A renowned literary critic contemplates literature, life, and whatever else he wants
Leslie Fiedler, so far as this reviewer is aware, is the only literary critic to get a shout-out in the HBO series The Sopranos. Specifically, in an episode from the fourth season of the program Meadow Soprano, an undergraduate at Columbia University, tells her parents that according to Fiedler Billy Budd—among other installments in the canon of American literature—evidences a fascination with homosocial bonding and homoerotic attraction. Meadow’s aim is to prove her open-mindedness and intellectual acumen to what she thinks of as her ignoramus parents, who, for their part, thought they were sending their daughter to a top-tier college so that she might be initiated into a world of high culture that will serve as the final imprimatur of their aspirations to move their family into the echelons of the social elite
Though it appeared a couple of years before his death, the scene serves as a fitting obituary to Fiedler, reflecting as it does a complex dynamic of high and low art, elitism, and populism, complacent and radical readings of cultural mainstays all in the context of a show that sought to transform a staple of American pop culture, the gangster or mafia story, into a sustained meditation on American society.
It’s fitting because Fiedler himself existed in the in-between spaces of cultural criticism. He earned his doctorate at age 24, took his first teaching appointment in the same year, and would, except for a period of service in World War II, hold positions at various universities for decades to follow. Fiedler, however, never quite fit into the rubric of “academic” and the clichés entailed by the term despite the enormous influence and prestige achieved by his most important work Love and Death in the American Novel (some of whose ideas Meadow Soprano references). Rather, Fiedler followed his interests wherever they might lead, not so much oblivious to but in active defiance of the strictures of academic protocol and expectation.
The Devil Gets His Due reflects both Fiedler’s eclectic interests and the consistently brilliant intellect he brought to bear upon them, though it should be noted that, like many volumes of previously uncollected essays, it is something of a hodgepodge work. It contains, for example, Fiedler’s most celebrated (and notorious) essay “Come Back to the Raft Ag’in, Huck Honey” (in which many of the ideas explored in Love and Death in the American Novel get their initial airing) along with meditations on the work of now obscure writers (“The Return of James Branch Cabell; Or, the Cream of the Cream of the Jest” for example), and reflections on the Vietnam War and Fiedler’s experiences in World War II.
As one might expect, some of the installments have aged better than others—“ Huck Honey” is just as refreshingly bold and illuminating (if not shocking) as when it was published some 60 years ago while the meditation on Robert Penn Warren’s career—“Robert Penn Warren: A Final Word”—serves mainly to index just how much the work of the poet and pioneer of New Criticism has declined in relevance.
Still, whatever the subject at hand, nearly every page of the collection evinces Fiedler’s intelligence, erudition, panache, and combativeness. For example, though some critics and writers (such as Saul Bellow) pilloried Fiedler for, in essence, destroying “literature” by depreciating the traditional canon and grouped him with others who denounced it on grounds of exclusivity, it is important to note that Fiedler himself took issue with “progressive” attempts to revise the canon and university curricula. He writes, for example, in “The Canon and the Classroom: A Caveat” that,
... “progressive” revisers of the canon end by excluding as well as including works on ideological grounds; so that their new canon is finally even narrower than the reactionary one they began by deploring. On the one hand, they urge teaching works written by members of previously underesteemed groups in our society, along with those written by anyone which present what are considered at the moment in liberal academic circles correct views on ethnicity, sexuality, age and physical impairment. Yet at the same time, and on the same high moral/political grounds, they urge dropping from our curriculum books which support views on the subjects with which they happen to disagree, labeling them “racist,” “sexist,” “ageist,” “homophobic,” etc. etc.
These are hardly the words and sentiments of the leftist bogeyman that some conservative commentators have made Fiedler out to be.
For Fiedler what makes a work significant, or at least worthy of analysis, is not its aesthetic merit or intellectual complexity but, finally, what he called its “mythic” or “archetypal” significance:
... all literature which survives its historical moment is rooted in archetypes ... [and] it prepares for change by expressing the otherwise unconfessed dark side of our ambivalence: chiefly our hatred and fear of the Other. That Other is, though customarily defined in terms of race, gender, generation, or class, a projection of all that is unredeemably alien in the depths of our own psyches.
In other words, Fiedler did not analyze marginalized works and forms because he felt this would enfranchise discriminated against or oppressed groups but, rather, because he believed that analysis of these works could illuminate the essential stories by which Americans in particular have lived and continue to live their collective psychical life, the dreams and nightmares of the national subconscious. Thus, in “Looking Back After 50 Years” Fiedler confesses that he finds Gone with the Wind “politically reprehensible” and “melodramatic” but worthy of examination because its popularity corresponds to “the highest degree of archetypal resonance.”
The Devil Gets His Due may not reveal anything new about Fiedler’s thinking but it does present his erudition and ideas in accessible and entertaining form, thereby serving as successful career retrospective. Much of the credit for this must go to Fiedler’s prose style which is astonishingly lucid and well organized—astonishing, at least, to readers accustomed to academic prose that is maddeningly elliptical, oblique, or willfully obscure (some may be tempted to cheer when Fiedler writes in “Intellectual Uncles” that “[Roland Barthes’ style is] so pointlessly and tastelessly abstract, so devoid of grace, blood or even ... existenz, that I shall never willingly read a word of his again”).
Credit, too, should go to editor Samuele F.S. Pardini, whose organization of the volume helps to foreground consistent themes in Fiedler’s writing and thinking across disparate forms and genres. Pardini provides as well an introduction that makes a substantial and eloquent case for the continuing relevance of Fiedler’s work—a case that much of The Devil Gets His Due powerfully evidences.