Elmore Leonard, Working Class Persona as Pose

Guest post by Charles J. Rzepka

The late Elmore “Dutch” Leonard, who adopted the nickname of Senators pitcher Emil “Dutch” Leonard as a high school athlete and even had it tattooed on his arm, would seem an unlikely choice of subject for a book of academic criticism. Author of forty-five gritty, violent, fast-moving, and very popular novels during a career spanning more than sixty years (that’s about one book every sixteen months), he expressed a low opinion of the book-chat literati and college professors who often shared the dais with him at book fairs and writing workshops. “Most of these writers don’t write for a living,”  he told NPR’s Scott Simon at a Tucson book festival in 2010. “They write for tenure. Or for The New York Times. Or to get invited to conferences like this.” Quoting these remarks in a recent Weekend Edition Saturday column, Simon added that when Leonard expressed similar sentiments to his admiring Tucson audience, “the room rocked with laughter and applause. In his eighties, Elmore had become the kind of star who could tweak his hosts and be loved for it.”

Interviewing Leonard repeatedly over the course of three years as I prepared to write Being Cool, I became skeptical of this working class persona—because I believe that’s what it was, in the original sense of “persona” (from the Latin “personare,” “to sound through”), referring to the “mask” that an actor wore in classical drama. Leonard himself would probably have called it a “pose,” a word that often surfaces in his books. He might also, if asked, have acknowledged knowing the derivation of “persona.”

Raised a devout Catholic, Leonard attended the University of Detroit High School and, after his stint in the Navy from 1943 to 1946, the University of Detroit, Jesuit institutions where the mandatory curriculum included classical languages. As an English major and philosophy minor at U. of D. he read Aristotle, Etheredge, the early Romantics, Virgil (in Latin), Xenophon (in Greek), and Sartre and Camus, among many other novelists, playwrights, poets, and thinkers. They all left their mark on what he wrote—even those he didn’t like. Leonard was, by nature and training, intellectually curious. He not only took hours of time out from the work he loved in order to talk to me, a man who had once written “for tenure” (which is, of course, “writing for a living” by a different name), but he also thought our first conversation, which included topics as esoteric as the Socratic method and existentialism, “a good interview, very good,” adding, “I had to think of things I’ve never thought of before.”

Leonard’s curiosity comes out in the astonishing range of technical information and lingo embedded in his fiction: dynamiting, process-serving, making moonshine, growing melons, running a gambling casino, robbing banks—the list almost defies enumeration. Wayne Colson, the ironworking urban cowboy featured in Killshot, doesn’t just walk the walk, riveting iron forty stories above the streets of Detroit, he talks the talk: “spud wrenches” and “sleeve bars” and “bull pins” and “yo-yos.” After 1980, Leonard had his researcher Gregg Sutter to thank for most of this raw information, but even when writing westerns more than half a century ago, he would keep a ledger book full of research notes by his side, the way a mason might keep his stack of bricks and a mortarboard handy while building a garage.

Leonard’s curiosity about the world of facts often spilled over into the realm of ideas. Among the scraps of Apache vocabulary and stage-coach lore in that ledger book, you’ll find quotations from Rochefoucauld, Diogenes Laertes, and Samuel Butler. His earliest reading included children’s versions of the Odyssey and Beowulf, and he admired Mortimer Adler, co-founder of the Great Books project at the University of Chicago, whom he met while writing documentaries for Encyclopedia Britannica at a slack point in his career.

Elmore Leonard’s self-constructed image as “Dutch,” a hard-nosed, lunch-bucket writer for hire, wasn’t entirely false, but it wasn’t the whole truth, either. It was a pose, and for Leonard, posing wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, he admired it, as long as it was done well. According to his son, Peter, who spoke at his father’s funeral several weeks ago, Leonard would even pose as a bewildered old man in order to get through airport security faster.  Think of Chili Palmer in Get Shorty, “a bullshit artist,” but “one of the best,” a low-level mob enforcer posing as a film producer in Hollywood and pulling it off—not just the film-producing, but more importantly, the bullshitting that made it possible.

There’s an art to everything, even posing. Isn’t that what writing is all about? Elmore Leonard was famous for his narrative “invisibility.” He spent a lifetime working at it, until his “Panasonic ear,” as A. D. Reed called it, turned his prose into something like a radio dial for voices not his own: “my sound,” Leonard told Robert Skinner in 1987, “is the sound of my characters. You never hear me.” “Dutch” was a character Leonard enjoyed dialing up in real life. Those of us he occasionally took aim at—college professors, Rolling Stone reviewers, book club pundits—came to recognize that, and his laughing and applauding audience in Tucson did, too. Leonard could “tweak his hosts and be loved for it” because they knew that behind the pose stood a writer very much like them—a writer who took an interest in the whole, wide world.

rzepkaCharles J. Rzepka is a professor of English at Boston University and author of Being Cool: The Work of Elmore Leonard, published by Johns Hopkins University Press.