High-minded lowdown

Times Staff Writer

IN THE long and often embarrassing history of intellectuals’ attempts to grapple with pop culture, there are, at least, a few high points. One of them is the work of the late Leslie Fiedler, the garrulous and provocative critic of literature who could write equally well on Nathaniel Hawthorne and circus freaks.

While that kind of high-low mix-and-match has become commonplace, Fiedler’s catholic tastes and wild-man writing style were first unleashed in the 1940s, when the genteel WASP tradition still reigned. In his 2003 Slate obituary of Fiedler, Sam Tanenhaus calls him “a master of the hectoring overstatement” whose writing “ridicules its own high-mindedness.”

His influence shows up in unexpected places. David Ritz, the Los Angeles author of “Divided Soul: The Life of Marvin Gaye,” considers Fiedler his mentor. “His prose style I found so muscular and bombastic and extravagant,” said Ritz, who studied with him in the ‘60s. “As an essayist, he had a rhythm and a groove; he had a jazz-like prose that was always turning a corner and comparing crazy things together. And he had this great Norman Mailer charisma.”


Though Fiedler has become unfashionable since his peak in the ‘60s and ‘70s, Counterpoint’s recent publication of “The Devil Gets His Due: The Uncollected Essays of Leslie Fiedler,” edited by Samuele F.S. Pardini, could introduce him to a new audience. It may be the right time too: To writer Camille Paglia, he was one of the three great thinkers, along with Marshall McLuhan and Norman O. Brown, who prepared America’s midcentury culture for the wider and wilder world of cyberspace. He’s credited, by the way, with being the first to use the term “postmodern.”

“Fiedler created an American intellectual style that was truncated by the invasion of faddish French theory in the ‘70s and ‘80s,” Paglia wrote in a blurb on the reissue of Fiedler’s “Love and Death in the American Novel,” from 1960. “Let’s turn back to Fiedler and begin again.”

Fiedler was from the beginning a maverick. He shared an early biography with many of the so-called New York Intellectuals, such as Lionel Trilling and Irving Kristol -- working-class Jewish upbringing in or around the city, in Fiedler’s case mostly Newark, then New York University -- but he broke from that group’s twin obsessions: leftist politics and high modernist literature. He avoided their dedication to anti-Stalinist socialism as completely as he did their later swing to neoconservatism. And his passion for literature was not for Proust-Joyce-Mann but for American novelists from Hawthorne to Bernard Malamud, of whom he was an important early champion.

Years before the ironic worship of kitsch came into vogue, he loved writing on “bad” authors, which is how he described James Fenimore Cooper: He became the most important interpreter of the “Last of the Mohicans” author whose books, set mostly in upstate New York, embodied what Fielder saw as the key to American fiction: The flight of men west, away from women and domesticity, and often (in one way or another) into each others’ arms.

“American literature is distinguished by the number of dangerous and disturbing books in its canon,” he once wrote, “and American scholarship by its ability to conceal this fact.”

Unlike the rest of the Partisan Review gang, which circled Greenwich Village and City College of New York, Fiedler took off for the frontiers he’d been reading about: He became, intellectually and personally, a Westerner. His first berth was at Montana State University at Missoula, where he wrote much of his most important work over two decades.

“He was a pugnacious person who was determined to be at once the life of the party and never to be accepted,” said Greil Marcus, who name-checked Fiedler in “Mystery Train,” his groundbreaking 1975 study of rock music and American myth. “When you read Fiedler, if you have any germ of wanting to write, you have to wonder, ‘Do I have the nerve to do this?’ You’re making criticism into a kind of public performance -- leaving yourself completely exposed.”

Embracing the new

BEFORE Fiedler, intellectuals mostly wrote about “mass culture” with a combination of anxiety, discomfort and condescension. To a thinker trained in formal criticism and high culture, the post-World War II period was bewildering: Mass literacy and affluence led to the explosion of youth fashion, comic books and magazines and, by the mid-'50s, rock ‘n’ roll.

The suspicious approach was best embodied by Theodor Adorno, the Frankfurt School philosopher who settled in Los Angeles during World War II. A new biography, “Theodor W. Adorno: One Last Genius” by Detlev Claussen, chronicles this co-founder of the notion of “the culture industry.” Adorno could write stirringly on the late works of Beethoven or the dangers of rationalism but ham-handedly about popular forms. His essay on jazz is notoriously bad.

Because he feared that mass culture could undercut a precarious democracy -- as it had in Weimar Germany -- Adorno considered it a smoke screen, an opiate, an indicator of cultural decline. Like many of the other “exiles in paradise” -- German-speaking emigres in Southern California -- his time in L.A. did not loosen him up.

Not everyone was as stiff as Adorno. In the U.S. during the ‘50s, intellectuals were often fascinated by mass culture, and some made an honest effort to assess it. One of the best and in some ways the most awkward was the Partisan Review critic Robert Warshow. His best-known essays -- collected in “The Immediate Experience” -- concern the gangster, the western movie and the comic “Krazy Kat.” You feel his valiant effort to come to terms with these important phenomena, but the closest he gets to admitting the pleasures of pop is describing his son’s excitement over a comics club. Though born in 1917, the same year as Fiedler, Warshow projects both analytic rigor and the strain of earnestness.

Fiedler, on the other hand, was intoxicated by pop even as he approached it as an old-school scholar. “Though he was a champion of pop culture, he was kind of caught between two worlds,” said Ritz. “He describes himself as a voyeur, not a participant. He was all about equivocation, being in two places and never being in one.”

His tone, from a half-century ago, remains contemporary. “If literary blogs had been around in Fiedler’s day,” said Richard Nash, who published the new collection, “he would have been just loving it, in the sense of being a provocateur. He’d have been on or had his own blog.”

“Devil” includes pieces on the movies about the Vietnam War, the fantasy writer Philip Jose Farmer, the comedy and telethons of Jerry Lewis, and an essay on Kurt Vonnegut written for Esquire. One of the few 20th century English writers Fiedler took seriously was Olaf Stapledon, the visionary science-fiction novelist to whom he devoted an entire book.

Fiedler wasn’t the only one to see outer space as the ultimate “West,” and he followed literature to the fringes, including writers of the drug experience. (Though he was famously busted in the late ‘60s in a marijuana frame-up and later acquitted, it’s not clear that Fiedler ever smoked anything stronger than a Cuban cigar.)

“What I like,” said Pardini, the new volume’s Italian-born editor, “is that he made the case for popular culture as a barometer of the public condition. ‘Gone With the Wind’ was an awful book, and he knew it, but the point was, ‘Why do we like this stuff?’ ”

It would be easy to divide Fiedler’s career into halves: the Montana period, during which he wrote largely about literature and penned “Love and Death,” and his decades at State University of New York in Buffalo, where he wrote more about popular subjects.

But whether he was writing about Faulkner or comic books, Fiedler was addressing pop culture, since to him the novel, from its beginning in 18th century England, was the first important popular form. At the same time, Marcus saw his first commitment was to the seriousness of literature: “There was no way Elvis Presley was going to mean as much to him as ‘Absalom, Absalom.’ ”

Though he didn’t invent the mythological approach, almost anyone who uses books or movies or TV as a lens into the “collective unconscious” owes a debt to Fiedler.

He’s proved especially influential among writers on popular music; Marcus hears Fiedler’s combination of “fun and fearlessness” in legendary rock critic Lester Bangs.

The Experience Music Project’s Pop Conference, an annual gathering of critics and scholars that took place last month in Seattle, was full of “children of Fiedler,” Ritz said. “It was interesting to see how his influence permeated a conference of music intellectuals and ethnomusicologists and cultural anthropologists. All these studies -- ‘The Image of the Black Woman From Bessie Smith to Amy Winehouse’ or whatever -- they’re all Fiedlerian riffs.”

Laying a future track

THE NEW Fiedler collection does not represent his finest work. His best and best-known book remains “Love and Death,” so exuberantly stuffed with ideas that it has to be taken slowly despite the gunning engine of the prose. In a piece, Paglia described Fielder as a thinker who did not impose his system “but liberated a whole generation of students to think freely and to discover their own voices.”

When Ritz left SUNY before taking his PhD -- deciding he wanted to be “a pop culture participant and not a pop culture analyzer” -- many of his teachers disapproved. Not Fiedler, who encouraged the move and followed Ritz’s books on Gaye and Ray Charles.

Ritz described Fiedler as demonstrating the best spirit of a writer or teacher. “He was training people to do things he couldn’t do,” he said, “go places he couldn’t go.”