Deconstructing the critic

Bruce Bauman is the author of the novel "And the Word Was." He is senior editor of Black Clock magazine.

THE “myth is the message,” Leslie Fiedler once wrote in a reflective piece on Robert Penn Warren. It is a dictum that served him well. During a 50-year career, Fiedler produced more than 20 books and mythologized himself as the foremost literary and cultural critic in America. Even before his 1978 bestseller, “Freaks,” he was that rare bird for an academic: a TV celebrity!

Yet behind his mocking fury and intellectual kibitzing lived a first-rate scholar and original thinker. In his seminal works “Come Back to the Raft Ag’in, Huck Honey!” (1948) and “Love and Death in the American Novel” (1960), the never-modest Fiedler claimed, “I was doing Queer and Cultural Studies before they had names!” According to the Oxford English Dictionary, he coined the term “post-Modernist.” In “What Was Literature?,” he offers perhaps his most enduring legacy -- kicking the doors from their ivied jambs, opening the literary canon to all who had been denied entry by the WASP elite while challenging the essential myth of America itself.

Stylistically, the best of Fiedler’s work shook off standard, quasi-British academic prose and replaced it with a purely American tongue -- a mix of Chuck Berry, Leonard Bernstein and Lenny Bruce. He was brash, erudite, intellectually provocative and sometimes calculatedly obscene. His essay on pop culture, “Giving the Devil His Due,” typically references Stan Lee, the Incredible Hulk, Henry James, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” P.T. Barnum, Gutenberg, Trotsky and Cervantes, all in two pages. That kind of riffing now seems as common as a Kafka T-shirt, but five decades ago it was new and often academic blasphemy.

In “The Devil Gets His Due,” Elon University professor Samuele F.S. Pardini gathers 41 Fiedler essays. (The only previously collected piece is “Come Back to the Raft Ag’in, Huck Honey!”) Pardini also contributes a detailed and laudatory introduction and clearly hopes the book will reignite the Fiedler legacy.

Unfortunately, with the exception of a handful of essays, the pieces here do little to highlight the myth that was the thunderous Fiedler. Too many reiterate points Fiedler made with greater flair elsewhere -- especially in regard to the homoerotic undercurrent in many American novels. Too much time is spent on Fiedler’s disdain for the New Yorker and its middlebrow taste, as well as his enmity toward the “New Critics” and the French theorists. He meticulously, um, deconstructs “The Grapes of Wrath” until it fits quietly in the middlebrow book bin. There’s a funny piece on Twain’s little-known pornographic skit “1601,” and other pieces draw perceptive parallels and distinctions between William Faulkner’s Temple Drake and J. D. Salinger’s Franny Glass.


Still, there’s too much material on lesser writers, or political and academic battles that now feel dated. More to the point, there are almost no pieces that deal with Fiedler’s political work.

For those unfamiliar with Fiedler, this is probably not the place to start. I’d rather see a kind of greatest hits collection, culled from his essays, his underrated fiction, his interviews (a form at which he excelled) and his reviews -- a compendium that underscores his theories and spans his entire career, including the best pieces from this anthology too. Sufficient time has passed so we can properly judge whether Fiedler was the court jester of his era or the mythopoeic critic as artist.

Thankfully, there are at least five important and relevant essays in “The Devil Gets His Due” that reveal why Fiedler remains one of the keenest surveyors of American culture. He once kidded that “what I want written on my gravestone is ‘Often wrong, but never in doubt.’ ” Like anyone who wrote so voluminously, he was often right and often wrong, and he did question himself. “The Canon and the Classroom: A Caveat,” for instance, reassesses the results of his earlier work.

In “What Was Literature?” Fiedler writes, “I had contended that this breaking down the boundaries between High Art and Pop would enable us to read without prejudice hitherto despised works by underprivileged groups in our society: women; Black Americans; Native Americans; homosexuals; Hispanics; even Rednecks. . . . With this diagnosis of our cultural plight, militant feminists, gays, Indians, and Afro-Americans seemed at first sight to agree.”

Fiedler’s desire to change the rules came to fruition. Yet the new arbiters turned out to be “untrustworthy allies.” Some remained loyal to the false gods of high art and, to Fiedler’s chagrin, did not make room for writers like Samuel Delany, Frank Yerby and Iceberg Slim. Others, “ardent multiculturalists,” labeled the old guard racist, sexist, ageist, homophobic and demanded “proportional representation in the canon,” while discarding Fiedler favorites such as Hawthorne, Hemingway and Melville. Fiedler began to draw new attacks; instead of from the right, barbs came from the left calling him sexist and reactionary. No surprise. From the beginning, he understood that he was playing a high-stakes culture game and that he could lose.

In his introduction, Pardini writes, “Literary criticism is in crisis.” Perhaps. I think our culture, and thus criticism, is in transition. In “Toward an Amateur Criticism” (1950) -- which should be required reading for all would-be critics -- Fiedler foresaw the end of the Gutenberg revolution, although he didn’t know what was coming.

We now know it is the Internet, that space of immense possibility and immense abuse. In this future, Fiedler’s hoped-for critics would speak to all, not just specialists, and evaluation would be “nonetheless the vital center of criticism; but to practice it one must believe in the reality of the true . . . [i]n the existence of men of taste.” Such an idea is as relevant as ever, but the fundamental question is even more complex in the cyber-ocracy: Who elects the people of taste?

Democracy, not just of literature but of politics, was crucial to Fiedler. “The Intellectual Roots of Anti-Intellectualism,” written in 1956, offers this nugget: “What really stirs the anger of the anti-intellectual is that his opponent evades even the last comforting platitude: ‘Those who are not for us are against us!’ -- for the intellectual is neither for nor against in the ordinary sense.” How could we not think of our soon to be ex-president when reading that sentence? How could we not think of the current culture wars?

But in “Whatever Happened to Jerry Lewis, That’s Amore . . . ,” the last essay in the collection, Fiedler makes us smile. Written in 2002, a year before his death, the piece delves into Jerry Lewis, Eddie Murphy and Fiedler’s own lifelong themes of high and low culture. The essay finishes with what seems the perfect, non-politically correct Fiedler-esque flourish: “We therefore owe him [Murphy] thanks for having restored to us in a strange new form the original Jerry Lewis, one of the makers of that mulatto culture that is America’s gift to itself and the rest of the world.”

It was Fiedler’s gift to perceive, critique and proselytize for the unique American mix. Moreover, it was his underlying optimism, not his curmudgeonly contrarianism, that served as the true leitmotif of his career. This had everything to do with his belief in our culture’s ability to dispel the poison of our demons. For Fiedler, our literature was at its best when it faced down our fears of the Other and allowed our inherent largeness of spirit to win out.