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Ken Tucker

15 Years On: John Leonard, 1939-2008: Ambushed Into Sentience [by Ken Tucker]

John Leonard

John Leonard, who died Nov. 5 [2008] at age 69, was a dizzyingly inspirational critic. Lots of people are going to write appreciations of his extraordinary body of literary criticism, and although I am here to speak for his television criticism, I will inevitably include some of Leonard's observations about books, because for him, one informed the other.

When he began simultaneously reviewing books and TV in the early 1970s, he wasn't someone who wanted to make you feel it was okay to like pop culture (and he was then writing at a time when his readership often wanted such reassurance). No, Leonard's writing stood as proof that high and low culture could and should spark off each other, yield up fresh juxtapositions and ideas. He didn't merely write about watching TV, he Leonard-ized the experience, noting that we tuned in "wishing merely for a chortle or a pipe dream, suspecting our cable box is just another bad-faith credit card enabling us to multiply our disappointments, we are ambushed into sentience.
              Leonard’s crammed prose was a series of cultural references packed into sentences so densely that they exploded in your head. Lots of critics write year-end summation pieces; only Leonard could summarize 1971's TV-year thus: "The mind is a vacuum tube. The memory is artificial turf, videotape, consisting of images of George Plimpton and Archie Bunker; beneath it lies the bodies of four thousand lobotomized network vice-presidents, sewn together at their pineal glands and Achilles' heels… FCC commissioners and the bureaucrats of public television scrimmage with cleated prose and padded brains."
       Twenty-six years later, showing not a trace of abated energy, he praised an episode of Homicide: Life On The Street that focussed on a long interrogation scene by saying, "for a single hour in March, for which Tom Fontana won the Emmy he deserved, I learned more about the behavior of fearful men in small rooms than I had from any number of better-known movies and serious plays and modern highbrow novels by the likes of Don DeLillo, Mary McCarthy, Alberto Moravia, Nadine Gordimer, Heinrich Boll, and Doris Lessing." With Leonard, this wasn't idle cultural name-dropping—he had read and written about all of those novelists. That comparison was not idly made; he had also spent the year watching Northern Exposure and Roseanne ("about joblessness and lesbianism as well as bowling") and Picket Fences and the TV-movie "Roe V. Wade, with Holly Hunter as a Supreme Court case." He had his blind spots (he couldn’t get past Archie Bunker's bigotry to appreciate All In The Family's craft and sociological impact), and he had his TV crushes (Blair Brown and Veronica Hamel felt his prose caress many times). But he remained not merely sensible and passionate but revelatory. No one else could review a travel documentary with a sentence like this, a glorious example of one of Leonard’s signature devices—the list-sentence that becomes in itself a form of criticism: "We wandered with a shopping list—Greek light, German sausage, Russian soul, French sauce, Spanish bull, Zen koans, hearts of darkness, the blood of the lamb, and a double-knuckled antelope humerus from Oolduvai Gorge. We'd rub our fuzzy heads against the strange, and see if something kindled." We’d rub our fuzzy heads against the strange—that is poetry as much as it is criticism, and Leonard spun it out without warning, without ostentation, but like a newspaperman on deadline delivering a staggering gift.
       Over the years I have often repeated to writers who bitch about lack of recognition the story Leonard told in his first collection of criticism, 1973's This Pen For Hire, that he started writing TV reviews for Life magazine. But when he became the editor of the New York Times Book Review, he was told "it was considered inappropriate" for a Times-man to write about that lowly medium, and so he continued writing about TV, but under a pen name, Cyclops. "Life still receives letters thanking the magazine for getting rid of me in favor of Cyclops," Leonard wrote, "or demanding my return and the firing of Cyclops. So much for a distinctive prose style."
      But it is precisely his prose style that made anything Leonard wrote immediately identifiable. He was the first great TV critic. Of those who followed, James Wolcott, Tom Carson, Mim Udovich, and Clive James are the only other ones who can touch him. But none of them—and few of us—can rub our fuzzy heads against the strange and come up with thoughts as clear and complex as those of John Leonard.

--Ken Tucker

from the archive, first posted November 6, 2008. See too

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I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
of coming back
ten hours later
to the greatness
of Teddy Wilson
"After You've Gone"
on the piano
in the corner
of the bedroom
as I enter
in the dark

from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman


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