Sunday, March 01, 2009

Never enough Liebling

I’ve got news for Patrick Kurp. I also own a first of The Road Back to Paris. I began reading A. J. Liebling when I was an undergraduate, having picked up somewhere a paperback copy of The Most of A. J. Liebling, edited by William Cole nine months before Liebling died. This was the first of six Liebling anthologies. The temptation to excerpt him is irresistible, but it never seems to succeed. In a Foreword, Liebling says that he left the selections up to Cole, “because I could not myself get the manuscript down below a million words.” Cole did a good job, “but I regret the rest of the million.”

Any reader of Liebling is liable to join in the regret. The last of the Liebling anthologies before the appearance of the two new Library of America volumes was called Just Enough Liebling. No title could have been farther from the truth. The Library of America comes close to restoring the rest of the million. The volume of war writings includes The Road Back to Paris plus Mollie and Normandy Revisted. The second volume includes The Sweet Science, his classic volume of boxing reports, which I have described elsewhere on this blog as a literary masterpiece, plus his inimitable report on The Earl of Louisiana, Huey’s brother who had been declared legally insane while still in office, which doubled as the basis of a mediocre film with Paul Newman and Lolita Davidovich, and his collections of press criticism (Liebling invented the genre of press criticism, now ubiquitous in the blogscape) and his memoirs of meals. (An unashamedly fat man, Liebling was a legendary gourmand.) But there is much else that devoted reader of Liebling will regret the absence of: his early collections, Back Where I Came From (1938) and The Telephone Booth Indian (1942), his travelogue to Chicago, the Second City (1952), The Honest Rainmaker (1953), his comical biography of the horseracing reporter James A. Macdonald who wrote under the pseudonym John R. Stingo (and who never allowed “facts to interfere with the exercise of his imagination”), and the boxing essays collected posthumously under the title A Neutral Corner (1990).

Liebling liked to say—for a long time I tried to emulate him in this—that no one who wrote any faster wrote any better, and no one who wrote any better wrote any faster. The truth is that few wrote better:

I once did one long, hard job of rewrite. There was a big fire in Fall River, Massachusetts. We had an office there, but the two or three men who staffed it were not nearly enough to cover the story. So most of the night staff of the [Providence] Journal was sent down to the fire, and I remained in the office to write the running story as they telephoned it in. I did at least five thousand words that night. It taught me how few synonyms there are for fire—just blaze, flames, and conflagration, and conflagration is lousy. I must have used each about four hundred times. Some fellows that age would have weakened and used “holocaust,” but I didn’t, and it is one of the few things in my journalistic career of which I am justly proud.The best thing about Liebling, besides his matchless prose, is the pressure he puts upon the narrow and impoverished categories in which literature is stuffed and arranged upon shelves.