REMEMBERING LESLIE A. FIEDLER: ICONOCLASTIC MAVERICK LITERARY CRITIC. WHO?
“Thomas Mann believed that the best measure of the spiritual health or illness of a culture is its art.” –Rollo May, The Cry for Myth (1991)
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LESLIE A. FIEDLER (1917-2003) [MA, PhD] Professor of English, lecturer, Fulbright scholar, University of Montana, SUNY Buffalo, Rockefeller Fellow, Guggenheim Fellow, Visiting Professor, Jay B. Hubbell Award in American literature: 1946 and on…. 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 Partisan Review, becoming the subject of much critical debate. “Come Back to the Raft Ag’in, Huck Honey!” argued that a recurrent theme in American literature was an unspoken or implied homoerotic relationship between men, 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). [Ref. Wikipedia et al.]
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Fiedler’s major work, Love and Death in the American Novel (1960, 1966), offended many critics because of the manner in which he discusses American literary tradition–and reconsiders the concept of the Great American Novel: how it is both derivative of, and separate from, the established European novel forms.
He believed that literature is “more than what one learns to read in schools and libraries, more even than a grace of life; that it is the record of those elusive moments at which life is alone fully itself, fulfilled in consciousness and form.”
**“I cannot help feeling that the chief problem of teaching anything in our atomized period lies precisely in the fact that the ordinary student cannot or will not connect the few facts he knows, the slim insights he has previously attained, the chance extensions of sensibility into which he has been once or twice tempted, into a large enough context to make sense of the world he inhabits, or the works of art he encounters. ONLY CONNECT! should be the motto of all critics and teachers.”
“Four major sources of indebtedness I feel moved to acknowledge…: C. S. Lewis The Allegory of Love [taught me the sense in which love is an invention and the poets its inventors] … certain Marxian critics [the class-relations of a culture help determine the shape of its deepest communal fantasies, the obsessive concerns of its literature] … Freud and his followers, and Carl Jung [for the concepts of the conscious and the unconscious, and archetypes] … D. H. Lawrence Studies in Classic American Literature [of all the literary critics who have written about American books, he is the one who has seemed closest to the truth]”
“Anyone who, in full consciousness, surrenders the hope of heaven…for the endurance of hell…has entered into a pact with Satan…writing a gothic novel…devoting a long fiction to terror rather than love…is a Faustian commitment. … The primary meaning of the gothic romance … lies in its substitution of terror for love as a central theme of fiction … of sex denied … of vicarious participation in a flirtation with death.”
“Certainly the three novels granted to be our greatest works are gothic in theme and atmosphere: Huckleberry Finn … Moby Dick … The Scarlet Letter … In each book, the Faustian bargain stands at the focus of action.”
Hawthorne writes The Scarlet Letter “in the form of a love story an elegiac treatise on the death of love, a portrayal of the attenuation of sex in America. …the first American tragedy.”
“One of the troubling mysteries of our life is that we can only know as adults what we can only feel as children; and Huckleberry Finn [the greatest of all books about childhood] manages to evoke the lost world of boyhood with all the horror and loveliness it once possessed for the child who lived it. …how truly wonderful it is to remember our childhood; and yet how we cannot recall it without revealing to ourselves the roots of the very terror, which in adulthood has driven us nostalgically to evoke that past.”
“Moby Dick can be read not only as an account of a whale hunt, but also as a love story, perhaps the greatest love story in our fiction, cast in the peculiar American form of innocent homosexuality.”
***Fiedler at his best: “Among the assumptions of [the tragic Humanists] Melville and Hawthorne: the world of appearance is at once real and a mask through which we can dimly perceive more ultimate forces at work; Nature is inscrutable, in some sense alien; in man and Nature alike, there is a ‘diabolical’ element, a ‘mystery of iniquity’; it is impossible to know fully God or ourselves, and that our only protection from destructive self-deceit is the pressure and presence of others; that to be alone is, therefore, to be lost; that evil is real and that the thinking man breaks his heart trying to solve its compatibility with the existence of a good God or his own glimmering perceptions of goodness. The writer’s duty is to say ‘Nay!,’ to deny the easy affirmations by which most men live, and to expose the blackness of life most men try deliberately to ignore. For tragic Humanists, it is the function of art not to console or sustain, much less to entertain, but to disturb by telling a truth which is always unwelcome; and they consequently find it easy to view themselves in Faustian terms, to think of their dangerous vocations as a bargain with the Devil.”
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In the scheme of Fiedler criticism of characters in the novel, there exist the Dark Lady, the Fair Maiden, the Good Good Girl, the Good Bad Girl, the Bad Girl, the Bad Good Girl; the Good Good Boy, the Good Bad Boy, the Bad Boy, the Bad Good Boy…
Would love to know more about your life in the Byrne Building. (according to my step-grandpa built for the 1893 Exposition My grandmother lived there as my step-grandpa worked in the yards. I played with the kids in that dirt back yard 1951-52. When were you there? We are doing some family research and would love to know. We also loved books and Dorothy Day.