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Fiedler, Leslie Aaron

Fiedler, Leslie Aaron

(b. 8 March 1917 in Newark, New Jersey; d. 29 January 2003 in Buffalo, New York), writer, professor, and controversial literary critic whose Love and Death in the American Novel (1960) charted the mythic undercurrents of American literature and whose other books transformed the way that literature was interpreted.

Fiedler was the older of two sons born to Jacob J. Fiedler, a self-taught pharmacist, and Lillian (Rosenstrauch) Fiedler. He grew up in a predominantly Jewish section of Newark. He was such a promising student that his third-grade teacher, Miss Wessel, trusted him with correcting other students’ work. Fiedler, a born perfectionist, was often beside himself because he was certain he had failed her. Finally, Wessel simply brushed away his tears, assuring him that one day he would be a truly great man. Fiedler frequently repeated this anecdote during his lifetime.

A precocious teenager, Fiedler read the writings of Henry David Thoreau and Karl Marx; he then expounded his political views as a soapbox orator. As a college undergraduate, Fiedler commuted from Newark to New York University’s campus in the Bronx. Here he encountered his favorite poet, Robert Frost, who not only disparaged Fiedler’s poetry but also that of Gerard Manley Hopkins, Fiedler’s second favorite and the subject of his 1938 BA honors thesis in English.

After completing his undergraduate degree, Fiedler earned an MA in 1939 and a PhD in 1941 at the University of Wisconsin under the guidance of the legendary scholar William Ellery Leonard. True to Fiedler’s political leanings, his dissertation was a Marxist analysis of the poetry and sermons of John Donne. On October 6, 1939, after a three-month romance, Leslie married Margaret Ann Shipley. Their union produced six children and lasted more than three decades.

In the fall of 1941 Fiedler started teaching at Montana State College (now the University of Montana) in Missoula, Montana. By the end of the first semester, the United States had entered World War II. Fiedler moved his family to Boulder, Colorado, where he was trained by the U.S. Navy in cryptology and Japanese translation. Fiedler rose to the rank of lieutenant junior grade and spent most of his time in the Pacific Theater interrogating Japanese prisoners of war. He was stationed on the island of Guam when the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. Earlier that year he had witnessed the famous raising of the American flag atop Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima as well as its restaging for a publicity photograph. After the war he remained in China and Japan for several months as an intelligence officer.

Returning home in late 1946, Fiedler moved his family to Massachusetts, where he spent a postdoctoral year at Harvard as a Rockefeller Fellow. He studied with Francis Otto Mattheissen, a key figure in the American Studies movement. Fiedler’s contemporaries at Harvard included such future famous poets as Richard Wilbur, Robert Cree-ley, and Ruth Stone. Fiedler then returned to teach at Montana for the next twenty years, lecturing from time to time at numerous colleges in the United States and twenty foreign countries. The recipient of a Fulbright grant to teach American literature at the Universities of Rome, Bologna, and Sussex (England) between 1952 and 1954, Fiedler was also a visiting professor at Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Columbia, and Indiana Universities.

One evening, after reading Huckleberry Finn to his two sons, Fiedler awoke from a dream and jotted down the first draft of his notorious essay, “Come Back to the Raft Ag’in, Huck Honey.” Appearing in the June 1948 issue of the left-leaning journal Partisan Review, the essay moved Fiedler into the literary limelight. Recasting Huck Finn’s relationship to Nigger Jim as an interracial male love story, he argued that subconscious homoeroticism was a deeply rooted mythical aspect of the American experience and that it could be traced through many other literary works.

Fiedler’s rise to national prominence from his location in Montana was the result of a remarkable literary output. Starting with An End to Innocence: Essays on Culture and Politics (1955) and The Jew in the American Novel (1959), Fiedler published novels, short stories, and books of criticism in which he surveyed the state of Jewish-American writing and the coming of age of American literature.

In 1959 Fiedler came close to being selected as the editor of Commentary, a leading journal of literary and political opinion. Accepting such an appointment would likely have confirmed his stature as a public intellectual even though it might also have jeopardized his economic security as a tenured university professor. The next year, 1960, was crowned with the publication of Fiedler’s groundbreaking Love and Death in the American Novel. In a work of over six hundred pages, Fiedler dissected the primary myths that recur in American literature and culture. Soon Fiedler followed with Waiting for the End (1964), which extended his literary and cultural analysis to contemporary American writers, Jewish-American writing, the college novel, and the four main lines of American poetry descending from the poems of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Edgar Allan Poe, and Walt Whiman.

Though critics often lumped Fiedler with other New York Jewish intellectuals and said that he was writing to get his return ticket to the East Coast, Fiedler viewed himself as a Western writer, albeit one with both postmodernist and populist leanings. In Back to China (1965), a novel set in Montana, the hero relives his war experiences in China and has himself sterilized because of the nuclear attack on Hiroshima. Eventually Fiedler introduced and practiced a wide-open form of criticism—one that embraced such artifacts of popular culture as comic books, deeming them as worthy of scholarly attention as are issues of class, race, and gender.

In his closing years at Montana, Fiedler led a campaign that ended with the resignation of his campus president. In part, Fiedler was motivated by the president’s rejection of the appointment of an African-American scholar whom Fiedler had wanted to hire. In 1965 Fiedler was induced to move to the State University of New York (SUNY) at Buffalo, the largest campus in the rapidly expanding SUNY system. Albert Cook, a poet and the head of the English department, recruited Charles Olson, Gregory Corso, Robert Creeley, John Barth, and others in an attempt to make Buffalo a center of contemporary literature and thought. In his new position Fiedler moved even more dramatically beyond the accepted confines of academic literature to popular culture and contemporary social issues.

His status as a controversial celebrity professor, however, made him a likely target for the conservatives who dominated western New York. Surveillance by the Buffalo police and the planting of a narcotics informer at a house party led to Fiedler’s arrest in 1967 for marijuana possession, which was followed by a national protest on his behalf. Although the charges ultimately were proven false, the ensuing months and years proved traumatic, placing his continued employment at the university in question. Yet it was typical of Fiedler that his personal crisis begot art. Being Busted (1969), ostensibly about his legal problems, is also a meditation on Fiedler’s lifelong attachment to personal freedom. Filled with a rich array of reminiscences, it also dissects the university as a politically vulnerable organization and views with a novelist’s cold eye the failed allegiances of friends and colleagues during hard times.

In 1973, with the stigma of the arrest removed, Fiedler was appointed to the Samuel Langhorne Clemens Chair in English. In the same year Fiedler’s marriage of 34 years ended in divorce. He married Sally Andersen Smith in February 1973. Smith was a college professor, poet, and friend of Ruth Stone, who had known Fiedler since their postwar days at Harvard.

Fiedler’s reputation as a speaker and television celebrity grew proportionately as his books ranged across a host of popular social concerns. The fan mail from Freaks: Myths and Images of the Secret Self (1978) topped that of all his earlier books. Dismissed by some critics as pandering, the book is nonetheless a thoughtful exposition of how and why societies treat human abnormalities—a theme Fiedler had explored thirty-three years earlier in an essay on Mark Twain’s comic novella, Those Extraordinary Twins. Literary and social analysis also formed the basis of Fiedler’s Tyranny of the Normal: Essays on Bioethics, Theology, and Myth (1996).

Whether standing before a college class or a general audience, Fiedler had great stage presence. He believed classroom teachers were constantly competing with media entertainment. Late in life, white hair and beard flowing, dressed rather casually as always, he remarked at a symposium of distinguished professors how privileged he felt being able to teach for so many years after passing the mandatory retirement age. Fiedler, who frequently claimed to be a teacher who wrote, then mused that he hoped that when he died his survivors would find chalk dust in the front pockets of his jeans and in the back pockets, dog-eared copies of Huckleberry Finn and Leaves of Grass.

Fiedler was made a distinguished professor in 1987; he continued to teach even after a dramatic second-story escape from a fire in 1996 that destroyed his home and most of his and Sally’s books and papers. Increasingly disabled, however, he required a car to deliver him three days a week to Clemens Hall on the SUNY Buffalo campus, where he advised doctoral students. Fiedler died at home in January 2003 of complications from prostate cancer and Parkinson’s disease. He is buried in Forest Lawn Cemetery in Buffalo, New York.

Sixty-six linear feet of Fiedler’s personal papers, half of which are correspondence from the 1940s to 2003 and the remainder of which are manuscripts of his major works, are preserved in the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center at Boston University. Autobiographical material may be found in Being Busted (1969). A comprehensive literary biography by Mark Royden Winchell is Too Good to Be True: The Life and Work of Leslie Fiedler (2002). A rich source of biographical material is found in Starting from Newark: Conversations with Bruce Jackson and Diane Christian (2006). Obituaries are in the New York Times and Washington Post (both 31 Jan. 2003), the Los Angeles Times (1 Feb. 2003), Slate (4 Feb. 2003), and the London Times (5 Feb. 2003).

Joseph G. Flynn

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