What Was Literature?

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 13)

Imagine a literary critic whose early fame derived from his detection of homosexual themes in Huckleberry Finn and Moby Dick. Imagine further that his particular argument in his most remembered work was that the peculiar strain in American literature has been an obsession with death—an obsession that has in turn inhibited authors from handling homosexual themes with maturity. The result was a kind of sublimated homosexual ideal, with pairs of boon companions in the wilderness, innocent, often interracial buddies running toward what Huck Finn called “the territory ahead.” What they were really doing, the critic argued, was fleeing from the domination of women. At the time, the idea seemed so strange that many must have thought that the critic was a figment of the imagination, but Leslie Fiedler was quite real, and his ideas of literature and culture and criticism have challenged Establishment traditions with profound effect.

Fiedler kindled his argument in an essay entitled “Come Back to the Raft Ag’in, Huck Honey!” and expanded it into a landmark work of American literary criticism, Love and Death in the American Novel (1960), which was to be the first book of a thousand-page trilogy of literary and cultural criticism that would permanently alter the way critics and teachers understand American literature and the nature of the civilization it reveals.

Critic, professor, novelist, and energetic publicist of his own activities, Fiedler became a highly visible figure in the 1960’s. By 1964, in Waiting for the End, he was diagnosing “a weariness in the West, a weariness with humanism itself which underlies all the movements of our world, a weariness with the striving to be men.” He noted the American effort to achieve salvation through art or political ideology and concluded that the country had begun to shift from a whiskey culture to a dope culture. He pointed out that the spread of marijuana, peyote, and the synthetic drugs then making the rounds of youth and polite society of the time amounted to “the red man’s revenge.” He argued passionately that fiction and poetry do matter, not simply because they delight or enlighten, but because they are the symptoms by which to psychoanalyze a culture, a people. He concluded that the novel was probably dying and that society was very sick. The mythos of traditional humanism was no longer fulfilling the needs of the society, so a new kind of literature, an avant-garde, hipster literature, was emerging to displace the old, to dream some new apocalypse.

Fiedler completed his trilogy in 1968 with The Return of the Vanishing American, in which he argued that the encounter between White Man and Red Man, “that utter stranger for whom our New World is an Old Home,” is at the heart of the classic Western. In the meeting of these two, the White Man turns into a kind of cultural half-breed; he is a mutant who mediates between the nature of the Red Man and the civilization he has fled. In other cases, the White Man’s arrival results in the destruction of the Indian: remove the Red Man and the classic Western becomes something else. Fiedler finds four myths behind the American vision of the West: The Myth of Love in the Woods—the encounter between Red Woman and White Man, as in the story of Captain John Smith and Pocahontas; The Myth of the White Woman with a Tomahawk—as in the true story of Hannah Duston, a New England woman who in 1697 axed to death ten sleeping Indians who had unfortunately captured her; The Myth of the Good Companions in the Wilderness—the friendship between the White Man and the Red, as portrayed by Natty Bumppo and Chingachgook in the Leatherstocking Tales; and The Myth of the Runaway Male—a conflict between the White Man and the White Woman, as exemplified by Rip Van Winkle and his nagging wife. Others have seen romance, folksy humor, or adventure in American literature, but Fiedler sees paradox, parody, myth, and reflections of the collective unconscious.

Somehow, Fiedler has always managed to transcend the banal limitations of traditional criticism. When he was indicted on a marijuana possession charge, he found himself the target of those who would repress freedom of expression; as a liberal, intellectual, bearded, rich Jew, he was a perfect scapegoat. He wrote about the experience in Being Busted (1969). Other books by Fiedler have appeared since then, but none so surprising as his 1978 volume on Freaks: Myths and Images of the Secret Self. In this book, he traces a wide range of reactions to the “freak” in life and art, treating images of freaks as symptoms of the fears and ideas of the collective unconscious. If, as Irving Howe has said, an “intellectual . . . has no field,” then Leslie Fiedler is one of America’s true intellectuals; in spite of his being a Professor of English at the State University of New York at Buffalo, he is above all a generalizer, a persuasive and valuable one. As he wrote in An End to Innocence (1955), “As one who dearly loves a generalization, . . . I relish all that is typical, even me; and I like to think of myself as registering through my particular sensibility the plight of a whole group.” What might some of those groups be? Fiedler hopes to tell “the truth about my world and myself as a liberal, intellectual, writer, American, and Jew.”

Fiedler’s writing and truth-telling evolved finally to the arguments of what he has announced for almost a decade as his last volume of criticism. But why did Fiedler write What Was Literature? He had three aims: to assert the obsolescence and death of traditional criticism; to justify a new literature that appeals to what is basic in all human beings; and to delineate a new criticism. These are noble goals, ones that only a Fiedler might achieve. Despite his distrust of Structuralism, a term from Structuralist analysis surely describes his role as critic best: “mediator.” Fiedler is a badly needed mediator between elitist and popular art and literature, between the “was” and “is” of literature. He argues simply that the critic must deal with literature without elitist preconceptions: “I have nonetheless . . . come to understand that in every stereotype, no matter how weary, there sleeps a true archetype, waiting to be awakened by the majority critic, who, like the majority poet or novelist, screenwriter or composer of popular songs, dares to be...

(The entire section is 2648 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 13)

The Atlantic. CCLI, January, 1983, p. 92.

Commentary. LXXV, January, 1983, p. 66.

Library Journal. CVII, November 1, 1982, p. 2097.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. November 21, 1982, p. 3.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXII, September 22, 1982, p. 67.