In the summer of 1959, Abbott Joseph Liebling, a 54-year-old journalist at The New Yorker, took what would end up being the final assignment of his writing career. James Carville offers the most succinct description. “A.J. Liebling came down to Louisiana to report on our insane governor,” he once told me. “And what he discovered was that the governor was the only sane person in the entire damn state.”
Like his famous colleague Jerome David Salinger, Liebling wrote under his initials, A.J., a convention used by many other Jewish writers at the time. Before he came down to Louisiana and met the “insane governor,” Earl K. Long, Liebling had earned international acclaim as a war correspondent during the Second World War. France awarded him their highest honor, the Cross of the Légion d’honneur, for his coverage of the Normandy landings on D Day (J.D. Salinger had been there as well). After WWII, he became an outspoken opponent of both the House Un-American Affairs Committee and the media’s coverage of the committee.
At the time, there was no other journalist in the world more capable of chronicling the final hurrah of a man known as Uncle Earl than A.J. Liebling; his experience abroad provided him the context necessary to understand an American state whose culture and politics were dramatically different than anywhere else in the country and whose allegedly crazy governor resembled the personality type of an erratic, self-indulgent, but politically astute foreign dictator.
In 2014, Slate’s Jack Shaffer published “Worshipping at the Church of Liebling,” in which he discusses why the late New Yorker writer continued to be considered one of the nation’s most admired journalists, more than fifty years after his death. “Some great writers inspire other writers. Other great writers intimidate the ones who follow, causing them to suffer the ‘anxiety of influence,’ to borrow a phrase from literary critic Harold Bloom,” Shaffer wrote. “Liebling invented, almost from scratch, the journalistic genre of literary press critic, but because he wrote as well as he did, he seems to have closed the door on the way out. Liebling’s literary vision is too vivid to imitate, and it’s hard to imagine someone trumping it.”
The Perfect Book?
When I was in college, I enrolled in a summer creative writing workshop in upstate New York taught by Lee K. Abbott, a man widely considered to be one of the country’s finest craftsmen of the short story and, as a critic once described him, the “true heir to John Cheever.” It’s a testament to Lee’s extraordinary gifts as a professor that, even though the workshop only lasted two weeks, I can still recall, nearly twenty years later, much of the wisdom he imparted. It’s even more remarkable, I think, because when I was undergraduate at Rice (where, coincidentally, Lee had once taught as a visiting professor during the late 1980s), I set the school’s all-time record for most writing workshops ever taken by an undergraduate (If you’re a Rice student who aspires to oust me from the record books, the number to beat is eleven).
I learned under writing professors who believed in maximalism and professors who had never encountered an adverb they didn’t hate. Some, like Rick Moody, taught students to approach writing like music. Prose should sing! I imagine Lee would agree in the importance of lyricism, but he’d probably argue against my use of an exclamation point. He taught the mechanics of the craft, like a chef with three Michelin stars teaches cooking techniques.
According to him, there was only one work of fiction that had ever achieved perfection.
“The only perfect book ever written,” he told our workshop one afternoon, “is Chronicle of a Death Foretold by Gabriel García Márquez.” I’m not sure if he still holds this opinion or even if he hadn’t intended to be purposefully hyperbolic, but it struck me then as a profound observation: The book was written in Spanish. If I wanted to read the only perfect book, I’d need to learn a new language. I settled, instead, for the English translation, which is still remarkable, though I have no way of knowing how it measures up to the original manuscript.
The Sub-Genre of Louisiana.
Ever since Lee’s class, I’ve thought about what I consider to be literary perfection, or at least, the book that is closest to public among a very select class. I’m a voracious reader, capable of consuming two or maybe even three books in a single day, and despite the ways in which the internet places a premium on grazing for the news instead of settling in with a quality newspaper written by talented reporters, I prefer to be stubborn about the need to read real books about real people.
Inspired by Peter Athas’ recent list of the Top Forty Films Set in Louisiana, I’ve put together my own list of a very particular sub-genre: Literary nonfiction about Louisiana. By “contemporary,” I am specifically referring to books written during the past 100 years, Apologies to the collected works of Walker Percy, Ann Rice, and John Grisham, all three of whom are predominately writers of fiction.
Instead of publishing the list all at once, however, I will be writing a new review once every month (this month, we will actually feature two different books). My hope is to provide you with an informative and fascinating book recommendation that you can add to your list.
If you have a book you’d like for me to consider as a part of this series, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I am beginning at the top, with my all-time favorite, a book I consider to be the only perfect book ever written about Louisiana politics: The Earl of Louisiana by A.J. Liebling. Liebling’s book is the only one I intend on ranking, because it demands the distinction. Every other book will be treated equally (and therefore, in some way, inferior to Liebling’s book).
A year after Liebling began following Earl K. Long around the state of Louisiana on what, ultimately would be the last ride for both men, he published a series of radiant, incisive, and memorable reports in The New Yorker about the time he spent with the bombastic, erratic, and brilliant younger brother of a man generally considered the state’s most consequential and legendary politician, Huey P. Long. His essays were then assembled into a book, 1961’s The Earl of Louisiana.
Liebling somehow captures vividly the voices and the vernacular of the irrepressible Earl K. Long and his contemporaries like no one else had ever done before, which is especially impressive considering he had never before been exposed to the Louisiana of the days of Uncle Earl.
Liebling tells a fascinating story of a man rushing to reassert his credibility, his legacy, and even his basic sanity after being committed to a mental institution in Texas for the crime of cursing out the legislature for their opposition to segregation, the type of performance that nowadays may have earned him a Profile in Courage Award. Because he was governor at the time, it wasn’t difficult for him to circumvent the system, get himself transferred back to Louisiana, and then fire the hospital director in order to grant himself freedom. By then, and for a whole host of other reasons, the state was done with Earl K. Long but Earl K. Long wasn’t done with the state. He contemplated a run for lieutenant governor before ultimately decided to pursue a campaign for Congress.
There is one moment in the book that stands out particularly for me. Uncle Earl was in my hometown of Alexandria campaigning for governor in downtown, in between the old City Hall and the Hotel Bentley. (He’d end up dying in Alexandria, only a few days after winning the election).
In the crowd that day was 44-year-old lawyer and Democratic Party leader Camille Gravel. He’d once worked for Uncle Earl but had since become disillusioned. As Earl spoke, microphone glued to his hand, Camille began heckling him from the audience. It obviously got under the old man’s skin.
“I knew your daddy, Camille Gravel, and he was a fine man,” the former governor shouted. “But you trying to make yourself a big man, and you nothing but a little puissant.”
A few months later, Camille Gravel would become a key powerbroker at the 1960 Democratic National Convention, just as he was four years prior, and help ensure that a young man, around his age, named John Fitzgerald Kennedy, received the party’s nomination and went onto become President. He remained friends with the Kennedy family until his death in 2005.
Gravel wasn’t “nothing but a little puissant,” as it turns out. Perhaps Uncle Earl had been feigning ignorance or perhaps he had really been annoyed, but a few years before, when he was governor, Long supported Gravel for state attorney general over Jack Gremillion. Gravel decided not to run, and Gremillion prevailed, resulting in Long making one of his most memorable statements: “If you want to hide something from Jack Gremillion,” he said, “put it in a law book.”
Earl Kemp Long died only a few months after heckling his heckler, and Camille Gravel went on to write the Louisiana state Constitution, serving as the executive counsel during the Gov. Edwin Edwards’ first three terms (he didn’t stay long in the third term, transitioning into the role of private counsel and winning an acquittal for corruption charges against his boss).
The Earl of Louisiana is not merely a good story; it’s perfect writing, arguably the best book ever written about an American politician. It’s also, for some, a reminder of how small Louisiana still remains as a state. Camille Gravel’s grandson, Richard, works for another governor named Edwards; he is currently running John Bel Edwards’ reelection campaign.