Fear and Loathing
How Leslie Fiedler turned American criticism on its head.
Leslie Fiedler, who died last week at age 85, was the last—or rather the first—of the wild-man literary critics. We're used to the type now: Harold Bloom with his sprawling, egomaniacal tomes and kitschy sad-Falstaff routine; Stanley Fish with his "subversive" provocations produced on cue for the op-ed page; Frank Lentricchia in his muscle shirt. But Fiedler was the original chest-thumping extrovert of American criticism, and no one ever did it better.
He's best remembered for his protean transformations. The phases included gloating ex-communism (in the 1950s he was a hatchet man for the Committee on Cultural Freedom) and self-aggrandizing New Leftism. (The cops who raided his house in Buffalo dug up some pot and hashish; Fiedler got an entire book out of it, Being Busted.) Next came rhapsodic-encyclopedic essays on comic books, junk fiction, and geek movies. And there was, always, the theme of Jewishness. Like the protagonist in his short story "The Last Jew in America"—Fiedler was the rare academic scholar who dared write fiction—Fiedler himself "burn[ed] with baffled rage."
Like every true rebel, he waged his most interesting battles against himself, smashing idols he once had worshiped. He made his name, in the late '40s, as a lit-crit prodigy in the grim-faced Cold War literary establishment known today as the New York Intellectuals or "the family." He could easily have set himself up simply as an Upper West Side sage. He was charismatic and leonine and had the credentials—an outsized oeuvre,ease with languages (Japanese, Italian), lecture gigs all over the world. But he was a New Jersey guy, from Newark, and his chosen bases were Montana (where he lived and taught for 23 years) and later Buffalo (where he landed in 1965 and remained till his death). In 1997 he was honored by the National Book Critics Circle, yet his CV is still posted online, like some adjunct's in Manhattan, Kan. The Internet was, after all, a natural home for Fiedler, who had visionary leanings: The OED credits him with being the first person to apply the term "postmodernist" to literature. This wasn't lucky phrase-making. It was a declaration of principles. Postmodernism meant modernism was dead, and Fiedler crowed at the grave site.
Crowing was his natural idiom. He was a master of hectoring overstatement. His first great essay, "Come Back to the Raft Ag'n, Huck Honey," published in Partisan Review in 1948, when Fiedler was 31, opened with a sentence that announced itself as a scandal: "It is perhaps to be expected that the Negro and the homosexual should become stock literary themes in a period when the exploration of responsibility and failure has become again a primary concern of our literature." The frank mention of race and sex was shocking in its day. But the real treat is the quasi-parodical prose. It ridicules its own high-mindedness. The first six words are pure ventriloquism—they echo the demurring perfected by older Jewish critics who feared they weren't mannerly enough to appropriate the "Anglo-American tradition." The drivel about "responsibility and failure" reeks of the ideological piety Fiedler was ready to explode.
His most notorious performance, "Afterthoughts on the Rosenbergs," was commissioned in 1953 for the first issue of Encounter, the CIA-funded magazine conceived as a highbrow weapon in the war for the "hearts and minds" of the European intelligentsia. Few in Fiedler's circle doubted that the "atom spies" were guilty—if not of actually handing Moscow the keys to the nuclear kingdom, then at least of having ardently wished to do so. But Fiedler wasn't content just to endorse the verdict. He jeered at the pair's rotten taste and aesthetic lapses, which he treated as synecdoches of their political transgressions: their shabby apartment in the low-cost apartment building ("the visible manifestation of the Stalinized petty-bourgeois mind"); the sappy folk songs the couple sang in their jail cells; and, worst of all, Ethel's self-righteous, pamphleteering "death-house letters," in which the Brooklyn Dodgers are recast as emblems of "the masses" and, as Fiedler said (or screamed), "the ready-made epithets of the Communist press are released like a dog's saliva at the ting of a bell."
The analysis was acute, but the manic tone frightened even so fierce a polemicist as Sidney Hook, who advised Irving Kristol, Encounter's editor, to run a disclaimer saying Fiedler's meditation "should not be construed as an attack against human beings who are dead." No matter. Thanks to Fiedler, the entire print run of the magazine, 10,000 copies, sold out in a week. The embarrassed editors wished they could have had them back and set them ablaze. Why couldn't Fiedler have written an essay like Robert Warshow's sober piece in Commentary? It was just as critical of the Rosenbergs—in fact it made the identical argument—but its tone was nuanced, deliberative, clinical.
Today, however, Warshow's piece feels thin and strained precisely because its emotions are suppressed, whereas Fiedler's has a kind of tabloid honesty. Theessay's vulgarity heroically subverts its very thesis andexposes the ugliness of using taste as an instrument of moral judgment. Thus did Fiedler turn the obsessions of "the family," punitive anti-Stalinism and reverent High Modernism, inside out. Let the genteel critics make pained gestures of "reconciliation" toward America—the miniature Tocquevilles who contributed to Partisan Review's 1952 symposium "Our Country and Our Culture," the born-again capitalists and celebrants of middle-class values, the purveyors of "American exceptionalism." Fiedler instead roared off on a Hell's Angels road trip through the desolate highways of the national psyche, in search of its demons, its appetites, its lust.
His masterpiece, Love and Death in the American Novel, published in 1960, sounds like a Woody Allen invention. But the insights are radiant. He argued that every classic American male writer, like every American male, is stunted. "In a compulsive way he returns to a limited world of experience, usually associated with his childhood, writing the same book over and over again until he lapses into silence or self-parody." This observation came before J.D. Salinger disappeared into the woods. Of course, Fiedler was thinking of other examples: Cooper, Twain, Fitzgerald, Hemingway.
Hemingway's suicide made Fiedler a celebrity. In his Montana period, Fiedler made a pilgrimage to Ketchum, Idaho, the great grizzled one's lair, months before Hemingway killed himself. After Hemingway's death, Fiedler traveled the country, reminiscing about his day at Ketchum, pretending it was an ordeal to brood so publicly about what he'd seen and that he could bring himself to do it only after the third or fourth drink. In fact he savored the details, as the essay he wrote makes all too plain: "The Hemingway who greeted us, framed by the huge blank television screen that dominated the living room, was an old man with spectacles slipping down his nose. An old man at sixty-one. ... Hemingway's handclasp I could scarcely feel; and I stood there baffled, a little ashamed of how I had braced myself involuntarily for a bone-crushing grip."
You don't need Harold Bloom's theoretical apparatus to understand that Fiedler is feasting on Hemingway's ebbing powers—that the critic has defeated the novelist. But then, this has always been criticism's message. It is a contest between gifted writer and gifted reader. Fiedler spelled it out with appalling literalness. He was chronically unable to leave anything unsaid—or unshouted. And this was his genius. He lacked the good manners of the New York Intellectuals. He disdained their craft, their escape-hatch subtleties, because he wasn't really one of them.
Sam Tanenhaus is the editor of the New York Times Book Review and the author of The Death of Conservatism.
Photograph courtesy of Don Heupel/AP Wide World Photos.