Emdashes—Modern Times Between the Lines

The Basics:
About Emdashes | Email us

Before it moved to The New Yorker:
Ask the Librarians

Best of Emdashes: Hit Parade
A Web Comic: The Wavy Rule


Emily writes:

Apart from my parents, there are two people most responsible for whatever success I’ve found in writing and journalism. One is Katha Pollitt. The other is John Leonard, who I’ve just learned has died. He was loquacious and brave, extravagant and rigorous, profound and mischievous, demanding and incredibly generous. He believed in older writers’ service to younger ones and put his money where his mouth was. He knew more than a football field of literati. His sentences were outrageous Cyclone rides, until later in his life and in his illness, when they settled down a little in syntax, if not in erudition and clarity.

I will miss him.

Later: Andrew Leonard, John’s son, read a “eulogy for my father’s words,” at John’s memorial service on March 2, 2009, and the eulogy is now on Salon. It was one of many moments that made up an evening worthy of John’s greatness of spirit and boundlessness of language.

Do read Scott McLemee (another believer in those overlapping categories, books and justice), Hillary Frey, and Jane Ciabattari at the National Book Critics Circle’s Critical Mass (which is collecting more remembrances as they appear) on the loss of John.

And in honor of his irresistible passion for juicy word combinations, here’s the title of a book he published in 1999, and a link so you can buy it (and I hope you do): 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. From the Times obituary: “The comma seemed to have been invented expressly for him.”

Tom Nissley at Omnivoracious has written a graceful tribute. This sentence from his post was hard to read but deeply good to know: “I know he managed to get to his polling place to vote in New York on Tuesday, and I hope he was able to appreciate the results of the night.” Laura Miller’s remembrance in Salon includes the doubly astute observation, “To say John Leonard was a reviewer at heart is to pay a great compliment to a profession that currently seems to be limping toward an undeserved obsolescence.” And: “Unlike most of his colleagues, he never burned out, never grew bitter or nasty about the books.”

Art Winslow, another force in my Nation years who gave me a leg up for which I’ll always be amazed and grateful, writes in the L.A. Times: “In a literary sense, he took it as his mission to drive the money-changers from the temple and to feed the multitudes, or at least try.”

At The New Yorker’s Book Bench blog, Ligaya Mishan quotes John from his Harvard Crimson years, on “Ginsberg and his fellows”: “In a critical sense, we academicians know these men as psychopaths, and perhaps they are. They believe in sensuality, not sense; in thrill, not mere experience.”

Which made me think of a story John once told about leaving the Crimson office at near-dawn after a long closing night, with the snow falling on the Boston streets making his footsteps almost completely still, when suddenly he heard a voice singing so sweetly it couldn’t possibly be human. It was a very young Joan Baez, maybe at Club 47, where my mother also saw her perform around that time, and John went inside and listened till she stopped singing—it was that beautiful.

I also just remembered that it was John who told me about the scene in Renata Adler’s Speedboat in which a tour guide on a bus full of visitors to the city calls out, pointing at the protagonist, “Look, there’s one of them now!” And how he always identified with that sense of targeted mystery, wondering what the world makes of you, what they think you are. I hadn’t seen him in a while, just heard bulletins, read Meghan O’Rourke’s excellent profile in CJR, and was my usual optimistic, time-senseless self. The world of words is poorer, and so is mine.


Quite a lot going on between the lines of your comment about how John took seriously the obligation to help younger writers.

During his time as literary editor at The Nation, he went out of his way to encourage unknown young writers. He gave interns a chance to review, for example — unlike some folks who evidently felt the need to keep ‘em in their places, lest they get uppity, perhaps. And my impression is that John caught a certain amount of hell for this.

By that point, I was in my thirties and publishing a lot, and certainly not feeling young. But unlike other literary editors at the time, he was actually reading my work and did not treat me like an invisible man. Sure, he was smart and incredibly well read, but he was also decent to people. (As opposed to nice-making to get ahead, which is common enough.) The pain of his loss is hard to express.

Goodness, 69 is much too soon. I’ve been reading him for so very long that I assumed he was quite a bit older. This is really, really sad.

So decent. When I first met him, he and his wife, Sue, were co-editing the Nation book section. I was the assistant copy editor. John spoke to me with the same respect and excitement with which he spoke to the big-name writers he’d befriended through the decades. I’ve met plenty of editors who love books, and many whose lives center around good writing. John and Sue also loved the writers—that is, reviewers, essayists, newly acknowledged Nation staffers, interns—themselves. John’s house was packed with the literature he’d absorbed, his Rolodex was full of distinguished authors, but he kept on welcoming new writers into the fold, which suddenly appeared not to be a locked clubhouse at all.

While I was still at the magazine, John came bounding into the copy department, beaming, to tell me that he’d just read a letter that was so terrific he’d assigned the writer a review-essay without even asking for clips. Unbeknownst to me, my mother, a former social worker and teacher in northern Vermont, had written him a page or two (as I recall, on a typewriter) about her high regard for May Sarton, and he published her essay on Sarton’s work several months later. I’ll never forget that act of faith, one of very many, in the service of wedding books to the critics who would give them their most tender and careful attention.

Ditto, (what a great comment).i was just thinking that John Leonard could not be only 69. met him once in nyc he told me a great education in writing started out as a great education in reading; critical reading. now, years later trying to write,but new yorker continues to be my primer…al the way here in AZ, i will miss him, his influence will continue to be written for many years. Sorry for your loss, but as you said the gains…what a privlege.

Post a comment

(If you haven't left a comment here before, it may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Thanks for waiting.)

2008 Webby Awards Official Honoree