Rare Book & Manuscript Library

John Leonard papers, 1939-2015, bulk 1950s-2008

Summary Information


John Leonard (1939 -2008) was an American literary and cultural critic best known for his extensive writing on literature, television, media, politics and American culture and his work as head editor of The New York Times Book Review in the 1970s. The John Leonard papers include drafts of Leonard's reviews, essays, essay collections, and works of fiction and nonfiction. The collection also includes his correspondence with prominent literary and cultural figures, his research and business files, personal memorabilia, photographs, signed artwork, printed matter, posthumous tributes to Leonard, and audio-visual material.

At a Glance

Call No.: MS#1754
Bib ID 11497208 View CLIO record
Creator(s) Leonard, John, 1939-2008
Title John Leonard papers, 1939-2015, bulk 1950s-2008
Physical Description 26.5 linear feet (21 record cartons, 2 document boxes, 3 flat boxes)
Language(s) English .
Access You will need to make an appointment in advance to use this collection material in the Rare Book and Manuscript Library reading room. You can schedule an appointment once you've submitted your request through your Special Collections Research Account.

This collection is located off-site. You will need to request this material at least three business days in advance to use the collection in the Rare Book and Manuscript Library reading room.

This collection has no restrictions.



This collection is arranged in eight series and several subseries.



There are approximately 26 linear feet of records in this collection. The bulk of the collection is composed of Leonard's professional writing, including manuscript drafts, typescripts, and galley proofs of his articles, essay collections, and novels as well as speeches, transcripts of television reviews, notebooks, and notes, including drafts of unpublished essay collections, notes for an unfinished memoir, and unpublished short fiction. The collection also includes books from Leonard's library, Leonard's extensive personal and professional correspondence, contracts, business files with itineraries and schedules for speaking engagements, research files on travel"Selected Reading" and clippings of articles and essays about Leonard.

Among the collection's personal papers are assorted materials from his memorial service, files on his mother Ruth and late brother Kenneth Leonard, personal scrapbooks, awards, trophies, business cards, address books, passports, identification cards, and personal memorabilia. Additionally, the collection contains a large assortment of photographs and artwork (signed by Kurt Vonnegut and Edward Koren), as well as multimedia documenting Leonard's reviews and interviews on CDs, DVDs, floppy disks, videocassette tapes, and cassette tapes.

  • Series I, Correspondence

    This series consists of Leonard's professional and personal correspondence.

  • Series II, Writings

    Encompassing all of Leonard's career, this series is divided into several subseries by genre and chronology, following Leonard's own arrangement. The first two subseries constitute the bulk of Leonard's writing: drafts and published clippings of Leonard's reviews and essays, grouped chronologically and then alphabetically by author or subject. Later subseries gather together materials not included this arrangement --- consisting most of Leonard's mid- and late-career writing in the 1980s – 2008, working drafts, and other genres (speeches, fiction, nonfiction essay collections). Leonard arranged his materials by filing a draft of a review or essays along with a published clipping of the material. As part of the writing and editing process, Leonard would take extensive notes (handwritten for television and typed for books) and annotate previously written drafts of articles. Occasionally he would file these working notes along with the published piece under the appropriate subheading in "Reviews and Essays." Most unfinished and other working notes can be found under Subseries II.7 "Writing Notes."

  • Series III, The Nation, with Sue Leonard, 1995-1999

    This small series brings together material from John Leonard and Sue Leonard's editorial work The Nation Magazine. Included here are business files from 1995-1998 and from John Leonard's work editing These United States for Nation Books.

  • Series IV, Memorabilia, Personal Papers, 1939-2011, bulk 1939-2008

    Included in this series are early writings, awards, files and documents of a more personal nature.

  • Series V, Posthumous Papers, 2007-2009

    Gathered in this series are posthumous materials collected by Sue Leonard after John Leonard's death. Arranged alphabetically by subject, this material consists of material from John Leonard's memorial service, condolence letters, memorial articles and obituaries. Along with material created posthumously, this series also includes documents gathered together after Leonard's death, including his Ivan Sandorf Lifetime Achievement speech and Sue Leonard's notes for Reading for My Life.

  • Series VI, Books and Printed Matter from Leonard's Library, 1964-2012

    This series consists of books written by Leonard, books that Leonard served as a contributor for, and books authored by others. Included in the series are books inscribed to Leonard and books with Leonard's annotations. Also included in this series are selected full issue magazines that include Leonard's published essays.

  • Series VII, Photographs and Artwork, 1969-2008

    This series brings together the photographic images, visual artwork, and other graphic arts collected by Leonard. Among the photographs are photographs of Leonard with Toni Morrison and Kurt Vonnegut. The artwork notably includes a signed poster with a Kurt Vonnegut quotation and a series of handmade cards made by the staff of the New York Times Book Review during the 1970s.

  • Series VIII, Audio/Visual Material, 1962-2009

    This series consists of compact discs, audio cassette tapes, rewritable discs, floppy discs, and VHS tapes. CDs include Leonard's early career work for KPFA radio, and posthumous recordings of his memorial service. VHS tapes comprise the vast majority of this series; these include taped sessions of the CBS segments, Leonard's television appearances, as well as material Leonard intended to review. The floppy discs hold back up drafts of Leonard's writing from the 1990s.

Using the Collection

Rare Book and Manuscript Library

Restrictions on Access

You will need to make an appointment in advance to use this collection material in the Rare Book and Manuscript Library reading room. You can schedule an appointment once you've submitted your request through your Special Collections Research Account.

This collection is located off-site. You will need to request this material at least three business days in advance to use the collection in the Rare Book and Manuscript Library reading room.

This collection has no restrictions.

Terms Governing Use and Reproduction

Single photocopies may be made for research purposes. The RBML maintains ownership of the physical material only. Copyright remains with the creator and his/her heirs. The responsibility to secure copyright permission rests with the patron.

Preferred Citation

Identification of specific item; Date (if known); John Leonard Papers; Box and Folder; Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Columbia University Library.


No additions are expected.

Materials may have been added to the collection since this finding aid was prepared. Contact rbml@columbia.edu for more information.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

2014.2015.M141: Source of acquisition--John Leonard. Method of acquisition--Gift; Date of acquisition--6/8/2015.

2015.2016.M004: Source of acquisition--John Leonard. Method of acquisition--Gift; Date of acquisition--7/2/2015.

About the Finding Aid / Processing Information

Columbia University Libraries, Rare Book and Manuscript Library

Processing Information

Papers processed by Sierra Eckert (GSAS) 2015-2016.

Finding aid written by Sierra Eckert (GSAS) June 2016.

Revision Description

2016-06-30 File created.

2016-06-30 XML document instance created by Catherine C. Ricciardi

2019-05-20 EAD was imported spring 2019 as part of the ArchivesSpace Phase II migration.

Subject Headings

The subject headings listed below are found in this collection. Links below allow searches at Columbia University through the Archival Collections Portal and through CLIO, the catalog for Columbia University Libraries, as well as ArchiveGRID, a catalog that allows users to search the holdings of multiple research libraries and archives.

All links open new windows.


Heading "CUL Archives:"
"CUL Collections:"
"Nat'l / Int'l Archives:"
Address books Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Articles Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Awards Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Book jackets Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Brochures Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Cassette tapes Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Clippings (Information Artifacts) Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Compact discs Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Contracts Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Correspondence Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Floppy disks Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Galley proofs Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Manuscripts (documents) Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Notebooks Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Notes (documents) Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Obituaries Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Photographs Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Pictures (object genre) Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Résumés (personnel records) Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Speeches (documents) Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Storyboards Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Transcripts Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Trophies (objects) Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
VHS Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
diplomas Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
typescripts Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID


Heading "CUL Archives:"
"CUL Collections:"
"Nat'l / Int'l Archives:"
American essays Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Authors and publishers Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Books -- Reviews Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Buckley, William F., Jr., 1925-2008 Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Buckley, William F., Jr., 1925-2008 Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Criticism Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Critics Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Doctorow, E. L., 1931-2015 Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Faludi, Susan Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Galeano, Eduardo, 1940-2015 Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Gordon, Mary, 1949- Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Howard, Maureen, 1930- Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Howe, Irving Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Kingston, Maxine Hong Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Leonard, John, 1939-2008 Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Leonard, Sue, 1938- Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Morrison, Toni Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Navasky, Victor S Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Scrapbooks Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Steinem, Gloria Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Television criticism Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Television programs -- Reviews Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Vonnegut, Kurt Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID

History / Biographical Note

Biographical Note

John Leonard (1939-2008) was a renowned cultural and literary critic, best known for his work as the editor of The New York Times Book Review. He attended Harvard University from 1956-58, where he gained his first editorial experience working on the Harvard Crimson before dropping out of Harvard to attend University of California, Berkeley. During the 1960s, he worked as a union and community organizer and as one of a handful of leftist journalists at the conservative magazine, National Review.

Leonard joined The New York Times in 1967, working first as an editor for the Book Review, then as a book critic, and in 1971, as the editor in chief of The New York Times Book Review, a position he served in until 1975. He continued contributing to the Book Review until his death, going on to also write extensively for Harper's Monthly, The New York Review of Books, The Nation, and New York Newsday. Under his leadership, the NYTBR became what Slate magazine would later describe as "the voice of the antiwar movement." Leonard used the platform of the book review as a wider lens to comment upon the cultural turmoil of the 1970s, publishing an early and controversial review of books on the Vietnam War to comment on war crimes.

An "omnivorous" cultural commentator, Leonard wrote on an extensive array of topics, ranging well beyond literary fiction into television, film, politics, and culture. In addition to also reviewing books for The New York Review of Books, The Atlantic Monthly, The Village Voice, The Los Angeles Time Book Review, and The Washington Post Book World, Leonard was also the television critic for Life Magazine and New York Magazine, a columnist for Newsday, a book reviewer for National Public Radio's Fresh Air, and a commentator for CBS Sunday Morning. He wrote four novels and six essay collections and co-edited The Nation with his wife Sue Leonard from 1995 to 1998. Leonard's essays and reviews mix cultural commentary and literary criticism, intermingling reviews on contemporary fiction with commentary that ranged in scope from U.S. race relations to the Persian Gulf War. In the words of Joan Didion, a friend and colleague from his early years with National Review, Leonard "was quite simply our most thrilling observer."

One way Leonard's work helped expand and redefine American cultural criticism and the role of the public intellectual was in bringing a critical eye to new objects and genres. As a television as well as literary critic, his reviews brought serious attention to the role of the television program as a genre in American culture. He was the first reviewer to recognize the work of authors such as Toni Morrison, Don DeLillo, Maxine Hong Kingston, and Mary Gordon, the latter of which described him in her retrospective as having done "a great deal to create a new breed of critic," one who took women writers seriously within the largely male-dominated literary field of the 1970s. Kurt Vonnegut, a close friend, described reading Leonard's writing as akin to listening to a lecture by "the smartest man who ever lived." By his own reckoning Leonard had read and reviewed over 13,000 books over the course of his life. In 2007, the National Book Critics Circle honored Leonard with the Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award.

John Leonard died of lung cancer on November 5, 2008.