Leslie Fiedler  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Leslie Aaron Fiedler (March 8, 1917January 29, 2003) was an American literary critic, known for his interest in American mythography and his championing of genre fiction. His work also involves application of psychoanalytic theories to American literature. He was in practical terms one of the early postmodernist critics working across literature in general, from around 1970. His most cited works are Love and Death in the American Novel (1960) and the nobrow manifesto Cross the Border — Close the Gap (1969).

Contents

Life

Early years

Fiedler was born in Newark, New Jersey, to Jewish parents Lillian and Jacob Fiedler. “Eliezar Aaron” was his original Hebrew name. In his early years, Fiedler developed a strong connection to his grandparents, Leon (originally Leib) and Perl Rosenstrauch. As Mark Royden Winchell writes in his 2002 book on Fiedler, “during Leslie’s childhood, Leon and Perl Rosenstrauch were more like parents to Leslie than were his own father and mother” (Winchell 5).

At an early age, Fiedler’s family moved from Newark to East Orange, New Jersey, a town that lacked a substantial Jewish community. Fiedler was forced to contend with anti-semitism from his fellow students who were Protestants and Catholics. The move to East Orange was short-lived and the family soon returned to Newark where Fiedler continued his education in public schools. Fiedler developed a resentment toward his teachers, who forced him to use standard English pronunciations instead of his ethnic dialect. While attending school, Fiedler also worked in his uncle’s shoe store where his encounters with coworkers served as inspiration for some of the characters he created in his later work. At South Side High School, Fiedler began to express interest in socialism, which eventually led to him nearly getting arrested after a loud political rant on a soapbox on Newark’s Bergen Street.

University education

Undergraduate years

Fiedler finished his schooling at South Side High in 1934.Because of his parents' poor financial condition, he was at first unable to attend college. He recalled sitting on the steps of his father's bankrupt drugstore, disconsolate, weeping that he "wanted to go to college." Eventually he received a small scholarship, but it was insufficient to fund his university education. He enrolled in NYU Heights only after raising the money for tuition himself. Fiedler’s flirtations with socialist ideology continued in his undergraduate career. He joined the Young Communist League and later aligned himself with the ideas of Trotsky. Fiedler’s political opinions led to on-campus acts of rebellion (For instance, at one point he adamantly refused to salute the flag during an ROTC parade). His behavior led to many professors refusing to recommend him for graduate schools; as Winchell notes, one professor even left a scathing and ironic remark in Fiedler's file: “Mr. Fiedler will never be a gentleman or a scholar” (Winchell, 25). Because of this lack of recommendations, Fiedler did not gain admission to the elite eastern schools, but did receive a scholarship from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and he decided to go there in 1938.

Graduate school

In spite of Fiedler’s scholarship, his move to Wisconsin for his MA left him very short of funds. He reportedly had to survive on forty cents a day. Fiedler continued to believe in Trotsky’s ideas. These ideas were opposed by the UW-Madison’s Stalinists. One of the more prominent of the campus Stalinists was Margaret Shipley, who became Fiedler’s girlfriend. Within a few months of knowing each other, Fiedler and Shipley decided to marry; Fiedler was 22 at the time. In the same year that he married Shipley, Fiedler received his MA from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He attained his doctorate two years later. Among his professors at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Fiedler developed a special fondness for William Ellery Leonard. Leonard oversaw Fiedler’s thesis (a Marxist reading of Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde) and his dissertation (an interpretation of Donne’s poetry in relation to Medieval thought).

Teaching career, research, and criticism

First teaching appointment and Pearl Harbor

In 1941, Fiedler was offered a job as an assistant professor at the University of Montana in Missoula. It was in February of this year that his first son, Kurt Fiedler, was born two months prematurely. Fiedler was in the process of establishing himself in Montana when Pearl Harbor was bombed. Fiedler made the sudden decision to join the Navy. He was recruited and placed in a Colorado-based training program for learning the Japanese language. The Navy’s intention was to use Fiedler as a translator for captured Japanese prisoners.

Just before Fiedler left for Pearl Harbor as a lieutenant junior grade, his wife gave birth to his second son, Eric Ellery Fiedler. He would have four more children: Michael in 1947, Debbie in 1949, Jenny in 1952, and Miriam in 1955. But, as a translator of Japanese, Fiedler was present on Iwo Jima for the raising of the American Flag on [Mount Suribachi]. After performing various translation-oriented duties, Fiedler was discharged in 1945. Although initially intending to return to The University of Montana, Fiedler was unexpectedly offered a position at Harvard as a Rockefeller Fellow. He took a number of courses and became involved in the Harvard Poetry Society. Fiedler also occasionally taught portions of American Poetry classes pertaining to Jewish poets.

”Come Back to the Raft Ag’in, Huck Honey!”

Fiedler’s first critical work appeared in 1948 and came about from his habit of reading American novels to his sons. The essay appeared in a journal called Partisan Review and was the subject of a great amount of critical debate and controversy. "Come Back to the Raft Ag'in, Huck Honey!" argued a recurrent theme in American literature was an unspoken or implied homoerotic relationship between men, famously using Huckleberry Finn and Jim as examples. Pairs of men flee for wilderness rather than remain in the civilizing and domesticated world of women. Fiedler also deals with this male bonding in Love and Death in the American Novel (1960), Waiting for the End (1964) and The Return of the Vanishing American (1968).

As Winchell wrote in his book on Fiedler, “Reading ‘Come Back to the Raft’ over half a century later, one tends to forget that, prior to Fiedler, few critics had discussed classic American literature in terms of race, gender, and sexuality” (Winchell 53). Fiedler emphasizes the fact that the males who are paired in these wilderness adventures tend to be of different races as well, created an added critical dimension. Come Back to the Raft not only caused a stream of letters of protest to be sent to Partisan Review, but it also was attacked by the critical community. For instance, Queer theorist Christopher Looby argues that Fiedler's claims were noticeably from a 20th century urban perspective and did not adequately address the time period in which Huckleberry Finn was written.

The Frontier, new criticism, and the early-1950s

After the end of his one-year tenure as a Rockefeller Fellow, Fiedler was offered jobs at the University of California, Berkeley, the University of California, Santa Barbara, and (once again) at the University of Montana. Fiedler decided to return to Missoula. Shortly after his return to Montana, he wrote another article that made him the subject of controversy, Montana; or the End of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Also published in the Partisan Review, the essay deals with the development of the frontier. Fiedler's argument includes descriptions of Montanans that were thought to be offensive to the actual residents of his community.

Through the late 1940s and early 1950s Fiedler was being published in several journals and was making himself known in the critical scene. His literary work appeared in Kenyon Review; he was also named the 1956 Kenyon Fellow in Criticism. Even though the Kenyon Review was a journal often associated with New Criticism, Fiedler questioned the principles of New Criticism in his writing. Fiedler targets New Criticism in his well-known essay Archetype and Signature.

After a stint as a Fulbright lecturer in the universities of Rome and Bologna lasting from 1951 to 1953, Fiedler became the Chair of the Department of English in the University of Montana. He held this post from 1954 to 1956 during which time he fought against stalwart opposition to hire a black professor. In 1955, Fiedler’s book An End to Innocence was published; it was concerned with the necessity for America as a nation to move from a state of innocence to a state of experience (or adulthood).

The mid- and late-1950s

In 1956, Fiedler’s defense of native rights was recognized by the Blackfoot Indian tribe. He was honored with the name “Heavy Runner” and was made a chief. From 1956 to 1957, Fiedler was the Christian Gauss Lecturer at Princeton University. During his time at Princeton, Fiedler frequently travelled to New York where he made connections in publishing, including with editors of Esquire magazine.

It was in Esquire that Fiedler's controversial Nude Croquet was published in 1957. It was deemed offensive to the point that issues of the magazine had to be withdrawn from newsstands in Knoxville, Tennessee. In his book on Fiedler, Winchell describes the nature of the eroticism described in the story:

“If we define pornography as that which excites lust, Leslie's story is decidedly anti-pornographic in its almost clinical obsession with the sexual indignities of middle age” (Winchell, 148).

Love and Death in the American Novel and the early-1960s

It was in 1960 that Fiedler’s most widely recognized book was published. Love and Death in the American Novel involves a deconstruction of the concept of the “great American novel” and how it is both derivative of, and separate from, the established European novel forms. The book offended many because of the manner in which Fiedler discusses the American literary tradition. A massive text of well over 600 pages, Love and Death in the American Novel eventually became the subject of revision by Fiedler. He produced a more streamlined, focused version of the book which was published in 1966.

In 1961, Fiedler become a Fulbright lecturer yet again, this time in Athens. His journey to Greece gave him the opportunity to see his brother Harold who was the American consul in Istanbul. Soon after his one year stint in Athens was complete, Fiedler’s first novel, The Second Stone was published (1963).

The University at Buffalo

In a move to create an exceptionally-staffed English department, Albert Spaulding Cook, chairman of English at The University of Buffalo, attempted to recruit various writers and critics from across the country in 1964. Fiedler was signed on to teach summer school in 1964 and was then offered a teaching position for a year. Even though he had been with The University of Montana for two decades, Fiedler moved on to The University of Buffalo’s “all-star” teaching staff in 1965.

Drug charges

In 1967, after an involved police surveillance operation, Fiedler was arrested on the charge of maintaining premises where banned substances were being used. After having put his house under surveillance for six weeks, the narcotics squad obtained a search warrant. With only one day left in the warrant, the police raided the house and "found" small quantities of marijana and hashish. Marsha Van der Voort later testified under oath that she had planted the illegal substances just prior to the entrance of the police. Even though they had no direct evidence that Fiedler himself had used them, the evidence was sufficient for an arrest. The scandal was disastrous for Fiedler; his home insurance was canceled by two different providers, and The University of Amsterdam reversed their decision to have him as a Fulbright lecturer. While the legal case was ongoing, Fiedler managed to secure a position as visiting professor in the University of Sussex.

Fiedler wrote Being Busted (released in 1969 and dedicated to his first grandson, Seth) about this experience (and his life as a whole); sales of the book helped him to pay his increasing legal expenses. In a trial on April 9, 1970, Fiedler was found guilty. After multiple appeals, the drug conviction was finally reversed in 1972.

In the same year, Fiedler also divorced his wife to whom he had been married for 33 years. A year later, he married Sally Smith Anderson.

The 1970s

Fiedler steadily produced publications through the 1970s including The Messengers Will Come No More (1974), In Dreams Awake (1975), Freaks: Myths and Images of the Secret Self (1978), and The Inadvertent Epic (1979). However, through the decade he also began to expand his horizons into the realms of television and Hollywood. He had appearances on The Merv Griffin Show, Today, Donahue, Tomorrow, and William F. Buckley, Jr.’s show, Firing Line. He was even cast in the low-budget fantasy film When I am King (1978) that was never released. Fiedler was invited to Hollywood parties through his connections and was able to meet Burgess Meredith, Carroll O'Connor and Shirley MacLaine among others.

The 1980s and beyond

In an interesting movement, in the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s, Fiedler began to seriously undertake the enterprise of pop culture criticism, with an emphasis on Science Fiction. Fiedler even wrote a book devoted to the critical assessment of Science Fiction in 1983: Olaf Stapledon: A Man Divided and recruited critic and science fiction author Samuel R. Delany to teach at SUNY Buffalo. In 1988, Fiedler was elected to the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters and in 1989, he received the Chancellor Charles P. Norton Medal.

In the 1990s, Fiedler’s output decreased and new material was sporadic. In 1994, Fiedler received the Hubbell Medal for lifetime contribution to the study of literature. In 1998, Fiedler was given the National Book Critics Circle Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award. On January 30, 2003, a month before his 86th birthday, Fiedler died in Buffalo.

Works

  • "Come Back to the Raft Ag'in, Huck Honey!" (1948)
  • An End to Innocence: Essays on Culture and Politics (1955)
  • Whitman (1959) (editor)
  • The Jew in the American Novel (1959) Herzl Institute pamphlet
  • Love and Death in the American Novel (1960)
  • Nude Croquet (1960) (stories, with others)
  • The Riddle of Shakespeare's Sonnets (1962) with R. P. Blackmur, Northrop Frye, Edward Hubler, Stephen Spender, Oscar Wilde
  • Pull Down Vanity (1962) stories
  • The Second Stone: A Love Story (1963) novel
  • A Literary Guide to Seduction (1963) with Robert Meister
  • The Continuing Debate: Essays on Education for Freshmen (1964) with Jacob Vinocur
  • Waiting for the End: The American Literary Scene from Hemingway to Baldwin (1964)
  • Back to China (1965) novel
  • The Last Jew in America (1966) stories
  • The Return of the Vanishing American (1968)
  • O Brave New World American Literature from 1600 – 1840 (1968) editor with Arthur Zeiger, City University of New York.
  • Being Busted (1969)
  • Nude Croquet: The Stories (1969)
  • The Art of the Essay (1969) editor
  • No! In Thunder: Essays on Myth and Literature (1971)
  • Cross the Border — Close the Gap (1972),
  • Unfinished Business (1972) essays
  • Collected Essays of Leslie Fiedler (1972)
  • To the Gentiles (1972)
  • The Stranger in Shakespeare (1972)
  • Beyond The Looking Glass: Extraordinary Works of Fairy Tale and Fantasy (1973) editor, with Jonathan Cott
  • "Rebirth of God, The Death of Man", an essay in Salmagundi: A Quarterly of the Humanities & Social Sciences, Winter, 1973, No.21,pp. 3-27.
  • The Messengers Will Come No More (1974)
  • In Dreams Awake (1975) editor, anthology of science fiction
  • A Fiedler Reader (1977)
  • The Inadvertent Epic: From Uncle Tom's Cabin to Roots (1978) Massey Lecture
  • Freaks: Myths and Images of the Secret Self (1978)
  • English Literature: Opening Up the Canon, Selected Papers from the English Institute, 1979, New Series #4, edited by Leslie A. Fiedler and Houston A. Baker Jr., Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981.
  • What was literature?: Class Culture And Mass Society (1982)
  • Buffalo Bill and the Wild West (1982)
  • Olaf Stapledon: A Man Divided (1983)
  • Fiedler on the Roof: Essays on Literature and Jewish Identity (1991)
  • The Tyranny of the Normal: Essays on Bioethics, Theology & Myth (1996)
  • A New Fiedler Reader (1999)

Quotes

By Fiedler

  • ”The text is merely one of the contexts of a piece of literature, its lexical or verbal one, no more or less important than the sociological, psychological, historical, anthropological or generic.”
  • ”To be an American (unlike being English or French or whatever) is precisely to imagine a destiny rather than to inherit one; since we have always been, insofar as we are Americans at all, inhabitants of myth rather than history.”

About Fiedler

  • "Leslie Fiedler is the "BEST" thing that ever happened to American literature." – Saul Bellow
  • Re: The Second Stone, "A triumph in any terms, bawdy, satirical, and compassionate." - Kansas City Star
  • Re: Love and Death in the American Novel, Revised, 1966 Edition. "One of the great, essential books on the American imagination . . . an accepted major work." -The New York Times

References

  • Mark Roydon Winchell (1985) Leslie Fiedler
  • S. G. Kellman and I. Malin, editors (1999) Leslie Fiedler and American Culture
  • Mark Roydon Winchell (2002) "Too Good to Be True": The Life and Work of Leslie Fiedler




Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Leslie Fiedler" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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