Leslie Fiedler

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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

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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...

(This entire section contains 1453 words.)

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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 onmythos (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, Fiedler tells us, "is historically the mediator between logos and mythos." The critic who uses depth psychology to interpret the myths of the past, and the ways in which they have been altered or profaned, is only doing as Freud who claimed "to translate out of Sophocles and Shakespeare what had always been there…." (pp. 135-36)

"Archetype and Signature: A Study of the Relationship Between Biography and Poetry" is a remarkable essay for what it does—attempt to convince the critic that the biography of the poet may shed valuable information on the interpretation of a poem. The misunderstanding by the critics is simply their insistence on taking Fiedler at face value—in this case Fiedler's overemphasis to build a strong case for his thesis. (Fiedler's work so frequently approaches the superlative that one would think that by now the critics would be catching on.) Then, too, the critic is put off by Fiedler's usual pompous opening. (p. 137)

Fiedler has learned the high art of literary charlatanism; in his criticism, he uses only those examples which will support his own theses, and all other facts are conveniently left out. (pp. 138-39)

Fiedler's definitions for archetype and signature … are fairly straightforward and, if left at that alone, would no doubt be acceptable to many critics. The confusion results, however, when Fiedler implies the need for an almost unique "signature" on the part of each poet—each writer. In short, he places too much emphasis on the poet's attempt to make his signature individually his own, i.e., by suggesting that the poet, once he has achieved fame, need not be concerned with poetry any longer at all but instead more concerned with making his own life into a myth. (pp. 139-40)

Ultimately—and I feel this is the crux of the problem with Fiedler—everything becomes a myth, and what started as a serious attempt to define mythos and its relationship to poetry … has grown into a gigantic tumor which Fiedler has used not as an appendage of literature but as literature itself—especially in his other writings. In his … The Return of the Vanishing American (1968), there is hardly a page, even a paragraph, where the word "myth" does not appear. The book itself is referred to as "an effort to define the myths which give special character to art and life in America,…" and Fiedler begins his analysis by such statements as: "the geography of the United States is mythological"; "a mythicized North, South, East, and West"; "it is the presence of the Indian which defines the mythological West"; and "Certainly the same myth that moved poets to verses moved Columbus to action." Nowhere in his entire career has Fiedler scraped so hard, searched so painstakingly to make us believe that the four myths he has found are, indeed, the actual myths that make up the American character. (p. 141)

One wonders what Fiedler would do if he did not upset his fellow critics—if no one paid any attention to him? That, of course, would not be easy to do, as Fiedler well realizes, yet one cannot help wondering if Fiedler, from the occasional asides he has made, isn't the prankster who is having the last word on his own books (and certainly the most fun) simply by the kinds of critical comments they draw. (p. 142)

It would be greatly oversimplifying the issue, however, to believe that Fiedler is simply playing the role of the American critics' bad boy. His recent run in with the law and the essay "On Being Busted at Fifty" show how sensitive he can be. Rather, I believe the explanation can be found in an essay called "My Credo."… In this essay Fiedler says that "the role of the critic resembles that of the poet"—that literary criticism is work which is just as serious as the work of the poet or the novelist. "The critic is least likely to be the victim of pride and more likely to be thought such a victim when he first opposes majority taste with a new claim." This sentence reads as a prophetic statement of what Fiedler was to become, once he had found his own signature and stamped it indelibly on his own critical works. (pp. 142-43)

Fiedler's critical writings have never been mere charts and tables. Rather, they are critical evaluations—often farfetched, often illogical, often strained, often brilliant—but always marked indelibly with his own eccentric signature, a signature which tells us over and over again that just as the poet and the novelist has his own myths to live, so does the critic too; that just as the artist becomes the scapegoat of his society, so too the critic may become the scapegoat of his own fellow critics. In the beginning there was mythos, Fiedler wants us to believe, and myths are only, after all, the signature that the critic as artist gives to his work and his life. (p. 143)

Charles R. Larson, "Leslie Fiedler: The Critic and the Myth, the Critic As Myth," in The Literary Review (copyright © 1970 by Fairleigh Dickinson University), Fall, 1970, pp. 133-43.

Robert Alter

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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 at the top of the hierarchy, white males at the very bottom. Women, who have just grudgingly conceded the vote to men, callously joke about the frivolity, the sexual animality, of men—and so forth. The idea of a world ruled by women is an old science-fiction convention, but its deployment here is tendentious, unimaginative. The novel then proves to be a farrago of clichés, taken not only from science fiction but from sensationalistic popular history and history of religion, which somehow is meant to be read as a statement of profound spiritual issues. (p. 5)

"The Messengers Will Come No More" might well have been called "The Last Jew in the Cosmos": though monotheistic cults have been banned, Jacob, a lonely scribe in the wilderness, feels that somehow perhaps he is a Jew…. The theme of the last Jew, however, has only been impoverished by the temporal and spatial projection and the abstraction it has undergone. Jacob of the 1966 novella ["The Last Jew in America"] was a moving figure because he had the palpable weight of a particular life, a particular political and social background. Jacob of "The Messengers Will Come No More," thoroughly a creature of our own post-political moment, lured as it is by hazy vistas of myth and cult, is an abstract, insistently symbolic figure….

The Jewish ground of Jacob's symbolic last stand comes to seem especially shaky because Fiedler regales the reader with an embarrassing wealth of misinformation flaunted as expertise: garbled Hebrew words, confusions about ritual practices, a polemic exegesis of biblical texts that pretends to comment on the original but betrays the writer's ignorance of the Hebrew words used in the texts discussed….

The ultimate difficulty with this novel is that there is a heavily portentous vagueness at its core. Just before the end, Jacob in his cave reflects, "Every man must die, like me, deserted by all, yet ground down between the hammer and anvil of Male and Female, by which we are forged in the beginning." At least as far as I can determine, nothing more elucidating about the subject than this histrionic generality is ever conveyed through the action of the novel or the reflections of its two principal characters…. [The] fiction as it is concocted seems too often a theological joke without a point, or one that takes itself too seriously, or, still worse, a joke stitched together from threadbare materials, trying to simulate novelty chiefly through the aggressiveness of its bad taste. (p. 6)

Robert Alter, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1974 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 29, 1974.

Jonathan Yardley

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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

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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 redeeming himself. He has not simply gone there to "make it" but to show the Eastern Jewish establishment—and perhaps himself—the "way." This creates a neat switch on the prototypal Christian missionary (or savior) to the Jews. But it will be through his poetry that Vin will attempt to redeem these materialists. What we get is an ironic turn-about, a characterological volte-face, with Jake Moscowitz turning into the last Jew in the spatially limitless West while Vin becomes the last WASP in the more hermetically limited Eastern ambience of an urban Jewish wedding. (pp. 416-17)

Like Jacob in the first of the novellas, Vin is a stranger, cut off from his community. But where Jacob Moscowitz had attempted to exchange a more distant Jewish community for a later WASPy working class ghetto—and failed in the process—Vin is cut off from his community by his status as poet. (p. 418)

Toward the end of the story, Vin, in a memory flashback, returns to Lewis and Clark, only to find that most of the students at the University—even the married girl he'd once had an affair with—are now all Jewish. They have not even left him the whiff of the myth. And Vin finds himself yelling out of a motel window at passing cars with New York license plates: "Leave us our West…. Goddamn it, leave us our dreams."… Sad to say, the dream is just that—a dream; except that Vin still believes in it. For even though, as he imagines, he is finally home again, he is not at home. WASP as he is, he is trapped in the role of "Jewish" poet who finds that even he cannot go home again. The world, the town, he himself—all have changed. The West has "moved East"—and neither the dream nor the myth which nourished it is left. (p. 419)

[In the third story, The First Spade in the West, black Ned York] runs a plush cocktail lounge in Lewis and Clark City, a form of integration, in spite of the alienation he shares with Jake Moscowitz, Jew, and Vincent Hazelbaker, WASP. While Ned may not be completely integrated into his community—it's doubtful whether he wants to be anyway—his bar is. (p. 420)

In spite of one weakness—the author's almost zealous obsession with demythologizing the classic West—Fiedler does manage to establish his donnée, to show us the bond that binds the three main characters of the triptych to each other. That bond, paradoxically, involves separation rather than unity—separation from the larger white Protestant establishment. For as Fiedler suggests, even such a WASP as Vin can himself be made to feel outside the pale. What of course draws Jake Moscowitz, Ned York, and Vincent Hazelbaker together in terms of their common "problem"—significantly WASP Vin, native of Lewis and Clark, is the only true exile from the town—is the town itself. Thus in this work Fiedler breaks through the stereotype to present us with a Jewish village philosopher in a Western town, a WASP poet acting more like a Jewish victim at a Jewish wedding; and a successful black entrepreneur of a bar in a not-so-Old West. All these conditions hold these three characters together; yet they also reveal a process of fragmentation of the stereotype itself in American life. Indeed, Ned York turns out to be an anti-stereotype of the black man: he comes closer to the image of the Old West bartender we are accustomed to see in Western films than to any recognizable image of the black man as he is portrayed in countless novels, even by black writers. So that we end up with a fractured, but complexly true picture of a bar where the larger part of its clientele is white, but where the proprietor is black though hardly an Uncle Tom.

Fiedler thus breaks through the stereotype at three levels—the Jewish village philosopher in a movie-set Western town, a WASP poet who is more "Jewish" than WASP, and a black man who is the owner of a bar in the West patronized by white merchants and farmers. Each could well lend himself to stereotyping—and certainly has in the past! Yet as Fiedler presents them (whether intentionally or not), they represent the very real break-up in recent years of the sterotype in American life. Each of the characters is beginning to take on some of the features of his two other ethnic counterparts: they not only do not do the expected thing, but are displayed in action in unexpected ways. The image has been displaced. That Ned York is somehow more "integrated" than some of the white misfits who frequent his bar does not necessarily say much for Ned's condition as a black man. Yet a positive point may be drawn from this mix-up: people are isolated or alienated; people are integrated or left out in the cold; men are the subject and object of man's inhumanity. Men are important rather than man in the abstract.

Finally, all three characters—the Jew, the WASP, the Black—have been placed in locations far from their "natural" environs. Yet they still continue to search for a way home—to a geography, a way of life, a culture, which once might have existed for them, but which forever seems to elude them. (pp. 420-21)

Sam Bluefarb, "Pictures of the Anti-Stereotype: Leslie Fiedler's Triptych, 'The Last Jew in America'," in CLA Journal (copyright, 1975 by the College Language Association), March, 1975, pp. 412-21.

Doris Grumbach

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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 the book (and it is hard to imagine anyone not following Fiedler's trail through the horror-laden chapters), you will pick up such words as achondroplastics (dwarfs), ateliotics (incomplete persons), and epignathic parasites (parts of human beings growing out of whole bodies)….

[Though] the narrative and the illustrations are provocative, I found myself wondering as I read: What is it all for? What's the point?

The answer is suggested by the book's subtitle: Myths and Images of the Secret Self. Fiedler explores "the supernatural terror," the awe, and the natural sympathy that the sight of human monstrosities inspires in us. We look at them in carnivals, and we are reassured that our secret fears of our own freakishness are unfounded: "'We are the Freaks,' the human oddities are supposed to reassure us from their lofty perches. 'Not you. Not you!'"

Fiedler confesses to the same vertigo we experience in the presence of freaks: "In joined twins the confusion of self and other, substance and shadow, ego and other, is more terrifyingly confounded than it is when the child first perceives face-to-face in the mirror an image moving as he moves, though clearly in another world." These observations on the psychology of freaks and freakishness are among the most valuable comments in this volume, and we concur with Fiedler when he says, "The distinction between audience and exhibit, we and them, normal and Freak, is revealed as an illusion … defended, but untenable in the end."

Leslie Fiedler has always been an iconoclastic critic, writing about subjects no one else has even considered. In this new work he interests the reader consistently and falters noticeably only once: He leaves out of his literary survey the novelist Harry Crews, who has written two superb novels about freaks…. Readers will think, doubtless, of other omissions, but that will in no way diminish Fiedler's (and his researchers') achievement. In every way it's an absorbing book. (p. 54)

Doris Grumbach, in Saturday Review (© 1978 by Saturday Review Magazine Corp.; reprinted with permission), March 18, 1978.


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


Fiedler, Leslie A(aron) (Vol. 24)