- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 18, 2002

When this book was announced, I could not contain my eagerness to see it. Mark Roydon Winchell, a professor at Clemson University, is the very able biographer of Cleanth Brooks and Donald Davidson, both emphatically Southerners. Brooks (latterly at Yale) is among the most important of the careful-reading so-called New Critics of the '40s and '50s. Among much else, his "Understanding Poetry" and "Understanding Fiction," both written with Robert Penn Warren, educated several generations of university students of literature, not to menton their instructors.
Here, now, however, Mr. Winchell engages something very different. Leslie Fiedler, emphatically Jewish, grew up in Newark, N.J., and spent his academic career at the University of, hold your breath, Montana and at SUNY Buffalo. Now in his 80s and ailing, he cooperated extensively with Mark Winchell on this book, as did many acquainted with him. This unusual firsthand information has been useful and often colorful.
Leslie Fiedler came to general attention with a small collection of essays entitled "The End of Innocence" (1955). This was a sometimes admirable, and, compared with what was to come, sober performance. One version of the "innocence" that ought to end was the widespread liberal sentiment that anyone on the political left was innocent of serious crimes (Alger Hiss, the Rosenbergs). Mr. Fiedler is still reviled by writers nostalgic for the nobility of Stalinism.
The other innocence that is to end concerns the sexually subversive aspect of classic American literature. This was foreshadowed in this collection by the immediately notorious essay "Come Back to the Raft Again Huck, Honey." Here Mr. Fiedler argues that the relationship of Huck and Jim on the raft was homoerotic. Those who thought it was "comradeship" were implicitly "innocent."
But Mr. Fiedler is clever. While winking in the direction of sodomy, he insists that the relationship was "innocent" homosexuality. This annoyed gays. Those of us who read, and re-read, Mark Twain's story of their drifting down the Mississippi as a lyrically free idyll, shadowed by the slaveholding presence toward which they drift, are innocent concerning the homoeroticism Mr. Fiedler unmasks. It is characteristic of his practice here and later on that he puts as much distance as he can between the text and his comments on it by means of his "mythic" interpretations.
It is a tribute to Mark Royden Winchell's ability as a biographer that he does so well with such radically contrasting critics and personalities as Cleanth Brooks and Leslie Fiedler.
Brooks was a meticulous explorer of the words that constitute poetry or prose literature. He focussed his laser-like intelligence on the literary object. The title of one of his best known books, "The Well-Wrought Urn," represents his attitude. He wants to see, and us to see, how a poem is "wrought." His subordination of the critic to the work of literature has a moral quality, and quite possibly a religious quality. He is attentive. As Simone Weill put it, "In the intellectual order, the virtue of humility is nothing more nor less than the power of attention." Without imposing "personality" between himself and the reader, Brooks' high intelligence allowed the text to shine through to the reader as through a clear lens.
This was more appropriate to a lyric by Donne or Yeats than to "Leaves of Grass," or to "Uncle Tom's Cabin" or to a novel by Dreiser, but Brooks wrote much and well on Faulkner. His intellectual manners were those of the gentleman, incisive, highly intelligent, yet unobtrusive.
With Leslie Fiedler, you cannot get a moment's rest from his personality. The personality is that of a troll under the bridge.
"Mr. Fiedler has not been a careful or close reader but a discerner of large patterns of behavior that go beyond the individual work. He is pleased to call these 'myths,' but what he has in mind are not things like Zeus and Hera. In what he reads he finds repeated examples of the Good Girl, the Bad Good Girl, the Good Good Boy, the Bad Good Boy, the Good Bad Boy and so on. Tom Sawyer is a Bad Good Boy. Huck is a Good Bad Boy. The Good Good Girl has to die before she reaches puberty, etc."
One result of this kind of thing, sought by Mr. Fiedler, is that it breaks down walls. Examples of all of the above can be found in literature but also in comic books, sitcoms, movies and doubtless bubblegum cards. Welcome to university Cultural Studies 101.
Mr. Fiedler's "mythic" method was anticipated in "Come Back to the Raft Again, Huck, Honey." It is fully deployed in his Big Book, "Love and Death in the American Novel" (1960), in which several large myths or patterns of behavior are discerned and thought to be especially American. Love and death are closely associated, which is thought here to be remarkable. But consider the Brontes, for example, and much else in the Gothic mode. Not surprisingly it occurs often in the 19th-century American novel, which was born at the peak of the Gothic mode.
Then there is the comradeship between male characters, sometimes "of color," as we say: Huck and Jim, Ishmael and Queequeg, Fenimore Cooper's Natty Bumppo and Chungachggook, and so on. Women are suspiciously absent. The comrades thus are homoerotic. It can be said that these pairs are especally American. Such might have been expected from the American history of slavery, the frontier, and the whaling industry. But we also meet such cross-racial comradeship in Rudyard Kipling off in India. Was Robinson Crusoe (1719) an American? Perhaps avant la lettre.
The trouble with Mr. Fiedler's large patterns lies exactly where it seems most valuable to him: It breaks down walls between literature and popular culture. We get such homoerotic pairs in the Lone Ranger and Tonto and for that matter Jack Benny and Rochester. If what you are interested in are the large patterns, the differences between literature and popular culture do not matter. If you are interested in literature, they do. In "Love and Death," which deals with a multitude of American novels, Mr. Fiedler understandably sometimes gets characters and plot wrong.
The discovery of homoeroticism in Huck and Jim brings us to another salient fact about Mr. Fiedler as a reader. Without warrant in the words of the text he is discussing, he tries to eroticize everything. He is not a Good Bad Boy like Huck. He is a deliberately naughty little brat. Can't leave sex alone for a minute. This habit of mind led an exasperated Malcolm Cowley to erupt on the front page of The New York Times Book Review (March 27, 1960):
"I have thought at times of compiling a dictionary of synonyms for the use of college freshmen. Here are a few of the phrases plagiarized to impress young instructors. Never say friendship, say 'innocent homosexuality.' Never say curiosity, say 'voyeurism,' or refer to the curious man as a 'castrated peeper.' Instead of mourning for the dead, refer to 'necrophilia.' Instead of self-awareness. Speak of 'narcissism.' Remember that fun and games do not exist in the Freudian world except as 'the symbolic enactment of sado-masochistic desires.' Remember that family affection is merely a 'repressed incestuous longing' and that chastity is 'the morbid fear of full genital development.'"
In this thorough and useful biography, Mr. Winchell intersperses an account of Mr. Fiedler's literary work with a description of his rollicking and turbulent academic career. Lots of "walls" are broken down, all over the place, in America, China, and Europe. He undoubtedly made the University of Montana more interesting than it had been, but roiled the state legislature over his quarrel with the president of the university. In an essay, he managed to insult the entire state.
At Buffalo he joined a department seeking identity by recruiting an assortment of writers, including a number of alcoholics who had trouble making it to class. This was the wrong kind of identity to have. He brought Allen Ginsberg to sleepy Buffalo, and Ginsberg and his catamite Peter Orlovsky let it all hang out about exchanging bodily fluids, etc. In Esquire he published a story accurately entitled "Nude Croquet." After he published a book called "Freaks," about just that, he taught a university course enrolled by just that, in which a dwarf at the conclusion married a girl with flippers.
Apparently framed by the police, Mr. Fiedler was convicted in Buffalo on marijuana charges, and at length published a book called "Busted." He became a celebrity on TV, and, TV talk, or, er, freak shows and a fellow traveller of the 1960s Kids movement, regarding the Kids as religious mystics. On the dust jacket of this book he looks like a member of the Grateful Dead.
I do not view all of this as fun or as authenticity. Mr. Fiedler has been the Mel Brooks of literary criticism. It is not to be wondered that he ended his academic career entrenched at Buffalo.
Mark Royden Winchell tells this story with skill, aplomb, and great generosity. It is an important book to have, giving an account of a moment in "our culture." In his biography of Cleanth Brooks, he depicted a superb reader who had the humility to attend to genuine literature. Mr. Fiedler was colossally arrogant and show-offy. The last thing he wanted to be was a gentleman, and he certainly escaped that.

Jeffrey Hart is a nationally syndicated columnist.


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