This weekend, I gave a friend Just Enough Liebling, a collection of New Yorker articles by A.J. (Joe) Liebling. In my inscription:
From one New Yorker reader to another, a collection of one of its legendary writers.
I’ve only read a little bit of Liebling, certainly not enough. For example, there’s the one about how he tried to get a reporting job at the New York World by hiring a man to walk past its front door all day while wearing a sandwich board with “Hire Joe Liebling” painted on it.
Liebling is highly readable, with a sometimes breezy, slightly arch style and an attention to detail—and the peculiarity of detail—that helps to define the style of a lot of New Yorker–style non-fiction. Despite the occasional tendency to make things up, Liebling is still regarded highly by the likes of David Remnick and Russell Baker. Baker writes
Liebling was almost always present in his reporting. It is a way of treating readers with respect. A glimpse of the party who is doing the reporting helps the reader judge how far he can be trusted. Liebling almost always made his presence felt, conceding that he was capable of error, sometimes winking to let the reader know he might be improving the story with a little original invention, provided the story was anything but serious.
Baker adds that Liebling was a journalist of the “modest style,” which he believes barely exists anymore, if at all. According to Baker, “The modest style required letting the reader know that the reporter was not godlike, as the old-time religion of ‘objective reporting’ presumed, but merely another frail human, maybe too woefully human to be entirely trustworthy.” And later,
The modest style meant reporting a great deal that was anything but serious. It assumed that life itself, while serious enough, heaven knows, was too intractable a subject for journalism’s paltry tools and was best left to clergy, philosophers, and poets, with occasional help from Henry Luce. Whereas modern journalism’s taste in subject matter runs to the cosmic, the modest style favored subjects of no great consequence.
In his review of the collection for the Nation, David Thomsen highlight’s “Westbound Tanker,” Liebling’s account of his 1942 trip across the Atlantic to New York on a Norwegian Tanker. Thomsen writes, “…it is the marvel in Liebling’s touch that no Norwegian could be offended by his treatment of that dry nation and its drier phlegm, just as no one of any other tongue could resist the hilarity of the deadly end-game that the Norwegian captain keeps for any attempts at small talk, that civilized gesture Liebling practiced just because he and the captain of the tanker took every meal together and because Liebling believed in talk with food, just as bees are meant to attend new blossom.” Thomsen punctuates his point with the following passage:
Once, in an effort to make talk, I asked him, “How would you say, ‘Please pass me the butter, Mr Petersen,’ in Norwegian?’ He said, “We don’t use ‘please’ or ‘mister.’ It sounds too polite. And you never have to say ‘pass me’ something in a Norwegian house, because the people force food on you, so if you said ‘pass’ they would think they forgot something and their feelings would be hurt. The word for butter is smor.”
I recently read Liebling’s “Letter from Paris, December 22, 1939.” Early in the dispatch, he describes a French character, “a petit bourgeois called Bajus…shown in a recent comic strip listening to a radio address by Hitler.”
At each howl from the radio set (“I will destroy England before breakfast,” “I will show the French what total war means”), little Bajus’s hair stood on end, and at the close of the speech he turned to his radio, saying, “Oh, please, Adolf, don’t stop; frighten me again.”
For some reason (probably a misreading), this reminded me of an article I read a few years ago called “The Morning Quickie.” No, it’s not what you think. It’s by Alma Guillermoprieto, who writes about Latin America for the New Yorker and, in this case, the New York Review of Books. “The Morning Quickie,” is the translation of the title of a Mexican television show called “El Mañanero.” Writes Guillermoprieto:
Four years into Mexico’s newly minted electoral democracy, all is not as it should be with the body politic. One indication is that the host of the most influential news show in the capital is a clown. Another is that the clear front-runner in the unacknowledged race for the next presidential elections in 2006, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the mayor of Mexico City, is currently embroiled in a scandal that first saw light with a secretly filmed video released in March. It showed the mayor’s all-purpose political operator, René Bejarano, who has served as his campaign chief and government minister for the city and was at the time the majority leader of the capital’s Legislative Assembly, receiving enormous amounts of cash from a notorious empresario, or rich businessman, whose face was blacked out on the film. The video was first broadcast in March on the clown’s television show.
Guillermoprieto then launches into an excellent piece of cultural and political reporting sparked by the scandal—the videoescándalo—precipitated on El Mañanero by Brozo the clown: “The cameras in Brozo’s studio closed in on a grainy black-and-white video with terrible audio quality, in which the glum, balding Bejarano, wearing a dark suit, opens a briefcase, lays it flat, and proceeds to stuff it with wads of US and Mexican currency. Weeks later, the bit that was still getting replayed was the sequence in which, having tried and failed to close the case, Bejarano hurriedly stuffs his pockets with more cash.”
The article owes something to the New Yorker non-fiction style I mentioned earlier, influenced in part by A.J. Liebling. And in some ways, I like to think this is the kind of story a writer like Liebling or Joseph Mitchell might have been interested in, one of hustlers and fixers and frauds. Certainly this is a kind of story I’m interested in. Maybe I’m just looking for something we have in common.
But if that’s all I wanted, I need look no further than Hanover, New Hampshire, because A. J. Liebling went to Dartmouth, my old alma mater. There are two reasons I remember this: 1) because I always latch onto arcana like this (apologies for the tautology), and 2) because relatively few Dartmouth alumni show up in fields like writing (and art and music, etc.). Some very talented people attended Dartmouth: Meryll Streep, Fred Rogers, even Robert Frost. None of them, of course, stayed at Dartmouth. Frost told the Paris Review he “ran away from Dartmouth,” which may be a little over-dramatic (even Frost’s interviewer noted, “His special resemblance to New England, however, is that he, like it, has managed to impose upon the world a wholly self-created image.”) Liebling was kicked out of Dartmouth, the claim being that he missed chapel “once too often.” Although if he was Jewish, like his mother and father, that might be part of the reason why.
I’m writing about this subject in light (or rather, in the the shadow) of a recent journalism school interview that did not go well. The examples of Frost and Liebling leave me with a worrying realization: If I want to be a successful writer, I should have gotten kicked out or run away from Dartmouth. Just that easy.