Rereading A.J. Liebling carries me happily back to an age when all good journalists knew they had plenty to be modest about, and were. From the 1920s through the Eisenhower years modesty was a clearly defined style in the American press, but it was already fading when Liebling died in 1963. By then what had once been “the press” had turned into “the media” and contracted the imperial state of mind, which is never conducive to modesty, whether in tsars of all the Russias or Washington correspondents.
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. This meant establishing the individual reporter’s presence in the material, in violation of the old rule that the reporter was to be read, but never sensed.
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.
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.
Here is a basket full of Liebling books, some of them reissued in observance of his hundredth birthday this October 18, and one a big new collection titled Just Enough Liebling. His subjects include prizefighting, France, eating, the newspaper business, small-time Broadway hustlers, New York City, and himself when young. He also wrote one of the most entertaining political books ever, The Earl of Louisiana. And during World War II he produced combat correspondence from North Africa and Normandy and accounts of daily life under siege in Paris, Britain, and the French countryside.
For those unfamiliar with Liebling a good place to start is in Just Enough Liebling, the big new anthology of pieces that covers most of the territory, including even a small sampling from The Earl of Louisiana and a bit of his press criticism, as well as excerpts from his books on boxing, Broadway low-lifers, and his student days in Paris. Best of all, it includes a big chunk of his World War II correspondence, among them “Westbound Tanker,” about a six-week-long Atlantic convoy crossing aboard a Norwegian tanker, and “Quest for Mollie,” about a soldier killed in combat. Both are journalism at the top of its reach.
War of course was …