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The life and work of John Leonard

By / November 7, 2008



Those of us who came of age in the 1970s owe a literary debt to book and culture critic John Leonard, who died in NY on Nov. 5 at the age of 69.

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Leonard was a man of energy, intelligence, and passion and over the years he shared his thoughts and language through so many channels. He wrote for – among others – the New York Times, The New Republic, The Nation, The Atlantic Monthly, and Newsday.

Among his many accomplishments there are a few that will always stand out.

For one, he will be remembered as an early champion of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Maxine Hong Kingston, and Toni Morrison.

But it is perhaps for his work at the New York Times that Leonard is known best. There he served as one of the daily book critics and edited the New York Times Book Review from 1971 to 1975, leaving it a far livelier institution than he had found it.

As Salon puts it in their tribute to Leonard, he transformed the Book Review "from a fusty museum of fading modernist gravitas ('Here's this week's Thomas Mann biography' is how one wag characterized the previous regime's editorial approach) into a vital, lively, contentious engagement with a still-breathing literary culture."

Leonard was born in 1939 and raised by a single mother. He attended Harvard University for two years but then left to go to work.

He was never shy about confessing his political convictions. Leonard was a man of the left and it is perhaps one of the ironies of his career that his early mentor was William F. Buckley Jr. who hired him as an editorial assistant at the conservative National Review.

During the 1970s Leonard was an outspoken critic of the Vietnam War and in 1971 he created a national stir by devoting an issue of the Sunday Times Book Review to books about the war, many of them critical of US policy.

He also wrote a number of novels of his own and for a time chronicled his own experiences in a weekly column in the New York Times called "Private Lives."

But most of all Leonard will be remembered as a man who loved books and generously allowed the rest of us to share in the warmth of that passion.

"The books we love," he wrote, "love us back."

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