Excerpt from Just Enough Liebling: Classic Work by the Legendary New Yorker Writer. by A.J. Liebling. Compilation copyright © 2004 by the estate of A.J. Liebling and the Monsell Estate. Introduction copyright © 2004 by David Remnick. Published in September, 2004 by North Point Press, a division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.
Reporting It All
BY DAVID REMNICK
From the start of the American republic, the most tantalizing means of indulging a youthful desire for escape and recreation has been the sojourn in Paris. It's a long tradition, amply described. The literature begins with the decorous engagements in the letters of Benjamin Franklin and Abigail Adams and leads soon enough to the earthier liaisons in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and Tropic of Cancer. Much is promised to the prospective traveler: if not a passage of enlightenment or erotic adventure, then at least a taste for boiled innards and string beans done right. As Mrs. Adams wrote home, pleasure is the "business of life" in Paris--there is another way to live, in other words--and this is the lasting gift, and illusion, that every visiting American bring home in his bags.
To this day, countless children of American privilege arrive in the Latin Quarter, bent double under their backpacks and concealing a money belt holding a Eurail pass and freshly squeezed carte orange. One of the pleasures of such an indolent, never-to-be-repeated existence is the liberty it provides the student on leave from academy-drafted reading lists and deadlines that frog-march undergraduates up and down "The Magic Mountain" in the time it took Hans Castorp to catch cold. In the late seventies, while on a sojourn of my own, I bought or borrowed my books at Shakespeare & Company, the destination for English-speaking waywards on the rue de la Bûcherie near Notre-Dame. One afternoon, while I was browsing the "used" section, a friend pulled down a paperback by A. J. Liebling for me. I'd heard of Liebling but never read him. He was a hero to some of the "new journalists" of the sixties and seventies, who put him in a nonfiction lineage that begins with Defoe. But Liebling had died fifteen years earlier, in 1963, and almost all of his books were out of print. Sitting on the floor, I started The Sweet Science, with its introductory flourish:
It is through Jack O'Brien, the Arbiter Elegantiarum Philadelphiae, that I trace my rapport with the historic past through the laying-on of hands. He hit me, for pedagogical example, and he had been hit by the great Bob Fitzsimmons, from whom he won the light-heavyweight title in 1906. Jack had a scar to show for it. Fitzsimmons had been hit by Corbett, Corbett by John L. Sullivan, he by Paddy Ryan, with the bare knuckles, and Ryan by Joe Goss, his predecessor, who as a young man had felt the fist of the great Jem Mace. It is great thrill to feel that all that separates you from the early Victorians is a series of punches on the nose. I wonder if Professor Toynbee is as intimately attuned to his sources. The Sweet Science is joined onto the past like a man's arm to his shoulder.
I read half the book right there and the rest that night. The Rubens canvases at the Louvre were checked off in my guidebook, but for me Liebling was now Baroque. His descriptions of the postwar boxing scene at Madison Square Garden, Yankee Stadium, the Polo Grounds, the country training camps, and the midtown gyms constitute a self-enclosed comic universe, and, in the construction and the telling, his pieces are superior even to William Hazlitt's famous account of the "Gasman" Hickman-Bill Near bout in Hungerford, Berkshire, in 1821, and Liebling's own cherished model, Boxiana, the multivolume chronicles of the Regency-era fighters, by Pierce Egan. In a style of mock high diction undercut by the homeliness of the subject, of metaphorical flight and eccentric references--a style, in other words, that pays greater homage to the verbal dandyism of Egan (and Mencken and Runyon) than to the hard-boiled approach of the tabloids--Liebling made the art of bruising and its practitioners as vivid as any country fair in Dickens.
In The Sweet Science--in all his books--Liebling himself, the voice and the character, is immensely appealing: he is boundlessly curious, a listener, a boulevardier, a man of appetites and sympathy. He is erudite in an unsystematic, wised-up sort of way. His sentences are snaky and digressive, and thrive on the talk of the Times Square gyms and cigar stores. The boxing pieces are populated by the champions of his time--Ray Robinson, Joe Louis, Archie Moore, Rocky Marciano--but equally present are the artisans and satraps of the ring world, the sparring partners, the cut-and-bucket men and the professorial trainers, like Whitey Bimstein, who presided over Stillman's Gym, "the university of Eighth Avenue," as firmly as Robert Maynard Hutchins ran the University of Chicago. Bimstein was a prototypical Liebling cast member, New York to the bone. Asked about his experience outside the city, Bimstein allowed, "I like the country. It's a great spot."
Besotted with The Sweet Science, I went back to Shakespeare & Company and took the only other Liebling on the shelf, a copy of The Road Back to Paris, his first volume of dispatches from France during the Second World War. Combat journalism is prone to some of the same sins as sportswriting--the self-dramatizing narrative voice, the bogus pronouncements. Only the clichés, and stakes, are different. Liebling, it was obvious, was incapable of cliché, and, if anything, he protested too adamantly his limitation as an observer of the world beyond home. He claimed innocence of high politics and the scale of evil he was about to engage: "Hitler had seemed to me revolting but unimportant, like old Gómez, the dictator of Venezuela." The only way he was prepared to imagine the German enemy was through homey, ahistorical analogy. "I did not think about Germany," he wrote. "When I was a small child I had had a succession of German governesses all indistinguishably known to me as Fräulein. They had been servile to my parents and domineering to me, stupid, whining, loud, and forever trying to frighten me with stories of children who had been burned to a crisp or eaten by an ogre because they had disobeyed other Fräuleins. . . . Anybody who had had a German governess could understand Poland."