Leslie Fiedler Critical Essays

Fiedler, Leslie A(aron) (Vol. 4)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Fiedler, Leslie A(aron) 1917–

Fiedler, an American critic, novelist, and man of letters, is best known for his major critical work, Love and Death in the American Novel. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)

[Love and Death in the American Novel], indeed, [is] a pantograph, a treatise that sets out to explain not only, as avowed, the American novel and its relation to American life, but also American social, moral, sexual, cultural, anthropological and psychological history, in fact the whole of American life, in fact America, in fact everything, or at least everything American—a qualification of, to him, fluctuating importance. Everything and everybody, accordingly, may turn out to be relevant: Conan Doyle, Beowulf, the Marquis de Sade (but of course), Gary Cooper, Rabelais, Frankenstein, Dylan Thomas. And any source, any method may supply the right answer, a possible answer, significant information, something: The Allegory of Love, Marxism either neat or with a Partisan Review admixture, Freud and Jung and their commentators, Lawrence's Studies in Classic American Literature. My point about this last lot is not so much that it indicates a welcome sense of being at home in the analytical armoury, an eclecticism of the kind that informs some of the best criticism now being written in English, though there is that. Rather I want to direct attention to the fact that Dr Fiedler, so far from attempting to conceal his use of these sources, makes a neat catalogue of them in his preface. Thus casually to lay one's critical kit out for inspection seems very American, or anyway non-British; our own instinct is to assume, even to pretend, that writer and reader have long ago got hold of and absorbed everything that counts, and we all know what counts. Similarly, it takes an American to feel that illumination may come from the least expected quarter, that the relative importances of things are never settled; in England, as Mr Malcolm Bradbury wrote … in a more general context, 'everything has happened before'….

He is concerned not to shock or titillate but to explain, to demonstrate in concrete terms, the gap between American fiction and American fact. If he often, as he must by now be weary of being told, 'goes too far', he as often goes in a new and illuminating direction. He is at his most convincing when he finds and traces a division in the American novel between the sentimental strain and the Gothic….

A guarded summing-up—guarded because, for all its length, this is a book of fearful compression, requiring several re-readings and re-thinkings—can lead off with the query whether some of the hard questions may not have been left unanswered. Granted that the American novelist has moved away from the centre of sex (marital, physical) to its periphery (perverted, rarefied), what in him or his environment is responsible? Granted that the bestseller in the United States preceded the serious novel instead of following in its wake, why are the two levels so often inextricably confused to this day, so that, just as in jazz, that essentially American art-form, one is shifted from this moment to that between the authentic and the banal? There are some, especially on this side of the Atlantic, who will feel that, even if fully answered, such questions lie partly, perhaps wholly, outside the brief of the literary critic, as do some of the questions the book has fully answered. To use the American novel as a couch-monologue wherewith to analyse the American psyche is a valid enterprise (and Dr Fiedler's achievement is nowhere near exhausted by being so described), but, again, there is the objection that criticism, rather than tearing aside the surface of a literary work in order to unearth one kind of truth, should concern itself with illuminating that surface ever more truthfully….

[But it] does sometimes look as if the novel in English, rather than the American or the Anglo-American novel, is tomorrow's proper study; and for that purpose, as for the one he sets himself, Dr Fiedler's witty, exasperating, energetic, penetrating book will prove indispensable.

Kingsley Amis, "Men Without Women" (1961), in his What Became of Jane Austen? and Other Questions (copyright © 1970 by Kingsley Amis; reprinted by permission of A. D. Peters and Company and Harcourt Brace Jovanovich), Jonathan Cape Ltd., 1970, and Harcourt, 1971, pp. 98-102.

Pull Down Vanity and Other Stories, predictably enough, suffers from numerous improprieties of language; the frenzied twistings of style in these eight tales published in various periodicals between 1948 and [1963] seem to represent now Fiedler's juvenilia, now his insincere concessions to colloquial idiom, now his tendon-pulling reach for the profound…. Fiedler's self-doubts and uncertainties come out in his fiction. Even on the rare occasion when Fiedler's language is commensurate with his theme, there is still a spectacle of an ignoble non-hero coming to judgment.

Once he leaves the dim ancestral past for the upbeat struggles of the eastern metropolis or the midwestern university town, Fiedler's language changes from artfully direct to stridently unnatural….

The stories in Pull Down Vanity are only in part frontier yarns of territory disputes in which the bad bourgeois society confronts the good artist or some other pair of classes strike sparks sparks against each other…. A more likely common theme seems to be the removing of a counterfeit face, a shield which represents some harmful kind of innocence. Unmasked, the individual experiences reality and admits what he's been covering up all along. Following this view, the title phrase, "Pull down vanity," seems to refer to the idea of removing vain shows, taking away masks….

Despite Fiedler's apparent reductive attitude—we are all dirty, we all wear the "minister's black mask"—it is his protagonists who are left holding the bag, who fight the border war; theirs alone is the mask that drops away….

In summary, the [Communist] Party and the Shoestore seem to be two of Fiedler's major frontier areas. The others: the academy, the old-world Jewish shtettl, the Negro's societal fringe, the provincial hinterland into which the Jewish writer strays, a bachelor girls' apartment seen as love's tender trap. It is of course impossible to know the real Leslie Fiedler, for all his voluble confessions, apologias, and self-unmaskings. But in the final analysis there is a charming sincerity and inexpungable innocence in a man who can write eight diversified frontier tales of Promethean (or would-be Promethean) heroes who get humiliated and come to grief, a man who can state openly, as he did in a review of Shapiro's Poems of a Jew, "We are all spiritual Stalinists engaged in a continual falsification of our own histories, and we must pray for critics capable of pointing this out."

Samuel I. Bellman, "The Frontiers of Leslie Fiedler," in Southwest Review, Winter, 1963, pp. 86-9.

[There] are reasons for not reading Back to China in the abstract, for not writing it off as a fizzle. For one thing, Fiedler often does better on short runs; he has trouble sustaining himself in a distance effort, despite the fact that he is capable of formidable spurts. Moreover, he is still one of the most imaginative and provocative critics around, and a fictionist of real power: a number of the tales in his story collection, Pull Down Vanity (1962), are excellent….

He seems not to have intended Back to China as a major work, or even as serious in effort as his first novel, The Second Stone (1963), echoes from which appear in the new book. More importantly, Back to China contains a number of themes and ideas that are of genuine importance, whatever the quality of the narrative itself.

Back to China is a harrowing picture of academic futility and aridity; the barren Montana terrain ("steep rock and sparse trees") seems an objective correlative of rootless, enervating pedagogy. In a nightmare vision we see a projection of the Montana Fiedler as a sterile, academic clown who realizes that all his father-figures and son-figures have failed him just as he has failed them, who can't get along with anybody, and who continues to eke out an absurd and unbearable existence. Although he will father a son, he tells himself at the end, "yet I am sterile." Always, we are told, Baro feels "caught between an impulse to play the clown, and a resolve to act the professor."…

[The] novel marks a decided shift in mood on Feidler's part. The Second Stone featured a "No!"-thunderer of relentless persistence who then sold out to the philistines (another secret fear and self-suspicion of Fiedler's?), while crowing a self-exultant "cock-a-doodle-doo." Back to China has a weak, fatuous agonist who is always ready to cry or say or do the wrong thing. What does this betoken for one of the few really challenging gadfly writers of our time?

Samuel I. Bellman, "Baro Led a Barren Life," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1965 by Saturday Review/World, Inc.; reprinted with permission), May 1, 1965, p. 40.

Leslie A. Fiedler, a well-known belligerent American writer, occasionally turns out verse and fiction of not very substantial merit, but most effectively functions as a polemical "literary critic." More exactly, he is a literary critic of non-literature. Using the left-handed strategy that the modern methods of literary criticism provide revelatory techniques in themselves, he writes about criminals, politics, social fads, religion, popular entertainment, bohemian ideologies, sex, and cultural power politics—his real interests—as if he were dealing with particularly obscure literary texts. Perhaps Fiedler displays his inverse best on a subject like "comic books." Playing an Aristotle of sub-literary popular culture, he uses mock-erudition to categorize comic book forms and types as significant allegories of good and evil and mythic expressions of urban folk consciousness. The argument claims more than it should, often gaining suggestiveness at the price of tangential forcing. (As in the analogy of comic books with jazz music, which ignores that jazz is not only of much different quality but, unlike comic-books, has always had a life separate from its mass-technical reproduction on records.) Fiedler does not take his burlesque scholar-criticism of comic books altogether seriously. For he makes much of the more pertinent point that the artifact of mass entertainment acquires most of its meaning as a reduction of expression to a "commodity" rather than as individual art or collective symbolism. His inversion of comic books into richer significance serves as a defiance of those who righteously attack them. Fiedler's main purpose in "The Middle Against Both Ends" comes out in the assault on the banality of standardized middleclass taste and morals because the "middle-brow" who denies the vulgar also denies the intellectual. From his opening assertion of reading comic books "with some pleasure," through his defense of all arts—elitist and popular—which concern the "instinctual and dark" (death, sex and guilt), to his final insistence on a hierarchy of intellectual values, he strikes at the "drive for conformity on the level of the timid, sentimental, mindless-bodiless genteel."

Some of the strength of Fiedler's polemic derives from his awareness that some past literary rebels' intellectual egalitarianism and cultural democracy results in both comic books and the righteousness of those that attack them. The weaknesses of the argument reveal not only the forced posture of defending comic books but a self-indulgent eagerness to win against fools—the minds inspired by the more mawkish best-selling novels and the charms of resentfully easy virtue. Why so vehemently fight cripples about toy dragons?

Kingsley Widmer, in his The Literary Rebel (copyright © 1965 by Southern Illinois University Press; reprinted by permission of Southern Illinois University Press), Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1965, pp. 160-62.

Two-thirds of [Fiedler's The Last Jew in America] represent a fantastic degree of ineptness and literary falsity. His stereotypes of white gentile, Indian, and Negro, for example, are utterly unreal and hence meaningless. The hysteria and frenzy that in true Fiedler-fashion underlie these stories indicate clearly not that his message is urgent or that the time is sadly out of joint, but simply that he is one of the outstanding Spasmodic prose-poets of our time. As with the Victorian Spasmodic poets or the nineteenth-century American Spasmodic fictionist John Neal, Fiedler's imaginative writing represents a series of emotional fits. And as with early American film comedies, The Last Jew in America and much of Fiedler's other fiction also depend heavily on the wild melee, the uninhibited free-for-all that releases a lot of pent-up tension but otherwise doesn't make much sense….

The one thing needful for Fiedler: less matter and more art. Mere stereotypes and anti-stereotypes don't make good stories. The "class war" approach, so basic in Fiedler's narrow outlook (capitalism vs. socialism, artist vs. society, male vs. female, Jew vs. gentile, white vs. Negro, West vs. East), is another fond fixation of adolescence that should long ago have been given the "No! in Thunder" treatment.

Samuel I. Bellman, "In Groups Within Groups," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1966 by Saturday Review/World, Inc.; reprinted with permission), July 30, 1966, pp. 31-2.

Leslie Fiedler's new book [The Return of the Vanishing American] completes the "venture in literary anthropology" begun with Love and Death in the American Novel and continued in Waiting for the End. Having dealt with "eros and thanatos" and with "the hope of apocalypse and its failure," he now turns to "the Indian," which sounds odd and anticlimactic and I'm afraid finally is so, taking The Return of the Vanishing American as an individual critical performance. The significance of the whole venture I leave to the American Studies people to worry out—part of the fun of reading Fiedler (and of being him, I dare say) is imagining their solemn outrage. I am more interested in figuring out why so lively and intelligent a book leaves me feeling disappointed and annoyed.

By now the objections to Fiedler's procedures are virtually standardized. He can be careless about little accuracies … and silly with his analogies …, and his habit of melodramatizing history will not be to everyone's taste…. Fiedler is an incorrigible rascal, and to forbid him his tricks would deprive us of the often brilliant insights he has up his sleeve.

The insights in The Return of the Vanishing American are, however, achieved at a pretty high price….

I don't think that Fiedler's way of treating myth is as easily transferable into prescriptive program as he wants it to be. His methods do damage not just to literature, by breaking up whole works to salvage the "authentic" fragment, but to life, making it only a kind of materia mythica to be arranged and manipulated without entering very deeply into the particular experiences that compose it. He doesn't mean to do this, and his career is a deserved and salutary rebuke to those who would insulate art from its human motives and consequences; but The Return of the Vanishing American, for all its admirable intentions and its achieved pleasures and illuminations, is finally bad medicine.

Thomas R. Edwards, in Partisan Review (copyright © 1968 by Partisan Review, Inc.), Fall, 1968, pp. 606-10.

Together, [Fiedler's Collected Essays] reveal [his] weaknesses—most particularly his fondness for repetition and his inability to develop a theme—but they also reveal his strengths, and, among contemporary critics, Fiedler's strengths are unique….

He writes with vigor and style. He is arrogant, contemptuous of those who cannot see what he sees, but he has an uncommon wit and a talent both for satire and for pithy axioms. If he does not develop his themes, he develops the position from which they are observed: "I have been thrice born," he says, "first into radical dissent, then into radical disillusion and the fear of innocence, finally into whatever it is that lies beyond both commitment and disaffection." He delights in generalizations, condemning "the fact-snufflers, the truffle-hounds of science" who bring in harvests of data, all of which, he says, are "a democratic substitute for something so aristocratic as ideas, some bureaucratic ersatz for the insight of the individual thinker." Unlike most critics, Fiedler has sunk roots into American popular culture—into films and comic books—although he is often surprised that he likes it and is always more convincing when pop culture is the background, not the subject of his argument.

Fiedler is rarely boring. To be dull, a man must be either modest or incompetent, and Fiedler is neither. His writing, he is the first to say, is "the basis for a new understanding of our classic books and of our culture in general." It nearly is…. He tries a few close readings of texts but seems to sense that these are aberrations, gestures toward conformity. Fiedler's true lust (there is no other word for it) is for connections, for the patterns of culture he finds behind the surface forms of art….

Fiedler enjoys reducing art and life to a kind of dramatic nicety. How neat for Fiedler that the unlikable Whittaker Chambers should be the just man and Hiss, the Harvard man, a traitor. Even Chambers's whispered accusations become proof of his virtue, whereas another dramatist (Shakespeare, perhaps) would have made them proof of villainy. Theatrical jargon pops up everywhere: the uproar over Joe McCarthy was no more than "our modern East Lynn, a melodrama" and the Rosenbergs' pleas of innocence a "comedy"—a particularly irritating comedy because the actors never confessed, which would, of course, have made the play come out as it should have. Fiedler, in his first attempts to show America its political innocence, pipes the cold-war tunes; he did not know then how dishonest our own government could be.

Most of Fiedler's major themes touch upon innocence, either in our literature or in our politics, and the tenacity with which we hold to it…. Fiedler extends his theme of innocence—I think accurately—to cover a certain ignorance and regressiveness in American culture, an "implacable nostalgia for the infantile, at once wrong-headed and somehow admirable. The mythic America is boyhood."

Fiedler's essays with a narrow focus are generally acute; his broader essays may be in part mistaken but they are always exciting…. We have less need of critics who are right than we have of critics like Fiedler who set up a perspective that forces us to look again on art, on culture we once thought familiar. Fiedler is part mystic, part romantic, part Hebraic truth teller. He insists that the artist's role is to say a "Hard No": "to fulfill its essential moral obligation, [serious] fiction must be negative." By this he means the artist must show the gap between what man dreams of and is able to accomplish, and in this he is correct.

But Fiedler, in his desperate flight from sentimentality, from the treacherous optimism of commercial fiction, forgets that many of the world's great writers—Chaucer, Congreve, Fielding and Jane Austen among them—have made an honorable accommodation that a critic of Fiedler's romantic and apocalyptic temperament would find it hard to accept. It is difficult to imagine Fiedler talking to Laurence Sterne or to any of the writers who admit the absurdity of man's customary performance while insisting still on the joy of the human condition. It is not enough to write truly of the gap between man's dream and his accomplishment—one must come to love frailty as well.

Peter S. Prescott, "Americans as Innocents," in Newsweek (copyright Newsweek, Inc., 1971; reprinted by permission), August 2, 1971, pp. 76-9.

Fiedler has always been delighted to hurl himself into the immediate moment, not just to live that moment but to rewrite history or politics or mythology from the perspective of that moment. He obsessively defines the characteristics of recent historical periods, not just content with setting off the fifties from the sixties or having one lead to the other but making minor demarcations everywhere: the early thirties, the middle sixties, etc. Fiedler never tires of setting out a current problem or issue, comparing it to something else a decade or a generation ago, redefining the problem given the context of the past, then projecting a large-scale present and future from that redefinition.

When you do things this way, and also write a lot, you inevitably change your mind a good deal, and Fiedler has never been one to try to hide his many shifts in opinion and emphasis over the years. Though the "Collected Essays" look monumental and imply settledness, in fact they describe the history of a sensibility as it leaped and darted through the last twenty years. For Fiedler the important task has always been to be abrasive, to say "No! in Thunder," and in as many different ways as he can.

The shift from the chutzpah of being a truth-telling and sometimes naughty enfant terrible to the chutzpah of one who wants his essays collected and enshrined can be explained by Fiedler's apparently recently acquired sense that he has found an audience that does not revile him, as he used to hope would happen, but that listens gratefully, as he now delights in thinking…. Fiedler [implies that he] is now our guru, and [does sound] rather like Leavis at that. No wonder, then, that he collected his essays….

It is perhaps unjust to complain about such collections that there is a great deal of repetition in them, but in this case it is more marked and more revealing than in most. Fiedler has certain subjects—being a Jew in America, American Jewish writers, liberal politics and taste, the mythology of chaste homosexual relations at the center of classic American literature—to which he returns over and over, and about which he has had, essentially, one idea….

It begins to seem that Fiedler is constantly plunging himself into the present, into some apparently new context, in order to avoid his or our seeing that he has a rather small stock of ideas…. He has never pretended to be rich in ideas, but he has meant to be profuse in contexts and challenges….

The real point about Fiedler, which we can make praise or blame as we choose, is that he is always a political writer, always putting himself into situations where he is speaking against this fashion or that obsolescence, deriding some official line, jockeying for some new position. He always acts as though we might be deceived by some other hawker of myths and contexts if he did not set us straight, and he loves doing this so much that he will take any opportunity that presents itself to keep us informed, protected, reminded. But he also just plain loves to hear himself talk, too, and as long as he is excited by an idea he will go on saying it.

This means not only that he repeats himself but that his relation to literature remains essentially impure, and that, in turn, means that much of what he writes dates rather quickly. Because he is most interested in his own ideas, he doesn't quote enough, or find enough other ways to treat books on their own rather than on his terms. He tends to make contexts control works rather than the other way around, which leads not so much to distortion, because Fiedler is a good and therefore honest man, but to overrating whatever will fit his context….

It is hard, finally, to admire Leslie Fiedler as much as he deserves, as much as his best work needs. That best may consist of no more than a dozen essays or chapters, but it is work of a high order…. Perhaps the penchant for battle and for immersion in the present tense need not always be at odds with the penchant to tell truths, to be wise and impersonal. They are not always at odds in Fiedler's work. But the habit of battle is a punishing one, as is clear to anyone who finds himself becoming a little weary of Fiedler's otherwise splendid and necessary chutzpah.

Roger Sale, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1971 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 10, 1971, pp. 6, 10, 12.

Fiedler has become what he set out to be: a living myth, a part of his criticism itself. For he—of all our contemporary critics—has been the one most concerned with creating an "image" of himself….

In the "Introduction to Volume I" [of The Collected Essays of Leslie Fiedler], [he] bemoans the fact that he has been so frequently misunderstood. Three of the essays in An End to Innocence, he informs us, have been "badly read." As a group they represent, I believe, the three major concerns of all of Fiedler's "occasional" writings: the political, the social, and the literary. Brought together, of course, they constitute a record of Fiedler's lifelong love affair with American culture: from his Populist, man-in-the-street approach, to the much more academic-cum-liberal vantage point of the professor become guru. The first of these "badly read" essays, "Afterthoughts on the Rosenbergs," is a fascinating piece of writing, although a lesser piece than "McCarthy and the Intellectuals," the essay that follows it. Read together, however, as he intends they should be, they show him at his best: Fiedler has always had a startling ability to analyze real people as if they were characters in books. These political essays lead directly into Fiedler's later writings on innocence and evil in American fiction….

It is the last of these three essays, however, that is the most notorious—Fiedler's much discussed essay on homosexuality in American fiction, "Come Back to the Raft Ag'in, Huck Honey!" While its insights may seem pretty tame now that we have Fiedler's treatment of this theme in his later books on American literature, it is easy to see why critics were in a constant flap in those days when Fiedler was just beginning to publish his literary criticism. He says, for example, "the dressing of Jim in a woman's gown in Huck Finn … can mean anything or nothing at all…." Just enough to upset his critics. Fiedler has always known how to play cat and mouse.

This desire to taunt, goad, and generally annoy the critical establishment has, I believe, formed a major portion of Fiedler's intent in all of his writings. And with the publication of each succeeding volume expounding his critical theory he has admirably succeeded in so doing. The result is that Fiedler's essays—at their most extreme—provide a counterbalance for some of the opposing theories of a number of his contemporaries, and, in this respect, Fiedler is a kind of necessary angel. As Fiedler has said of literary criticism, "I long for the raised voice, the howl of rage or love." This is exactly what his own criticism accomplishes. If nothing else, it never bores the reader. (It should be pointed out, too, that his critical essays range far beyond the merely American cultural scene: to Sophocles, Dante, Shakespeare, Kafka, Pavese, etc.) I still think that "In the Beginning Was the Word" and "Archetype and Signature," the two essays on theory that conclude No! in Thunder (and Volume I of these Collected Essays), are among the finest things he has written. Conceptually, both began as an attack on the New Critics, on the "a poem should not mean, but be" school, as Fiedler calls it. And, within them, he brilliantly illustrated the limitations we place on any piece of writing if we ignore the conditions under which it was written—i.e., the writer's own given "signature," as Fiedler puts it….

What holds true for the poet holds equally true for the critic. In an essay called "My Credo"—which should be included in The Collected Essays, but isn't—Fiedler insists: "The voice of the critic must be his own voice, idiosyncratic, personal, for without real style (and true style is never safe, choosing to court extravagance) he carries no conviction except what charts and tables accidentally provide." Willing to dissent, Fiedler is always telling us: "No, there is another way to look at things." Thus, his criticism works by a process of cancellation. He opposes what others have said; then, after he's won the debate (at least to his own satisfaction), he knocks his own theories.

Charles R. Larson, "The Good Bad Boy and Guru of American Letters," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1971 by Saturday Review/World, Inc.; reprinted with permission), December 25, 1971, pp. 27-8, 35.