The Anteroom Of Literature: A.J. Liebling
The idea that journalism is not “literature” is such a deeply entrenched prejudice that even writers and editors who have spent their lives in journalism and have achieved literary distinction as journalists sometimes speak as if what they write and edit is not literature.
This prejudice can be viewed as a cultural successor to the one that despised novels—a prejudice current in Jane Austen’s lifetime and one she scoffs at in both her letters and her novels.
Reading almost any twenty consecutive pages of A. J. Liebling’s Second World War reportage offers an excellent demonstration of just how specious the distinction between journalism and literature can be, but it is a distinction that has helped to prevent Liebling from being recognized as the major American writer he is.
Since his death in 1963, almost all of his books have—in the words of Fred Warner—slipped in and out of print. Warner, in an introduction to a volume of Liebling’s previously uncollected essays, asked a question that has probably occurred to most of his readers: “How can a writer this good not be better known?”
Two or three efforts have been made to establish a reputation for him as a major writer, but, as I write, Liebling remains in the anteroom of literature, where his reputation remains ambiguous. He has neither passed altogether into obscurity nor achieved canonical status. His admirers have not, however, given up.
Indeed they have not…and this piece on Liebling in The New Yorker may help explain why. I urge anyone who hasn’t read Liebling to do so. It’ll be like meeting an old and valued friend that you never knew you had.
I hope Auden was right when he wrote:
Time that is intolerant
Of the brave and innocent
And indifferent in a week
To a beautiful physique
Worships language and forgives
Everyone by whom it lives
Pardons cowardice, conceit,
Lays its honours at their feet.
If any writer deserves to have honours laid at his departed feet, it’s A.J. Liebling…