On A. J. Liebling:
I suppose I should blush for not reading him sooner, since he's one of those names journalists throw around to prove that the scribbler's craft can produce true artists. He wrote for the New Yorker in the 30s, 40s and 50s, and was one of those chroniclers of the demi-monde of gyms and bars. Or so the reputation has it. Well, I've been dipping through "Just Enough Liebling," and I don't get it. I just don't.
Terry Teachout says he's riding to AJ's rescue:
Not so, not so! But I can see how he was led astray: Just Enough Liebling, the just-published anthology of Liebling's essays, leaves out much of his best work and includes too much of the other kind. I filed a review for next week's Weekly Standard a couple of days ago, so I don't want to jump the gun on myself, but to Lileks and any other skeptics out there I say: wait until my piece comes out, then make up your minds.
I'll post a link if there's a free one. Otherwise, I'll tell you what I said when the time comes. In the meantime, keep your Lugers holstered.
I really like AJL's writing on boxing. Admittedly, some of their appeal is that they call up a lost world -a world of boxing clubs and boxing bars and a time when championship fights were held in stadiums and arenas. But Liebling knew boxing and his columns have insight as well as atmosphere.
But The Wayward Press just left me cold and the food writing was worse.
This article from Slate gets at the heart of the problem with the press criticisim.
Liebling, of course, made no effort to hide his liberal politics, as biographer Raymond Sokolov writes in Wayward Reporter: The Life of A.J. Liebling, taking reliably liberal positions on unions, capitalism, the press barons, the Red Scare, and defending underdogs and proletarians. Far from daring, he was a conformist, reinforcing the majority culture views of New Yorker readers.
By letting his politics determine his views of the press, he missed the biggest story of his time-the Cold War-and allowed himself to get too close to Alger Hiss to see his deceit.
It seems to me that a press critic who "misses" the biggest story of his time is a terribly flawed critic. He is more like an ankle-biting nit-picker. Instead of improving journalism, he leads it down blind alleys.
Lileks quotes David Remnick in the introduction and in so doing illustrates another red/blue divide:
The introduction, by David Remnick, may have spoiled me for good. "From the start of the American republic," Remnick writes, "the most tantalizing means of indulging a youthful desire for escape and recreation has been the sojourn in Paris."
Maybe, for some. For millions of others, the dream went West-to light out for the territories, to cross the next mountain, to ride a trail behind a herd of longhorns, to find gold in lonely hills, to homestead.
As a fantasy, playing chef and food critic seems an acquired taste. Same thing with sitting with Sartre and de Beauvoir as they scribble and debate at the café table.
Maybe the Frontier Did Matter