Leonard Kriegel, 89, dies; Wrote unflinchingly about his disability

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Leonard Kriegel, 89, dies; Wrote unflinchingly about his disability
He was known for his scholarly and popular writings about historical phenomena. But he was best known for writing about losing the use of his legs.

NEW YORK, NY.- Leonard Kriegel, an American memoirist and essayist whose work blazed with rage at the loss of the use of his legs to polio, died Sept. 25 in New York City. He was 89.

The cause was heart failure, his son Mark said Tuesday.

An academic and literary critic who taught for many years at the City College of New York, Kriegel was known for scholarly and popular writings that examined large historical phenomena (the struggles of the labor movement, the social construction of masculinity, the treatment of disabled people) at the level of the individual life — often his own.

“When Kriegel seizes rhetorical authority, he can challenge readers in ways pundits can’t, by remaining true to his own experiences,” a critic for The Antioch Review wrote in 1999, reviewing his largely autobiographical essay collection “Flying Solo: Reimagining Manhood, Courage, and Loss,” published the year before.

Kriegel, whose essays appeared in The New York Times, The Nation and elsewhere, first came to wide attention in 1964 with a full-length memoir, “The Long Walk Home.”

In it, he wrote unflinchingly of having contracted polio at 11, the painstaking odyssey of relearning to walk with crutches and leg braces and, most notably, his enduring anger.

“The loss of my legs enraged me,” Kriegel later wrote. “It would always enrage me. And I would never get used to it. Its arbitrariness, its naked proclamation of what I could and could not do, of what I could never again do, its failure to allow me compensation for what had been so brusquely taken.”

Kriegel recalled telling his wife that he wanted “The Long Walk Home” to be “free of the sentimentality and cant and papier-mâché religiosity usually found in such books.” He continued:

“I was determined not to be inspirational. What I wanted to do, I explained, was to re-create the polio because it was the polio that had created me. The writers I had learned from — Farrell, Wright, Hemingway, Mailer, Dreiser — had all insisted that in order to see the world as it was, the writer had to look at it as if through a microscope. A narrow focus would force coherence onto a seemingly random series of events.

“My virus taught a different lesson,” he went on. “The body of the cripple was patched and blistered, and so was the story he would tell. Life was at one and the same time harsh and painful, tender and humorous.”

Many critics praised “The Long Walk Home” for its candor, not the least of which came in the author’s shunning of misty euphemism in favor of the term “cripple” — a Purple Heart, defiantly worn.

Reviewing the book in the Times, Richard F. Shepard wrote that Kriegel had “set down with superb craft and keen insight the story of his affliction,” adding, “It is written without a trace of false sentimentality or phony revelation.”

But some critics were more guarded. The public discussion of disability was comparatively rare in 1964, the public voicing of anger over a disability rarer still. Kriegel’s raw emotion, it was plain, discomforted them.

“Now and then,” a reviewer for The Chicago Tribune wrote, “there are flashes of insight and self-understanding amid sordidness and frequently unnecessary obscene realism.”

The distress of such critics, as Kriegel was well aware, was hardly surprising: They would have much preferred him to play the role of the stock character he called the “Charity Cripple” — epitomized by pliant, pitiable literary figures like Charles Dickens’ Tiny Tim.

But what the critics had met instead on reading Kriegel’s book was a character of a very different sort: the unsettling specter of what he called the “Demonic Cripple,” as personified by Shakespeare’s Richard III or the monomaniacal, one-legged Captain Ahab of “Moby-Dick.”

“Physical health and moral virtue are not synonymous in Western culture, but they are closely related,” Kriegel wrote in an essay included in his 1991 collection, “Falling Into Life.” “In American literature, one can argue that it is the body, not the mind, that declares moral primacy.”

He had been thinking deeply about these issues — in the literary arena and much closer to home — nearly all his life.

Leonard Kriegel was born in the Bronx borough of New York City on May 25, 1933, a son of European Jewish immigrants, Fred Kriegel, a deli counterman, and Sylvia (Breittholz) Kriegel, a homemaker. He was reared in the Norwood neighborhood in the northern part of the borough.

“Until I met up with my virus,” he wrote in one essay, “I was a monotonously average 11-year-old boy.”

He contracted polio in 1944, at summer camp, amid an epidemic then sweeping the Eastern United States. He spent two years at the New York State Reconstruction Home in West Haverstraw, north of the city.

There, he received the canonical treatment of the day, developed by Australian nurse Elizabeth Kenny: blistering hot baths, repeated swaddling in hot towels and exercise.

That treatment helped restore the use of some patients’ limbs, but not Leonard’s. He learned to walk again — but only, he wrote, with “15 pounds of leather and steel strapped to my legs,” an encumbrance he would carry for the next four decades.

Returning to the Bronx, he completed his public-school education at home with visiting teachers. He went on to earn a bachelor’s degree from Hunter College, a master’s from Columbia University and a doctorate from New York University, where he wrote his dissertation on critic Edmund Wilson.

He taught at Long Island University before joining the faculty of City College, where he also served as the director of the Center for Worker Education.

Kriegel was a longtime resident of Manhattan. In addition to his son Mark, he is survived by his wife, Harriet (Bernzweig) Kriegel; another son, Bruce; and two grandchildren.

Among his other books are the nonfiction titles “Working Through: A Teacher’s Journey in the Urban University” (1972) and “On Men and Manhood” (1979); an elegiac, partly fictionalized memoir of the Bronx, “Notes for the Two-Dollar Window: Portraits From an American Neighborhood” (1976); and a novel, “Quitting Time” (1982), about the labor movement.

His honors include Rockefeller and Guggenheim fellowships and Fulbright lectureships at the Universities of Paris, Groningen and Leiden.

Late in life, after 40 years of walking with crutches had wrought as much havoc on his shoulders as he cared to weather, Kriegel chose to use a wheelchair permanently. He did not see the change as a defeat, for he had viewed the act of relearning to walk more as brute necessity than triumph. As he wrote in “Falling Into Life”:

“However successful I may be in the eyes of the world — and I certainly am, to use a phrase that should be burned out of the vocabulary, a man who has ‘overcome his handicap’ — I am always measuring what I have against what I want.” He continued:

“I want to kick a football, jump rope, ride a bike, climb a mountain — not a mountain as metaphor but a real honest-to-God mountain — ride a horse. I want to make love differently; I want to drive differently; I want to know my sons differently. In short, I want to know the world as the normal is privileged to know it.”

And yet throughout his life, Kriegel’s rage provided ballast against despair. Even the onset of his illness, he recalled in an essay in “Flying Solo,” was not entirely devoid of hope. As he recounted it, his father, on learning that Leonard had contracted polio, raced upstate from his delicatessen job without stopping to change his clothes.

“He sat alongside my bed in the small hospital in Cold Spring, imploring me to live and feeding me vanilla ice cream,” Kriegel wrote. “What remains as vivid in memory today as it was more than 50 years ago is the odor that clung to my father’s hand as he fed me that ice cream. I could smell the dry-sweat prospect of my death on that hand. Yet beyond that, overwhelming death, was the smell of pickle brine and smoked salmon and chopped herring that mixed with the rich creamy taste of the vanilla ice cream. For whatever incomprehensible reason, the mixing of smells was a father’s promise to a son that he would live.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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