The Discipline of Form and the Love of an Educated Heart

From a 1959 essay, “Epitaph for the Beat Generation,” included the new anthology of John Leonard‘s essays, Reading for My Life:

[The Beats] proved at least one thing more. That poetry, painting, music, and fiction are products of the individual. That the great American novel will be written by some antisocial SOB who can’t stand espresso and never heard of Wilhelm Reich—the guy who sits up all night at a typewriter and brings to his particular vision the discipline of form and the love of an educated heart. A generation may be disenchanted, but it takes a man alone to chronicle that disenchantment. Art-by-citadel won’t work. It’s in league with brainstorming and Groupthink and government-by-committee. Movements, Generations, Subcultures—these are the strewn carcasses of sterile imaginations, conjured up to explain lamely the why and how of genius.

Leonard is more or less new to me; while he was alive (he died in 2008), I preferred to read music or film criticism. I’m still reading, but I’ve noticed two terms show up a few times in the essays collected in the book. One is “Author-God,” which is meant to be mildly critical of the magisterial novelist who’s a lot artful and a little disengaged with the wider world. (John Updike would be the exemplar of that.) The other is “unbuttoned,” a word he uses to praise a writer who’s done plenty of hard thinking but projects it casually. (Think Pynchon.) Leonard’s own prose echoes what he praised and criticized in others’ writing. It’s loose, often nut-graf-less, thick with lists of ideas, writers, politicians, philosophers, a millennium’s worth of cultural detritus, all rattling by like boxcars—Leonard makes you want to write like him, something few critics do—smart but always presented in plain speech. He’ll never convince me to read Harlot’s Ghost, but he makes you want to spend time with every writer he discusses, a rarer feat for a critic than it ought to be.

4 responses to “The Discipline of Form and the Love of an Educated Heart

  1. I used to love to watch John Leonard on CBS’s Sunday Morning. I found the show’s obituary for him on YouTube, if you’re interested. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9YIuBBfyHAA

    • Mark Athitakis

      Thanks, Sonya! My “Sunday Morning” viewing was haphazard, so his face was familiar to me but I didn’t know his reputation. I would’ve been one of those people he wrote about in his Ed Sullivan essay, who upon seeing him on the street could offer nothing more insightful than, “I saw you…on television.”

  2. “That the great American novel will be written by some antisocial SOB who can’t stand espresso and never heard of Wilhelm Reich—the guy who sits up all night at a typewriter and brings to his particular vision the discipline of form and the love of an educated heart.”

    The Beats? It has been a long time since I read through On the Road, but as I remember that somebody–probably the Burroughs stand-in–had a homemade orgone accumulator out back. As for espresso, perhaps I’m misled by V, but I don’t imagine the Beats as particularly averse to it.

    Ages and ages ago I read some of Leonard’s “Cyclops” columns in Life magazine; 30 years ago I read a novel of his with “Lyme” somewhere in the title, as I recall, and a character clearly modeled in William F. Buckley, for whom Leonard had worked. Not a bad novel, particularly if, as I suppose, it was a first novel.

  3. And chronicling the disenchantment can cast a new spell.

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