Two Views of Leslie Fiedler1
1. Paul Levine: Meanwhile, Back at the Raft
For some time now critics have been so busy noting the decline of the American novel that they have completely missed the passing of American criticism. Certainly, the large-scale studies of American literature can be counted on the fingers of one hand—Parrington’s Main Currents in American Thought, Van Wyck Brooks’s five-volume Makers and Finders, F. O. Matthiessen’s American Renaissance—and all of these were products of the 1920’s and 30’s. Since World War II the critical vacuum has been filled by the academic journals (“The investigation of Moby-Dick might almost be said to have taken the place of whaling among the industries of New England,” observed Harry Levin) and the literary quarterlies. Clearly, this is an example of sending a boy to do a man’s job.
Main Currents, Makers and Finders, and American Renaissance were all attempts to interpret American culture from a political—and, essentially, a liberal—perspective. While it is always important to distinguish between Parrington’s anti-genteel populism, Brooks’s genteel radicalism, and Matthiessen’s Marxist-influenced liberalism, it is just as important to remember the identity of their strategy. Each wrote from the point of view of a synthetic political framework and each succumbed to the kind of reductive criticism that syntheses often engender; their strategy was to reduce the work of art to the lowest common denominator of certain pre-conceived ideas.
Since Parrington was a historian and not what he mockingly called a “belletrist” perhaps he may be forgiven for treating literature as merely social document. Yet it is difficult to condone the uneasiness with which he confronted Hawthorne and Melville, and the sheer bias that led him to favor Philip Freneau. Brooks, too, let his political prejudices get the better of his judgment, declaring that Poe “was even outside the mainstream of the human tradition” while Huck Finn became “that paean to the inborn goodness of men, or the goodness of boys peculiarly as nature made them.” Even the brilliantly conceived American Renaissance is, though informed by New Critical methods, not wholly free from a reductive political synthesis, particularly when Matthiessen attempted to prove that among the writers he considered “the one common denominator, uniting even Hawthorne and Whitman, was their devotion to the possibilities of democracy.”
To this select list we may now add Leslie Fiedler’s Love and Death in the American Novel. In many ways, Mr. Fiedler is the logical successor to the critical tradition we have been discussing. His previous book, a re-appraisal of the liberal tradition called An End to Innocence, reflected the quandary of present-day liberalism and the distance it has traveled since Parrington’s day. What An End to Innocence made clear was that political ideals were dead and that the “liberal” and “intellectual” (the terms were synonymous as I remember) might find some solace in psychology and sociology. Clearly, Jefferson was out, Freud was in and the last of the “liberal” interpreters became the first of the “heterosexual” critics. This point was established in a notorious essay called “Come Back to the Raft Ag’in, Huck Honey!” which, Fiedler later explained, was “an attempt to define a central American mythos of love in which the lover is an outcast or orphan and the beloved a dark-skinned primitive male.” From this kernel evolved Fiedler’s new book.
Love and Death in the American Novel differs from its predecessors primarily in the concern of its synthesis: it attempts to “emphasize the neglected contexts of American fiction, largely depth psychological and anthropological, but sociological and formal as well.” Fiedler finds that American literature is derived from the European novel at two levels. Our popular middlebrow literature, from Charlotte Temple through Marjorie Morningstar, stems from the Richardsonian “archetype” of the sentimental novel, Clarissa. Its subject is love and its treatment is a sentimentalized corruption of the “archetypal” situation of seduction. On the other hand, the great tradition in American fiction, from Charles Brockden Brown through Hawthorne, Melville, Poe, and Twain to Faulkner and Hemingway, grows out of the archetypal gothic novel, Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto. It represents the flight from the stifling middlebrowism of female-dominated American society and “the search for an innocent substitute for adulterous passion and marriage alike.”
Is there not, our writers ask over and over, a sentimental relationship at once erotic and immaculate, a union which commits its participants neither to society nor sin—and yet one that is able to symbolize the union of the ego with the id, the thinking self with its rejected impulses?
In our novels the search inevitably ends in “impotence,” “unconsummated incest,” or in “innocent homosexuality.”
There are, first of all, some things to be said in favor of Mr. Fiedler and his book. He has read widely, writes entertainingly (except for the irritating abuse of the exclamation point!), and is obviously an intelligent man. Moreover, his book is an ambitious attempt to come to grips with the problematical theme of love in the American novel. It contains useful information about many minor novels, tries to relate the American novel to contemporary developments in Europe, and has some stimulating things to say about the gothic aspects of our fiction. Then why is this such a depressingly bad job of criticism?
Mainly, I suspect, because it was written more to shock than to illuminate. Taking as his thesis a lumpy blend of Freudian symbolism, Jungian archetypes, and Lawrentian criticism (one wonders how Lawrence, who disagreed with Freud and disparaged Jung, would react to this), Fiedler proceeds to apply it literally and indiscriminately to literature. The result is a monstrous allegory of “dirty” Freudianism which ignores explicit values in favor of obscurantist and irrelevant ones. The consequence of the allegory is a criticism that is quantitative rather than qualitative, mechanical rather than stimulating, reductive rather than exploratory, and, ultimately, boring rather than shocking. In the Fiedlerian allegory all male friendship is “homoerotic,” all familial love is “incestuous,” and agape in general becomes eros in particular:
The orthodox Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost has yielded in art and the popular imagination to the baroque trinity, derived ultimately from Venus, Vulcan, and Cupid, and still, despite the new names of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus, what it always was: an archetypal representation of cuckold, mother, and son, the last degradation of fatherhood.
To make matters worse, Fiedler claims all literature as his province and thereby steps into several areas that are clearly beyond his range. For instance, he begins with an analysis of the courtly love tradition which he has borrowed (with acknowledgement) from C. S. Lewis’s The Allegory of Love and to which he has added hints of homosexual hanky-panky. There is, of course, no proof that there ever was such a “thing” as courtly love and, in fact, some recent scholarship has strongly contested the whole notion. Surely, it seems unlikely that an intelligent reader like Fiedler could so completely miss the irony in Andreas Capallanus or pass so lightly over Andreas’s conclusion: “No man through good deeds can please God so long as he serves in the service of love.” The English novel seems to give Fiedler some trouble, also. He mistakes Richardson’s Pamela for a “governess” (just before taking another critic to task for getting the plot of Clarissa wrong), misreads Fielding’s Tom Jones, and calls Clarissa “a study of the ambiguities of motivation unequaled until Proust” (which makes one wonder what novels Fiedler has been reading).
When Fiedler returns to his native ground he creates out of American literature a world more gothic than any novel he describes. Clearly, he is indebted to D. H. Lawrence’s Studies in Classic American Literature for his mythic framework. Lawrence, however, used the idyllic “love” between, say, Natty Bumppo and Chingach-gook to underscore his main point: the search for a new psyche within a context of guilt and innocence. For Fiedler, on the other hand, the homosexual love is the point. It is as if, to borrow E. B. White’s happy phrase, Fiedler had brought American literature down to earth—and then broken its arm. For he depicts a nightmarish realm landscaped by “Hawthorne’s lifelong obsession with the subject [of incest],” by the “necrophiliac titillation” of Henry James, by the implied homosexuality of Dreiser, and by “the fear of full genitality and the desire for self-destruction which possesses” J. D. Salinger. No wonder he finds a literature in which Hawthorne “peoples his tales . . . with a succession of genital cripples”; in which “Strether [in James’s The Ambassadors] represents the supreme attempt to make of the voyeur a hero and a moral guide”; in which Faulkner, in the scenes in Sanctuary where an impotent Popeye watches Temple Drake make love, “is projecting a brutal travesty of the American artist, helpless and fascinated before the fact of genital love”; and in which the long legs of a Nathanael West heroine are metamorphosed into “those improbable legs which America has bred onto the naturally short-legged female form to symbolize castrating power.” After critical observations like these, mere inaccuracies (calling Eula Varner “the femme fatale as a small, fat girl,” misdating Carson McCullers’ The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, etc.) come as a kind of comic relief.
But perhaps a fuller analysis will make clear just how flagrant have been Fiedler’s distortions of American fiction. “Here is,” he writes with more insight than he realized, the locus classicus from Uncle Tom’s Cabin:
“Dear papa,” said the child with a last effort, throwing her arms about his neck. In a moment they were dropped again; and as St. Clare raised his head, he saw a spasm of mortal agony pass over the face—she struggled for breath, and threw up her little hands.
“O God, this is dreadful,” he said, turning away in agony, and wringing Tom’s hand. . . . “O Tom, my boy, it is killing me!” . . .
The child lay panting on her pillows, as one exhausted—the large clear eyes rolled up and fixed. Ah, what said those eyes, that spoke so much of heaven? Earth was passed, and earthly pain; but so solemn, so mysterious was the triumphant brightness of the face, that it checked even sobs of sorrow. . . .
The bed was draped in white; and there, beneath the drooping angel-figure, lay a little form—sleeping never to awake!2
If there seems [begins Fiedler’s commentary] something grotesque in such a rigging of the scene, so naked a relish of the stiffening white body between the whiter sheets; if we find an especially queasy voyeurism in this insistence on entering the boudoirs of immature girls, it is perhaps . . . our post-Freudian imaginations. . . . The bed we know is the place of deflowering as well as dying, and in the bridal bed, a young girl, still virgin, dies to be replaced by the woman. . . . At least, so an age of innocence dreamed the event; they did not have to understand what they dreamed. With no sense of indecorum, they penetrated, behind Mrs. Stowe, the bedroom of the Pure Young Thing and participated in the kill.
The particular “post-Freudian imagination” described here is, of course, solely Fiedler’s and it is Fiedler alone who “participates in the kill.” What I am calling into question are not the uses of Freudian interpretation but its abuses.
R. P. Blackmur once warned:
The worse evil of fanatic falsification—of arrogant irrationality and barbarism in all its forms—arises when a body of criticism is governed by an idée fixe, a really exaggerated heresy, when a notion of genuine but small scope is taken literally as of universal application. This is the body of tendentious criticism where, since something is assumed proved before the evidence is in, distortion, vitiation, and absolute assertion become supreme virtues.
No remark could more justly describe Love and Death in the American Novel. Fiedler’s frantic search for a homosexual mythos smacks of a bizarre parody of the McCarthy witch hunts—certainly a sad and ironic note considering his essay on the late Senator. One wonders if the failure of love is unique in American fiction, as Fiedler claims, or if his methods would uncover a European literature more heterosexually vital. Already Fiedler has noted “a tradition of the pseudo-marriage of males, stretching from, say, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza through Leporello and Don Juan, Robinson Crusoe and Friday to Pickwick and Sam Weller.” Shakespeare is mentioned as being possibly limp of wrist; what couldn’t be done with Proust, Gide, Kafka, and Mann? Surely, even Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina reveal a less than “full genitality” in the handling of sexual matters. I suspect that Mr. Fiedler’s work will serve as a model of critical tact long after Freud and Lawrence, Melville and Hawthorne are forgotten—and not until then.
2. Benjamin De Mott: The Negative American
Not to know and patronize the work of Leslie Fiedler argues yourself unknown. Men have made reputations simply by “standing up to” the critiques of sentimental liberalism that he printed mainly in COMMENTARY, later in An End to Innocence. A chapter of Love and Death in the American Novel, when delivered as a lecture, so outraged one audience that a listener rose and accused the lecturer of stealing his raincoat. The week before the book was published Robert Bly’s magazine The Sixties sent out a flyer identifying Fiedler (among others) as an “old fogey.” The original piece from which the present six hundred pages grew achieved remarkable notoriety as “muckraking irreverence.” And in the years since it appeared Fiedler, though not yet called to any of the genuinely voluptuous chairs of American Literature, has consolidated his position as the most controversial professor of literature in America since Irving Babbitt.
That this enviable achievement owes as much to the man’s literary manner as to his opinions cannot be doubted. And at first glance the manner seems to represent nothing more elevated than a desire not to be regarded as “an ordinary professor.” Fiedler has been connected with Montana State University for nearly twenty years; his book is dedicated to one of his own teachers, William Ellery Leonard; he has served repeatedly in posts closed to most non-academic folk—Fulbright Lecturer, Gauss Seminarian, Kenyon Fellow, and the like; and he speaks with enthusiasm of the contributions that his own students have made to his work. Yet it is plain that he thinks of himself as “a practicing writer” first of all. He regularly flouts such professional conventions as Impersonality and Dignified Tone, and he obviously believes that his experience of life is valuable in itself. He finds matter for an essay not only in books, but, as indicated, in the political befuddlement of his friends or even, say, in his personal observation of the courtly manners of homosexuals. On occasion he tries his hand at a story and the result is not a neatly manicured tale of Faculty Club politics but a wild fable of sexuality marked by a motive of épater le bourgeois, and more appropriate to a half-starved young writer on 4th Street in Manhattan than to a man making good money in Missoula. If a novel comes to his hand for review that bears on any part of his own experience, as was the case with Philip Roth’s story of love and libraries in Newark (Fiedler was brought up in that city), he begins his piece with lengthy personal memories. Unlike most academics, who avoid abusing any periodical that might print their work, Fiedler often beats one quarterly over the head with another. And even in the matter of promoting his own books his behavior differs considerably from the norm. The jacket of Love and Death in the American Novel has a glamor photograph of the author featuring an edge of a Kerouacian plaid shirt, a black tormented brow, and some agonized lower molars—the sort of picture you expect to find on an as-told-to book by a junkie.
The behavior and tendencies described are no doubt affected, but they can also be seen as direct consequences of the shift in the center of “living letters” in America that has occurred during the last forty years. At about the time Fiedler was born the critics and journalists who counted in this country functioned outside the academy, and, as was true of the early Van Wyck Brooks and Edmund Wilson, adopted postures of hostility toward it. The situation has altered considerably since then. The non-academic literary journalist is almost extinct, and the majority of the serious writers of any kind who are outside the university is composed of men who began their careers with a bad book that sold well. But the memory of the original anti-academic stance of the literary insider, the man whose opinions about literature expressed a commitment different from that of the professor (who was presumed to read no new books, and who allowed all old books to become entangled in trivial questions of pedagogy and promotions), dies very hard. The writer who is victimized by it, as Fiedler is, feels obliged to dramatize himself; he goes to extreme lengths to demonstrate his courage and to establish (in defiance of the simple truth) that the literary community to which he belongs has little or nothing to do with the academy. The fantasy—for some writers it should really be called a necessary pose—is harmless in the case of the loudmouth whose only distinction is the completeness of his self-deception; in Fiedler’s case it is regrettable. The gestures he makes in his fantasy have not only infuriated or bewildered more than one intelligent man, they have encouraged people to ignore the general bent of his criticism, or to regard it as in some sense the pure invention of an eccentric—a Freudian exhibitionist capable of amusing or shocking but unworthy of respect. And the latter position, though understandable, is mistaken.
Fiedler is what is called a myth and archetype man—which is to say, his work rests on the assumption that a critic versed in Freud and Jung can reveal key symbolic themes, configurations, and myths in imaginative literature: items that do not disclose themselves fully to formalist or social critics. (These themes are considered to be worth looking for because they help to shape the meaning of the single work of art in which they are discovered, and because the method of their disguise by the writer is a clue to the realities of his inner experience, and because they point to truths of a culture that are the more potent by virtue of their repression.) The assumption is widely shared. There are at present a number of myth critics who, pursuing hints gleaned from the New Anthropology, have probed not only classical literature but (as in the case of John Speirs and C. L. Barber) Middle English romances and Shakespearean comedy. Mythicists have also looked into 18th- and 19th-century English fiction (an excellent result is the essay by Julian Moynahan on Great Expectations in the current Essays in Criticism). Theories of symbolic action in literature, and elsewhere, have been formulated by Kenneth Burke; Northrop Frye’s definitions of archetypes are required reading in graduate seminars. As for American literature, at no time since the publication of D. H. Lawrence’s Studies, a work controlled by a belief in the conscious or unconscious duplicity of our writers, have scholars been unaware of the fruitfulness of attempts to strike at the unconsciously held values of the classic American texts. And in recent years a series of eminent academicians—Harry Levin, Newton Arvin, Charles Feidelson, R. W. B. Lewis, Richard Chase, and many others—have sought in a variety of ways to define the key myths of our 19th-century literature, to reveal its absorption in problems of symbolist epistemology, or to seek clues to the inner experience of individual American writers by using the insights of depth psychology.
An opposition to these tendencies does exist, of course. At its silliest, it is voiced by people who, inclined to wriggle or blush when the word Freud is mentioned, cling to the hope that psychoanalysis is a racket. At its best, the opposition argues that the truths discovered by myth critics are indeed buried truths—patterns and configurations that do not force themselves upon the attention of the skilled reader as he makes his way through a text.
The loftiest dismissal of these charges is that of the gifted Frenchwoman Claude-Edmonde Magny who fifteen years ago, in Les Sandales d’Empédocle, made the most powerful claim for criticism that has yet been lodged—and did so with no one in mind except the writer who tries to reach beyond a single work or literary “period” in search of symbols and archetypes that figure from one generation to the next in the deepest life of a culture. Creative writers, said Magny, are as it were forced by their instincts to invent myths; the critic has no real task except that of explaining and interpreting the myths in their linkages with each other. His purpose is to “effectuate the psychoanalysis of an epoch, to elucidate its profound preoccupations as they crop out in literary works.” And because this purpose is more exalted than that of the individual artist, criticism must be ranked as a higher human activity than “creation.”
Fiedler does not mention Magny, but it is clear that one of his purposes is to elucidate profound (and hidden) preoccupations. His starting point is the observation that “Our great novelists, though experts on indignity and assault, on loneliness and terror, tend to avoid treating the passionate encounter of a man and a woman, which we expect at the center of a novel.” Why so? Partly because these novelists inherited a hopelessly sentimentalized version of womankind that they could not develop and were powerless to challenge directly; partly because the very nature of the new society made it impossible to sustain a steady vision either of common life or of mature human relations. What replaces the passionate encounter of man and woman in our books? Faustian aspiration, gothic terror, social protest, adoration of the child, incestuous or homosexual relationships. How should the psychoanalyst of the epoch interpret the evasions and substitutions? He should see that the glossy, cheery, affirmative surface of American civilization is a deceit; he should understand that beneath this surface lies a wreckage of souls, generations of torment attributable to an incapacity to envisage the wholeness of a human being in any fashion not crippling either to physicality on the one hand or to intelligence on the other. What lesson is there in all this for the judicial critic of American books? Simply that these books can be overrated.
In developing this argument the critic uses a vocabulary that is not rigorously Freudian or Jungian. Viewing such items as the “pure” heroine and the “diabolical” lover, for example, he notes that almost from the beginnings of the novel the passionate encounter of man and woman symbolizes a social conflict—as between the bourgeois Clarissa and the aristocrat Lovelace. And as this example suggests, the argument of the book is substantiated by reference to other writers besides “our great novelists.”
Indeed, the breadth of its reference is one of the surprises and delights of Love and Death in the American Novel. The early chapters summarize 11th-century and Renaissance version3 of courtly love, the emergence of the heroic romance in France, the “rise of the novel” in 18th-century England, and the early German versions of the romantic hero—familiar stuff perhaps, but all too often Greek to the American Literature man. Thereafter Fiedler describes representative specimens of 19th-century American fiction which failed to transcend or accommodate themselves to the limitations of inherited social myth and existent social fact. At every point he draws attention to recently published analogues of these books, and he gives depth to all his observations by scrutinizing with uncommon patience the depressing ranges of popular fiction from Lippard to Wouk. An account of varied images of the perfect child begins with little Eva and ends in Kerouac. A shrewd analysis of the versions of the new “independent” woman that were produced by Simms leads on to Hawthorne (who confronted the new woman in The Blithedale Romance as well as in The Scarlet Letter), and Melville (who tried to reach the audience of “Dear Ladies” in Pierre and succeeded only in insulting it)—indeed it is dropped only after an inquiry into the fables of revenge on womankind which Fiedler reads in Henry Adams and Henry James, and, more recently, in Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Faulkner, Wright Morris, and Nathanael West. The search for analogues and the method of comparison are given up only in the final section—a discussion of The Scarlet Letter, Moby Dick, and Huck Finn, works in which sentiment, gothic horror, violence, the Faust legend, the new woman, and other items from the unpromising past somehow become (on Fiedler’s estimate) the materials of a literature of first excellence.
An obvious function of this critic’s allusiveness, as of the thrust and rapidity of his writing, is diversionary. Facing a page which, in the course of studying themes of Melville and Hawthorne, cites High Noon, The Virginian, A Modern Instance, Miss Ravenel’s Conversion, St. Elmo, The Lamplighter, Joyce’s Ulysses, and Jane Eyre, the hostile reader has no easy time finding a fixed target for hostility. But to say this is only to hint at a more interesting and more important truth about Love and Death in the American Novel, namely that there is a diversionary element even in the catalogue it offers of sexual morbidities in American letters. This claim does run counter, true enough, to prevailing views of Fiedler’s purpose and message. Whether praised or blamed, the sage of Montana is widely regarded at the moment as a character who believes, simply, that all American writers are so afraid of sex that they dash off to a wilderness of homoeroticism and self-slaughter. And it is impossible to deny that Fiedler himself has done a good deal, in the work at hand and elsewhere, to encourage people to take that view of him. Midway through his essay on Moby Dick, for example, he announces that the book can be read “as a love story, perhaps the greatest love story in our fiction,” an assertion that would seem to qualify a man for a public relations, not a critical, career. And although the theme of his chapter about the book has relatively little connection with this gift offer, the text is not bare of comparable distractions. Confronted with the most majestic moment in American writing, “The Grand Armada,” Fiedler sets out meaning to do it justice. He quotes Melville’s phrases (“eternal mildness of joy”); he uses the words birth and copulation; he soundly acknowledges that Ishmael has had a glimpse “into the world of natural immortality, where life is endlessly renewed by physical generation, as a guarantee that there is a renewal of the spirit, too, in human ‘dalliance and delight,’ which is all the immortality man can ever achieve.” But then, suffering from a compulsion to over-stimulate the reader, as it were, he adds: “For this natural renewal of the soul, the Holy Marriage of Males . . . is an alternative symbol.” (Similar tricky redefinitions occur in the chapters on Huck Finn and The Scarlet Letter.)
But, to repeat, the chapter on Moby Dick is not really about the holy marriage of males. Its theme is the bifurcation of sensibility: the impossibility of bringing together in a single person the capacity to rest in mystery, to draw strength from the hugely incomprehensible ongoingness of experience (Ishmael) and the desire to master, to rationalize, to fight the absurd, to know a final truth (Ahab). Neither is the chapter on Huck Finn about innocent homosexuality. It is about a condition that Fiedler rather awkwardly calls “outsidedness,” and about the mystery of Twain’s success in evoking a complete being, in expressing at certain moments an extraordinarily full image of a single life. A sentence or two in forty pages assign ugly labels to the relation between Huck and Jim (the labels are always modified by the word “innocent”), and the matter of the evasion of sex is given a few pages, but the central thesis is as follows:
Huckleberry Finn is essentially a book about a marginal American type, who only wants to stay alive; but who does not find this very easy to do, being assailed on one side by forces of violence, which begrudge him the little he asks, and on the other, by forces of benevolence, which insist that he ask for more. Against the modesty and singleness of his purpose, everything else is measured and weighed: religion, the social order, other men.
The case is, in short, that although Fiedler has a nice nose for the gamey scent of the illicit, his main subject is not fear of sex but fear of the loss of humanity, the self-wholeness. At the heart of the myth he dislodges you encounter a human figure afraid of losing either his right or his capacity to speak out of the center of his being. Sexual aberrancy is a symptom of this fear, as is the thinning out of human character in the pages of novels. The flight from society is another symptom. The intensification of a single strain of personality—hatred or love or intellectual passion or the tendency to chuckle at human wisdom—is yet another. The critic is absorbed by all these symptoms. What his book says, over and over, about American novels is: there are no people here at all. In literature we have no “passionate encounter of man and woman” because we have (almost) no man or woman.
As already indicated, the sensational mode in which this is said—gothic props, exciting sexual terrors, rumors, intimations—suffices to guarantee the author a continuance of that notoriety in which he finds his own identity: the outrageous Prof, the man who speaks from the center of his own being and to hell with you, Jack, in your blue oxford shirt. And that Fiedler’s interest in this notoriety is understandable in terms of the literary history described above does not render it lovable. But to mock the book that is smutched by it, or to evade the meaning by saying, How wild! how stimulating! is foolish. For all its extravagances, Love and Death in the American Novel has major achievements to its credit. It succeeds in relating American literature to European literature in a way that explains why the differences between American and European experience are at once of great, and no, moment. It succeeds in illustrating unsuspected continuities of two centuries of our literature, and also in leading many contemporary reputations—Salinger, Wright Morris, Saul Bellow, to name three among a dozen—into their first encounter with rigorous criticism. Moreover, stripped of come-ons, pitches to Puritan marks, leers at innocents, it offers an imaginative, unified view of our literature and history which defines qualities of American character that even the novelist himself has had difficulty naming, at the same time that it plucks our books from the sticks and sees them as part of the world.
The reason this last achievement should be well regarded is easy to specify. Critics of American literature, men who expand in the sun of Gide’s admiration for Dashiell Hammett, are so notoriously deficient in responsiveness to what college catalogues call World Art that the mere refusal to share the deficiency is a kind of triumph. Of course, if Fiedler had used his sense of other literatures to suggest that a new Tolstoy “ought to” spring forth from Yonkers he would be worth only a grin. But he does nothing of the sort. At one moment, pronouncing on Huck Finn, his text opens itself suddenly to a world beyond horror in unexpected andante paragraphs—they are the more affecting for having been so long withheld—that confirm the sense that the critic’s harshness elsewhere is a result of longing for a greater book than America possesses. And the reader at this point may well break out in some despairing question: who can live by American novels? But Fiedler himself is constantly engaged in exploring passages of history whose dizzying power to nauseate is felt by writers (and other people) not only in America; he knows the futility of “calling for” a Healthy Book; he beautifully maintains the sense of a predicament to which there are no exceptions. His story is about a universal narrowing of humanity, the shrinkage everywhere of the possibilities of human character, and nowhere is he oblivious to the truth that these realities matter more than a masterpiece or the reputation of a nation can.
As goes almost without saying, the “enemies” to whom this professorial isolato with a knife in his brain refers in his preface are not likely to see the matter as it should be seen. They will see only another “provocative” but noisy and tendentious book. But if that is Fiedler’s fault in large measure, the consequence of the fantasy described before, it is also their loss. Read sensibly, as an account of what we are not and ought to yearn to become, Love and Death in the American Novel is far from an outrage; it is, in truth, one of the very few important assessments of our culture to appear since the publication twenty years ago of Matthiessen’s American Renaissance.
1 Reviews of Love and Death in the American Novel, by Leslie A. Fiedler (Criterion. 603 pp., $8.50).
2 I have quoted the passage from Uncle Tom's Cabin exactly as it appears in Fiedler's book, complete with his ellipses and his six textual errors. Mr. Fiedler failed to note that the last paragraph he quoted is from a new chapter and occurs some hours later.