Never a Wayward Word

To read A.J. Liebling today, 35 years on, is to weep for the absence of such a wickedly skilled scourge. We so need him

By David Hayes, The Toronto Star; April 26, 2009

The Sweet Science and Other Writings
by A. J. Liebling (edited by Pete Hamill)
The Library of America, 2009 1,057 pages,

Of the many reasons A.J. Liebling is held in high regard among journalists – among them that he was both wise and street-wise, a sharply observant reporter and one able to provide deep meaning for what he saw – the one I value most is his turn of phrase.

What better measure of that than to realize that in probably his most famous role (as press critic), in probably his most famous book (The Press, a collection of his Wayward Press columns from The New Yorker), probably his most famous turn of phrase – “freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one” – appears buried in a paragraph halfway through a column, enclosed in parenthesis.

For many of us, a phrase like that, living on as it does five decades after it was published, would be a career high. He’d tossed it off, one step up from a footnote.

There is, in this new anthology, A. J. Liebling: The Sweet Science and Other Writings, enough Liebling to sate even an appetite as great as the great writer’s own. A very large man, Liebling was a gourmand. Among the five books collected here is Between Meals, a lovingly nostalgic memoir of his time eating his way around Paris, published two years before Hemingway’s A Movable Feast and containing more literary protein. (Between Meals begins with another of Liebling’s great lines. Describing the madeleine cake whose taste sets in motion Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, Liebling wrote a Twitter-perfect sentence: “The man ate a tea biscuit, the taste evoked memories, he wrote a book.”)

Abbott Joseph Liebling was born well-to-do in Manhattan in 1904, and died there in 1963. Along with his friend and colleague Joseph Mitchell, he effectively created modern feature writing. They applied to non-fiction the tools of the novelist – scene setting, dialogue, characterization – and as staff writers they embodied the urbane (and urban) style of The New Yorker.

Liebling described himself as someone who “could write faster than anyone who could write better and write better than anyone who could write faster.” To find someone like him, decked out in his suit, bowler hat and wire-rimmed specs, writing on such a variety of topics, you’d have to go backward in time, to Dickens, rather than forward to any contemporary journalists of today.

Writing about boxing in the 1950s in The Sweet Science, for example – a collection of articles that in 2002 Sports Illustrated named the greatest sports book of all time – he seldom bothered with the fights themselves. This was before the packaged, TV-driven entertainment spectacle of today’s sport events and besides, what Liebling really loved was the world around boxing – trainers, cut-and-bucket men, characters with names like Whitey, Tiny, Freddie and Doc.

As with all Liebling, though, it’s his often-baroque language that makes him worth reading today, even if most readers won’t know who his subjects are. I love his description of his idol among boxing writers, Pierce Egan: “He was a hack journalist, a song writer, a conductor of puff sheets and, I am inclined to suspect, a shakedown man. His work affords internal evidence that he was self-educated; if he wasn’t he had certainly found a funny schoolmaster …”

In addition to The Sweet Science, The Press and Between Meals, The Sweet Science and Other Writings includes The Earl of Louisiana, Liebling’s short but ruthlessly observed portrait of eccentric Louisiana governor Earl Long, plus a collection of pieces about the entertainers, bar flies, racing touts and shopkeepers of Times Square, The Jollity Building.

A caveat emptor about the final section of the The Jollity Building, “Yea Verily,” which appeared in slightly expanded form in a book called The Honest Rainmaker: The Life and Times of Colonel John R. Stingo. It focuses on an irrepressible racing columnist and bunkum artist who played Johnson to Liebling’s Boswell. “I was to find in all my experiences with Colonel Stingo,” wrote Liebling, “that where he diverges from recorded history, he improves on it.”

As Liebling’s biographer, Raymond Sokolov, put it, Stingo, though a real person, was “inflated with a very special gas.” He was an elaborately conceived autobiographical device allowing Liebling to write an undeclared hybrid of fact and fiction. There’d be a career-ending scandal over this today, although, as New Yorker editor David Remnick put it in his introduction to the 2004 collection, Just Enough Liebling, “what is now a hanging offence was then a risible misdemeanor.”

For someone new to Liebling, The Sweet Science and Other Writings is far from a complete anthology. His writing on World War II, which influenced at least two generations of literary-minded foreign correspondents, is available in a previously published Library of America collection, World War II Writings. A few other collections are around, both new and used, although a number of essays remain out of print and uncollected. In the end, it’s the press criticism I keep returning to. Reading it today is to realize how the particulars may have changed but the big themes remain. Liebling wrote that newspapers are “the weak slat under the bed of democracy. It is an anomaly that information, the one thing most necessary for our survival as choosers of our own way, should be a commodity subject to the same merchandising rules as chewing gum.”

He also exposed the foibles of press barons and the trend toward one-newspaper cities. I only wish I could read Liebling today, expounding on disappearing dailies, Conrad Black, citizen journalism and Twitter.