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   John Leonard papers, 1939-2015 [ Bulk Dates: 1950s-2008]

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Preferred Citation

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

COinS Metadata available (e.g., for Zotero).

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 Dates: 1950s-2008]
Physical description:26.5 linear ft. (21 record cartons, 2 document boxes, 3 flat boxes)
Language(s):In English
Access: This collection is located off-site. You will need to request this material at least two business days in advance to use the collection in the Rare Book and Manuscript Library reading room. This collection has no restrictions.  More information »



This collection is arranged in eight series:

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Scope and Content

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and novels as well as speeches, transcripts of television reviews, notebooks, and notes, including drafts of unpublished essay collections, notes for an unfinished memoir, and unpublished short fiction.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.

Subseries I.1, General Correspondence, 1964-2008

This subseries includes personal and professional correspondence received by Leonard. Items of note include letters from prominent individuals in the literary, film, and publishing fields. Also included in this subseries are Leonard’s publishing correspondence and travel correspondence.

Subseries I.2, Fan Letters, 1975-2004

This subseries contains fan letters written to Leonard during his time as a cultural critic for CBS.

Subseries I.3, Family Letters, 1940 -- 1983

This subseries includes John Leonard’s letters to his family: his mother, his brother Ken, and his first wife, Tiana.

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.”

Subseries II.1, Early Writing, 1957-1963

This subseries covers the earliest of Leonard’s published writing. It includes his college writing for the Harvard Crimson, his work at University of California, Berkeley for the KPFA radio program, and his early published essays for National Review and other publications.

Subseries II.2, Reviews and Essays, 1958-2008 [Bulk dates 1970s-1980s], undated

The bulk of this subseries consists of reviews and essays published during Leonard’s work with The New York Times: as a reviewer for the “Daily Books Column,” as editors and contributor to The New York Times Book Review from 1971-1975, and as a critic and reviewer from 1976-1981. The material is broken up into three larger subsections: Reviews, Essays, and Television writing (which included both Leonard’s writing on television and his cultural and literary reviews for broadcast television on CBS “Sunday Morning”). Reviews are arranged alphabetically by either the author or subject of the work under review. Essays are arranged alphabetically by subject. In addition to his writings for The New York Times, these files contain writing for other publications and venues as well, including CBS Sunday Morning, New York Magazine, Life Magazine, Ms. Magazine, and Vanity Fair, among others. The files themselves include draft typescripts, often accompanied by clippings of the final piece and (occasionally) working notes for the piece.

Subseries II.3, Later Reviews and Essays, 1980s -- 2008 undated

The materials in this subseries are essays and articles that Leonard did not arrange in Series II.2. While a few pieces date slightly earlier, the bulk of these materials were written later in his career, during the 1980s – 2008. Notable among the reviews are his the articles and reviews of Toni Morrison, Norman Mailer, John Updike, Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, Eduardo Galeano, Kurt Vonnegut, John Barth, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Michael Chabon, Doris Lessing, Robert Stone, E.L. Doctorow, Dave Eggers, Carlos Fuentes, Toni Cade Bambara, Salman Rushdie, Norman Rush, Richard Powers, and Studs Terkel, among others.

Subseries II.4, Speeches, Conference Talks, Introductions, 1973 -- 2007 undated

This subseries gathers together Leonard’s notes and drafts for speeches, talks, and introductions (for oral presentation and print formats). For speeches and memorials by others, see Series V. Posthumous Papers, 2008 – 2015.

Subseries II.5, Essay Collections and Nonfiction Books [1997-2012]

This subseries consists of the typescript drafts, computer print outs, working drafts, and notes for Leonard’s collections of essays. In the course of the drafting process, Leonard would often re-arrange the order in which his essays appeared in the collection, change the subheadings, subtitles and working titles, and expand previously published pieces. Many of the drafts are undated – the numbering of the drafts does not necessarily reflect the order they were written in. Partial drafts are collated under their respective subheading or subtitle. Also included in this subseries is the posthumously published essay collection, Reading for My Life, edited by Sue Leonard.

Subseries II.6, Fiction 1965-2014 [Bulk dates 1965-1979] undated

This subseries brings together materials relating to Leonard’s creative writing and work as a novelist. This material includes the working notes, drafts, galley proofs, and publishing correspondence pertaining to his work as a fiction writer.

Subseries II.7, Writing Notes, 1947 -- 2008 undated

As part of his reviewing process, Leonard compiled extensive writing notes. This subseries consists of Leonard’s preparatory material for his reviews: handwritten notebooks for television reviews, and typed print –outs with selected quotes and notes from literary and nonfictional works. Some completed drafts are also present, as Leonard’s revision and note-taking practice included writing annotations on previously written drafts of articles.

Subseries II.8, Writing by Others, 1962-2007

Published essays and reviews, drafts, and completed work by others comprise this subseries. Broken into two parts, the first part of the subseries is arranged alphabetically by subject files labeled by Leonard – including praise and criticism of his work, selected reading, and research material – while the second part of the material is arranged alphabetically by author.

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 dates: 1939 -- 2008]

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

Subseries IV.1, Awards and Diplomas, 1950s-2007

This short subseries consists of awards and prizes, mostly from Leonard’s early years, ranging from high school accolades, trophies, and diplomas to his National Book Critics Circle Ivan Sandorf Lifetime Achievement Award.

Subseries IV.2, Memorabilia, 1939-2003

This subseries includes personal and professional artifacts, including address books, address rolodex, calendar, business cards, passport and passport photos, identification cards, and a historical newspaper from 1939, the year Leonard was born.

Subseries IV.3, Scrapbooks, 1945-1985

This subseries consists of two scrapbooks, containing early photographs, files and documents from elementary school and college, as well as newspaper clippings pertaining to Leonard’s professional career.

Subseries IV.4, Personal Papers and Personal Files, 1939-2011

Gathered in this subseries are printed materials relevant to Leonard’s personal life, including bulletins and brochures from graduations and reunions. A subsection of this series consist of personal files, which include files and documents of a personal nature on John, his brother Ken, his mother Ruth Woods Leonard Smith, and friends. Leonard’s own files contain material related to his time in rehab. Also included are two files added after his death with material relating to the memorial services of two family friends.

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.

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Using the Collection


Access Restrictions

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

This collection has no restrictions.

Restrictions on Use

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.

Finding aid is available online.

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About the Finding Aid / Processing Information

Columbia University Libraries. Rare Book and Manuscript Library; machine readable finding aid created by Columbia University Libraries Digital Library Program Division

Processing Information

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

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

Machine readable finding aid generated from MARC-AMC source via XSLT conversion June 30, 2016 Finding aid written in English.
    2016-06-30 File created.
    2016-06-30 XML document instance created by Catherine C. Ricciardi

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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.


HeadingCUL Archives:
CUL Collections:
Nat'l / Int'l Archives:
Address booksPortalCLIOArchiveGRID
Book jacketsPortalCLIOArchiveGRID
Cassette tapesPortalCLIOArchiveGRID
Clippings (information artifacts)PortalCLIOArchiveGRID
Compact DiscsPortalCLIOArchiveGRID
Floppy DiscsPortalCLIOArchiveGRID
Galley proofsPortalCLIOArchiveGRID
Pictures (object genre)PortalCLIOArchiveGRID
Résumés (personnel records)PortalCLIOArchiveGRID


HeadingCUL Archives:
CUL Collections:
Nat'l / Int'l Archives:
American EssaysPortalCLIOArchiveGRID
Authors and publishersPortalCLIOArchiveGRID
Buckley, Wililam F., Jr. 1925-2008PortalCLIOArchiveGRID
Buckley, William F., Jr. 1925-2008--CorrespondencePortalCLIOArchiveGRID
Doctorow, E.L. 1931-2015PortalCLIOArchiveGRID
Faludi, SusanPortalCLIOArchiveGRID
Geleano, Eduardo 1940-2015PortalCLIOArchiveGRID
Gordon, Mary 1949-PortalCLIOArchiveGRID
Howard, Maureen 1930-PortalCLIOArchiveGRID
Howe, IrvingPortalCLIOArchiveGRID
Kingston, Maxine HongPortalCLIOArchiveGRID
Leonard, John 1939-2008PortalCLIOArchiveGRID
Leonard, John 1939-2008PortalCLIOArchiveGRID
Leonard, Sue 1938-PortalCLIOArchiveGRID
Morrison, ToniPortalCLIOArchiveGRID
Navasky, Victor S.PortalCLIOArchiveGRID
Steinem, GloriaPortalCLIOArchiveGRID
Television criticismPortalCLIOArchiveGRID
Television programs--ReviewsPortalCLIOArchiveGRID
Vonnegut, KurtPortalCLIOArchiveGRID

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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.

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