Remembering Terry Teachout, America’s Most Accomplished Critic

Terry Teachout has died. America’s most accomplished critic, he aspired to enjoy, judge, and share with others his taste in music, theater, cinema, and literature. He was confident of his superior knowledge and his exquisite sensitivity, so he rarely showed off, and he knew that friendliness is much more overpowering than quarrel. It was his life’s mission to elevate American taste by elevating his own; and to defend to the extent possible what is called highbrow art. This included 20th-century painting, which is, of course, indefensible; Teachout was an idealist. He wanted to comprehend all American art and some of the European art that was alive in America, to be always among his fellow Americans in spirit and in sharing the pleasures of ordinary life.

Politically, he was a conservative liberal. I find more decent political opinion on the right than the left, of course, but concern for justice is much more evenly distributed, and Teachout aspired to be just while being gentle; he almost never had a harsh thing to say about anyone. He was the living embodiment of the ideals of mid-century America, a reminder that liberalism was once generous and learned, while being patriotic. He was a child of small-town, heartland America, born in 1956, which shaped his character—he was both playful and mindful of good manners. To make use of his unusual talents as critic and playwright, though, he had to go to New York City, where he lived until his death on January 13.

Professionally, he was the theater critic of the Wall Street Journal, and a critic-at-large for Commentary. He also wrote for National Review, The New Criterion, the since-closed Weekly Standard. Is there any famous conservative publication with which he was not connected at some point or another in the last four decades? He seemed to have lived to write! He was not unwelcome in liberal papers, either, starting with the New York Times, but of course political differences run deep and although he was respected, celebrity eluded him because his character and his choice of profession straddled the great American divide that has led to the destruction of the culture he so loved.

Teachout’s accomplishments are his writings. The most famous is his biography of Louis Armstrong, Pops; he also devoted studies to Duke Ellington, H.L. Mencken, and George Balanchine; he penned a youthful memoir I recommend, City Limits; he also wrote plays and libretti, of which Satchmo at the Waldorf was the most successful. But he was also a long-time blogger and a beloved minor celebrity on Twitter—he constantly shared his erudition in music, cinema, and theater, which was closest to his heart. He found it very easy to get along with young Americans and perfect strangers; he talked very openly about his private life, from the day-to-day events to the life and death troubles.

It is paradoxical that he should have become a critic, since he lacked the studied contempt that gives moral power to criticism and above all the cruelty necessary to effect separations between what is honored and what is not. He was not shy about what he disliked or had no taste for, but the overwhelming tendency of his criticism was to applaud whatever deserved applause, whether for excellence, charm, good work, or even in certain cases good intentions. As a critic, he was a friend to and admirer of artists, whether famous or unknown, not a master.

Of course, when people die, we desire to heap praise on them, and we have done so to the point where it is meaningless, showing nothing but our fear of death. We posthumously arm men with virtues as though to render them immortal, or failing that, make us despair, and yet we hardly honor them while they live. There are limits to our justice and we should acknowledge them, lest we go mad. It would be more honest to weep silently. Teachout was by all accounts a success. He even received the distinction and reward of a Bradley Prize in 2014. But we mourn his loss most honestly when we face the fact that we have not given him the influence he deserved and which he desired to have over taste.

It is somehow of the essence of being human to suffer where we love, to prepare ourselves to be devastated, and that is obvious above all in mourning. Perhaps it is not so different when we willingly go to enjoy a tragedy. We want the best for the best among us, in order to prove that it is worthwhile being human.

I turn now to my own debt of gratitude. Terry was a friend to me, partly because he enjoyed my conversation, but mostly as an act of generosity. He knew I needed his friendship and joined my board at the American Cinema Foundation to give it a stamp of approval, as a veteran to a young critic, since his name would open doors for me or earn some goodwill in a time when there is none, criticism having collapsed. I confess this debt of gratitude I owed him I have failed to pay back; honoring him now is the best I can do. But in the last few years, we recorded eleven podcasts on noir and noir-adjacent films, one of his loves in American cinema. It brought America close to tragedy, it gave depth and seriousness to stories that nevertheless were popular, and it also dealt with the American people, especially the least splendid or successful. It was a genre that looked to democracy to find nobility. Terry said that, as peaceful a man as he was, and with his upbringing, he didn’t know why he was so attracted to these terrible stories. I believe it was his love of justice. It was a pleasure and a challenge to talk to him, and we always saw a connection or a gap we meant to fill by having yet another conversation, but of course all things must end.

Terry did not seek the sobriety that is proper to an obituary, but he did want to speak seriously, and so he spoke carefully, for the most part avoiding the emotions that distract an audience from considering before judging. In an age in which people talk in mangled fragments of sentences, he spoke in paragraphs. The thoughts seemed to be breathing in the way classical music does, which he loved in an intelligent way, yet always looking to find another late-Romantic composer to enjoy. He wrote to achieve that effect; he can be read out loud, accordingly. In our time, people know little about the past and have no ambitions for the future; Terry wanted to bring them all together in his writing, to tie up future generations to the treasures of art he discovered, tended to, and guarded. His rhetorical accomplishments should be studied because they are some measure of his ambition and his moral intention as an educator.

When he invited me to visit him at his apartment in New York, he told me, take the A train. I cannot do justice to his love of jazz—his musical skill, his ear, and his erudition. It will have to suffice to say that for a while I played Billy Strayhorn to his Duke Ellington. He was as warm, gentle, and erudite in person as he was in writing or in interviews. His apartment was full of the things you’d expect a lover of the arts to have, but also charmingly old-fashioned. He also had a number of works he was proud of as a collector. Terry knew enough about life’s misery to wish to beautify life—the charmed circle of the arts seems to have achieved this for him for the longest time, and then when he reached the second half of man’s estate, he got married, which brought out again boyish joy in him.

Our decadence is a troubling phenomenon Terry knew rather well—our tendency is to abandon in despair things that have not yet been taken from us, our heritage first. It didn’t make him despair, but it is perhaps why he worked so hard to find the right things and the right words to say about them in order to give people access to pleasures they could respect themselves for enjoying. His tendency was to find the best in the past and, if it should be found still worthy, if it could come alive for people, then that would be enough for now. He also wanted to find good things in the arts everywhere in America, not just in his home in New York.

It is somehow of the essence of being human to suffer where we love, to prepare ourselves to be devastated, and that is obvious above all in mourning. Perhaps it is not so different when we willingly go to enjoy a tragedy. We want the best for the best among us, in order to prove that it is worthwhile being human. I guess Terry Teachout spread his powers of comprehension among the arts in order to live up to our admiration. There is a kind of justice, after all, since we judge him to have succeeded. We pay in pain for the privilege of the pleasures he offered, and are almost grateful to do so. We will surely at another time remember how glad he was, that he treated being alive as a privilege to be enjoyed in gratitude, and that will gentle our condition.

Editor’s Note: A previous version of this essay incorrectly stated the year of Teachout’s birth.