Leslie Fiedler Fiedler, Leslie A(aron) (Vol. 13) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Fiedler, Leslie A(aron) 1917–

Fiedler is an outspoken and controversial American critic, as well as novelist, short story writer, essayist, poet, and editor. Fiedler draws conclusions about a mythic, uniquely American consciousness from his study of literary figures. His criticism has been controversial both for this reasoning and for its psychosexual orientation. Love and Death in the American Novel, published in 1960, remains a provocative, highly individual landmark in literary criticism. (See also CLC, Vol. 4, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)

Charles R. Larson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

One cannot help asking just whom Fiedler was trying to put on when he wrote ["Come Back to the Raft Ag'in, Huck Honey"]—just as the same question needs to be asked with each ensuing volume of his studies in "literary anthropology," as Fiedler has frequently referred to his work. There has always been an element of absurdity or shock in Fiedler's work, and at times it is impossible not to wonder if Fiedler takes his own work seriously. (p. 133)

Reading over Fiedler's collected literary criticism, from An End of Innocence in 1955 to his … The Return of the Vanishing American in 1968, one cannot help being upset by the great number of generalizations, repetitions, and strained conclusions which so often have marred his frequently brilliant commentaries on American fiction. Yet, one cannot help thinking that Fiedler, as critic of the hip school of American criticism, and as guru of thousands of undergraduate English majors (and their younger instructors), deserves whatever following he has managed to build up for himself. It is not perhaps so much what Fielder is saying that offends the other, shall I say, more traditional critic as much as his method: a frontal attack based on shock, entertainment (especially valuable it seems to me in a day when criticism takes itself far too seriously), and the destruction of shibboleths and prejudices we should have rid ourselves of years, if not generations, ago. The result has been that Fiedler's criticism remains for the most part highly readable and almost uniformly fresh—whether one agrees with what he says or not. One wonders if some critics have not even been a little jealous of Fiedler's quasi-underground fame. (pp. 133-34)

Clearly, Fiedler's criticism shows a number of obsessions, and he does use the word "myth" far too frequently. One hates to guess what a word count of Fiedler's collected writings would reveal about the use of this word. Much of this confusion is also due to two essays on the use of myth criticism itself included in No! in Thunder after their earlier publication in quarterlies, coupled with a much more generalized use of the word in the rest of his essays in this volume and the others. In the first of these, "In the Beginning Was the Word: Logos or Mythos?," Fiedler seems to be reacting more against the "a poem should not mean, but be!" school than actually attempting to set up viable criteria for myth criticism in poetry. The weakness of the essay is also due to the fact that Fiedler has shown himself essentially a critic of the novel rather than of poetry and poetics, and what he says of the use of myth in poetry frequently seems inconsistent with his mythological approach to fiction. (p. 135)

It is perhaps best to look at the end of Fiedler's essay first—it is here where a bridge can be built between poetry and and fiction. The last sentence reads, "In the beginning was mythos, and each new beginning must be drawn from that inexhaustible source." Fiedler believes that each generation, each age, will temper the myths of the past to meet its own needs, and each generation will create new myths relevant for its specific age. Fiedler is concerned with the element of distortion, getting too far away from the original myth…. The fault with our own age has been one of fear which has led to an emphasis not on mythos (poetry) but logos (philosophy and science.) This in turn has led to the critic who studies the poem in a scientific rather than in a mythological way. Poetry,...

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Robert Alter

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Leslie Fiedler is, of course, better known as a critic than as a writer of fiction, and criticism has in fact been the more congenial medium for the exercise of his most engaging qualities of fictional invention. He is preeminently a novelist of ideas, using fiction to illustrate the ideas with a cartoon-like simplicity and, sometimes, vividness. The four volumes of fiction he published in the early and mid-1960's deal with the social, cultural and political issues that characteristically occupied intellectuals, and particularly Jewish intellectuals, during that period. Now, after a hiatus of eight years, Fiedler has written a new novel ["The Messengers Will Come No More"], once again reflecting the current preoccupation of the American "adversary culture"—which, now on the other side of the period of political activism and campus unrest, are very different from the questions that concerned Fiedler and his ambience a decade ago.

"The Messengers Will Come No More" might be described as a past-and-future fiction. It is set in the 25th century, on the site of ancient Palestine….

For the first two or three chapters, I clung to the hope that [it] would prove to be a delightful spoof of science fiction, playing exuberantly with contemporary vogues and movements in the past-and-future settings. There are some incidental jokes, mostly invoking Yiddish colloquialisms or Jewish cuisine, that are amusing enough; but Fiedler, I fear, is bent on making most of his humor "pointed," which means that much of the novel deteriorates into a series of tediously sophomoric reversals of contemporary facts.

Thus, a good part of the globe is ruled by gynocracy, with black women...

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Jonathan Yardley

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Middle aged, and having to his credit a substantial body of publications, Leslie Fiedler can no longer lay claim to the title of enfant terrible of American letters. After all as the dust jacket of his new novel somewhat smugly notes, Love and Death in the American Novel "is now being taught by the same people who were originally outraged by it." Yet even if he has moved perilously close to membership in the literary establishment Fiedler has shown little evidence of losing his refreshing talent for slaying dragons and tilting at windmills, his instinct for the jugular and the provocative.

So what is most surprising about The Messengers Will Come No More is that it is not provocative. It is dull. It works neither as fiction nor as polemic. As one of Fiedler's admirers who is occasionally vexed by him but usually pleased by his determined pugnacity, I cannot fathom his reasons for writing it, nor can I recommend reasons for reading it. (p. 42)

The setting of the novel is no less clichéd than the rhetoric…. Fielder merely pulls a convenient switch on contemporary realities and fantasies—a switch clearly designed to be a commentary as well, but a singularly facile one. (p. 43)

Jonathan Yardley, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1974 by The New Republic, Inc.), November 9, 1974.

Sam Bluefarb

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Leslie Fiedler's The Last Jew in America (1966), the first [and title novella] of three novellas in a single collection, is set in the small Western college town of Lewis and Clark City, Montana. But the story, in the tradition of the oft-touted (and occasionally scorned) college novel goes beyond narrow academic concerns. It deals with the efforts of one Jacob Moscowitz … to bring together those Jews in the community … in order to reawaken whatever sense of Jewish identity still remains in their malnourished souls. (p. 412)

Jacob had originally moved West to convert the natives to socialism. But the effort had been a dismal failure; the Party could hardly have made a worse choice, either in Jacob Moscowitz the Old World Jew with the Yiddish accent, or the mythic "Western" ambience they have placed him into. The situation only serves to make more apparent the isolation Jacob finds himself in…. Years later Jacob will transform (or convert) this earlier mission into a more viable quest: to get together a minyan, or quorum, made up of half-or fully assimilated Jewish professors at the local university.

Under these conditions, the old socialist-agnostic seems to have found his way back to his own roots—i.e., to urge (or egg) on his fallen-away fellows-Jews into making their ritual calls on the dying Louis Himmelfarb on the holiest day of the Jewish year, the Day of Atonement. Thus Jacob creates for them, as well as for himself, an opportunity to come to terms with the ethical roots they seem to have lost in their search for the more secular "humanistic values." (p. 413)

Although Jacob's secular religion is (or perhaps was) socialism, his Jewishness runs deeper than the "humanist" commitments of his semi-Jewish acquaintances on campus and the sprinkling of Jews in the town's business community. Thus this story concerns itself far more with the change that has come over Jacob since his own early radicalism than the change he attempts—with some dubious success—to make among his fellow Jews…. The West, then, not only erodes plains, mountains, and canyons with its dry, singing winds, its brief but devastating thunderstorms, its flash floods; it also erodes identity; by its bigness it makes the individual, especially a Jew, smaller. But against this erosion of identity, Jacob, "the last Jew in America"—there is the illusion he is just that—will fight, in spite of his threadbare socialism. (pp. 414-15)

Irony of it all is that Jacob, the old (or former?) socialist-agnostic now looks upon his fellow Jews of the University community, those half-Jewish, not quite assimilated professors, as apostates.

In keeping with his ability for socialist (and American) adaptation, Jacob makes up his own version of the prayer for the Day of Atonement. What comes out is a mish-mash of socially conscious harangue and a plea for forgiveness for his fallen-away brothers on the faculty. (pp. 415-16)

Thus, we can say that Jacob has transformed his original mission from convert-maker to secular messianism to something which, if not conventionally religious, points to religious directions. How successful his efforts prove in making his academic co-religionists regain their religious conscience is not really of great moment; what matters is the effect on Jacob himself.

In the second story [The Last Wasp in the World], a poet named Vincent Hazelbaker, or Vin as he is called by close associates, has come from Lewis and Clark City to the East. Just as Jacob Moscowitz has moved West to fulfill a task of redemption, so Vin has gone East to do some...

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Doris Grumbach

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Freaks: What a compendium! It is almost an encyclopedia. Fiedler admits that research assistants helped him gather this mountain of anecdote, fact, rumor, hearsay, literary allusion, and superstition, and I can well believe it. Producing the book was a task beyond one man's industry. Freaks looks at everything, in every direction: into the mythic past, which supplies us with the monsters and dwarfs and giants of our childhood psychic terrors; into history; and into literature….

[One] of the advantages of reading Fiedler's compilation is the opportunity to acquire some pretty exotic language. The study of Freaks is called teratology—freaks themselves are terata. As you read through...

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