A Rebel and His Causesby Michael Sandlin
The Devil Gets His Due: The Uncollected Essays of Leslie Fiedler, edited by Samuele F.S. Pardini, Soft Skull Press (2009)
When you consider the gentlemanly quietude of post-millennial literary criticism, it’s hard not to appreciate the Big Noise that legendary hipster academic (or “nonacademic academic” as he oxymoronically called himself) Leslie Fiedler generated early in his career. The Newark-born, NYU-educated Fiedler’s incendiary Freudian readings of classic American lit exploded like a postmodernist cherry bomb in graduate-faculty lounges everywhere, culminating in 1960s Love and Death in the American Novel. Going against the prevailing “close reading” approach of the New Critics, Fiedler’s extra-textual investigations in Love and Death found, among other things, that formerly innocent reads like Huckleberry Finn and Moby Dick were rife with gynophobic, mildly homoerotic inter-racial male bonding, which was an extremely controversial conclusion to publicize in Eisenhower’s America.
While Love and Death still lives up to its reputation as a groundbreaking work, it was also rife with comically absurd exaggeration. In “Toward An Amateur Criticism,” the lead essay in Soft Skull Press’s new collection of the late Fiedler’s “uncollected” essays, The Devil Gets His Due, he announces his “strategic” intentions as a critic: “I practice and love strategic criticism,” he declares, and notes that this is a critical approach often characterized by excess. He also adds a caveat about not “confusing the strategic with the absolute” and the dangers of making “orthodoxy” from strategic exaggeration.
Whatever the case, Fiedler’s early essays included here suggest real foundational work in closing the aesthetic gap between “high” art and popular entertainment. Take the article “Pop Goes the Faulkner,” for instance, where Fiedler finds everything but the assumed High Modernism in Faulkner’s Sanctuary. The author plumbs the book’s sub-textual underbelly and dredges up not only science-fiction and detective novel tropes but also pornography, voyeurism, and rape. (What’s more, Fiedler’s sensationalist pronouncements are halfway convincing here.) Fiedler attempts to overhaul Kurt Vonnegut’s literary legacy in similar fashion, repositioning Vonnegut as a sci-fi geek. Predictably, Vonnegut’s perceived flirtations with genre fiction and “divine stupidity” prove more amenable to Fiedler’s fragile anti-intellectual sensibilities than any attempts at thought-provoking “analysis.”
Yet it seems the Fiedler of essays like “James Fenimore Cooper: The Problem of the Good Bad Writer,” has succumbed to doctrinaire primitivism: his once formidable wit and bold assertions have been replaced by teary-eyed Rousseau redux. In feting Cooper’s universally appealing bad writing, he pours on his anti-elitism shtick and plays up corny noble-savage myths. Fiedler promotes the “archetypal satisfactions” of cliché and the banal plot devices that move salt-of-the-earth Everymen (like him, in this case) to emotional comfort zones. This mid-career version of Fiedler derided the “elitist” modernist mind-set with knee-jerk repetition and rejected consensus thought for a hammy Fiedler vs. Modernism adversarial role.
For Fiedler, pre-cognitive “primordial images” took precedence over moral and textual concerns and bound large swathes of humanity together in appreciating backward-thinking dreck like Gone With the Wind and Uncle Tom’s Cabin. In this mode of thought, Fiedler could brand the New Critics “fascists” but nonchalantly shrug off the fact that he and Adolf Hitler shared the same popular tastes (Last of the Mohicans, King Kong)—not to mention being bound together by an abhorrence of modernism! In all, the mythological-based critical gambits in Devil Gets His Due suggest a dumbed-down rehashing of Northrop Frye’s late-1950s findings on how pre-literary myths and archetypes are used to transcend the New Critics’ purely structural obsessions.
The collection’s later essays find Fiedler still practicing the same predictable form of morally (and textually) detached mythological criticism. He finds “middlebrow” novels like Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men “problematic” rather than embodying an ideal aesthetic middleground. He sees negative mythological resonance in the American involvement in Vietnam (which for Fiedler is Americans symbolically killing “redskins” by way of killing Asians) and finds the ever subversive Fenimore Cooper influence at the heart of certain popular American movies. Oddly, symbols and ambiguity—devices that Fiedler had previously condemned as pretentious in the work of Henry James and other modernists—begin suspiciously taking on myth-conveying legitimacy in The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now. And although he admits that movies like Rocky and Rambo are badly acted, racist, and “politically reactionary,” he can’t fathom why critics slam these ultra-violent Other-bashing films, which Fiedler insists serve our “psycho-social needs.”
Sadly, The Devil Gets His Due closes with poor Fiedler reduced to writing about homoerotic overtones in the professional relationship of Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin. By the time of his death in 2003, Fiedler had ultimately made orthodoxy of his own exaggerations, thus gaining acceptance in the same elite circles of academia he pretended to rebel against. And for all his previous lip service toward bringing art and entertainment together on the same level of critical discourse, Fiedler became stuck in a loop of divisive neo-populism and inverse snobbery: in short, he simply confirmed popular taste without ever experiencing the pleasure of the text.
Michael Sandlin is a contributing writer for the Brooklyn Rail.