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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.)
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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.
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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 our classic books is almost always a dull and embarrassing figure, a monster of virtue." For this phenomenon he offers a complex and at least partly convincing explanation.
There are two other types of fiction that Fiedler examines in his long preliminary section: the gothic novel and the historical romance…. Gothicism, he believes, was adopted by most of the major American novelists, in large part because love had failed as a serious subject….
The historical romance, he points out, may be either sentimental or gothic, and he begins by talking about Walter Scott, whose work was mostly on the sentimental side. Scott's principal disciple, James Fenimore Cooper, he also classes as a sentimentalist, but he treats him soberly and respectfully, although some readers may be startled to read that miscegenation is the central theme of "The Last of the Mohicans" and to discover that Fiedler looks with marked suspicion on the relationship between Natty Bumppo and Chingachgook.
In the middle section Fiedler tries to show how the modes of fiction he has been describing have developed in the past century, drawing his illustrations from a large and sometimes amusing variety of books. The theme of seduction, for example, leads him to talk not only about Hawthorne ("The Scarlet Letter") and Melville ("Pierre") but also about the obscure George Lippard, Theodore Dreiser, and, ultimately and wittily, Herman Wouk. The sentimental theme has undergone strange modifications. The nice girl remains with us, but she has been treated ambivalently by Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Faulkner, while Nathanael West has sought to destroy her, and, in "Man and Boy," Wright Morris has pointed a jeering finger at her mother….
Part II ends with a long and excellent discussion of the gothic tradition from Poe to recent writers of detective stories and science fiction….
I finished the book with great admiration for Fiedler's diligence and for the quality of many of his insights but also with a number of questions. To begin with, I am not so sure as he is that he knows exactly what constitutes a right, normal, healthy, mature sexual relationship. I suspect that, in this as in other matters, there is no such thing as perfection and that there are more ways than one of working towards it.
Then there are questions that concern the value of his approach to literature. Like any other schematic approach, it seems to work better with minor writings than with major ones. He writes brilliantly, quite on his own terms, about "Uncle Tom's Cabin," but when he comes to the books he regards as masterpieces, he has to go beyond those terms. Moreover, he has less to say about certain major writers than about others. He writes relatively little, for instance, about Henry James, although he has promised in his preface not to neglect writers of the first rank because they fail to fit into his scheme. In a way, of course, James does fit, but to say that is not to say much about James.
However, it must be pointed out that as a rule Fiedler has refused to tie himself up in his system; he has other insights and he uses them. Furthermore, he makes no claim that he has said the last word. At the least he does what he set out to do: he compels his readers to take a fresh look at the masterpieces of American fiction. We may not always, we may only rarely, accept his view in its entirety, but it is unlikely that our own will remain unchanged.
Granville Hicks, "A Fresh View of American Fiction," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1960 by Saturday Review Magazine Co.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. XLIII, No. 12, March 19, 1960, p. 16.
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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, pressing its nose in the dirt, and saying grimly and gleefully, "Say Uncle!" (p. 46)
[Fiedler] does not write in either the historical-method manner of the older scholars or the analytical method of the New Critics. He is what undergraduates often call the "Partisan Review type writer." His subject is Culture, popular culture, shifts in culture, and high art. He is as likely to refer to Marlon Brando or Al Capone as to Guido Cavalcanti or William Blake.
Fiedler's vocabulary is Partisan Reviewish:
The holiest Ikon of the Cult of the Child, of the Dream of Innocence in its pristine Anglo-Saxon form, is the Good Good Girl, the blonde asexual of nursery or orphanage, reincarnated from Little Nell to Mary Pickford.
Even more tiresome than this constant mythicizing of heterosexuality is the preoccupation with homosexuality. Everyone who has seen certain Broadway plays, read certain poets or novelists, recognizes the homosexual cast of thought, and the strange distortions of motive and sympathy it invites. But Fiedler not only mentions it frequently, he gives it the Vocabulary Treatment: "Their pre-adolescent protagonists confront still the decaying plantation house, the miasma laden swamp, the secret lives of the Negro. Like the circus freaks, the deaf and dumb, the idiots also congenial to their authors, they project the invert's exclusion from the family, his sense of heterosexual passion as a threat and an offense; and this awareness is easily translated into the child's bafflement before weddings or honeymoons or copulation itself." What is self-evident to begin with does not seem any clearer because of the "symbols of exclusion" pitch.
In the introductory essay, explaining his title, Fiedler asks that the writer give a "Hard No" to whatever is too easy, too simply affirmative, and too easily "knowing." One wonders what sort of essay he might write, if in the fashion of George Orwell, he gave his own essays a "Hard No" going over. If there really are two Leslie Fiedlers, the one that controls the Vocabulary ought to make like an anchorite on the Mohave and let the other Fiedler do the writing. (p. 47)
William Van O'Connor, "Accent on the Negative," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1960 by Saturday Review Magazine Co.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. XLIII, No. 47, November 19, 1960, pp. 46-7.
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[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' in the other, but a volume of neometaphysical poetry in one and of 'close' criticism in the other—only to disappear into the colleges to the North, still crying the slogans of agrarianism to their students, who were, alas, only interested in John Donne." This is wonderful stuff; the book is full of it.
It is difficult to separate the nonsense from the sense in Mr. Fiedler's work; but the very best thing in it is the essay on the limitations of the "A poem should not mean but be" school of criticism: an essay in which Fiedler makes a remarkably strong case for the uses of biography in critical studies of poetry.
There is something here to offend almost everyone and the author seems actually to go out of his way to offend. Much of No! In Thunder is in the worst possible taste; much of it seems close to angry raving; but there are passages of sheer brilliance (I use the word because Mr. Fiedler dislikes it); and there is a liveliness, a challenging quality which covers a multitude of sins. The author cannot compel you to agree with him but he can, and does, make you listen. (pp. 188-89)
Stephen P. Ryan, "New Books: 'No! In Thunder'," in Catholic World (copyright 1960 by The Missionary Society of St. Paul the Apostle in the State of New York; used by permission), Vol. CXCII, No. 1149, December, 1960, pp. 188-89.
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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 permitting in their fictions the presence of any full-fledged, mature woman, giving us instead monsters of virtue and bitchery, symbols of the rejection or fear of sexuality." The "failure of the American novelist to deal with adult heterosexual love" leads to, or is evidenced in, an "obsession with violence" and helps explain the growth of "a gothic fiction, nonrealistic and negative, sadist and melodramatic." Most American fiction, suggests Fiedler, falls either into the gothic or sentimental category, neither of which allows a confrontation with the needs of maturity.
To support this view Fiedler goes back to the European novel, to Richardson, Rousseau and others, tracing the effects of their romanticism (at once inhibited and exhibitionist) upon the earlier American writers. He then launches a full-scale examination of our major literary figures to show how the grip of repression has affected their work. Unable to deal with the central experiences of adult life, they turned either toward gothic projections of sexual fantasy or toward sentimental evocations of an asexual fraternity.
Now there is a fraction of truth in all this, as anyone who has read D. H. Lawrence's Studies in Classic American Literature surely knows. It is a way of looking at the American novel which serves in relation to some 19th-Century writers: Cooper, Melville, Twain, none of whom is notable for his treatment of the relations between the sexes. (p. 17)
What Fiedler discards meanwhile is awesome. Literature is removed from any fluid relation to the development of ideas; it becomes an eternally recurrent psychodrama, dissociated from history, in which bloodless and abstracted Presences (the Dark Lady, the Good Good Girl, the Good Bad Girl, the Handsome Sailor, the Great Mother, the Avenging Seducer) monotonously rehearse a charade of frustration; it has nothing to do with, and does not even credit the reality of, socio-economic problems ("… the unemployed libido," remarks Fiedler, "enjoys marching on the picket lines"); and its apparent concern with moral problems can usually be exposed as evasion or disguise. Like a mass-culture imitation of a psychoanalyst, Fiedler refuses on principle to honor the "surface" events, characters, statements and meanings of a novel. He will never allow himself to be deluded by what an author says; he invariably knows better. For him the manifest content of a work signifies only insofar as he can penetrate it, and then plunge into the depths of latent content. Otherwise, he seems to feel, what use would there be for a critic?
Indeed, his strategy is not that of a literary man at all. He engages not in formal description or historical placement or critical evaluation, but in a relentless and joyless exposure. The work of literature comes before him as if it were a defendant without a defense, or an enemy intent upon deceiving him so that he will not see through its moral claims and coverings. And the duty of the critic then becomes to strip the American novel to a pitiful bareness and reveal it in all its genital inadequacy.
Now this is a method which works at least as well with tenthrate books as with masterpieces, and Fiedler is no less illuminating on Charlotte Temple than on Huckleberry Finn. It is a method that disregards the work of literature as something "made," a construct of mind and imagination through the medium of language, requiring attention on its own terms and according to its own structure. A Twain or Melville or Hawthorne becomes a "case" at the mercy of his repressions while he, Leslie Fiedler, speaks with the assurance of maturity.
That some of the evidence, even from 19th-Century American writing, does not support his thesis, seems hardly to trouble him. Is it true, for example, that there is an absence of "full-fledged, mature women" in American fiction? One thinks of Hawthorne's Hester, Zenobia, and Miriam; of Twain's Roxanna; of James' Christina Light, Mme. de Vionnet, Kate Croy, Charlotte Stant and the later Maggie Verver; of Edith Wharton's Lily Bart and Ellen Olenska; of Dreiser's Carrie. Not perhaps the most impressive list of women in literature, and some of them, like other mortals, certainly had their troubles; but enough, one would think, to give pause to a thesis-ridden critic and perhaps even some comforts to his masculine imagination.
For that matter, when you come to look at modern European literature, you realize that it too can easily be given Mr. Fiedler's treatment. Where do we find these exemplars of "adult sexuality" which Love and Death tacitly poses against American immaturity? Stendhal, conoisseur of the fiasco, whose greatest novel shows a grown-up woman pining after an undersexed boy? Flaubert, who said of his sickly heroine, "Emma Bovary, c'est moi?" Dostoevsky, with his fantasies of child violation and fluttery neurasthenic heroines? Dickens and his sugar-plum ladies? Or Conrad? Or Proust and Kafka?
But Fiedler is not a man easily rattled, even when the evidence goes entirely against him. Since The Scarlet Letter is posited on illicit relations between Hester and Dimmesdale and since this would threaten his thesis, he simply asserts that "it is finally hard for us to believe on a literal level in the original adultery…." (pp. 17-18)
What matters about [Fiedler's] statements is not merely that they are inaccurate, absurd and sensational, but that they have little to do with literature and even less with that scrupulous loyalty to a work of art which is the critic's primary obligation. Mr. Fiedler cares not about books and writers, but about archetypes, myths, trends, depths and sensations. He tells us, for example, that "to understand the Leatherstocking series … is to understand the most deeply underlying image of ourselves"—which seems a very considerable claim for Cooper's novels. A few pages later we read, however, that "Cooper, alas, had all the qualifications for a great American writer except the simple ability to write." But if he lacked this ability, then a fig-leaf for the archetypes, the miscegenation, the "most deeply underlying image" and all the rest.
Mr. Fiedler lacks the one gift—I think it a gift of character—which is fundamental to the critic: the willingness to subordinate his own schemes and preconceptions to the actualities of a particular novel or poem, the love or generosity which persuades a critic to see the work in its own terms and not to bend it to his personal or ideological needs.
Another way of saying this is that the critic needs a conscience.
No! In Thunder is a collection of stray pieces, some, like an essay on Whitman as poet of reveries, quite good, and others, like a review on the Yiddish writer Peretz, marred by those little half-mistakes which show that a critic is reaching beyond his secure knowledge. The main interest of the book lies in the opportunity it offers to consider Fiedler as a man of ideas, and perhaps to discover why it is that one finds oneself annoyed by what he writes even when one happens to agree with it. (pp. 18-19)
[There is] one piece in the book called "The Un-Angry Young Men" which has a representative value.
Here one finds the compulsive desire Fiedler has to proclaim the emptiness and malaise of our intellectual life and to dissolve the distinctions of opinion that remain within it. Employing a crude version of the sociology of knowledge, he races through our intellectual tendencies, full of eagerness to dismiss them all, and not so much because he disagrees with them—he never stops nor stoops to tell us his own views—but because they all seem to him excessively familiar or weary or helpless. Here one finds his characteristic mania for pigeonholing friend and foe, so that all variations of belief become mere tokens of sentimentality or cultural lag; here one finds his utter yearning to be (as they say in Madison Avenue) "on top" of his subject, so that he will not only be the first to notice an intellectual fashion, but will take precedence over all others in dismissing it. In such essays the appearance of Fiedler's writing is all energy and verve, but what lies beneath it is a corrosive knowingness, a void of nihilism. Opinion, the clash of interest, the confrontations of belief—all give way under the pressure of his need to dazzle and display, to thrust his ego between the reader and his ostensible subject, to remain—all else failing—brilliant, brilliant, brilliant to the last bitter and anxious word. (p. 19)
Irving Howe, "Literature on the Couch" (reprinted by permission of the author), in The New Republic, Vol. 143, No. 24, December 5, 1960, pp. 17-19.
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[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 supposed to characterize the scholar, he speaks "with his own mouth out of his own face". He addresses us, he says, without a mask. (p. 161)
The instruments he employs for his purpose are three, in order of importance: D. H. Lawrence, Freud and Jung, and Marx—as he acknowledges. He owes his données to Lawrence. Lawrence's study of American literature is the most remarkable criticism he ever wrote: eccentric and opinionated, but yet extraordinarily perceptive and shrewd. He instinctively divined what he called the "duplicity of art, American art in particular"; and critics of American literature have ever since taken this as one of their assumptions. Professor Fiedler writes Lawrence large. His discussion of Cooper and Poe, Melville and Hawthorne is essentially Lawrentian.
He adds to Lawrence from Freud and Jung: the id and the superego, the complex and the archetype. There is nothing new here. Books have been treated as patients for many years. The disclosures drawn from them on the couch tell us by this time only the expected and are so distressingly similar that they could be reduced to one without loss. Once we have perceived the drift of Professor Fiedler's argument we can anticipate fairly accurately what he has to say about the separate novels, for each in his opinion unconsciously repeats a basic pattern.
He is indebted to Marx to the extent that he tries to connect literature with society. The structure of society, its conflicts and idealisms, modify the literary form. The Gothic novel of Europe—this is Professor Fiedler's contention, and it applies equally to the sentimental novel and the historical romance—was compelled upon its introduction into America to adjust itself to the new environment and in doing so assumed another significance. The white man and the dark man, the forest and the—in brief, the country and its peoples and their institutions—had all to be reckoned with by the earlier native romancers, and in response to these demands they created "an American language of myth and symbol". This "language" continues to be spoken down to this day. But if society determines the meaning of literature, the literature itself can be used in its turn to illuminate the nature of society.
The combined effect of Lawrence, Freud and Jung, and Marx upon Professor Fiedler's criticism is curious. If American literature is marked, as Lawrence held, by duplicity, nothing that any of the writers says can be taken at its face value but has to be interpreted. The possible interpretation offered by Freud and Jung is the correct one. And as the interpretation drawn out of literature in this fashion can be applied with equal validity to society, a true picture of the "American Experience", of the American character, can be gathered from its books. The progress is beautifully circular.
The impression Professor Fiedler gives is of literature in a state of deliquescence. Writers merge into one another from either end of the century; words whispered in one year resound authoritatively decades later; postbellum symbols are to be discovered in antebellum naiveties; plots converge acutely on objectives not yet determined; and characters slip on fresh costumes to play roles in plots other than those for which they were intended. Nothing is stable; nothing is what it seems; incest and terror alone are constant.
A critic of American literature today could not reject the gifts that Professor Fiedler's mentors have to offer. When Lawrence read Cooper's Leather-Stocking Tales and seized upon the inner significance of Natty Bumppo's character he showed at once that the Tales had an importance which they had never before been allowed by conventional criticism. The "hot-house" atmosphere of much of Hawthorne is conveniently explained by remembering Freud, and the allegories of Melville are illuminated by bearing Jung in mind. Marx, too, may properly stand at our elbow when we try to grasp the wider implications of Huckleberry Finn.
But timeo Danaos et dona ferentes. If Lawrence's insight is pursued to extremes all novels appear as prototypes of his own; if Freud's and Jung's diagnoses are implicitly trusted form and consciousness dissolve into dream and myth; and should Marx, the least harmful in this respect, be simply trusted, writers cannot be extricated from the mechanical operation of social cause and effect. And when all three are combined and brought heavily to bear without being disciplined by discrimination and tact—the essentials of criticism—literature must collapse into the confusion found in Professor Fiedler's book.
Discrimination and tact are patently what is lacking in this case. If argument were possible (Professor Fiedler precludes it by assuming that any objections to his interpretation must be based on insensitivity or prudery or worse), a few of the more important of the many texts he discusses—for he divagates into the "sub-literary" in his search for compelling evidence—might be examined to show that they ought neither to be run into one another nor be held responsible for the meanings wrung from them. But argument would be beside the point. Professor Fiedler writes in his preface that "this is finally a very personal book", and if this is borne in mind, we shall recognize that what we are being offered under the guise of criticism is, in a loose sense, a spiritual autobiography: a confession of the impact upon him of "the American Experience".
As a confession, made in response to the promptings of literature, it has considerable interest. It is too long and diffuse to be effective as a whole, but on occasion, especially when Professor Fiedler sways uneasily between love and hatred of his country, it grows impassioned and eloquent. (pp. 161-62)
"The Bridges Still Stand," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1961; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3081, March 17, 1961, pp. 161-62.∗
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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 pessimism, Mr. Fiedler faces realities that must cost him dearly as a fully committed teacher and novelist-critic who has given his most energetic years to a stance he now questions in the extreme. Passionately involved in prose literature, he now dispassionately foresees the increasing meaninglessness to society of the novel as an art form—one which he himself practices "ironically and desperately" and which from this book you can tell excites his fullest human response.
A professor-writer of the generation of Saul Bellow, Ralph Ellison, Bernard Malamud, Randall Jarrell, Isaac Rosenfeld, Wright Morris—all of them "children of the Depression" who taught or teach in universities in what became a new status-role of U.S. literary life—Fiedler now feels that the wedding of writers to the academy has been a narrowing and probably emasculating experience, however noble the effort to intelligently cloister the raw vision that scorches across all primary American literature.
But it is not even the decay of the novel and disillusionment with the university as a sanctuary for the summoning-up of great work that give Mr. Fiedler's book its poignance of wholesale intellectual betrayal. These are only symptoms of a general deterioration of accustomed values so drastic that the end of humankind itself is prefigured with the antinovels of William (Naked Lunch) Burroughs, which cast such a hopeless light that it illuminates for Mr. Fiedler the burden of his theme and the title of his dirge. He personally does not believe in any such doomful solution to the increasing corruption of valid culture, purpose and integrity which he sees proliferating in America and the Americanized world. No, his final sinister prediction is that the end will be endless as we are swept forward into a mass-cultural void of such stupefying absurdity that all serious literary communication will cease to matter except as a faint memory.
Before he signs off on this bleak note proclaiming a new, post-literate, essentially idiotic American society—and he has only sharpened with print what other indignant-disgusted minds of his generation and standards have been muttering under their breath—Mr. Fiedler takes the innocent reader on an intellectual bronco ride of such unexpected speed, range, vigor and bewildering transition that one barely has time to get set before the experience is over and you are helped down, dazed and impressed. It is only after recuperation that you are able to measure how much extraordinary scope has been covered—Melville to Mailer, James Fenimore Cooper to Allen Ginsberg, Pocahontas to Marjorie Morningstar—and even though it goes too furiously fast for the normally intelligent head to ingest in one reading, it is a cerebral tour de force without trying.
Mr. Fiedler's mind is the apotheosis of the urban American Jew with a radical-literary background who can adeptly spin the world with abstract concepts where others must struggle with long division. But what distinguishes Mr. Fiedler's thinking is that more than 20 years ago he removed himself from the relatively ghettoized East and plunged his conceptualizing intellect into the authentic loam of the American heartland, so that his natural bent to abstraction and spectacular generalization now bears with it the hard ballast of this nation's history and literature as well. His ethnic origin is significant not only in the prototypical quality of mind it brilliantly displays but also in understanding his acute sensitivity to the Indian and Negro as haunters of the white American psyche. If Mr. Fiedler had not been "a Jew among Gentiles, an Easterner among Westerners, a radical among conservatives," it is unlikely that his consciousness-expanding speculations (too often presented as fact) on the unconscious conflict the white man has suffered toward his dark-skinned victims would be so pertinent.
Unlike other Jewish intellectuals who looked toward Europe from the mental spires of New York, Fiedler has been a harsh pioneer in pursuing his existential obsession with the racial miseries of American experience to its source, both geographic and historic, and in this sense he is a forerunner of a new generation of young American Jews immersed in the national memory more unquestioningly than he can ever be. (p. 1)
The presence of the Indian-Negro-Jew triad in White Protestant American experience, first regarded as evil and then after long travail imitated in ironic concession to their vitality—with the three despised groups in turn aping their psychic oppressors in an effort to clutch an American dream that became a nightmare of who's-got-the-identity—is a striking gambit that Mr. Fiedler consistently uses to pry open the secrets of national pathology. He voraciously strips every form of native literature to psychodramatize the racial and cultural deceptions which he sees in every ostensibly integral act.
For example: Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man "reminds us disconcertingly of Kafka's K., i.e., seems a second-hand version of the black man in America, based on a European intellectual's version of the alienated Jew"—and although Fiedler gives no weight to the fact that Mr. Ellison is a sharp, complex and worldly mind whose fiat is reality itself rather than Fiedler's brutally confining "black man in America," there is enough glancing truth in the charge to illustrate the keen skepticism of his perception.
But there is also Fiedler's typically generalized language (Kafka's symbolic character K. was clearly a creation and hardly a "version"; Kafka himself was a desperate artist in distinction or addition to being a dime-a-dozen "European intellectual"; there was no concept of the "alienated Jew" until Kafka incarnated the very idea that Fiedler grants a prior existence) which blurs rather than specifies experience. Mr. Fiedler's prose, unlike his dynamic thought, also revels in a welter of teeth-grinding words and phrases like "middlebrow," "mythic," "homoerotic," "symbolic virginal role," "counter-tendency to avant-gardism," "hortatory philo-Semitism," plus a bevy of professional harumphs which include the various "in any case," "the truth is, of course," "that is to say," and the indispensable "indeed."
But rap Mr. Fiedler as you might for indulging every unattractive liberty that can drive his most willing reader to a near-fit, no verbal carping can undo the slam-bam immediacy of his high-class muckrake job on American writers. Beginning with "The Death of the Old Men," Faulkner and Hemingway, who ended up by "parodying" themselves—"a slow suicide by the bottle in one case and a quick one by the gun in the other"—he almost left-handedly butchers Steinbeck, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Sinclair Lewis, but pauses to write a marvelously revealing chapter about the small-town Mid-Western boys who were atheized and devirginized by World War I and Paris and made of their romantic defloration a uniquely American style that was heard around the world. (pp. 1, 8)
And yet this is followed by surely the most perceptive, if foreshortened, piece of analysis so far written about the enormously lustful and finally murder-hatching seduction of serious writers to Hollywood, although it oddly omits any reference to the most talented fallen angel since F. Scott Fitzgerald—the late Clifford Odets.
Mr. Fiedler occasionally behaves like a latter-day Samuel Johnson (and the bluntly conservative West Coast critic-poet, Yvor Winters) as he dictatorially exalts one writer while dismissing or ignoring ten others. Yet there is never a pious or commonplace thought because of his literally orgiastic sense of analogy. He cannot write about literature without calling into play associative ideas from psychoanalysis, anthropology, history, biography, movies, magazines, places, so that you have the humbling sense of being overwhelmed by an intellectual free-lover who shows you what an inexperienced punk you really are.
It is when Mr. Fiedler brings contemporary writing and living up to the present moment, however, that he can really rivet you with his sense of literary-cultural trends, like an inside newsletter—but one perversely dedicated to futility.
The only American war that truly interests even the pacifist young writers, he says, is World War III, which perfectly recalls Gregory Corso's nervy and strangely therapeutic poem of rapturous annihilation, Bomb. The only unexplored part of the globe that fascinates the aware young, says Mr. Fiedler, is "that other globe, their own heads," which they are exploring with hallucinogenic superiority; intent upon "the alteration of consciousness" as the foundation for a life-outlook that a former generation of neurotic liberals can find no continuity with—because their values were based on middle-class control of unfamiliar thought instead of regarding the mind as an instrument which, if properly primed, can supersede its present vision.
Fiedler pays respect to both William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg for the Beat breakthrough to at least new possibilities of consciousness and its expression, although he patronizes the equal if earthier contribution of Jack Kerouac. But in the end his skepticism overcomes his journalistic fascination and he sees these two would-be seers as inevitably exploited and exploiting in a time where everyone is on the make—their horror-stories from inner space reduced to mere canapes at some bored mescalin cocktail party of the future.
Mr. Fiedler concludes his book with brave swan-songs to the older poets whose skill and savage integrity have briefly excused America for being—foremost among them Ezra Pound, the recently dead Theodore Roethke, and Robert Lowell. However the first impression an impartial reader will take away is one of over-all awe for a mind so sleeplessly alert to logging every new literary twitch as evidence for an indictment of life. But it is doubtful if such a reader will get the chance to take away anything because Mr. Fiedler's book is not addressed to the uncommitted, free-lance buyer of books; it is an unabashed inside job written for literary and intellectual specialists who share his vocabulary, knowledge and preoccupations. It deliberately excludes the intelligent general public by its unquestioned assumption that what is valuable is by definition anti-popular.
In Mr. Fiedler's harsh scale of values, derived from an adult lifetime's involvement in the most exacting modern literature and now applied to the world even more than writing, the words "debased," "lowbrow fantasy," "middlebrow banality," rightly suggest a toweringly elite attitude to American insect-life which is the unexpected curse of dedication. What a generation ago was a great and courageous radical-highbrow ideal, the pursuit of God in the secular terms of art and socialism, has now more often become aggravated into a pained life-style removed from its age in any objectively potent and constructive sense; it doubtless yields each lost-causer the satisfaction of the purest integrity, yet seems truly dated when viewed in today's global perspective of unheeding and uncaring millions.
But what is the alternative—submission to the fraudulence, ignorance, self-deception, corruption of taste and intelligence which the American no-culture has produced? So committed is Fiedler to a Flaubert's Last Stand against the beer-drinking hordes that one discounts in advance any receptivity to a different approach; but so representative is he of a point of view taken to its extreme that it demands contesting when a new historical situation has imposed its imprint on all.
Any cold assessment would ponder the fact that serious literature has been fighting for its public meaning in our time against the gigantic mass media and, except for a minority whose professional and existential consolation it is, has lost its genuine social significance in the world and largely become the refuge of the victimized or the lip-service of the cultured. Such a literature, one must think, can only perish of irrelevance when the historical moment seems to beg the writer to project his talent out of literature and into the creation of the present.
If Norman Mailer is correct (even a hair's worth) in thinking that his "Superman at the Supermarket" Esquire article won the 100,000 votes that permitted John F. Kennedy to defeat Richard Nixon,… one sees the evidence that writing today can actually initiate history instead of reacting to it.
But the entire conception of the writer as a maker of history realistically depends in this age on the utilization of the mass media that Mr. Fiedler regards with amused contempt because it is the vulgar antithesis of the literary conscience of the past which he incorporates. His bookish armor to the sweet vulgarity of experience itself today blocks his recognition of the limitless extension and new-found significance of literary power through every form of the mass-communication channels. The possibility of communicating frankly and urgently with a vast number of minds is becoming increasingly apparent to formerly aloof serious writers, since they are the most articulate voices in an unprecedentedly open and therefore determinable human destiny.
Mr. Fiedler could be of tough, active importance to many instead of a standard-bearer for the diehard few if he conceded that literature has been driven into a new power of influence on events themselves—if it can only be extricated from its past, stripped of its dreams of an immortality and posterity that will never come to pass if it doesn't assert itself upon reality now, and directed to an audience whose individual and mass being can never again be separate from the writer's. (pp. 8-9)
Seymour Krim, "Rolling His Own: Leslie Fiedler's Grim Bronco Ride, from Pocahontas to Marjorie Morningsiar," in Book Week—The Sunday Herald Tribune (© 1964, The Washington Post), May 17, 1964, pp. 1, 8-9.
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[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 belabored with the race-sex thesis ("the dream of a great love between white and colored men"), which is tied in with the contention that repressed and/or sublimated homosexuality is the inner secret of the American novel. Such notions are too prankishly childish to be worth serious examination. Fiedler has merely added a literary gloss and a homosexual twist to what are in essence the stereotypes of the popular folklore of the menace of miscegenation. No wonder his pages teem with terms like "stereotype" and "counter-stereotype," not to mention "myth" and "archetype," of which he never tires. (When his essay "Come Back to the Raft Ag'in, Huck Honey," since become notorious, was printed in Partisan Review some fifteen years ago, the editors of that magazine thought of it as a talented young man's jeu d'esprit, a spoof on academic solemnity, not at all as the weighty contribution to the understanding of American letters that Fiedler, who is still pushing its proposition as hard as he can, apparently takes it to be.) Moreover, in this new book Fiedler's tone is irritatingly jeering, even in discussing such superior literary artists as Faulkner and Hemingway; it is not exactly that he is tactless as that he is virtually allergic to tact. And in Waiting for the End he above all gives free rein to his worst impulse—that of shocking or scandalizing the reader and playing the enfant terrible at any price.
Yet in our present social and cultural stalemate he who plays the enfant terrible among us typically turns out to be no genuine rebel or heretic or prophet, even if he has the look of one; on the contrary, he is someone who characteristically expects to pay no penalty for his escapades but rather to be hugely rewarded for them. And with good reason too, for there is more diversion in him than dissidence, more impudence than courage. After all, if he violates or mocks national pieties, like sexual prohibitions and inhibitions, they are on the point of breakup anyhow. To be explicit about sex nowadays, even about its most scabrously technical detail, is like walking through an open door. When it comes, however, to orthodoxies still firmly held, as in the political sphere for instance, our enfant terrible either keeps mum or indulges in idle utopian fancies more amusing than threatening. Clearly, the stance of the bad boy has proved to be quite profitable of late, making for an easy climb to celebrity status…. To judge by the welcoming and pleased reviews that Waiting for the End has received in some of our mass-circulation periodicals, Fiedler, if he fails to curb his appetite for histrionic blatancy of statement, will soon be officially certified by the publicity-media as the perennial bad boy of literary criticism.
The definition of avant-garde literature to which Fiedler has committed himself in a recent article is all too characteristic of him. "Highbrow or truly experimental art," he tells us, "aims at insult; and the intent of its typical language is therefore exclusion. It recruits neither defenders of virtue nor opponents of sin; only shouts in the face of the world the simple slogan, épater les bourgeois, or 'mock the middle classes,' which is to say, mock most, if not quite all, its readers." Now it is patently impossible to recognize such "highbrow or truly experimental" writers as, say, Proust, Gide, Sartre, Mann, Kafka, Joyce, Yeats, Eliot, and Stevens in this singular definition. Its emphasis is wholly on the writer's putative attitude toward his prospective readers rather than toward himself. If the work of such literary artists is difficult and complex, it is surely because it reflects a highly intellectualized consciousness, the artist's resolve not to simplify his imaginative experience and psychic obsessions, to remain true to the vision that compels him even in the teeth of convention and tradition. The specific Flaubertian hatred of the bourgeois is scarcely present in their books. Least of all are they willfully motivated by any such intent as excluding, or even merely provoking, the middle-class reader by means of the strategy of "insult." Nothing can be more shallow than this bohemian theory of épatisme as the essence of avant-garde expression. Epatisme may well be Fiedler's own stock-in-trade but it is largely foreign to the ethos of serious modern artists.
Moreover, the bourgeois of our time is no longer the solid citizen and respectable householder of Flaubert's day. Having thrown over the moral code by which he was traditionally bound, he is now a nihilist like everyone else. Fiedler's dream of the bourgeois as the ideal enemy is quite out of date, a mere memory of past literary wars; the bourgeois is not so easily frightened as in the past. A snob as well as a nihilist, he has ceased to be baffled or intimidated by culture, even culture of the more advanced sort that remains incomprehensible to him, for he has learned to deal in its prestige value as he deals in more material commodities. No longer deterred by considerations of piety or gentility, he wants his good time and enjoys even the new sexology that our "liberated" novels provide; the only thing that scares him is the possible loss of his economic and social privileges. On this score alone he is still adamant—adamant and dangerous. But it is precisely on this score that Fiedler makes not the least effort to challenge him. (pp. 210-13)
The trouble with this critic, in my opinion, is that he has an excessively, even stiflingly literary imagination. It is a morbid state of mind leading him to conceive of literature as always overpowering life. The actual is seldom real to him; its sole appeal is in its literary reflection. Hence it is no wonder that in his aberrant condition he is so obviously fascinated by the politics of literary careers and the public legends they give rise to. One has only to read him on the Hemingway legend to see that he can't leave well enough alone. (pp. 215-16)
Philip Rahv, "Lettuce and Tomatoes," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1964 Nyrev, Inc.), Vol. II, No. 10, June 25, 1964 (and reprinted as "Plain Critic and Enfant Terrible," in his The Myth and the Powerhouse, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1965, pp. 209-17).∗
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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 Columbia-Partisan-New York Review area, he starts bonfires when he chooses by rubbing two novelists together, and barbecues for us, to chants of his own devising, not nightingales nor fillets of white whale, but whole halves and quarters of hitherto uncatalogued beasts: the Jew as Imaginary Negro, for instance, or the Beat as Pedagogue's Ectoplasm.
He is, in short, a free man, despite the possibility that some of his best friends are Trillings, this is not forgiven him by the edgy moralists with whom he shares so many premises. Neither was it forgiven Wyndham Lewis, who had different premises but a comparable freedom from partisanship, and who invented the genre of which Fiedler is the best living practitioner: a lesser satire, or greater journalism, which uses literary works as data and devotes itself to the exposure of unexpected patterns and linkages beneath the slogans of the present moment. (p. 654)
Thus in the midst of some vigorous chat on Where We Are Today (which he can fake as well as anyone, the moment Mr. Trilling has hummed a few bars), he will suddenly note that the literary imagination grows semitized (abrupt silence); that even science fiction is "a largely Jewish product" (susurrus of drawn breaths); that "at dazzling speed, Huckleberry Finn becomes Augie March; Daisy Miller turns, via Natalie Wood, into Marjorie Morningstar; Eddie Fisher is drafted as the symbol of clean young American love, while Danny Kaye continues to play the blue-eyed jester; and finally we enter an age of strange conversions to Judaism (Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor, Sammy Davis Jr.) and symbolic marriages. Eros himself turns, or seems to for a little while, Jewish, as the mythical erotic dream-girls of us all yearn for Jewish intellectuals and learn to make matzo-balls." (Martini-glasses fall to the floor.)
These are Things One Doesn't Say. Moreover [Fiedler] seems not to use filing cards, writing Robert Cohn (three times) as "Cohen," or putting down T. S. Eliot (M. A., 1910) as one who "never made it through Harvard." Scratch one Wild Man.
But he won't stay scratched; for he has at his fingertips the plot of a play the Establishment itself is acting, along with ten thousand writers and forty million readers. One can't abstain from mentioning "the Judaization of American culture" in the fifties and sixties because it is a phase of that play, the play that has been running since 1776 and has for subtitle "Who Are We?"
"At the moment that young Europeans everywhere (even, at last, in England) are becoming imaginary Americans, the American is becoming an imaginary Jew. But this is only one half of the total irony we confront; for, at the same moment, the Jew whom his Gentile fellow-citizen emulates may himself be in the process of becoming an imaginary Negro."
And why is the American becoming an imaginary Jew? That is the theme of two tough chapters [in Waiting for the End] on the Jewish-American novelist, a novelist whose "Jewishness is currently taken as a patent of his Americanism," and who is "beneficiary of a belief that in their very alienation the Jews were always mythically twentieth-century Americans—long before the twentieth century and even, perhaps, before America itself had been reached."
And this explains the appeal of Death of a Salesman, whose hero, Mr. Fiedler notes, is "in habit, speech, and condition of life typically Jewish-American, but … presented as something else—general-American…." There is no other meaningful way to discuss such a play (what can you do with celebrated sub-literature except diagnose its celebrity?) but this way has, until now, been barred.
The gratitude anyone who discusses literature must feel toward Mr. Fiedler has not been earned by nerve. George Lincoln Rockwell, for that matter, might have issued an offhand description of Willy Loman as "typically Jewish-American" and enlightened no one. Mr. Fiedler has made the description meaningful by equipping it with a context. That is what his mythologizing method supplies—contexts. Waiting for the End is an anthology of contexts (it is certainly not a book about "Jewishness": I have taken a convenient instance from two chapters out of fifteen). They are contexts to be used, by other critics, and one hopes, by Mr. Fiedler himself on other occasions. As a critic myself. I read it with an avid eye. Read with other eyes, it becomes a brilliant montage of half-truths…. [Our] grasp on Twain's or Melville's genius is imperfect so long as we refuse to ask ourselves what expectations they thought they were satisfying, and what expectations their readers have indeed, generation after generation, brought to them.
What people expect of literature—that is half of Mr. Fiedler's subject; specifically, what Americans have been expecting of literature, various kinds of literature, generation by generation and lately decade by decade (things shift faster now). The other half is how literature has been shaped by what was expected of it.
From these two themes one might weave a history of the American psyche; for the whole of American history—let alone its literary history—comes after Western Civilization had become book-centered. Instead of Shakespeare, who wasn't "writing a book," though a book preserves what he wrote, we have Melville, whose analogy for Moby Dick was the Bible clutched by the disembarked Puritan. All that the thorough book-man knows must go into sixty cubic inches of wood-pulp: if it won't it is not transmissible. So a Melville, a Whitman, a Pound compile Sacred Books, very sure of why this activity matters.
Yet these single heroic acts are part of a process, the process of which best-sellers are also a part. The books of a people always preoccupied with books (even preoccupied with the stance of desiring them), all their books, their merest books, are "scriptures of an underground religion," to be read, like Scripture, not only literally but anagogically and allegorically.
Such a proposition horrifies the Establishment, which is genteel. Gentility knows the use of everything, especially of the string that secures its hat. The Establishment constantly harps on the use of literature, which is to make us know our bleak selves, and whatever book has not this use (most have not) is an act of presumption.
For Mr. Fiedler, on the other hand, self-knowledge comes not out of a deathly embrace with some book, but through an understanding of history; and whoever does not understand how much of history is a history of expectations does not know what a book is. The present expectation is of an apocalypse: an end: an end of literature, of literacy, of the world. Mr. Fiedler is having none of that. He expects that our writers will learn "to bear the indignities of success, as they have borne those of failure; and out of these too, with luck and skill, they will make the stuff of art." This is perhaps a glimpse past James Baldwin and Dr. Strangelove, and a way of freeing Mr. Fiedler's readers from the apoplectic urgency (preached by well-rewarded men) that makes understanding of anything so difficult. This Wild Man has a liberating way of using his freedom. (pp. 654-56)
Hugh Kenner, "A Word for the Wild Man," in National Review (© National Review, Inc., 1964; 150 East 35th St., New York, NY 10016), Vol. XVI, No. 30, July 28, 1964, pp. 654-56.
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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, from Max Muller or Bachofen to Carl Jung or Robert Graves. Myths, archetypes, mother right, what makes the arguments plausible is not scientific method, but obsession.
Mr. Fiedler is possessed by a number of obsessions which destroy his credibility, except among people who don't know better. First, as is well known, there is his favorite term of abuse, "WASP." He uses it the way Stalinists used to use "Trotskyite," for the most incongruous assortment of writers and tendencies. Since he sees White Anglo-Saxon Protestants under every bed and in every woodpile, it is easy for him to so identify the main line of American culture with their works and to prove that this culture has been continuously challenged and is now collapsing from within.
Ultimately Fiedler's distortion of vision derives from membership in a small circle of extremely ethnocentric people—the self-styled New York Establishment, triangulated by the Partisan Review, The New York Review of Books, and Commentary….
Most of these people are outlanders who have been permitted into the inner citadels of WASP culture as the WASPS themselves have wearied and wandered away. Their mentors, Kierkegaard, Henry James, Melville, and the rest, it is true, saw life as a foredoomed struggle of a rationalistic order, originating in the old Protestant theocracy, against the "dark forces" which had been driven into the unconscious. But this is a peculiarity of only a small sector of Americans….
To the culture bearers from New England the hinterland may have seemed populated by savages in 1840, as it still seems to the friends of Fiedler … today. Actually the German, pietist and populist, social-democratic culture of the Midwest cities and the wave of communal colonies, from New Harmony to what became Sequoia National Park, both represent a great historical advance over New England. As for the frontier itself, only people like Francis Parkman found it shocking. Audubon did not. Mark Twain did not. (p. 4)
What is impressive about Mark Twain is the profound normality of his vision of the natural life. What he objects to is the New England geist, and what he objects to about that is the cash nexus, disguised with spiritual pride. Only a crank could find ids and animuses writing beneath his eminently sane surface. Only a professional humorist like Fiedler could present "Huckleberry Finn," America's only great novel, as a homosexual romance.
This distortion of vision leads Fiedler to present his case in terms of some extraordinarily bad novels. He sees Barth's "The Sot-Weed Factor" as the beginning of a major movement in contemporary American literature—"give it back to the Indians"—a movement that has been continued by Thomas Berger, James Leo Herlihy, Ken Kesey and the neo-hippies. These are the heirs of the cowboys and Indians. Trouble is, there are still plenty of cowboys and Indians around, and they don't recognize themselves at all. (pp. 4, 47)
The principal trouble with hobbyhorses and crank notions is that they destroy taste and make discrimination impossible and lead to total misunderstanding of quite plain texts. Much of the Midwest populist literature Fiedler reads as preaching savagery is simply an attack on the business ethic. Most startling is his use of a poem by Gary Snyder, which does curse the white man with an Indian curse, and which does renounce White America. It is a poem against the Vietnam war, and specifies in the title "the men in the Pentagon." Fiedler simply ignores this and equates it directly with Hart Crane's Pocahontas poem, a Lawrentian "back to the Dark Mother" piece of Romanticism.
There is something terribly Augustan and 18th-century about all this. In Lawrence's "The Princess" the girl goes down for water at a mountain stream and sees a wild cat across the water. All the terror of chaos overwhelms her as she exchanges stares with a poor little pussy, Tiamat, rising from the Babylonish Underworld. I can't take it very seriously, I've camped with hundreds of Indians and slept peacefully in canyons swarming with wild cats. I am just a Westerner, and I can't recognize the Dark Savages Forces that haunt Leslie Fiedler, but I must admit I find him frightfully amusing. His Huck Finn has afforded me almost as many chuckles as the original. (p. 47)
Kenneth Rexroth, "Ids and Animuses," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1968 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 11, 1968, pp. 4, 47.
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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 certain that a radically alien "other," a dark man, haunts us all: "everyone who thinks of himself as being in some sense an American," he says, "feels the stirrings in him of a second soul, the soul of the Red Man—about which, not so very long ago, only an expatriate Englishman, his head full of Natty Bumppo and Chingachgook, had nerve enough to talk seriously."
In [The Return of the Vanishing American], therefore, he tracks down Mohicans, Chinooks, Chickasaws, Hollywoods, Beatniks, and other lost Indians. He takes them wherever he finds them—from legend, history, literature, and the social scene; from sunken Atlantis up to Haight-Ashbury, omitting by my rough inventory only the Cigar-store and Cleveland varieties. Like Cooper's his talk is nervy and dead-pan serious, and this in the past has been his undoing. For if reviewers often have been giddy-headed (when they have not been downright rancorous) about his previous ventures in literary anthropology, their high-pitched responses were perhaps natural in the face of concerns that even Fiedler admits are a "peculiar form of madness." With his often startling sense of historical analogies, he should appreciate one between his critics and Shakespeare's contemporaries, who journeyed to insane asylums in holiday mood to giggle at the inmates. Their attitude, we know now, was wrong; so might be that of his detractors. Still, in both cases bizarre comedy is somehow rife in the material, and one can only hope that a man so quick to catch jokes in such things as Hemingway's unintentional self-parodies can also see one staring at him from the mirror of his own works.
Fiedler's whole approach, unaltered in The Return of the Vanishing American, is as open to question as it ever was in the first two volumes of his now completed trilogy, over a decade in the making, designed "to define the myths which gave special character to art and life in America." Once one accepts his assumptions, however, it is apparent that this book is the most effective job of the three.
As a slight, rather unpretentious work, it contrasts favorably with the massive Love and Death in the American Novel, a grueling, vain search through scores of novels for our literary and sexual maturity, which finds instead only a persistent obsession with melodramatic Gothic violence, death, and perversions. Its cohesive theme sets the third volume above Waiting for the End, intended to deal "with the hope of apocalypse and its failure" in modern American literature, but ending as a diverse collection of essays that communicated Fiedler's almost blanket dissatisfaction with where we are now. Finally, this last work is much less vinegarish than his others; he is more absorbed in his topic, trying to see it as it is, not as a disguised chance to vent his spleen.
Intensity of absorption shows up in structure, which here is unusually tight. For a change the conclusion of the book is inherent in its beginning, where Fiedler presents the ancient concept of the West—the fourth kingdom—as a split mythological dream: on the one hand a glorious land of promise, home of the Noble Savage; on the other, a land lost, a forbidden garden, home of the devil's creatures. Growing from that is a definition of the Western story in archetypal form, in which a transplanted white man meets red man in the wilderness, their confrontation leading either to some beneficial metamorphosis in the white or, more, usually as West merges into East, to genocidal extinction of the red. (p. 26)
What should concern us in all this careful construction is how much Fiedler can be trusted. Even the most curmudgeonly reader will have to admit that he is entertaining, bursting with energy, abundant and sparkling in suggestion. Any man who can offhandedly uncover a correspondence between Caliban's "Burn but his books" and Marshall McLuhan's revolt against the alphabet is liable to sweep away doubts by dint of sheer brilliance. Experiencing Fiedler, in fact, is like trying to maintain one's balance against a wind of hurricane force. But to the end there is that nagging suspicion that he is too obsessed with his method, too blind to question the patterns he creates.
Are they his patterns? Or do they reside in the material itself? Consider, for example, the main body of this book, seventy pages that undoubtedly grew from an embryonic seed chapter, "Injun or Indian?" in Waiting for the End. Examining there A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, Fiedler found in two of Thoreau's tales what for him were basic Western archetypes: of White Woman and Red Man, and of Red Man and White Man. The first was in Thoreau's saga of Hannah Duston, an intrepid colonial lady who, after her abduction by savages, slaughtered and scalped ten of her captors, then returned to civilization a heroine. Thoreau's story of an idyllic friendship between a white trapper, Alexander Henry, and an Indian called Wawatam exemplified the second. To these Fiedler adds two others of his own: White Man and Indian Woman, typified for him by the familiar (but now distorted) legend of Captain Smith and Pocahontas; and White Woman and White Man, which finds its touchstone in Irving's Rip Van Winkle. These four basic myths, he claims, create in their interweaving a sort of composite image of the Far West, good for all time, spreading out to works by writers as diverse as Hawthorne and Robert Penn Warren.
But do they? The truth, one suspects, lies somewhere between a yes and a no. No, because to trust Fiedler entirely is to make an impossible leap of faith in his immaculate conceptions. No, because like those pristine writers who found some sort of divine sanction in their tripartite view of the earth's areas, then reluctantly had to add a fourth, America, Fiedler is a died-in-the-wool mystic. His cabalistic scheme is also four-sided. He seems to believe that his method and his mythic patterns are as sacrosanct as the ancients thought theirs. He never doubts his ability both to select examples so that exceptions do not matter (is there, one wonders, a Red Woman-White Woman archetype?) and to find the underlying, the real meaning beneath the illusionary surface of literary texts. But yes, nevertheless, because Fiedler's hurricane is surely not all wind; it contains as well great, solid chunks of erudition and evidence, which, in this book at least, are often as convincing as they are fascinating.
Ambivalence of judgment in Fiedler's case need not be construed as hedging. Fiedler's case is not just his case, nor even, to put it in a wider context, the case of all archetypal criticism. However we feel about them both, they are part and parcel of our age—an age that is pulled simultaneously between an urge for fact, for evidence, for conviction based on a solid foundation of detailed, scientific analysis, and an almost equally strong desire that men and literature transcend their banal limitations. For some, myth and the unconscious—shadowy realms both—satisfy that latter craving. They do for Fiedler. They do for the Hippies, the drug-takers, the Yoga ritualists, the navel gazers seeking a union in Ying and Yang—in brief, for all our modern Romanticists. However, at a time when facts about us are so dull, so unsatisfying, so often spine-chillingly horrible, who is to say to our latter-day mystics an unqualified No—and be sure that he is dead right? (pp. 26-7)
Robert Maurer. "A Second Soul Haunts Us All," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1968 by Saturday Review Magazine Co.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. LI, No. 13, March 30, 1968, pp. 26-7.
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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 crucial cultural difference between the romantic and the mythological Wests. The romantic one is historical and its self-image originates in the pragmatic circumstances of the "wild" life with and beyond which it has grown. That image—vaguely conceived as being more free, pure, democratic, hospitable, and natural than that of "Easterners"—is now vestigial because most Westerners are simply Easterners living in the West. There is no longer a "Western" reality because there is no longer a peculiarly Western way of life, only a feeling about one. The mythological West isn't historical; essentially it isn't even American. The cowboy or cavalry Western derives from chivalric romance; the trappings are American, but the substance is European. One of the trappings—the Indian—had, however, both an American and European character. To the American he was a guerrilla, to the European (e.g. Rousseau) a noble symbol of Nature. The fusion of those views created a mythology that simultaneously celebrated our triumph over Nature and manifested our guilt at having thereby profaned it, a mythology therefore representing the very warp and woof of American moral consciousness. Fiedler's book is an attempt to define and analyze this mythic consciousness as it appears in our literature and as it has analogues and origins in the European mind.
Characteristically, Fiedler's persuasiveness comes more from a quality of mind than an accumulation of evidence. This book completes a trilogy exploring the "myths which give a special character to art and life in America." In the first study, Love and Death in the American Novel, he warned that he had attempted "a literary rather than scientific work … a very personal book, in which I attempt to say with my own voice out of my own face … what I have found to be some major meanings of our literature and our culture." Not only is this also true of the present work, but it is a recognition without which its reader cannot proceed. (p. 29)
The very phrase on which his title and thesis turns—i.e. the Vanishing American—comes from a white man's (Edward Curtis) celebrated 19th-century photograph of six Navaho plodding on horseback into a gloomy indistinct canyon. The picture is called "The Vanishing Race," a title more telling than its later variant, "The Vanishing American," because it more clearly implies genocidal guilt. The later phrasing is too witty, ironic, and disengaged, too self-consciously turns the genocidal reality of the West into first a cliché and finally a joke. Having an acute historical understanding, Fiedler is aware of both the clichés and the guilt he has inherited, and in good Freudian fashion (where else can a guilty white man go?) he undertakes to discover, in white, Eastern-made archetypes of the Indian, the inchoate mythic sources of our guilt.
For the Indian, the mythic Indian, is not American at all, as Fiedler shows, but rather a European dream. By the end of the argument the Indian, his elusive Gothic hero, has been so completely absorbed into European archetypal analogues—the Negro, the Jew, the Phallus, the Madman, all that is Byronic, primitive, or outré—that he exists only as an alien mythic category. But Fiedler cannot of course be responsible for the Indian's existential image. He is writing about the dichotomous romantic imagination, the simultaneous impulse to civilization and primitivism. He is studying the transplanted European mind, the Easterner whose Sisyphusian destiny it is to turn all Wests to Easts. The mythic Western, for him, is the Euro-American masculine dream of escape to the primordial garden with a benignly savage male companion, which idyllic liaison is threatened and usually destroyed by women, who want to cultivate the garden, domesticate the man, and emasculate or exorcise the savage.
There is much difficulty in articulating the full complexity of archetypes that have not yet been locked into mythological schemes, as the Greek or Arthurian ones have. Fiedler is trying to construct schemes and categories for Western mythology that will permit its interpretation. Finally, however, these are white European (Jungian, Freudian) categories and ironically emphasize just how completely the white man has erased the Indian's visibility. When one of our most prominent critics can write an imaginative study of the Indian in American literature and never take the Indian point of view seriously, we have an index of the extent to which white reality—no matter how rightly examined—is white reality. And the ease with which Fiedler's Indian changes shape and color explains not only his book's Gothic character and his hero's elusiveness, but also how the Vanishing American, whose return he sees in our current madhouse literature, is largely an invention of the white psyche.
Dionysian energy and imagination make Fiedler's criticism go. The Return of the Vanishing American wants to act as a catalyst for thought rather than as its formalizer, and that is its excitement. Fiedler begins as a philosopher of mythic American literature, defining the Indian myth as an idol of the European mind, establishing basic American mythopoeic categories, locating the origin and history of his subject—the European discovery and Gothicising of the geographic and mythic West…. [Fiedler] assumes the centrality of myth, relying on his own previous work and that of the whole Jungian tradition to justify that assumption. Consequently, the business of the mythologist is to try to see mythic potential in imaginative documents and organize a coherent pattern from them. This method must of course often be more suggestive than conclusive. When, for example, Fiedler wants to show that the racism of American Indian mythology comes from European antecedents, he goes to the cream of that tradition and presents Shakespeare's The Tempest as "a violent attack on the whole Indian race, disguised as a Mystery Play." He is perhaps excessively shrill here, but not so much as to invalidate his argument that Shakespeare images Caliban as a savage Indian monster, as all that the Northern European mind feared and desired…. The point is not that Shakespeare was a racist, but that the mind of an age can be found in its art and that that art in turn feeds the mind of its own and future ages, and that through such evolution cultural mythologies are created. Critical control comes in keeping such subject matter within a dialectical framework.
And it is in the tension between dialectical control and Dionysian insight that a structural ambivalence in Fiedler's argument occurs. He will doubtless be criticized, as he often is, for being too free with analytic method. But (to make sure he can't win). I think that in this book he hasn't been free enough, that his perceptions are constricted by his dialectic. In trying to show the reality of the Indian myth, for example, the first half of his argument has pressured myth into category; the second half is an attempt to work it out of history and back into contemporary American literature and life. But rather than decategorizing, he assumes the voice of prophecy, to not only describe past myths and identify them in the present, but to prescribe their necessary future as well. Myth has become a moral imperative. Which would be all right, but for the fact that its future character, he seems to feel, must be determined by its past; that is, it must somehow find its logical conclusion. Our classic writers, he says, have failed the Western Dream by, in one way or another, diluting it…. [There is a] mythic reality that Fiedler wants only partially to confront—even though he himself has defined it—that the myth of the West came from moral imagination rather than history, and that when the moral imagination changes, as it has done so profoundly in the last hundred years, so too must its archetypes and the mythology which gives them coherence. By subsuming all imagination into myth, Fiedler has supposed a continuous line of imaginative development. (pp. 29-31)
[He] sees a New Western emerging in such writers as John Barth and Ken Kesey. It is, he thinks, based on parody of the Old Western, and is an extension of the archetypal myth he defines. In Barth's desentimentalizing of the Indian Maid (The Sotweed Factor), in Nathanael West and in Cat Ballou turning the Western to farce, most significantly in Kesey's removing the West to a madhouse entente between red man and white against the normal world (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest), he sees the saving evolution of the Western. It is a simultaneous return to and extension of D. H. Lawrence's vision of a New Race in America, the moral paradigm of which is male companionship (as in Natty Bumppo and Chingachgook) rather than the petticoated domestication of the Pocahontas and John Smith affair. Deriving as it does from Thoreau's "waking dream," the Myth of the West becomes for Fiedler something like the Code of the West—a value to be preserved and refurbished…. The mad or psychedelic hero becomes the New Savage, a bastion of resistance to WASPs, the Bourgeois, Kultur, and Castrating Woman. That is probably true enough, but it is scarcely the truth. Being himself a man, a Jew, an artist, and at least a symbolic renegade, Fiedler gives the uncomfortable impression of an apologist riding hobby horses into his univocal mythic sunset. One may be partial to hobby horses, but his are too exclusive and arbitrary and are also masked as scientific conclusions. The madness that he sees as a peculiar extension of the American Western myth is really part of a much larger thing that comes from an Absurdist imagination to be seen in such Europeans as Genet or Peter Weiss. Fiedler's general insight about madness as metaphor is true, but it isn't the logical conclusion of an American mythology; it is an Absurd attempt, not to resaddle old myths but destroy them, exorcise them through ridicule. Madhouse literature is not extending the Myth of the West, but assaulting it, trying to kill, not merely "scotch," that age-old snake of Euro-American moral ignorance.
Were it not locked into its dialectic, Fiedler's moral vision would allow much more for the future of American myth. He stops with our cultural "others"—the Indian, the Negro, the Jew—but he might well have included all who are in need of America's peculiar brand of salvation, the salvation that destroys (Hue: "We had to destroy the city to save it."). He tells us to look for our new Indian bogey in the psychedelic scene, but why not in Vietnam, or China or even on Mars? For implicit in Fiedler's argument is the warning that our mythologies destroy whatever obstructs their manifest destiny. We destroyed the Indians by being stronger, and isn't our real moral danger that we are already stronger than anybody on earth?
Well, one wants always to ride his own hobby horses. So Fiedler will probably not have the last word on this subject, and if he did I suspect he would regard his book as a failure. More importantly, he has found the trail that anyone wanting to go West—i.e., wanting to connect the American imagination's present with its past and future—must follow. And, as usual, he has written true things imaginatively. As usual, his readers and critics will wrangle with him. As usual, that doesn't matter; because no matter how fast and loose one may think him, he has served once more to illuminate remote dimensions of the human imagination's infinitely deep well. (pp. 31-2)
Peter Michelson, "The Only Good Injun," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1968 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 158, No. 19, May 11, 1968, pp. 29-32.
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[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, to consider the book as if it were his major work, the final fruit of a lifetime's exploration of himself and the literary texts he finds most challenging. Though it is very probably not his final work, I think we must try to read the book as if it were, since it is a book marked with, indeed made out of, a man's obsessions.
Current mythographers as diverse as Lévi-Strauss and Northrop Frye implicitly argue that myth making is a socially creative activity. Fiedler agrees with that view to a large extent, but his own work raises its most serious questions when it deals with the way in which an individual author reshapes and transforms the communal archetypes…. [D. H.] Lawrence once said that an author sheds his sickness in his books, and this statement may be taken as the touchstone of Fiedler's work. His book on Shakespeare is certainly no exception to this, since what emerges from it is a picture of Shakespeare haunted by his own erotic mythology.
The "stranger" of the book's title is any person who lives at the extreme edge of the communal bond, and survives by staying in touch with his own deepest, most personal energies. More often than not, he or she doesn't survive, but Shakespeare gives them every opportunity to speak fully and honestly of their burdens before they are snuffed out. Neither "odd man out" nor spoilsport, though similar to these previously discussed Shakespeare types, the stranger that Fiedler envisions is a "borderline figure," escaping definition as either hero or villain. Examples include women in Henry VI, the Jew in Merchant of Venice, the Moor in Othello, and Caliban in The Tempest. These four plays are the main area of exploration in the book, but Fiedler includes comparisons of characters and plots, and the examination of archetypes and motifs, from many other plays as well.
But before presenting the chapters that deal with the four plays mentioned, Fiedler draws up the terms of his argument by an examination of the Sonnets. More exactly, and more problematically, he examines the sexual imagination of Shakespeare as it is embodied in five of the more controversial sonnets: numbers 20, 27, 138, 144 and 146. Dealing with the formulas of courtly love, homosexuality, Christian dogma, and the stage conventions which had young boys acting female roles, this chapter presents us with a psycho-biographical sketch of the Bard which is by turns outrageous, cerebral, tenuous, convincing, and finally even a touch condescending. The culminating image of this panorama of polymorphous longings is presented as the "untainted boy betrayed into the embrace of a gonorrheal whore." To make matters more curious, Fiedler suggests that Shakespeare was most animated, and most driven, in writing the Sonnets by the fear that he himself was the betrayer.
It is in many ways the most challenging chapter in the book, combining Freudian assumptions with shreds of literary history, invoking archetypes and presenting insights, as well as engaging in close textual analysis of puns and etymologies. Setting the mood and the mode of the rest of the book, this opening chapter disdains the manner of most previous criticism (there are no notes, for example), and is quick to draw on modern problems to demonstrate, not Shakespeare's "relevance," but our continued enslavement by the darknesses folded into every corner of the text and our own imaginations. Idolatry of the Bard may never be the same, and I shudder to think how the high school literature curriculum might be "modified" if any of our public educators were to take this book seriously.
It might be unsettling, for example, when in later chapters we are asked to consider Portia a witch or Iago a court jester, for such identifications are indeed made by Fiedler, and are never far from the sinuosities of his argument. Certainly one of the book's major rewards, however, comes when it presents a stunning rereading of The Merchant of Venice in which all the pious shibboleths and liberal evasions masking that play are cast aside. Equally provocative is Fiedler's notion of Othello as a one-act comedy followed by a four-act tragedy. This is topped off with a suggestion that a single actor play both Othello and Iago, since it seems that Iago never tells Othello anything that the Moor has not already suggested to himself.
The two men are, finally, equivalent: "Rejected, the fool [Iago] first turns 'foul,' making explicit the implicit pun, then becomes the other antonym of 'fair,' which is to say black. Meanwhile, the black prince has turned first 'fair,' then, in an unforeseen reversal, has become the fool."
Such speculation about the psychological structures of the various plays can be assimilated easily enough into the gargantuan bulk of commentary on Shakespeare, since his characters will always be seen differently within and across generations. But Fiedler has other, more centrifugal remarks to make about the plays. For example, he says of The Tempest that the "whole history of imperialist America has been prophetically revealed to us in brief parable." Always pressing us to see ourselves as the heirs of Shakespeare's imagination, Fiedler believes that the body of mythic material the playwright used for his personal designs is still the one with which we must make our own unsure way. Those who were strangers to Shakespeare remain outcasts today; at least they serve the artistic imagination as such, even if humanistic pieties insist that things have improved. It is a dark version of an even darker vision.
But for Fiedler the darkness of Shakespeare's vision did not come fully drawn. It developed, to put it sketchily, from the homoerotic anti-feminism of the Sonnets and Love's Labours Lost, the problem of marriage and infidelity in Othello, to the redemptively pure passion of Ferdinand and Miranda in The Tempest…. Threaded throughout his erotic mythology, however, is one of the darkest images that continued to fascinate and repel Shakespeare, that of father-daughter incest. Fiedler sees evidence of this in Pericles, where it is obvious, in the much earlier Merchant of Venice where it is not, but also in middle and late tragedies like Othello, Hamlet and Lear, in each of which, he says, "a lovely daughter brings to death an overfond father." Like the young boy and old whore theme, there are many variations rung on this particular perversion, and because it remains repressed it not only disguises itself but transforms other sexual myths as well. (pp. 183-84)
[A] sort of mythic prestidigitation occurs again and again in Fiedler, and what is perhaps most remarkable about it is not the rhetorical aplomb with which it is presented but the way its endless development never seems merely circuitous or arbitrary. Throughout the book he asks us with a straight face to accept nearly preposterous suppositions, only to come eventually to an unarguable maxim. His own obsessions everywhere shape the book, and fables about family relationships, social pariahs and self-deceit arise to qualify and contradict one another. Fiedler's critical practice, whatever one might say about his theory, is thoroughly pragmatic; he is always willing to deal with the obvious, but he is always in search of the truly mysterious. This book, shameless as it is in proposing the unacceptable, comes back again and again to insist on how simple is the term of our ignorance.
Such convolutions, divisions and permutations of mythic tales and figures are difficult for some people to take seriously in the abstract. They seem like half-truths about what are, after all, we keep telling ourselves, the lies and fears of children. Fiedler's use of them seems to me to be quite serious on the one hand but on the other to be simply the only means he has to maintain a serious critical attitude toward his subject. This is especially true when the subject is as complex, rich and frightening as Shakespeare's total work. In fact, there is something peculiarly appropriate about Fiedler's approach, a propriety he elsewhere claims for himself, but one which finally vindicates his book. That is, to put it most simply, that Shakespeare's art, however much the product of genius, must have received some of its sustaining energy by tapping sources hidden even from him. It is, as many of his idolators have put it, as if he wrote beyond all rules, wrote as if he were nature itself speaking fitfully in fables, fairy tales, vulgar errors and misremembered truths. Myth is, after all, the lie we tell ourselves so that we may come closer to the truth.
Fiedler has created for himself, and for us if we care to join him, just such a mythic figure in Shakespeare himself, which is to say a Shakespeare created out of partial truths, but nonetheless integral and real. He has been able to do this because he understands, in part, the true source of Shakespeare's lies. Such "lies" are in most cases the work of an obsessed person. And they bear more than a faint analogy to literary criticism, at least as it is practiced by our most indispensable critics. It was Anatole France, I'm told, who asked the critic to admit, "I'm going to talk about myself apropos of Shakespeare." And who can tell the complete truth when he speaks on that subject? Any sensitive reader feels himself, as he enters those dark places of Cyprus, or Venice or Elsinore, not to mention those darker ones of Othello, Shylock or Hamlet, that he is in many ways an outsider, forced to lie in order to maintain a plausible texture to his presence there. He can construct many alibis for himself, clutch at many partial recognitions, but at bottom he feels as if the places belong to someone else. They do, of course, and this book is a brilliant but refracted glimpse of their proprietor, the only person, perhaps, who was not a stranger to them. (pp. 184-85)
Charles Molesworth, "As a Stranger Give It Welcome," in The Nation (copyright 1972 The Nation magazine, The Nation Associates, Inc.), Vol. 215, No. 6, September 11, 1972, pp. 183-85.
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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 literary criticism and scholarship by committing with naked hands those vaunting acts of parricide and cultural appropriation which the corporate body can perform only gloved and muffled. For the ignominy of the whole academic study of English literature in America is that it has inherited the English language and the literature in it and that it is not, or only by adoption or declension, its own inheritance. What is Shakespeare to a third generation Italo-American, say, or he to Shakespeare? Nothing, or no more than Goethe or Schiller and in another world so much less than Dante or Verdi except that Shakespeare is the swarming centre and most total exhibition of the damned language that a quirk of history obliges him to use. It is a standing insult. It unmakes the Revolution and deposits the poison of rejected Europe upon the lips and in the mouths of the most inveterately native American.
A caricature of course, but I think also a brooding, latent reality. The response, predictably, has been to assimilate English literary culture by a massive all-out technological assault upon it. By editing, and annotating, compiling and researching, the illusion is created that English literature—and so England itself—is an American invention. America not only destroys the aboriginal American but in fantasy the aboriginal Englishman too. This systematic appropriation is naturally riddled by doubt and insecurity. Hence in many manifestations it is discreet and respectful. Another big biography, another definitive collection of letters. And there is also the sad realisation that what has been so tenderly transported is, out of any context, quite dead and empty.
Which is precisely where Fiedler comes in. He by contrast to his more timid brethren has dedicated his life's work to promulgating the mythic supremacy of the American dream. All literatures are preparatory to Melville and Twain and Science Fiction and the Movies. Hitherto mankind has had to dream diffidently and fitfully through the artifices of literature. But American literature proclaims the end of literature and the establishment of the terrestial paradise where technology will devise the collective dream from which man has been so rudely wakened by the trauma of history.
Armed with that apocalyptic assurance, he now feels secure enough to turn on England [in The Stranger in Shakespeare] and on Shakespeare, the prime Daddy, and perform the open parricide that the academic industry only dreamed of in the shadows. He brings the Shakespearian corpus alive by publicly murdering it. This he does by rendering it over to the sexual politics of current America. He imposes on it and conjures it to reveal the great problematic categories of contemporary American consciousness: Women; Jews; Blacks; Indians. All these are the strangers of the title. And to the procession, he adds, in his own right, another more specialised category: the critic not as stranger, but as strangler. As he throttles the dear old dead bard, out of his corpse springs the American Shakespeare in the shape of Caliban singing his Whitmanesque line: "Freedom, heyday! Heyday, freedom! Freedom, heyday, freedom." Caliban, Fiedler solemnly informs us, "has created something new under the sun: the first American poem." And what is its content? A rhythmic tribal shout proclaiming liberty, and liberty above all from the bard, old Prospero, self-shorn of his magic and bound for death in Milan.
By that act of parricidal recognition Fiedler creates the first American Shakespeare. And it is easy, in his logic. Since world culture aspires to the condition of America, all he has to do is to lift the lid off the Shakespearian cauldron and reveal beneath all that old world civility and richly evolved circumstance the great American simples, sex and race and the instruments and orifices through which they penetrate and desecrate and assimilate each other in unceasing mechanic permutation. It is Shakespeare as revisited via William Burroughs, an observation Fiedler would regard as complimentary since zestful desecration is central to his endeavour. As bonus will be the excited irritation of English reviewers obediently rising to the bait of his provocation.
This will sound unduly rude and personal. But why maintain decorum when Fiedler's essay sets out—not blatantly, but systematically—to violate decorum? Why should he elude the benefits of the same sexo-mythic criteria he deploys with such loving glibness upon the prostrate body of the bard? (p. 426)
How hard it is to avoid the impression that Fiedler is inviting us to dissolve the venerable bard into good clean democratic—and so American—filth…. For [Fiedler's] whole method is a solvent designed to bite away the figured surface of Shakespeare's art to reveal the mythic sexual drama which constitutes in Fiedler's account the final meaning of his plays.
My objection to Fiedler's book should now be clear and is familiar enough in kind. He commits blatantly and without any mitigating disquiet the sin of reductionism, presuming always that myth constitutes the deep truth of literary works. The upper levels then have to be read away as evasions, resistancies and disguises.
The justification for this kind of reading would be that since the human condition in its primary manifestation is vested in such myths, to discover or uncover them in Shakespeare is to uphold his humanity. Moreover, since these myths remain immanent in each individual unconsciousness, Shakespeare is really all of us, universally and as it were preculturally available….
It needs hardly saying that I find the details of Fiedler's lurid Shakespearian romance totally unconvincing. How is it that this woman-loather gives us the most lucid, balanced humane account of women as the reality principle ever offered by literature up to his time? Again, why must a reduction be the way to reality? Of course Shakespeare deals with archaic material, but it is in its complex, and often conscious rendering and refashioning that one should surely locate a central part of Shakespeare's reality. It might be helpful to recognise in Shylock with his knife a castrating ogre but surely Shakespeare's triumph is to have recognised—insecurely and against great odds—that the castrating ogre is a flesh and blood individual called Shylock. What Fiedler seems to deny desperately and at all costs to simple human truth as we find it in Shakespeare is the reality principle operating in the controls of poetic language and the exigencies of dramatic form. His loving insistence on the polymorphic contortions of the pure pleasure principle is surely profoundly infantile. And making his whole sexual circus revolve is the dreadful engine of technological abstraction, that mythic arithmetic—to use Fiedler's own phrase—whose exercise is ultimately so empty because so easy. (p. 427)
Gabriel Pearson, "Fiedler's American Shakespeare," in The Spectator (© 1973 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), Vol. 230, No. 7554, April 7, 1973, pp. 426-27.
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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 End to Innocence is "Come Back to the Raft Ag'in, Huck Honey!" in which Fiedler introduced three of his pet theories: 1) the American classics have failed to deal frankly with "adult heterosexual love"; 2) Moby-Dick, Two Years Before the Mast, Huckleberry Finn, and the Leatherstocking Tales are really boys' books; and 3) each of the above celebrates "the mutual love of a white man and a colored."… It is in this same essay that Fiedler offered the following nebulous definition of what was already a much abused word: "by 'archetype' I mean a coherent pattern of beliefs and feelings so widely shared at a level beneath consciousness that there exists no abstract vocabulary for representing it, and so 'sacred' that unexamined, irrational restraints inhibit any explicit analysis. Such a complex finds a formula or pattern story, which serves both to embody it, and, at first at least, to conceal its full implications." This concealment, which D. H. Lawrence considered characteristic of the American classics, becomes an essential part of the mythic complex which it is the duty of the critic to uncover. Unfortunately, Fiedler became overzealous in his pursuit of hidden meanings, and his theories (e.g., his insistence that "Miscegenation is the secret theme of the Leatherstocking novels, especially of The Last of the Mohicans" … inevitably suffered from his Barnum and Bailey showmanship. (pp. 151-52)
Fiedler's next book, No! in Thunder not only allied him with the great nay-sayers of the past but also revealed—in its subtitle, Essays on Myth and Literature—that he had turned fully now to literary criticism. Cantankerous as ever, he arrogantly announced from the rooftops that he hoped once again to offend "all those with 'cemeteries to defend'." Denying that he was with all his "occasional hamminess, an entertainer," he insisted that as a moralist he had set out in this "autobiography" to expose that which "is shallow, self-deceiving or specious in our culture…."
In one of the best known essays in the book, "Archetype and Signature, The Relationship of Poet and Poem," Fiedler rejected the New Critics' claim that any work of art should be completely self-contained, and he welcomed biographical-historical facts as most useful and illuminating in making known the author's intentions. To Fiedler, "There is no 'work itself,' no independent formal entity which is its own sole context; the poem is the sum total of many contexts, all of which must be known to know how to evaluate it." One of these contexts is the writer's biography, and the critic must be familiar with it because, "In deed as in word, the poet composes himself as maker and mask, in accordance with some contemporaneous mythos of the artist."… (pp. 152-53)
Fiedler's definitions of "archetype" (which he had fumbled with unsuccessfully in the earlier essay on Huck Finn) and "signature" merit full quotation. "Archetype," which he preferred to "myth" because of its current ambiguity, means "any of the immemorial patterns of response to the human situation in its most permanent aspects: death, love, the biological family, the relationship with the Unknown, etc., whether those patterns be considered to reside in the Jungian Collective Unconscious or the Platonic World of Ideas. The archetypal belongs to the infra- or meta-personal, to what Freudians call the id or the unconscious; that is, it belongs to the Community at its deepest, pre-conscious levels of acceptance."… (p. 153)
Demonstrating once again that archetypal patterns do not have to depend on myths that are centuries old, Fiedler turned to another of his favorite subjects in "The Eye of Innocence, Some Notes on the Role of the Child in Literature." First observing the modern literary phenomenon of moving the child from a supporting role to a central position in fiction, Fiedler saw this revolution as part of the much broader Romantic movement from a belief in Original Sin to a belief in Original Innocence. He called this movement "the Psychic Breakthrough, the Reemergence of the Id." Deriving fiendish delight from his choice of kindergarten-level terminology, he traced the archetypal role of the child in literature from the Good Good Girl ("the blonde asexual goddess of nursery or orphanage" …) to the Good Bad Boy (Tom Sawyer), and touched on all the variations in between. Eventually, at some point in the nineteenth century, the heart, Romantic symbol of the child and primal innocence, was split in two, giving the reader the Fair Virgin and her counterpart, the Dark Lady, as well as the Good Indian and the Bad. "In each case, the Dark Double represents the threat of sex as well as that of death …"…. (p. 155)
Fiedler's Love and Death in the American Novel … stirred up even more controversy than his essays. In this monumental study he returned to many of his original theories and expanded upon them at great length, with more of the histrionics which had irritated and consequently alienated so many of his colleagues. (p. 156)
Fiedler both invited and welcomed such criticism as a badge of honor. In his preface, he immediately admitted that his study "is not, in the customarily accepted sense of the word, an academic or scholarly book…." The omission of footnotes and formal bibliography revealed not a rigid reliance on "fact" but dependence "on insight and sensitivity to nuance." Arguing that no one critic can possibly do justice to the whole spectrum of critical approaches—textual, historical, biographical, sociological, anthropological, psychological, or generic—he was attempting in his book "to emphasize the neglected contexts of American fiction, largely depth-psychological and anthropological, but sociological and formal as well."… Anticipating the objections of his detractors, he made it perfectly clear that he offered his interpretations "not as alternative to standard ways of reading but as complementary to them: I find no greater pleasure than in reminding myself that my interpretations are as partial as those which bore me the most."… But such humility was shortlived, and Fiedler could not resist adding, "To redeem our great books from the commentaries on them is one of the chief functions of this study."… (pp. 156-57)
A final assessment of a controversial study the thickness and complexity of Fiedler's Love and Death in the American Novel is difficult. It is easy to point out carelessly inaccurate facts, meretricious generalizations that collapse under close scrutiny, and the irritatingly flamboyant style. There will always be some critics annoyed by Fiedler's slighting of such talented novelists as Howells, Wharton, Lewis, and Dos Passos while inflating the virtues of Charles Brockden Brown, Nathanael West, and Wright Morris. More serious is the charge of reductivism and oversimplification. Cowley's legitimate complaint about Fiedler's "loosely Freudian method, with its emphasis on love and death, eros and thanatos, is that it doesn't provide a standard for choosing the best works or a means of revealing their superiority to lesser works." Howe agreed and wrote that Fiedler's "method … disregards the work of literature as something 'made,' a construct of mind and imagination through the medium of language, requiring attention on its own terms and according to its own structure" [see excerpt above]. However, despite this valid criticism, Fiedler's book remains a prodigious, exciting, seminal contribution which must be acknowledged in any future study of American fiction. (pp. 158-59)
Arnold L. Goldsmith, "The Myth Critics," in his American Literary Criticism: 1905–1965, Vol. III (copyright © 1979 by Twayne Publishers, Inc.; reprinted with the permission of Twayne Publishers, a Division of G. K. Hall & Co., Boston), Twayne, 1979, pp. 146-68.∗
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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 precisely the difference between Fiedler and his imitators. Like a very good poem, his criticism has the capacity first to surprise and then to convince.
The Inadvertent Epic is yet another chapter in Fiedler's mythography of what it means to be an American. This time, however, he is less interested in those classic American writers who crafted their No! in thunder and high seriousness than he is in such hearty perennials of the popular imagination as Uncle Tom's Cabin and Gone with the Wind…. For all his masculine brag and swagger, Fiedler takes considerable pains to remind us that he also has a soft, androgynous heart. Like American literature itself, he embraces both possibilities. He is large. He contains multitudes, on principle.
At one level, The Inadvertent Epic is an extended exercise in redefinition, in rescuing Uncle Tom's Cabin, The Clansman-cum-Birth of a Nation, Gone with the Wind, and Roots from critical neglect. The lessons of craft preached by conscious artists like Henry James or E. M. Forster count for less than the powers unleashed by the Dreamer and the Dream: "No one, except in dreams, has ever been as good as Tom, as pure as Eva, as demonic as Topsy, as unremittingly evil as Simon Legree. But insofar as we all feel ourselves obsessed or oppressed, we all dream such dreams; and Mrs. Stowe, like other enduring popular authors, permits us the luxury of re-dreaming them awake. She was gifted with easy access not just to her own unconscious but to that of the mass audience …"…. Only Fiedler's eloquence separates him from other apologists for the academic study of popular culture. But at another, more important level, The Inadvertent Epic is a way of coming to grips with our conspicuously absent "American Epic" (itself a dream at least as old as Joel Barlow's Columbiad) and of recognizing the only Epic that America, being America, could produce. As Fiedler puts it:
Understood as a single work (i.e. Uncle Tom's Cabin, The Clansman, Gone with the Wind and Roots) composed over more than a century, in many media and by many hands, these constitute a hitherto unperceived Popular Epic. Rooted in demonic dreams of race, sex and violence which have long haunted us Americans, they determine our views of the Civil War, Reconstruction, the Rise and Fall of the Ku Klux Klan, the enslavement and liberation of African Blacks, thus constituting a myth of our history unequalled in scope or resonance by any work of High Literature….
Not only D. H. Lawrence (whose Studies in Classic American Literature always pulses within or behind or beyond or above Fiedler's work), but also Alexis de Tocqueville would agree. American culture is destined to be forever rendered in chiaroscuro.
Unfortunately, I suspect The Inadvertent Epic will only harden the battle lines that have grown up around Fiedler's canon. Those fond of the outrageous claim and the brilliantly turned phrase will find both of them generously sprinkled through this short book (at one point Fiedler links the Mammy of Gone with the Wind with Uncle Tom, "the Great Black Mother of us all … first dreamed for the Mothers of America by Harriet Beecher Stowe"), while those who tsk! tsked Fiedler in the past will continue to furrow their High Brows at him in the future.
Each group is half right: Fiedler can never quite resist the impulse to drive a pet thesis to something akin to self-parody. Hence, Uncle Tom's Cabin gives birth to Anti-Tom novels like Gone with the Wind, and then to Anti-Anti-Tom novels like Roots; rape fantasies (black men-white women; white men-black women) go through equally tortured permutations); a novel's characters are always shadowy reminders of unlikely Others (Uncle Tom is really the Good Black Mother; Kunte Kinte is, at bottom, Malcolm X). The problem, of course, is that Fiedler's Dream tends to be reductive. One is reminded of Philip Traum's advice in the concluding pages of Mark Twain's The Mysterious Stranger: "Dream other dreams, and better!" No doubt Fiedler would insist that that is only possible when we have dreamed through the nightmare of racism all too many of us still deny. (pp. 690-92)
Sanford Pinsker, "Book Reviews: 'The Inadvertent Epic: From "Uncle Tom's Cabin" to "Roots"'," in The Georgia Review (copyright, 1980, by the University of Georgia), Vol. XXXIV, No. 3, Fall, 1980, pp. 690-92.
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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 weary, sometimes self-contradictory and repetitive, Fiedler's arguments are sporadically lively, always intelligent. They can still provoke and entertain—if only on style alone.
Earl Rovit, "Literature: 'What Was Literature?: Class Culture and Mass Society'," in Library Journal (reprinted from Library Journal, November 1, 1982; published by R. R. Bowker Co. (a Xerox company); copyright © 1982 by Xerox Corporation), Vol. 107, No. 19, November 1, 1982, p. 2097.
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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 Love and Death in the American Novel. Although today's Fiedler sometimes plays games with the historical record, he is certainly close to history when he portrays himself as one whose writings (and even whose person, at times) were condemned publicly by professors of literature who nevertheless put his interpretations to work for themselves….
But in the years following the completion of his book, Fiedler became increasingly uneasy with the "elitist" assumptions that had led him "to neglect or condescend to certain long-lived best sellers containing myths quite different from those which informed the books I took to be canonical." It was not the neglected myths in themselves that nagged at him. It was that the literary assumptions on which he proceeded required that he approach these myths in best-selling books, movies, and television shows with an acknowledgment that he was slumming, with an admission that his errand was sociological rather than aesthetic. This struck him as hypocritical, because the pleasures he (and others) derived from such works were literary pleasures.
Something had to give: either he had to kick his "sub-literary" habit or he had to revise his ideas about literature so that he could approach popular fiction without prejudice. He chose the latter course and What Was Literature? is, in good part, the record of his progress toward that choice. Literature was the writing valued by the likes of Leslie A. Fiedler who upheld elitist standards. But literature is far more democratic than that, Fiedler now says. Moreover, if we follow his example and recognize that the low stuff we covertly enjoy is every bit as much literature as the high art we talk about with those who we hope will respect us, then, he suggests, we shall not only be thinking more clearly, but we shall feel better about ourselves and our world….
What Was Literature? consists of two parts. The first, "Subverting the Standards," gives us a crash course on modernism, so we can get out of the elitist trap by understanding how we got into it. The second, "Opening Up the Canon," is a practical demonstration of how the democratized view of literature that results from this process can be applied….
I have a number of disagreements with Part One's animated account of modernism, but most are soothed by the realization that, after all, I am being given the mystique of the movement rather than its history. Fiedler's emphasis is on causes not present to the physical eye—points of intersection between the what that happened and the why of society's unconsciousness—and he offers himself as the intellectual picaro who represents us. Occasionally he strays into an outrageous generalization that is not sanctioned even by the convention he has established, but such wanderings are few in comparison with the number of illuminations we receive along the way. (p. 29)
I wish, alas, that I could derive the same pleasure and knowledge from Fiedler's governing argument as I do from the perceptions he uses in support of it. But while in Part One he quite fetchingly dismantles the conventional case for literature and popular fiction being intrinsically different, in Part Two he appears tacitly to affirm that there is a difference, although his interpretation of the myths before him explicitly denies this.
There are some stories, he says, that live independently of the means by which they are transmitted; they are "known" equally well when they are apprehended as words on a page, drawings in a comic strip, or moving images on a screen…. I agree with Fiedler that the "knowers" of the story of, say, Tarzan, can know it without ever having read the book called Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs. But I do not think that the story or the myth encoded in Moby-Dick by Herman Melville or Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain can be known except by reading the words on the pages of those books. This seems to me to indicate an intrinsic difference between the two kinds of fiction. All fictions are based on one or another of a limited number of fables. To attribute their effect to the fables they contain, however, rather than to the way they embody them in plot, character, and narrative voice, is to accept poverty for plenty. The difference between Tarzan and Huckleberry Finn is that the former is, relatively, no thinner for its being reduced to fable whereas the latter becomes so attenuated that it no longer is itself.
With Fiedler, I would be happy to put an end to expressing that difference in words such as "highbrow" and "lowbrow," terms which, whatever their original application, are today used to sneer socially at the "lowbrow" in order to deliver him politically into the protective custody of the "highbrow." But while I am happy to join a movement for the democratizing of literary appreciation, I believe that greater social sensitivity to what is included in "literature" still results in the recognition that there is a difference between what we call popular and what we call serious fiction. (pp. 29-30)
According to its author, What Was Literature? is intended neither for me, since I am writing about it, nor for you, since you are reading what I am writing about it. The audience at which he aims, Fiedler says, is an audience of those who have read (or seen) the works about which he writes, but who do not read anything about those works. As the ancient and honorable discipline of rhetoric teaches us, however, there is a difference between the assumed audience contained in a discourse and the historical audience that actually reads it. The assumed audience—Thoreau's "fellow townsmen," F.D.R.'s "my friends"—is an important part of the strategy of a work, but Thoreau reached beyond Concord for his actual readers and Roosevelt knew that many to whom he "chatted" were not amicably disposed.
Never fear, then, reader. What Was Literature? is really for you and me too—literate, highbrow, and snobbish though we may be—and it really is written by a learned professor, despite the facts that it is well written, gives delight, and is not by Leslie A. Fiedler. (p. 30)
Larzer Ziff, "The Culture Controversy: A Response To Leslie Fiedler" (reprinted by permission of the author), in Boston Review, Vol. VII, No. 6, December, 1982, pp. 29-30.
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