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


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Leslie A(aron) Fiedler 1917–

American critic, novelist, and short story writer.

Fiedler's critical work centers on the mythical elements in literature. Using primarily Marxist and Freudian perspectives, he attempts to uncover the origins of modern literature and show how the myths of previous generations are used in literature today. In Love and Death in the American Novel, Fiedler stated that the same melodramatic elements found in eighteenth-century sentimental and gothic fiction are embodied in the American novel, along with repressed themes of homosexuality and miscegenation.

Some of Fiedler's later work analyzes American culture through its literature. In Waiting for the End he saw America on the brink of disaster because of its deterioration of values and he lamented the demise of his ideal of American literature. In The Return of the Vanishing American Fiedler analyzed the myths which have helped to define American culture, including the myth of the Indian in literature as diverse as Shake-speare's The Tempest and Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.

Fiedler's work has generated considerable controversy. Philip Rahv's comments on Waiting for the End sum up the general consensus of Fiedler's criticism: "[Fiedler] is nothing if not brilliant…. [However], he is long on generalizations … and short on evidence." Nevertheless, despite being called "the wild man of American literary criticism," Fiedler has impressed critics with his insight into the mythical elements which distinguish literature and his search for morality at the center of literary art.

(See also CLC, Vols. 4, 13; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.; and Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 7.)

William Barrett

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Readers of Leslie Fiedler's writings in the little magazines during the past half decade or so may well have wondered whether this brilliant young writer would make his book-length debut in fiction, poetry or the essay, for his lively talent encompasses all these genres. As it happens, this first book ["An End to Innocence"] is a collection of essays, yet its abundant variety draws upon a sensibility at home in all the literary forms. Here are political analyses, travel reportage, literary criticism—and yet the unity of a single theme and a single personal tone are sustained throughout.

Fiedler is a rare kind of literary critic these days: he reads books as if they were an experience in life, and he examines the documents of life (like the reports of the Hiss-Chambers trial) with the minute scrutiny that critics usually bestow only on the sacred literary canon. And because life and literature are not separated in his criticism, indeed flow reciprocally into each other, these essays, while still preserving their critical sharpness, often become as dramatic as fiction.

Fiedler's theme is the celebrated innocence of Americans, both as a crucial strain in the national character and a dominant theme in our literature….

It is in the third and last part of the book, a collection of literary essays, all excellent, that Fiedler is able to develop this theme of American innocence most fully and subtly. A beautiful and wicked essay on "Huckleberry Finn" turns into an exploration of an ambiguous American dream of love. There is a rather hard essay on Walt Whitman, which nevertheless digs very deeply into the bard's psychology; a good study of F. Scott Fitzgerald as the eternal and tragic adolescent of our literature; and in "Dead-End Werther" an examination of the tough-guy hero of the American novel as a combination of dead-end kid and romantic homme de sentiment.

In a final round-up of American writing since the war, Fiedler sifts very soberly (and on the whole justly, I think) the strains of maturity and adolescence in our recent writers. If he is hard on some accepted reputations, it is only out of his own intense feeling of what a mature American literature might be.

William Barrett, "Life, Letters and Politics," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1955 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 24, 1955, p. 20.

Granville Hicks

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

For a decade or so Leslie Fiedler has been a kind of wild man of American literary criticism. Although there have been useful insights in the essays he has written, he has repeatedly gone further than he could hope to take his readers with him. It has been clear, indeed, that he hasn't wanted to take them with him; he has wanted to give them a kick in the pants.

Now he has written a book, a huge book, called "Love and Death in the American Novel" …, and, happily, it turns out to be almost completely free from bad-boy antics. Here is no juvenile effort to outrage the Philistines, but a serious and impressively well-informed attempt to look at American fiction in a new way. It is only once in a while that Fiedler turns smart aleck, notably in a brief comment on Theodore Dreiser and in a passing allusion to Walt Whitman as "the perpetual mama's boy." There is much with which a reader may disagree but not much that he is justified in brushing off.

The book is an examination of American novels, most of the major and vast quantities of the minor ones, in terms of their various ways of portraying sexual relationships. Being a Freudian of sorts, Fiedler always goes beyond, or beneath, what the author thought he believed to what he (Fiedler) believes he can prove that he (any given author) really felt. This allows plenty of room for disagreement, but it provides a large measure of stimulation. There are, as he grants, other ways of looking at literature, but he shows that this way is worth trying.

Fiedler, needless to say, has his own idea of what the sexual relationship ought to be, although he is never quite explicit about it. What he is explicit about is the failure of American novelists to portray any such ideal relationship. He is not interested, however, in merely listing a series of failures; that would be tiresome. What he tries to do is to show what our writers have been able to accomplish with their substitutes, their subterfuges.

It is an ambitious book, dropping back at the outset to the Provençal poets of the eleventh century, and moving on, with glances at Shakespeare and Spenser, to the beginnings of the novel in England. This is to show us the origins of the Sentimental Love Religion (the capitals are his), which is his first major subject. He discusses Richardson's "Clarissa" at considerable length and with considerable respect, and traces Richardson's influence on the Continent, where it was fruitful, and in America, where it was, he says, a blight. "The Pure Young Maiden who derives from Clarissa and preempts the place of the heroine in...

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William Van O'Connor

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Leslie Fiedler takes his title [No! In Thunder] from a comment Melville made about Hawthorne: "There is the grand truth about Nathaniel Hawthorne. He says No! in thunder; but the Devil himself cannot make him say Yes. For all men who say yes, lie; and all men who say no,—why, they are the travellers in Europe; they cross the frontiers into Eternity with nothing but a carpetbag—that is to say, the Ego."

That is a stirring declaration, and probably it is true of the greatest art. It is true of Donne's best love poems, of Flaubert's Emma Bovary, Conrad's "Nostromo," Faulkner's "The Sound and the Fury," or Camus's "The Stranger." No flicker of affirmation is allowed, except the ironic one that comes of itself after the worst has been confronted….

One side of Fiedler's mind seems honestly drawn to Melville's commitment to "No! in thunder." The other side is satisfied only when he can show he's the sharpest and wittiest guy in class. "I'm Oliver Cool, the cleverest boy in school." Fiedler has a good eye for pretense, he can worry an idea like a cat toying with a mouse, but he has a terrible need to be a show-off.

The various Fiedlers appear to write in different tones. The treatment of Warren is quite deferential until near the end, that of Faulkner is patronizing, and the article on Kingsley Amis and his contemporaries is fairly sober and well considered. One is never sure what the tone is going to be. But one is never surprised to see Fiedler sitting astride his subject,...

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Stephen P. Ryan

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Mr. Fiedler is a] dedicated and insistent "nay-sayer," [and] the very title of his present collection of essays [No! In Thunder] … tells us that he is embarking on a voyage of destruction; that he is intent on demolishing the "household gods" of both popular ignorance and the academic credo of the "new critics."

The material in the present volume covers an almost fantastic range of interests: from Hamlet to Jack Kerouac; from Oedipus Rex to the Leopold-Loeb trial; from Huckleberry Finn to the present role of the Negro in American society. If the range in subject matter is unbelievable so is the range of the book's style: the most incomprehensible academic jargon of the mythic school of critics cheek by jowl with pungent, direct statements of the author's personal likes and dislikes. For an example of Mr. Fiedler at his worst, try the following sentence: "There is something beyond symbolism in the sense that the ritual act or its story does not stand for but is the archetypal fact; and as this ambivalence of the durative-punctual persists in poetry it has been recognized as the Concrete Universal." There is a happier Fiedler, however. One frequently finds something as felicitous and right as this (he is talking of the Southern agrarian critics: Brooks, Warren, Tate, et al., breaking out of the cane brakes in the thirties): "They clutched not Marx in one hand and a 'proletarian novel'...

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Irving Howe

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Leslie Fiedler, a man of learning and intelligence, has composed another of those fascinating catastrophes with which our literary scholarship is strewn. Love and Death in the American Novel seems to me destined to become a classical instance of sophisticated crankiness; it rides a one-track thesis about American literature through 600 pages of assertion, never relenting into doubt by qualification, and simply ignoring those writers and books that might call the thesis into question.

"Our great novelists," writes Fiedler, "though experts on indignity and assault, on loneliness and terror, tend to avoid treating the passionate encounter of a man and a woman … they rather shy away from...

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The Times Literary Supplement

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[In Love and Death in the American Novel, Professor Leslie Fiedler] is not content with one or two or even a handful of his country's novelists; he embraces them all—or all that he considers of value—and relates them to his overriding theme. And, for good measure, he adds to them the Provençal poets, Samuel Richardson, "Monk" Lewis, Sir Walter Scott, Rousseau, Goethe, and several more. He has written a long book. Nor is he content with a scholarly audience; he reaches out to the general public, for what he has to say bears not only upon the American novel but upon "the American Experience", so inextricably entangled are literature and life. And throwing aside the caution and reticence that are commonly...

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Seymour Krim

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Aggressive, cocksure, intellectually sadistic, dogmatic, gossipy, and more keenly involved with contemporary America than probably any of his critical peers, Professor Leslie Fiedler … has written [Waiting for the End], a justly bitter book that withholds neither his derisive intelligence nor his superior independence. Misleadingly subtitled "a new work on the crisis in American culture, race and sex," and sub-subtitled "a portrait of 20th-century American literature and its writers," it is an incisively personal and unofficial mixture from both these Ph.D. lodes issuing in a single verdict: failure in American life and letters.

With a rare if boisterous courage inspired by his almost total...

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Philip Rahv

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Fiedler] is nothing if not brilliant, even at the cost of adopting postures that betray and attitudes that pall. His enormous knowingness about literature and patent intelligence are laid waste, it seems to me, by the stance to which he has of late given himself. His prose, in which the phrase now invariably goes beyond the content, is more vehement than virulent, needlessly vehement at times because excessive to the subject, and better adapted to the sheer display of superficially "daring" notions than to any true commitment to ideas or rigorous concern with them. Again, in [Waiting for the End], he is long on generalizations, most of them dubious in the extreme, and short on evidence. Once more we are...

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Hugh Kenner

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Leslie Fiedler, suggests his publisher, "can no longer be called 'the wild man of American literary criticism,'" but no alternative is suggested. Steeped to the follicles all their working hours in a semantic aether devoid of sticks and stones where only names can hurt you, publishers are understandably sensitive about such tags, but Mr. Fiedler presumably isn't…. He has never hallooed in the wilderness nor painted his torso blue, he continues not to be plugged in to the power centers of the litcrit establishment, and if this be wildness he makes the most of it. Disdaining the tangle of extension cords and three-way sockets that imperils ankles all across the continent and grows especially dense in the...

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Kenneth Rexroth

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In a trilogy of critical works, "Love and Death in the American Novel," "Waiting for the End," and now "The Return of the Vanishing American," Leslie Fiedler has been developing the thesis that … American culture is reverting to a savage, or at best barbarous state, which is simply a modernization of the state of affairs that existed before Columbus.

This is an amusing thesis, and it is easy to marshal facts and quotations to produce at least "a willing suspension of disbelief."… [He] treats fiction as poetry—as a symbolic criticism of values. Speculation based on the analysis of myth and symbolism can make anything out of anything, as witness the long career of fads in comparative religion,...

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Robert Maurer

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

If Leslie Fiedler cannot seem to get his mind off the image of Natty Bumppo and Chingachgook sitting night after night over their domestic campfires amidst James Fenimore Cooper's undefiled forests, that fixation undoubtedly would demonstrate to him the validity of his mythical-archetypal criticism, not his tendency to repeat himself, which he does. Archetypes, after all, are supposed to stick like chewing gum on the unconscious. Is it so surprising then that this Sacred Marriage of American Males keeps welling up from lower depths to find its way into each of his successive books, all aglow with capital letters that spell out Latent Homosexuality? Besides, somewhat (but not entirely) apart from sex, Fiedler is...

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Peter Michelson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Leslie Fiedler is one of those literary personalities who has the effect of polarizing his readers. Already his new study of American Western mythology [The Return of the Vanishing American] has agitated the spleen of Kenneth Rexroth, who resents a New York Jew's tampering with the Western myth [see excerpt above]. Whether such romantic antagonism is just (Fiedler lived for many years in Missoula, Montana) isn't important, but it does present the kind of difficulty such a study as this must face. There are many Wests lurking in America's imagination. The imaginative or literary tourist's West is certainly not the Montana resident's. And Fiedler, having been both, knows this….

There is a...

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Charles Molesworth

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The Stranger in Shakespeare] can be read in two quite distinct ways. The book may be regarded as epiphenomenal, an outgrowth of his previous theories, assumptions and fixations about American literature, extended back into the Elizabethan past. In other words, it might serve as little more than a rag with which to wipe the ankles of our greatest literary monument. On the other hand, it could be read as the author's most important critical statement, a bold book about the boldest of artists, in which everything the critic holds most dear is thrown into the battle, tried by fire. In his preface Fiedler speaks of writing this book in order to keep a twenty-year-old promise to himself. He asks us, in other words,...

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Gabriel Pearson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Fiedler has long been a lone ranger in those marches where academic respectability merges into individual guru-mongering and self-promotion. And it has been a specialised pleasure to watch the ways in which he handled this dual personality, getting himself skilfully into just the right amount of trouble and ducking back into professional decorum. The respectable academic claims to be amusedly outraged; but he draws secret nutriment from the open lawlessness of one clearly of his own tribe. We cannot quite be dead seems the implicit message of their invitations to visiting professorships and general tendering of academic amenities. More deeply, Fiedler caters to the dream life of the American profession of...

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Arnold L. Goldsmith

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The most controversial of all the American Myth Critics, and the most important, is Leslie Fiedler …, whose first book, An End to Innocence, Essays on Culture and Politics (1955), was not actually concerned with literary criticism. Two of the pieces, however, did introduce the theories which eventually become the dogma of No! In Thunder (1960), his second collection of previously published essays; Love and Death in the American Novel (1960), his monumental, seminal, sometimes brilliant, sometimes sophomoric study of the American novel from its beginnings to 1959; and Waiting for the End (1964), in which he carried this study through 1963.

The most famous essay in An...

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Sanford Pinsker

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

There is something haunting and magical about Leslie Fiedler's criticism. We are, of course, familiar with the general outlines: its relentless probing into our culture's deepest dreams, its teasing mixture of bookish learning and urban horse sense, its sheer passion. What continues to fascinate us, though, is the uneasy feeling that we may have become better readers of Love and Death in the American Novel than we have of American novels. After all, Jim never says "Come back to the raft ag'in, Huck honey!"—but the line sticks in our collective unconscious as if it were his remark rather than the title of Fiedler's famous article. Critics aren't expected to dream so richly or so well. But that is...

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Earl Rovit

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In a somewhat rambling series of essays [What Was Literature?: Class Culture and Mass Society]—partly analytical, partly polemical, and partly autobiographical—Fiedler argues that traditional approaches to and standards of literature have become obsolete. Suggesting that a criticism which ignores or condescends to Uncle Tom's Cabin, Longfellow, Birth of a Nation, Gone with the Wind, soap operas, Roots, et alia can have little to say about American culture. Fiedler tries to sweep the decks clean for a truly relevant approach. He proposes no clear methodology, however, and appears to equate taste with the twitches of the autonomic nervous system, and value with mass popularity. A little...

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Larzer Ziff

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The first of the linked essays that make up What Was Literature? is called "Who Was Leslie A. Fiedler?" The answer to that question is the key to responding to the book title's question. Leslie A. Fiedler, as Leslie (now no middle initial) Fiedler tells us, was a literary critic who, for all his reputation as a rowdy, iconoclast, and clown, nevertheless proceeded from a principle dear to the academy with which he seemed to be in combat. This was the assumption that the amount of writing we can truly call literature is very small compared to the amount that is merely popular, or sub-literature, or trash….

According to today's Leslie Fiedler, it was this elitist Fiedler who in 1960 published...

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