Jonathan Yardley, who is writing an occasional series of Washington Post pieces about “notable and/or neglected books from the past” (and what a good idea that is!), has just gotten around to A.J. Liebling’s The Earl of Louisiana:
Turn to the opening sentences of A.J. Liebling’s “The Earl of Louisiana,” and three things happen. You are dazzled by the wit and acuity of Liebling’s prose, you want to keep on reading for as long as he keeps on writing, and you are struck by how deeply the character of American politics has changed in the four-plus decades since “The Earl of Louisiana” was first published. To wit:
“Southern political personalities, like sweet corn, travel badly. They lose flavor with every hundred yards away from the patch. By the time they reach New York, they are like Golden Bantam that has been trucked up from Texas—stale and unprofitable. The consumer forgets that the corn tastes different where it grows.”
That was 1960, when the first article in Liebling’s series about Earl Long, then governor of Louisiana, appeared in the New Yorker. Now, 44 years later, you still can “experience the old-fashioned traditional corn flavor of Golden Bantam,” as one seed company puts it, but the old-fashioned traditional corn flavor of Southern politics is as dead as Earl Long himself. Yes, you still can buy a Moon Pie in Ol’ Dixie, but the rumpled rustics who inspired Al Capp to create a comic-strip politico called Sen. Jack S. Phogbound long ago vanished, replaced by the blow-dried suburban slicksters who’ve turned the Solid South into Anyplace, U.S.A….
Read the whole thing here.
I share nearly all of Yardley’s admiration for Liebling, whom he rightly compares to H.L. Mencken. I also have strong feelings of nostalgia about him: Liebling was the subject of the first book review I ever wrote for a national magazine, all the way back in 1981. He wasn’t that well known then, and he’s not now (The Earl of Louisiana, in some ways his best book, was reissued by an academic press), even though he was one of The New Yorker‘s most admired contributors back in the unimaginably far-removed days of Harold Ross.
I’ve never quite understood why Liebling isn’t better remembered, though I have some suspicions. For one thing, his prose is a rich dish, by no means indigestible but a bit much for many palates. For another, he was a journalist, not a familiar essayist, and most of his pieces, intensely personal though they may be, are about something or somebody other than himself. Nor did it help that his books went out of print early and stayed that way for a very long time. Most of them, including The Earl of Louisiana, are still out of print.
Liebling was no paragon, least of all in his much-admired press criticism, which for me hasn’t held up well. It didn’t help that his own grasp of “journalistic ethics” (not quite an oxymoron, but close) could be alarmingly shaky. He was, for example, privately advising Alger Hiss’ defense team at the same time he was dissecting press coverage of the Hiss-Chambers case in The New Yorker, a feat of ethical elasticity comparable only to the similar services provided by Mencken to the defense team in the Scopes trial. That is a big fat juicy blot on the escutcheon of a writer who deserves to be remembered for many things other than his too-cute “Wayward Press” pieces in The New Yorker. It, too, should be remembered, but in perspective, much like Mencken’s anti-Semitism, a dismaying footnote to a career of the highest possible individuality, one to which Yardley’s Washington Post piece is a fine and timely introduction.
I’m not quite sure that The Earl of Louisiana is the best place to start with Liebling, though. When I wrote about the Library of America’s superlative two-volume set devoted to journalism in World War II, I was struck by how many of the least dated pieces had originally appeared in The New Yorker–one doesn’t usually think of The New Yorker as a source of first-rate war coverage–and by how many of the best of those pieces had been written by A.J. Liebling. He originally made his name writing about peculiar New Yorkers, and nobody except Ross expected that so utterly urban a character would have the slightest notion of what to do in a war zone. But time and again, Liebling buried the puck in the net, never deeper than in “Cross-Channel Trip,” filed from a landing craft in the English Channel on D-Day:
I looked down at the main deck, and the beach-battalion men were already moving ahead, so I knew that the ramps must be down. I could hear Long shouting, “Move along now! Move along!,” as if he were unloading an excursion boat at Coney Island. But the men needed no urging; they were moving without a sign of flinching. You didn’t have to look far for tracers now, and Kallam and I flattened our backs against the pilot house and pulled in our stomachs, as if to give a possible bullet an extra couple of inches clearance. Something tickled the back of my neck. I slapped at it and discovered that I had most of the ship’s rigging draped around my neck and shoulders, like a character in an old slapstick movie about a spaghetti factory, or like Captain Horatio Hornblower. The rigging had been cut away by bullets….
A sailor came by and Shorty, one of the men in the gun crew, said to him, “Who was it?” The sailor said, “Rocky and Bill. They’re all tore up. A shell got the winch and ramps and all.” I went forward to the well deck, which was sticky with a mixture of blood and condensed milk. Soldiers had left cases of rations lying all about the ship, and a fragment of the shell that hit the boys had torn into a carton of cans of milk. Rocky and Bill had been moved belowdecks into one of the large forward compartments. Rocky was dead beyond possible doubt, somebody told me, but the pharmacist’s mates had given Bill blood plasma and thought he might still be alive. I remembered Bill, a big, baby-faced kid from the District of Columbia, built like a wrestler. He was about twenty, and the other boys used to kid him about a girl he was always writing letters to. A third wounded man, a soldier dressed in khaki, lay on a stretcher on deck breathing hard through his mouth. His long, triangular face looked like a dirty drumhead; his skin was white and drawn tight over his high cheekbones. He wasn’t making much noise.
First-person journalism will never get any better than that.