The Devil Gets His Due

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 2)

A provocative and influential literary critic, Leslie Fiedler established his reputation as a maverick when he published his essay “Come Back to the Raft Ag’in, Huck Honey!” in Partisan Review in 1948. This essay proposed that the relationship between Huck and Jim not only has homoerotic overtones but also serves as a literary archetype found in other American classics, such as Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (1851) and James Fenimore Cooper’s The Deerslayer (1841). The critical establishment was not pleased with this hint of sex and miscegenation in American classic novels about male bonding, but the scandal made Fiedler famous. By the time he developed his ideas further in his 1960 book Love and Death in the American Novel, Fiedler had established himself as one of the best literary analysts of his generation.

After his heyday in the 1960’s and 1970’s, his star dimmed, in part because of scholarly interest in the French theorists of the 1980’s, but Fiedler kept publishing books and articles in journals and magazines such as Esquire. His showman’s side expressed itself when he appeared on talk shows such as Today and The Merv Griffin Show, and he even portrayed a Gypsy caravan driver in a full-length feature film that was never released. Since Fiedler’s death in 2003, his work has not received much valedictory attention, so Samuele F. S. Pardini sought to redress that by assembling Fiedler’s uncollected essays into The Devil Gets His Due. In his introduction to the volume, Pardini finds that “literary criticism is in crisis,” mostly because of a general lack of appreciation for or knowledge of major American critics and the heritage they represent. He hopes that this sampling of essays will find a younger audience who may not know how much Fiedler influenced contemporary criticism, especially in relation to popular culture.

Pardini assembled the essays thematically, moving from an early section that explained Fiedler’s critical agenda to other sections devoted to Mark Twain’s writings, American literary criticism, pop modernism, writers of the 1950’s and 1960’s, and cultural studies. As Pardini points out, the book “covers almost sixty years of critical work,” but his effort to get readers to look at Fiedler’s writings thematically can make the essays hard to place in historical context. For instance, Fiedler begins his essay entitled “The Ordeal of Criticism” in mid-conversation with other writers, and one has to hunt through the acknowledgments page to find that it came from Commentary in 1949. Similarly, when Fielder blasts the “totalitarian” nature of political correctness in his discussion of “The Canon and the Classroom: A Caveat,” his insights make sense in terms of his essay’s publication in 1992, but not at all in terms of the essays of the 1950’s that immediately preceded it in the collection.

Aside from these abrupt historical shifts, one can still tell that Fiedler did much to redefine criticism in terms of style and of content. In his early essay “Toward an Amateur Criticism,” Fiedler advocated “the language of conversationthe voice of the dilettante at home” in opposition to jargon-laden criticism, finding that “the ideal form for critical discourse is the irresponsible, non-commercial book review.” One can see how his critical strategies anticipated controversy when Fiedler declares that “the critic’s unforgivable sin is to be dull.” Fiedler also struggled against the predominant focus on high modernist literature in the 1940’s and 1950’s, especially the works of William Butler Yeats, T. S. Eliot, James Joyce, Henry James, and Herman Melville. Instead, he liked to celebrate what he called “good bad” writers, such as Harriet Beecher Stowe and James Fenimore Cooper. While critics working within the modernist tradition might champion style, allusion, and the internal architecture of classic works such as James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922), Fiedler prefers the “mythopoeic power of the author” and his or her ability to stir up the “collective unconscious, the evocation of closely shared nightmares of race and sex.” Sometimes Fiedler takes this tendency to democratize aesthetic taste to an extreme. For instance, at one point he claims that television “represents the fulfillment of all to which the popular arts have aspired from the start,” but otherwise his openness to other writers and other forms of storytelling greatly widened the possibilities for critical discourse.

At times, Fiedler attempted to turn the standard critical reception of a famous author on its head. For instance, in his essay “Ezra Pound: The Poet as Parodist,”...

(The entire section is 1946 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 2)

Los Angeles Times, May 4, 2008, p. 8.