August 16, 2004

Abbott Joseph Liebling


AJ Liebling is probably most widely known for his oft-repeated quotation that: ""Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one". In that regard, we might even consider him the spiritual father of blogs everywhere. If you disagree, just look at all the guest bloggers at the recent Democratic Party Convention where the blogger was elevated to the status of journalist and publisher in one fell swoop. But, that's not why I want to write about him. I want to call him to people's attention because he was a fantastic writer.

This is from a biographical sketch I found on him on the net which also has a nice list of the books he published:

After early schooling in New York City, Liebling wrote in The Wayward Pressman that "I went up to Dartmouth in the fall of 1920, lacking a month of being sixteen". Liebling did not finish his schooling at Dartmouth, claiming they threw him out for missing compulsory chapel attendance. He then enrolled in the Pulitzer School of Journalism at Columbia University and after finishing there, took the job at the Evening Bulletin. After his stint in Providence, Liebling went on to report and write for New Yorker magazine. While employed by New Yorker he served as a war correspondent; filing many stories from Africa, England and Europe. Following the war he returned to regular magazine fare and for many years after he wrote a New Yorker monthly feature called "Wayward Press". Liebling was an avid fan of boxing, horse racing and eating, frequently writing about each. In 1947 Doubleday and Company published Liebling's The Wayward Pressman, a highly quotable collection of his writings from New Yorker and other publications. Liebling's father was employed in New York City's fur district and his mother grew up in San Francisco. Liebling was married to Jean Stafford, a poet.

I am a big fan of Mr. Liebling and am re-reading his wonderful book, Between Meals, describing his time in Paris in 1926-27 when, as a 22 year old, his father gave him the gift of a year of study in the City of Light. The title refers to the fact that Paris, for him, became one long study in eating and drinking and this book is about that and what he did in the time between his meals. It includes time spent boxing and time spent rowing. It is a marvelous memoir.

How could you not love someone who writes like this about Vodka:

The standard of perfection for vodka (no color, no taste, no smell) was expounded to me long ago by the then Estonian consul-general in New York, and it account perfectly for the drink's rising popularity with those who like their alcohol in conjunction with the reassuring tastes if infancy -- tomato juice, orange juice, chicken broth. It is the ideal intoxicant for the drinker who wants no reminder of how hurt Mother would be if she know what he was doing.

Click below on extended entry for the rest (I put this in bold for my wife, who has problems with the extended entry function and I figure if she does, someone else might).

I went to the trouble of typing out some of my favorite quotes to illustrate how beautifully he writes about a whole range of topics.

On Wine

It is damn hard to find good writing about wine. Most writing is pretentious and does nothing to evoke the whole experience. Liebling can do it.

Tavel has a rose-cerise robe, like a number of well known racing silks, but its taste is not thin or acidulous, as that of most of its mimics is. The taste is warm but dry, like an enthusiasm held under restraint, and there is a tantalizing suspicion of bitterness when the wine hits the top of the palate. With the second glass, the enthusiasm gains; with the third, it is overpowering. The effect is generous and calorific, stimulative of cerebration and the social instincts.

On Getting to Paris

Here is his description of how he helped his father to execute on the suggestion that AJ spend a year in Paris before he got married, as his father said he was afraid AJ would do. It made me laugh out loud.

I sensed my father's generous intention, and, fearing that he might change his mind, I told him that I didn't feel I should go, since I was indeed thinking of getting married. "The girl is ten years older than I am," I said, "and Mother might think she is kind of fast, because she is being kept by a cotton broker from Memphis, Tennessee, who only comes North once in a while. But you are a man of the world, and you understand that a woman can't always help herself. Basically . . ." Within the week, I had a letter of credit on the Irving Trust for two thousand dollars, and a reservation on the old Caronia for late in the summer, when the off-season rates would be in effect.

On Boxing

Liebling was one of the great sports writers ever and his field of expertise was boxing. I recommend picking up The Sweet Science. Here, in Paris, Liebling describes what boxing is, at its heart. As I typed this in here, I realized that it's a darn good philosophy about the war on terror as well.

Defense is either preliminary to attack or an interlude between attacks. You move to beat the other fellow, not to avoid being beaten. Safety, relative though it be, lies in attack, too. You are safer inside a punch -- which means inside its arc -- then stepping away from it and possibly into its sweep. More, if you are inside a punch you are in position to strike, but if you are outside it, you have merely escaped. This is the simple essence. Whatever other inferences may be drawn from it are optional and incidental.

On Food

Liebling wrote very well about food. I happen to like eels, although I know many don't, but I chose this passage for the simple joy of it.

There are certain simple and unavoidably cheap dishes that are the I-beams of French cookery and are not to be tampered with; wine and ells and bacon and onions and herbs and judgment go into a matelote, and the eels should be fresh. The wine can be as old as you please. Within these classic limits, as within the rules of a game, there are gradations of success, dependent on the quality and proportion of the ingredients and on the termotactic gift, since no two stews reach their nearest approach to perfection in the same number of minutes -- or to be meticulous, of seconds. The good cook, like the good jockey, must have "a clock in his head".

Joy. That may be why I like Liebling so much. He wrote with joy and enthusiasm and verve. He treated everything with voracious reflection and seemed to appreciate the importance of the small, the every day. Liebling celebrated life.

I hope you all go out and discover him, too.

Posted by Random Penseur at August 16, 2004 10:25 AM

Lovely excerpts, Random.

I remember browsing over my father's copy of the "The Sweet Science," both whimsical and insightful. I'll be sure to look him up.


Posted by: Mick at August 16, 2004 10:55 AM

I'm so glad you enjoyed it, Mick. The Sweet Science is a terrific book. I have it, too.

Posted by: rp at August 16, 2004 12:41 PM

>AJ Liebling is probably most widely known for his oft-repeated quotation that: ""Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one". In that regard, we might even consider him the spiritual father of blogs everywhere.

While some bloggers challenge the power of mainstream press to control coverage and debate, others try to exercise such power themselves. It's particularly ironic when a prominent American blogger in China who gives himself credit for advancing First Amendment freedoms in the U.S. does so.

A look at Joe Bosco -- preacher, poet, professor ... and fighter for freedom of expression who appreciates that free speech can be taken too far:

Posted by: Uriel at August 16, 2004 01:12 PM

Thank you for your comment, Uriel. However, I cannot see quite what relevance it has to either Mr. Liebling, or even more tangentially, to the concepts of free speech and freedom of the press. And yes, I did follow the link to your blog that you left.

Posted by: RP at August 16, 2004 04:13 PM

Thank you for sharing him - all those eleventy million years of higher education and the most I could do was say... 'Hey, that name looks familiar'.

Posted by: Elizabeth at August 16, 2004 04:45 PM

But look at his picture, Elizabeth, doesn't he look like someone it'd be fun to go to dinner with?

Posted by: rp at August 16, 2004 05:24 PM

Very nice, indeed. Am now inspired to go home tonight and leaf through Liebling for quotes. In the meantime, here he is on Earl Long.

Posted by: Mark C N Sullivan at August 16, 2004 05:34 PM

well - i had something insightful to say...
but after reading your note about fun to go to dinner with....
yes...a blast...
is all i got left.

Posted by: kbear at August 16, 2004 10:54 PM

>I cannot see quite what relevance it has to either Mr. Liebling, or even more tangentially, to the concepts of free speech and freedom of the press. And yes, I did follow the link to your blog that you left.

Thank you for your reply. But I confess I'm puzzled you don't see a connection to the Liebling aphorism you quoted -- "Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one."

My Bosco story has an "owner of the press" expunging negative info about a prestigious Chinese institution, essentially for personal reasons. The result is a distorted picture for his readers.

Posted by: Uriel at August 17, 2004 09:24 AM
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