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The Anteroom Of Literature: A.J. Liebling

March 4, 2009


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.

Francis-Noel Thomas, Humanities, May/June 2008

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…

  1. MeltonMowbray permalink
    March 4, 2009 11:02 PM

    That section on Stalin is pretty good. I’d only vaguely heard the name (of Liebling, I mean) and seem to connect it with a book by Bellow featuring a radical journalist. I haven’t looked at a Spectator or NS for a couple of years, so I don’t know what essay-writing looks like at the moment: not much that could match Liebling I daresay. Boris’s editorials in the Spec. were sometimes quite amusing, though no-one could equal Auberon Waugh’s column in the same magazine.

  2. BaronCharlus permalink
    March 5, 2009 3:55 PM

    Hi Mishari,

    I don’t know if you follow Acciaccatura, but we’re talking about setting up a very simple page to aggregate some of the GU renegade blogs. Would you be interested in having Politely Homicidal linked via an icon and small text on the page?

  3. mishari permalink*
    March 5, 2009 4:56 PM

    Not really, Baron. I had quick read of the discussion and came across this:

    “…But we would need a set of libertarian ground rules that we can agree to abide by on the whole. I suggest Wordy come up with those. Editorial expertise and all.”

    In the first place, I make my own rules, minimalistic as they are. Rules drawn up by wordnerd7, who drove @pinkroom off her blog for an alleged ‘racist’ line in a poem but is happy to entertain the blatant racist drivel spouted by susanabram’s? I don’t think so…

    Secondly, wordnerd7, whose particular brand of saccharine malice I’m well aquainted with, is an inveterate shit-stirrer, one of those people who enjoys starting fights with lots of sly innuendo and then standing back and saying innocently “who me?”…fuck that.

    Thirdly, I have no desire to be associated in any way with susanabrams, who thinks Africans are genetically pre-disposed to be lazy, Chinese are ditto to be hard working and who writes what must be the most wretched, excruciating prose I’ve ever read…if there were any justice in the world, allowing her so much as a pencil would be a capital offence.

    So while I appreciate what I know to be a good-natured gesture on your part, I predict tears before bedtime and must respectfully decline your kind offer…

    Today’s search terms:

    sheep teeth

    from now on, going forward, in the futur

    empty suit

    biba golic

  4. BaronCharlus permalink
    March 5, 2009 5:11 PM

    So, shall I put you down as a ‘maybe’?

    No problem, Mish. btw, what did you think of the Lord Invader track I sent over?

  5. mishari permalink*
    March 5, 2009 5:18 PM

    I didn’t realize you had, Baron. Sorry, as I said, it’s an address I check very infrequently. An address I check daily is:

    I’ll check now, though…

    Ah, The Old Time Cat O’Nine Tails…great stuff. Thanks Baron…

    BTW, where is the track from? I’m guessing Trinidad, somewhere like that. I’d also bet there really was a famously robust Judge Gilchrist…

  6. BaronCharlus permalink
    March 5, 2009 5:37 PM

    Trinidad, yes. From 1945, according to the Internet (Yazoo don’t seem to think dating the tracks they preserve so carefully is important). I have a friend from Trinidad who might know about the good Judge.

    Look up Invader, there’s a great story about him travelling to the US to challenge copyright of one of his songs. And winning.

  7. March 5, 2009 5:46 PM

    Howard Jacobsen did a Channel 4 series about humour which featured long sequences of insulting calypso’s where the singers gather round a table and insult each other in song. The insults have to conform to strict rules of metre and rhyme and the singers improvise them.It was fabulous.

    In Brazil they have a similar form called xaxado where a man and woman trade verse to the rhythm of a pandeiro ( a Brazilian tambourine that they call a laptop as you can play anything on it ) and insult each other and members of the public who gather round to watch. It’s also improvised. We saw a session in Rio when we worked there – didn’t understand a word but the audience was falling about laughing at what they sung. Great rhythm too.

  8. mishari permalink*
    March 5, 2009 5:46 PM

    Do you know Lord Kitchener’s London Is The Place For Me? Delightful.

    Al, I believe in Jamaica the same thing is called a ‘cutting session’, with highest marks given for wit…

    Mind you, the same thing has always existed in Arabic poetry, sans music…

  9. March 5, 2009 5:55 PM

    “Secondly, wordnerd7, whose particular brand of saccharine malice I’m well aquainted with, is an inveterate shit-stirrer, one of those people who enjoys starting fights with lots of sly innuendo and then standing back and saying innocently “who me?”…fuck that.”

    So it wasn’t just me imagining it? Don’t forget the dear auld thing’s sick-making oral technique for flattering her way into the hearts of future allies; (cyber) creatures like that *do* thrive on (virtual) allies. Still, she appears to be a topnotch typist. She’ll have tossed off a kilometer of coy opinionation in the time it took me to hunt-and-peck this paragraph.

  10. mishari permalink*
    March 5, 2009 6:03 PM

    Quantity is a poor substitute for quality, Steven…and no, you weren’t imagining it.

  11. 3p4 permalink
    March 5, 2009 7:46 PM

    the global emotional equity fund fell a couple of points today after
    a shock and awe blitzcrieg by the father of those who stand to inherit,,

    the editor stated that no unconventional weapons had been deployed,,

  12. MeltonMowbray permalink
    March 5, 2009 11:23 PM

    WN7’s harassment technique is highly developed, especially in the use of her coven of sock-puppets. When she was practising it on me I found it rather amusing, though I can see it might be upsetting for someone who gave a fuck.

    I enjoyed Red Riding, an authentic picture of Yorkshire life at any time. 1974, however, was never as gloomy as that in the rest of the country. How much smoking we did! No wonder my skin is so yellow and leathery.

  13. mishari permalink*
    March 5, 2009 11:32 PM

    11:30 pm

    What I always found telling was WN7’s constantly voiced suspicion of other usernames disguising this person or that. An unlovely combination of paranoia and the erroneous belief that everyone is as devoted to trouble-making with sockpuppets as she is. As you say, distressing for gentle souls but laughable chaff to the more hard-bitten…

    Missed Red Riding, although I imagine I can catch it on i-player, which I will on your recommendation. Watching a couple of old Thin Man films recently, I was struck not only by the constant smoking but the incessant drinking. Nobody in the 40s ever drew a sober breath, by the look of it…

  14. MeltonMowbray permalink
    March 5, 2009 11:53 PM

    Watching Mad Men, where the execs start pouring the drinks shortly after arriving at work, I always find myself reaching automatically for the Scotch. Of course you know they are drinking cold tea, but the subliminal message is still there.

  15. mishari permalink*
    March 6, 2009 12:00 AM

    If you haven’t already seen it, watch Thank You For Smoking when you get a chance. Very cynical and very funny…

  16. pinkroom permalink
    March 6, 2009 12:40 AM

    Back here due to lack of anything interesting happpening on BB. Really annoying. Posters keeps setting these really naff themes… love/night??? that inspire mostly crap or easypeasy themes haikus/limericks that draw in the nutters/wasters. Potw keeps closing early and the other blogs seem written by a bunch of bumptious teenagers saying the same “controversial” things over and over.

    Seconds, thirds and fourths to comments re W7. For me any “aggregate” spin off site is a non-starter… I just would not be welcome. Surprised to learn W7 is a she having imagined him/her as one of those almost liquidly corpulent “queen bee” type males you find cultivating cliques through much liberal butterings-up whilst at the same time planning the next big schism to keep their workers/drones on their toes. A sort of substitute for life? We’ve all met, and even been cultivated by them. Could be a woman. Would be intrigued to learn who the sock-puppets are/were because I may have crossed/bested one or two of these thus explaining the bizzare “down” taken. Strange.

    Rather than an aggregate what I feel is needed is a task or challenge. Like many others perhaps, I feel like I’m rusting. If posters or potw doesn’t shape up next week give us an interesting text or task to get stuck into. Let the prize be a 40s style breakfast of scotch and lucky strikes unfiltered, with a grapefruit chaser.

  17. March 6, 2009 10:16 AM

    I found Red Riding tiresomely predictable. Guy meets girl in bar cut to them shagging furiously in room with prominent 70’s wallpaper, cut to “discovery” that in fact she knows him all along. It was atmospheric but also full of stock scenes like that. I gave up

    I’m one who posts on wn’s site so I guess I must be a sock puppet. Strange. I try and avoid all this internet rivalry – it’s not difficult to read between the lines of all of this and realise there is a history but I don’t know what it is. I’m sure I’m not 100% immune from irrational /rational swipes but beyond the subject in hand and the potential disagreements over that I really don’t have the energy to make judgements on people I don’t know.

    I posted there because I was tired and bored of having people invent personas for me, invent things I did and said and attack me on account of those speculations on the GU site. But given 2 of the main offenders followed me over it seems nowhere is immune from this kind of nonsense. Oh well forward in all directions.

  18. mishari permalink*
    March 6, 2009 10:40 AM

    Are you sure you’ve grasped the concept of ‘sock puppet’, Al? You’re not a sock-puppet, unless there’s something you’re not telling us, i.e., that you post under a dozen different user names with the specific intent of causing trouble…or that you’re one of WN7’s many personas.

    I’d be prepared to bet money you don’t and aren’t. I know you occasionally post as @ETAYLOR but you yourself made very clear from the start that it was you, suffering from some computer glitch that caused your home or work machine to log you in under that name. Everbody grasped this except the wilfully obtuse usual suspect…

  19. March 6, 2009 10:49 AM

    I thought that was a troll. In which case I have no idea what a sock puppet is beyond it being Lamb Chop on the hand of Shari Lewis or people who dance to other’s tunes. Please explain whilst sighing loudly at my ignorance.

    ETAYLOR has gone in the virtual sense and judging by my inability to grasp the most basic of blogging jargon has gone in reality too.

  20. mishari permalink*
    March 6, 2009 11:14 AM

    Basically, Al, if a half-dozen new names turn up out of the blue and starting attacking you or anyone who seems sympathetic to you while voicing support for an antagonist of yours, you may be certain you are in the presence of sock-puppetry. One could equally call them cat’s paws.

    It’s the resort of cowards, mostly. My distaste for wn7 doesn’t spring from any injury done me so much as realising about a year ago what her (and I’m convinced it is a her, despite all the ‘gender neutral’ blather) modus operandi was and is. Open hosility I don’t mind. It’s all this hole-in-corner, hint and innuendo, name-no-names, knife-in-the-dark crap that I can’t stomach…

  21. March 6, 2009 11:19 AM

    Shari Lewis will never be the same again. God I’m naive. Blunder on is my motto but perhaps I need a tin helmet whilst blundering.

  22. mishari permalink*
    March 6, 2009 11:30 AM

    Not naive, Al…just too sweet-natured for this naughty vale of error and tears.

  23. March 6, 2009 11:38 AM

    Where’s that cat blog?

  24. mishari permalink*
    March 6, 2009 11:52 AM

    Actually, pace @pinkroom, I think I’m going to post a poetic task, something a little more rigourous than simply setting a subject.

  25. MeltonMowbray permalink
    March 6, 2009 12:04 PM

    I don’t think Red Riding matched the hype, but it was watchable. Sean Bean’s remark at the end, All this over a fookin’ shopping centre?, was pertinent. The murder/perversion angle was strangely muted, the Stefan Kiszko stuff feebly done. It could have done with a lot more Warren Clarke, who I hope will be more prominent in the next one.

    I haven’t read any of the quartet. The Damned Utd was very good, but I found Tokyo Year Zero a disappointment. The techniques which worked well in the DU, the repetitions, the Proustian phrases, the obsessive thought patterns, made TYZ pretty hard to follow and consequently to take an interest in. Of course I know something about football, not much about Japan, but that shouldn’t be as important as it is.

  26. March 6, 2009 12:26 PM

    MM The wallpaper in RR was especially vibrant. Very reminiscent of the stuff that landlords put in their rented accomodation. When a student in Wolverhampton the wallpaper in my house was enough to make you think you were hungover even if you hadn’t drunk anything. I wouldn’t be surprised if the CIA use it in their extraordinary rendition activities.

  27. mishari permalink*
    March 6, 2009 12:38 PM

    It’s alleged that Oscar Wilde’s last words were: “Either that wallpaper goes or I do…”. One must suppose he would have snuffed it even sooner had he fled to Wolverhampton instead of France…

  28. March 6, 2009 1:11 PM

    “Where’s that cat blog?”

    I’m working on it now, Al.

  29. March 6, 2009 1:23 PM

    Steven. Excellent – I think our friend Mr. Witkin may have the photos for whatever you come up with.

  30. MeltonMowbray permalink
    March 6, 2009 1:41 PM

    The wallpaper in the room where the journo was shagging the bereaved mum was horribly reminiscent of that in my granny’s ‘lounge’. She would be turning in her grave if she knew that someone was having sexual intercourse in front of it.

  31. mishari permalink*
    March 6, 2009 2:03 PM

    Jesus, Mowbray…sex, sex, sex…you need to get that satyriasis treated before you come a very sordid cropper…

  32. March 6, 2009 3:08 PM

    “Steven. Excellent – I think our friend Mr. Witkin may have the photos for whatever you come up with.”

    (Lightbulb goes off) …A *headless* cat blog!

    (Don’t knock cats. They’re deep thinkers–Ed See?)

  33. March 6, 2009 3:16 PM

    A headless cat owned by a Mexican transvestite with no legs blog

  34. MeltonMowbray permalink
    March 6, 2009 3:17 PM

    You sound just like that bloody magistrate. What can I say? I love to love, baby. Got to go… time to slop out.

  35. mishari permalink*
    March 6, 2009 4:05 PM

    I notice some laughable dipshit on your discussion of filmic violence has offered to come and punch your lights out, a phenomenon I always find laughably pathetic online….1 billion Conan the Barbarians at their keyboards who turn into 1 billion Quentin Crisps down the pub.

    Still, building bridges…it’s what Steven’s all about…

    (and spare me any jokes along the lines of “Quentin Crisps? Do they come in cheese&onion?”)

  36. March 6, 2009 4:44 PM

    That thread couldn’t have ended up more beautifully if I’d actually sock-puppeted the at-a-loss-for-words lout who called me a “faggot”.

  37. March 6, 2009 5:01 PM

    The threat is so beautifully timed as well. Dr. Mabuse who rushes in where fools haven’t feared to tread is another nice detail.

  38. March 6, 2009 5:51 PM

    The fact that Dr. Mabuse wasn’t up to analytical comparisons of the formal unity of “Salo” with the empty, MTV-influenced image-banalities of the gratuitously violent “Irreversible” *couldn’t* have come into his decision to pull the plug on the thread…

  39. March 6, 2009 6:42 PM

    One more thing about Salo (and then I’m off the apple crate): its unwavering strength: all these years later it leads the way in cutting through the Realpolitik euphemisms to frame Abu Ghraib as an expression of Donald Rumsfeldt’s sexuality.

  40. MeltonMowbray permalink
    March 6, 2009 11:11 PM

    I’ve never seen it. Do people really faint mid-film?

  41. mishari permalink*
    March 6, 2009 11:21 PM

    I’ve mentioned his before, but the first time I saw it in my early 20s, it cleared a full cinema, to the sound of retching, disgust and outrage.

    I was more bemused than anything else. I knew almost nothing of Pasolini and had never heard of the Republic of Salo. Later, having read up on both, I understood what he was getting at. A brutally effective meditation on the psycho-pathology of power, etc. Well worth seeing…

  42. MeltonMowbray permalink
    March 7, 2009 1:06 AM

    Sorry. Couldn’t remember where I heard that. Like a lot of other things.

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