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Leslie Aaron Fiedler (March 8, 1917 – January 29, 2003) was an American literary critic, known for his interest in mythography and his championing of genre fiction. His work also involves application of psychological 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 work is Love and Death in the American Novel (1960).
- 1 Life
- 1.1 Early years
- 1.2 University education
- 1.3 Teaching career, research, and criticism
- 2 Works
- 3 See also
- 4 References
- 5 Sources
- 6 External links
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.
Fiedler graduated from South Side High School 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 matriculated at the now-defunct Bronx, New York campus of New York University 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 Trotskyism. Fiedler's political opinions led to on-campus acts of rebellion; for instance, he once adamantly refused to salute the American 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). Although Fiedler did not gain admission to the elite eastern schools, he received a scholarship from the English graduate program at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, where he earned his MA in 1939 and PhD in 1941.
In spite of Fiedler's scholarship, his move to Wisconsin left him very short of funds. He reportedly had to survive on forty cents a day, while his avowed Trotskyist beliefs were opposed by the university's vociferous Stalinist contingent. 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 in 1939. Among his professors at Wisconsin, Fiedler developed a special fondness for William Ellery Leonard. Leonard oversaw Fiedler's MA thesis (a Marxist reading of Geoffrey Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde) and his dissertation (an interpretation of John Donne's poetry in relation to medieval thought).
Teaching career, research, and criticism
In 1941, Fiedler was hired as an assistant professor at the University of Montana in Missoula. It was in February of this year that his first son, Kurt, was born two months prematurely. He impulsively elected to join the Navy Reserve after the United States entered World War II in December 1941 due to incipient fissures in his marriage and a previously unrequited thirst for adventure. Following enlistment, he gained admission to the Navy's Japanese Language School in Boulder, Colorado, where he was placed in an intensive fourteen-month course taught by a melange of Japanese American businessmen and missionaries. Initially suspected to be a security risk, Fiedler's lieutenant (junior grade) commission was delayed until the conclusion of a comprehensive background investigation; although Baxter Hathaway, a colleague at Montana, declared that Fiedler was a Lovestoneite, the investigator failed to pick up on the allusion.
Following his commissioning, Fiedler was assigned to Pearl Harbor as a translator of intercepted intelligence in 1943; listless from the banality of his assignment, he transferred to the flagship of the fleet sent to engage the Japanese at the Battle of Iwo Jima as an intelligence officer primarily responsible for POW interrogations in 1944. At Iwo Jima, he witnessed the raising of the flag on Mount Suribachi and the photographed recreation that ensued. After subsequent assignments in Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, and China—the latter involving the repatriation of Japanese citizens following the resolution of the war—Fiedler was discharged from the Navy at his commissioned rank in early 1946; his certificate of discharge stated that he was "employed in a position of special trust and no further information regarding his service in the Navy can be disclosed."
Shortly before he completed the Japanese course in 1943, his wife gave birth to his second son, Eric. He would have four more children: Michael in 1947, Debbie in 1949, Jenny in 1952, and Miriam in 1955.
"Come Back to the Raft Ag’in, Huck Honey!"
Although initially intending to return to the University of Montana, Fiedler was unexpectedly offered a postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard University by the Rockefeller Foundation. He took a number of courses (including F. O. Matthiessen's graduate seminar on modern American poetry & a belated foray into Old Testament Hebrew) and became involved in the Harvard Poetry Society. 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 (enabled by Fiedler's recent acquaintance with Delmore Schwartz) 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 emphasized the fact the males paired in these wilderness adventures tend to be of different races as well, which created an additional 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 given from a 20th Century urban perspective and did not adequately address the time period in which Huckleberry Finn was written (i.e. the debate on the sexuality of Abraham Lincoln).
The Frontier, new criticism, and the 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 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 an African American 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).
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 City and forged connections with the editors of Esquire magazine.
It was in Esquire that Fiedler's controversial short story "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 1960s
In 1960, 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 underwent revision by Fiedler. He produced a more streamlined, focused version of the book which was published in 1966. In 1961, Fiedler became 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. Fiedler's first novel, The Second Stone, was published in 1963.
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 at Buffalo's "all-star" teaching staff in 1965.
After an involved police surveillance operation, Fiedler was arrested in 1967 on the charge of maintaining premises where banned substances were being used. Following six weeks of surveillance, 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 marijuana 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.
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). Throughout the decade, however, 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 met Burgess Meredith, Carroll O'Connor and Shirley MacLaine among others.
The 1980s and beyond
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 29, 2003, a month before his 86th birthday, he died in Buffalo, where he is buried at the Forest Lawn Cemetery.
- "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
- No! In Thunder: Essays on Myth and Literature (1960)
- 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
- 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: A Historical-Critical Anthology of Science Fiction (1975, editor)
- 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)
- Jackson, Bruce (1999-02-26). "Buffalo English: Literary Glory Days at UB.". Buffalo Beat. Retrieved 2007-12-14.
- Find A Grave Retrieved 2013-10-27
- Mark Roydon Winchell (1985) Leslie Fiedler
- S. G. Kellman and Irving Malin, editors (1999) Leslie Fiedler and American Culture
- Mark Roydon Winchell (2002) "Too Good to Be True": The Life and Work of Leslie Fiedler
- Curriculum Vitae of Leslie Fiedler
- Bruce Jackson: Conversations with Leslie A. Fiedler
- Dalkey Archive Press: Leslie A. Fiedler[dead link]
- Fear and Loathing: How Leslie Fiedler turned American criticism on its head
- A critic in winter