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1917-2003

Leslie Fiedler

By Richard Howard

By the time Leslie Fiedler died, a month before his 86th birthday, he had written (and collaborated in writing) more than thirty books, including several volumes of stories, two novels, a couple of literary textbooks, an autobiographical meditation (Being Busted), many collections of essays, two editions of a sort of magnum opus, Love & Death in the American Novel (“I have always considered it a work of art rather than scholarship”), and a number of works whose genre is, to put it politely, uncertain.

He taught all his life in provincial American universities (Montana and Buffalo), after a gritty high-school education in Newark where he was born (and where he learned he was to contend with anti-Semitism from all directions), and after a Trotskyite undergraduate interlude at N.Y.U. Heights, followed by graduate studies at Wisconsin where he earned a M. A. with a thesis consisting of a Marxist reading of Chaucer’s Troilus & Criseyde and a Ph.D. with a dissertation on Donne’s poetry in relations to medieval thought. None of this studious procedure, which sounds in summary docile enough, had been a smooth or even routine academic progress; Fiedler’s political opinions in colleges (he had joined the Young Communist League) led to on-campus acts of rebellion—refusing to salute the flag during an R.O.T.C. parade, etc.—and indeed many of his teachers refused to recommend this contentious student for graduate school, one professor leaving a scathing observation in Fiedler’s file that “Mr. Fiedler will never be a gentleman or a scholar.”

At Wisconsin, however, he became a husband and a father, and, immediately after Pearl Harbor, he made a sudden decision to join the Navy, which placed him in a program for learning Japanese, with the intention of serving as a translator for Japanese prisoners. (I have often wondered whether Leslie actually succeeded in this task; the image is fascinating and preposterous, as any of his hundreds of students would certainly agree.) Discharged in 1945, Fiedler was unexpectedly offered a Rockefeller Fellowship at Harvard, after which he returned to Montana for twenty years of teaching, interrupted by a stint as a Fulbright lecturer in the universities of Rome and Bologna, and again, in 1961, in the University of Athens. I want to emphasize, in this tribute to the late literary man of letters, that in his tastes and his education, even before he published a word, Leslie Fiedler was liable and likely to speak of whatever moved him at the moment—he was never constrained to the role of a respectable scholar, an Americanist par excellence. “Whatever moved him” turned out to be the literature of many countries and eras beside his own: ancient Greek tragedy, the classic Chinese novel, Old Provençal poetry, the English Victorian novel, Kafka and Joyce, Jaroslav Hašek and Chrétien de Troyes, and especially Shakespeare and Dante (that list is Leslie’s).

I daresay that at no point in his professional life could he help being candid; he was bound (and determined) to be offensive, susceptible as he was to the call of the Dionysian, the vatic, the subversive, and the countercultural. “The text,” he liked to say, in the face of his New-Critical colleagues, “is merely one of the contexts of a piece of literature, its lexical or verbal one, not more or less important than the sociological, psychological, historical, anthropological, or genetic.” But what governed Leslie Fiedler even more than that heretical utterance, and what was, I supposed, ultimately responsible for the constraint so many of us charged him with, the role he latterly welcomed as querulous chronicler of the American literary scene, was his conviction (in almost a penal sense of that word) that to be an American, (unlike being English or French, say) is “precisely to imagine a destiny rather than to inherit one since we have always been, insofar as we are Americans at all, inhabitants of myth rather than history.”

The revelation is what was to bring Fiedler to the curious enterprises which dominate all his work, the varying emphasis on science fiction and mass culture (writing about Edgar Rice Burroughs, Margaret Mitchell, and Olaf Stapledon with the same intensity he devoted to Dante, Donne, and Shakespeare), Jewish identity and the (alas) final “essay on bioethics, theology, and myth” called—after he had, with Freaks, broken the subject in or even up—Tyranny of the Normal. And this perceived habitation of myth brings about, as well, the complimentary acknowledgment that “whatever I have written”—this is Fiedler on the occasion of receiving the Hubbell Award—”has always been from an essentially American point of view and in an essentially American voice, in my customary perverse and ambivalent way, so that I am in the deepest sense ‘Americanist’ after all.”

I should like to end by expanding my tribute beyond its necessary subject to the Academy itself. I want to express my grateful congratulations to this body for the clear sightedness and the perceptive collegiality that made Leslie Fiedler—despite what one of its members observed as his failings of “overstatement, restlessness, and egotism,” and what many others, including myself, might extend to a really daunting list of liabilities beyond those three—a members of the Academy seventeen years ago. Leslie’s absence among us now affords a glorious perspective, as death always does, on his appropriate and essential and necessary fellowship in this or any American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Read at the Academy Dinner Meeting on November 7, 2006.

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