To be liberated into New York, where anything that exists can somehow be got at, is just as exhilarating as to be liberated into literature, to be handed a key to all those boxes of trapped words.
John Leonard wrote this sentence in one of his weekly "Private Lives" columns for the New York Times during the 1970s. As a young reader, isolated in the literary wilderness of a small Vermont town--and with no real experience of "the city"--I discovered in his Times essays one of my first windows with a view of what a life of reading and writing in the Imperial City might be like.
By that I do not mean I thought New York was some ethereal blend of Leonard's bittersweet musings and Woody Allen's Manhattan cinematography (via Gordon Willis, of course). After all, I'd seen Death Wish and Mean Streets, too. But reality is often beside the point when a reader searches for a new home; when a young man struggles to escape the web of what Sherwood Anderson called "the sadness of sophistication."
I simply mean that, once upon a time, Leonard's Imperial City had seemed familiar and irresistible to me, so the news of his death last week inevitaby triggered memories. I found myself immediately setting out on a book safari through the biblio-jungle of my personal library, aware that camouflaged somewhere among the shelves and stacks was a copy of Private Lives in the Imperial City, a collection of those Times columns published by Knopf in 1979.
As would be expected, reaction to the loss of this esteemed critic has been wide-ranging and profound. You can find literary eulogies at the New York Times or Salon or the Los Angeles Times or dozens of other publications for which he wrote or where writers who were influenced by him work now. They all have their own recollections.
And I have mine. After some detours and distractions, my book hunt was successful, and I reread Private Lives in the Imperial City because, ceremonially perhaps, I felt the pull of the past. News of the dead can do that to you sometimes. I never met John Leonard, but his was not a stranger's demise because I am his reader and his was never a stranger's voice.
Maybe the pull is something else as well. We seem to have written too many authors' obituary notes at Shelf Awareness this year--Studs Terkel, Michael Crichton, Tony Hillerman, Arthur C. Clarke, William F. Buckley, Hayden Carruth and more. As Leonard himself wrote, "We are also getting to be of an age when our friends are doing a lot of the dying; each one gone is a surprise, but the surprises now are more likely to arrive one a year than every six years or two decades. To deflect this bad news requires the sort of permanent stupidity even I am not clever enough to sustain."
Nor am I. Bad news turns out to be fuel for my imagination this time and I can't help thinking about the Imperial City again. I still live in Vermont, but I spend enough time in Manhattan now to wipe some, if not all, of the shine from that fantasy Big Apple of my youth. In fact, I suspect that John Leonard's priceless gift to me as a reader was to show how the Imperial City could be both tangible and imaginary. And now, as I flip through the pages of his book, my eyes fall upon a column, "Civility," that seems in itself a near perfect meeting of our minds:
When the news came last week that the English novelist Paul Scott had died, I was sorting books. I should have begun sorting my books--categorizing, alphabetizing, in some cases burning--twenty years ago, but I've pretended instead to subscribe to a principle of serendipity. That is, if I didn't know where to find the particular book I wanted, when I went to look I would find a different, better book, a book I hadn't thought of.
After considering, in classic Leonard style, literary mortality by recalling his serendipitous discovery of Scott and James M. Cain, he concludes, "I will arrange my books according to their civility. Nobody can touch them--these strangers, my friends."
So, thank you, John Leonard, for being one of the writers who, without ever knowing it, helped me "to be liberated into literature, to be handed a key to all those boxes of trapped words." The key, in fact, to the Imperial City.