Scott McLemee
Leslie Fiedler
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The Chronicle of Higher Education, 19 July and 13 December 2002

 

I.

Long before the advent of cultural studies, queer theory, disability scholarship, or the phenomenon of the celebrity academic, there was Leslie Fiedler. A scandalous interpreter of American literature and an all-around intellectual wild man, he was also a frequent guest on The Merv Griffin Show during the 1960s. When his book Freaks: Myths and Images of the Secret Self (1978) reached the best-seller lists, Mr. Fiedler even turned up on Donahue, accompanied by a pair of Siamese twins joined at the head.

"After about his third appearance" on the tube, writes Mark Roydon Winchell, whose biography "Too Good to Be True": The Life and Work of Leslie Fiedler has just been published by the University of Missouri Press, "Leslie was informed that he would have to join ... the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists." That membership must have lapsed somewhere along the way, however. There is no reference to it in his vita at the Web site of the State University of New York at Buffalo, where Mr. Fiedler, now 85, is professor emeritus of English.

"His influence has been so profound yet so diffuse that people don't even acknowledge it," says Mr. Winchell, a professor of English at Clemson University. "Fiedler once claimed that his career had followed a pattern, with everybody denouncing his books when they first appeared, stealing ideas from them 10 years later, then declaring them classics after 20 years, without anyone ever saying anything good about them along the way. Making allowances for hyperbole, I think there's something to that."

The field of literary scholarship has certainly changed a great deal since 1948, when the critic published his most notorious essay, "Come Back to the Raft Ag'in, Huck Honey!" In it, Mr. Fiedler argued that American culture during the frontier era had been dominated by the male quest to flee what Washington Irving dubbed "petticoat government." One form of escape from feminine dominion could be found in Rip Van Winkle's hillside nap, or Thoreau's solitude at Walden. But Mr. Fiedler also pointed to the recurrent motif of white heroes forming extremely close emotional bonds with men of other races. While European novelists of the 19th century wrote about the problems surrounding heterosexual love, argued Mr. Fiedler, classic American literature projected a fantasy of interracial harmony in a world without women -- "innocent homosexuality," as he put it.

To a later generation, it seems impossible to overlook the erotic overtones of, say, Ishmael's relationship with Queequeg, his Polynesian bunkmate, in Moby-Dick. But as Mr. Winchell documents, the argument was quite upsetting at the time. He cites the greeting of Ernest Hemingway upon meeting Mr. Fiedler: "Do you still believe that st-st-stuff about Huck Finn?"

Although Mr. Fiedler is often listed as part of the circle of writers and critics known as "the New York intellectuals," he spent the first 20 years of his academic career at the University of Montana.

It was only in the 1960s that Mr. Fiedler was drawn to Buffalo, where the English department was rebuilt during Gov. Nelson Rockefeller's overhaul of public higher education. Mr. Fiedler had become a household name in Montana -- thanks in part to a pamphlet that denounced him for obscenity (helpfully reprinting the "dirty bits" from his fiction and essays). Once settled back East, he achieved a still more dubious sort of renown in 1967, following months-long surveillance of his home by the Buffalo Narcotics Squad, which found a small quantity of marijuana and hashish that may have been planted by a police informant.

The case against Mr. Fiedler and other arrested members of his family was eventually thrown out. In the meantime, national press coverage turned the 50-year-old literary critic into an improbable hero of the counterculture. A conference paper by Mr. Fiedler in 1965 had been among the first discussions of hippie culture by an academic. "According to The Oxford English Dictionary," writes Mr. Winchell, "it was in this lecture that the term postmodernism was first applied to literature." If that were not enough to consolidate his reputation as a troublemaker, Mr. Fiedler went on to champion the study of popular culture in a collection of essays with the provocative title What Was Literature? Class and Culture in Mass Society (1982).

Mr. Fiedler, who once joked that his epitaph should read "He was nothing if not ambivalent," says that his feelings about Mr. Winchell's book are "very complicated" -- though he also says, "I feel delivered. It's a release to me that someone else has made a pattern of my life."

Mr. Winchell, who describes his own politics (cultural and otherwise) as "decidedly to the right," seems an unlikely enthusiast for such an intellectual ne'er-do-well. "But critical discourse in academe has gotten so, basically, unreadable, that someone who writes in a clear and lively style and has an active engagement with literature, well that's a real joy." He quotes a remark by an old friend of Mr. Fiedler's that sums up the critic's personality: "He was always in the middle of the road, but more often than not, it was a road that hadn't been built yet."

 

II.

Recently, on The Sopranos, Mafia daughter and Columbia University undergraduate Meadow shocked her mother, Carmela, by stating that Herman Melville's novella Billy Budd concerns a gay relationship, citing a recent guest lecture at her university by Leslie Fiedler. "Well, she's wrong," responds Carmela, indignantly.

It just goes to show that Mr. Fiedler -- whose essays on classic American literature first scandalized readers in the late 1940s -- remains a combatant in the culture wars. Now a professor emeritus of English at the State University of New York at Buffalo, he is the author, most recently, of A New Fiedler Reader (Prometheus, 1999).

Q. Do you watch The Sopranos?

A. Yes, of course. I never miss it.

Q. So what was it like to find yourself name-checked?

A. I was astonished. I was undone. It made me question the difference between reality and fiction, at least for a moment. I had no notion it was coming. It was amusing that one of the things they picked up on was that ambiguous first name of mine. I keep getting letters addressed to "Ms. Leslie Fiedler." And I always write back, "I prefer to be called Mrs." The other thing that made it pleasing was that most of my children and some of my grandchildren were watching.

Q. Why do you like the program so much?

A. I grew up in the part of the world that it's set in, so when I watch the show, I see familiar faces. In my old neighborhood in Newark, the person we kids most admired in the world was the local gangster. During the Depression, he set up a soup kitchen and fed the unemployed. And our mothers looked with longing eyes at his mother, who wore the most-expensive fur coats.

Q. With hindsight, the scriptwriter's reference to your work seems absolutely appropriate. Recent episodes have explored the homoerotic undercurrents of the gangsters' intimate circle. Tony Soprano's psychoanalyst would take that interpretation for granted. But Tony himself would be horrified.

A. Certainly male bonding is one of the major things in the show. It makes good sense, in some ways, that the writers would move in that direction. All my life I've been interested in what traditional psychiatrists have had to say on the subject. Just a few hours before I saw that episode on the air, someone gave me a present -- a statue of Sigmund Freud. I think of him as joining me to them. Freud's the link between me and the mob.

Q.  It was a surprise that Meadow learned about your ideas straight from the source. After all, you've withdrawn from the classroom ...

A. Not really. I still do teach, one on one, and will give an occasional lecture. Talking is something I love to do. So long as I can still make some sounds, I'll be making them in public.