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Leslie Fiedler, 85; Critic and Scholar Explored Roles of Sex and Race in American Storytelling

Times Staff Writer

Leslie Fiedler, the literary critic and professor of American literature who explored themes of race and male bonding in such literary classics as “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain, “Moby-Dick” by Herman Melville and “The Last of the Mohicans” by James Fenimore Cooper, died Wednesday at home in Buffalo, N.Y. He was 85 and suffered from Parkinson’s disease.

Fiedler’s pronouncements were inspiring to some, offensive to others -- particularly his fellow literary critics. He burst on the scene in 1948 with “Come Back to the Raft Ag’in, Huck Honey,” an essay that focused on the interracial friendship between Huck, a teenage white boy, and Jim, an older black slave, that Fiedler saw as central to the Twain novel.

The essay first appeared in the Partisan Review magazine, and Fiedler expanded on its theme 11 years later in “Love and Death in the American Novel.” Reviewers took sides on Fiedler’s revisionist reading of several classics. Some called him “a serious clown.” Most preferred “incorrigible rascal.” One accused him of “fouling the American nest.”

Despite the furor Fiedler caused, his views on sex and race in American storytelling became “common wisdom,” his biographer, Mark Royen Winchell, told The Times this week. “Fiedler’s influence is so diffuse it is no longer even recognized as his,” said Winchell, whose book “Too Good To Be True: The Life and Work of Leslie Fiedler” was published last year. “Before Fiedler, hardly any literary critics discussed race and sexuality in American literature. Since him, they talk about hardly anything else.”

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Fiedler was born in Newark, N.J., and graduated from New York University. He went on to the University of Wisconsin and Harvard University for graduate degrees.

He proved to have a brilliant mind, which made it difficult, later in life, for critics to dismiss him.

“Fiedler’s Freudian orientation and strong-arm tactics are unfailingly evocative and illuminating,” wrote a critic for Commonweal magazine in 1960. “You’ll quarrel with him on every page, but that new light is there.”

As a college student, he referred to himself as an anti-communist Trotskyite.

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When World War II broke out, he enlisted in the Navy. He was sent to the Naval Japanese Language School in Colorado and served as an interpreter in Iwo Jima, Okinawa and China.

After his military service, he joined the faculty of Montana State University. He was appointed chairman of the English department and also became director of humanities studies during his 23 years on the faculty.

Several of his early essays explored the theme of assimilation in Jewish American literature, a topic close to him and several of his Jewish American friends who were up-and-coming authors at the time, among them Bernard Malamud and Saul Bellow.

“More than anything, Fiedler was a ‘50s Jewish intellectual who claimed this country as his own, just as Philip Roth and Norman Mailer did,” said Greil Marcus, a critic based in Northern California.

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“Fiedler’s idea was that each of us carries a version of America within us,” Marcus said. “By saying he was as American as anybody, he was saying, ‘You can make that claim, too.’ ”

In Montana, Fiedler brought his literary heroes to campus. William Faulkner, the reigning Southern novelist, was “terrible” as a lecturer to the general public but “great” in the classroom setting, Fiedler told Salon magazine in an interview that appeared earlier this month.

Dinner with the poet W. H. Auden, in a Montana steak house, halted momentarily when Auden confessed in a loud voice that, as a younger man, he had been “a mad queen.”

In 1964, Fiedler left Montana to join the faculty of the State University of New York at Buffalo, where he spent the rest of his life on the English faculty. He brought Beat poet Allen Ginsberg to campus, and regaled students with stories about meeting Ernest Hemingway in Ketchum, Idaho.

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His combative approach to educating young minds allowed him to say, for example, that James Fenimore Cooper was not a writer at all when he published his first novel.

“Here was a man age 30 who never put anything more than his signature on paper,” Fiedler said.

He dismissed Cooper’s plots as “laughable,” his dialogue as “awful” and his prose as “pretentious” in a 1990 interview with the Toronto Star. Yet, he defended Cooper and other literary icons he considered to have had limited talent, because they had made contributions to their field.

It was Cooper, Fiedler argued, who first explored themes of interracial male bonding in the friendship between Natty Bumppo and Chingachgook, leading characters in “The Last of the Mohicans.”

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Filmmaker Mark Moskowitz, who produces political commercials, interviewed Fiedler last year for the documentary “Stone Reader,” about an overlooked novelist from the 1970s named Dow Mossman.

“Fiedler was provocative,” Moskowitz said of the critic’s long career. “He took a stance outside his own at times, just to make people think. As a teacher, it’s important to do that. He was a little tongue-in-cheek in his criticism. He went a little over the line. But he did put his finger on something when he wrote about American ‘buddy’ books.”

Moskowitz met with Fiedler in his Victorian-era home near the university’s downtown campus.

“He was still like a young, rebellious, bright guy,” Moskowitz said. “He spoke in perfect paragraphs. No ‘uhs’ or ‘ums.’ ”

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Off-camera they talked about the fire that destroyed Fiedler’s home library, about 5,000 books, in 1995. Losses included a signed copy of Malamud’s “The Natural,” a first edition of James Joyce’s “Ulysses” and original bound galleys of Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22.”

They also talked about Fiedler’s rift with Bellow, the author of “Herzog” and “Henderson the Rain King” who won a Nobel Prize for literature in 1976. They were friends until they disagreed about several books, not all of them by Bellow, Fiedler said.

In his old age, “Fiedler was re-reading all of Bellow to make his final assessment of the work,” Moskowitz said.

Fiedler is survived by his second wife, Sally; six children from his first marriage; two stepchildren; nine grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.

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The family is planning a memorial service in Buffalo next month.


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