHER! When I start to read John Leonard, it is as though I, while simply looking for the men’s room, blundered into a lecture by the smartest man who ever lived.”
Studs Terkel called him "a critic from whom I learned about my own books." Terkel told the NBCC's Elizabeth Taylor: "He speaks truth to power with a style that is all his own – Leonardian. He is a throwback to a great tradition. He has been a literary critic in the noblest sense of the word, where you didn’t determine whether a book was 'good or bad' but wrote with a point of view of how you should read the book."
|Booknotes interview with Leonard on Lonesome Rangers: Homeless Minds, Promised Lands, Fugitive Cultures, June 30, 2002, C-SPAN|
- The Naked Martini Delacorte Press, 1964
- Wyke Regis Delacorte Press, 1966
- Crybaby of the Western World, Doubleday, 1969
- Black Conceit, Doubleday, 1973
- This Pen for Hire Doubleday Publishing, 1973, ISBN 9780385039239
- Private Lives in the Imperial City Knopf, 1979, ISBN 9780394501703
- The Last Innocent White Man in America New Press, 1993, ISBN 9781565840720
- Smoke and Mirrors: Violence, Television, and Other American Cultures New Press, 1998, ISBN 9781565844438
- When the Kissing Had to Stop: Cult Studs, Khmer Newts, Langley Spooks, Techno-Geeks, Video Drones, Author Gods, Serial Killers, Vampire Media, Alien Sperm Suckers, Satanic Therapists and Those of Us Who Hold a Left-Wing Grudge in the Post-Toasties New World Hip-Hop New Press, 1999, ISBN 9781565845336
- Lonesome Rangers: Homeless Minds, Promised Lands, Fugitive Cultures New Press, 2002, ISBN 9781565846944
- Reading for My Life: Writings, 1958-2008. Penguin Group. 2012. ISBN 9781101561003.
- Essays and introductions by Leonard feature in
- "Why I'll Never Finish My Mystery", Murder, Ink (1977)
- Friends and Friends of Friends, by Bernard Pierre Wolff (1978)
- "Dodgerisimus", The Ultimate Baseball Book, by Daniel Okrent and Harris Lewine (1979)
- Man’s Fate by Andre Malraux (1984)
- SoHo: A Picture Portrait (1985)
- "Ten (or Twenty) of the Best Books of the Millennium", The Millennium Book by Gail Collins and Dan Collins (1991)
- A Really Big Show: A Visual History of The Ed Sullivan Show (1992)
- "Educating Television", Imagining Education: The Media and Schools in America, by Gene I. Maeroff (1988)
- "Follow the Bouncing Ball: How the Caged Bird Learns to Sing", The Business of Journalism, by William Serrin (2000)
- These United States (introduction and editor, 2003)
- The New York Times Guide to Essential Knowledge: A Desk Reference for the Curious Mind (2004)
- We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live: The Collected Nonfiction of Joan Didion (2006)
- Fox, Margalit (November 7, 2008). "John Leonard, 69, Cultural Critic, Dies". The New York Times.
- "Writers and Editors War Tax Protest" January 30, 1968 New York Post
- "History of War Tax Resistance – The 1960s". NWTRCC.org.
- "Critiquing the Critics – Books". Time Out New York. December 7–13, 2006. Archived from the original on November 5, 2007. Retrieved September 5, 2012.
- "All Past National Book Critics Circle Award Winners and Finalists". National Book Critics Circle.
- "On Sandrof Winner John Leonard". February 2007. Book Critics Circle. (access by invitation only).
- "Andrew Leonard". Salon. Retrieved September 5, 2012.
- "Amy Leonard". Georgetown University. Retrieved March 17, 2012.
- "Jen Nessel". Center for Constitutional Rights. Retrieved March 17, 2012.
- O'Rourke, Meghan (January–February 2007). "The Enthusiast – Why you should trust the literary critic John Leonard on the coarsening of our intellectual culture". CJR.org. Columbia Journalism Review.
- "Studs Terkel on John Leonard". February 2007. Book Critics Circle. (access by invitation only)
- "NBCC to Add John Leonard Award to Honor First Books; Named After Founding Member". May 2013. National Book Critics Circle.
- Szalai, Jennifer (January 2009). "Reviews: John Leonard (1939–2008)". Harper's Magazine. 318 (1904): 69.
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