"Do you still believe that st-st-stuff about Huck Finn?" asked Ernest Hemingway upon meeting Leslie Fiedler in 1960. He was referring to the critic's notorious 1948 essay in the Partisan Review, "Come back to the raft ag'in, Huck Honey!," in which Fiedler had described Mark Twain's Huck and Jim as enjoying an idyllic homoerotic interracial bond, an "immaculate male love" celebrated as well in Moby-Dick and in The Last of the Mohicans. In the essay, Fiedler describes Hemingway as an "improbable" recent instance of this American tradition that can imagine "an ennobling or redemptive love only between males in flight from women and civilization." In their meeting, both men carefully avoided lingering on this delicate subject. Over the decades, the article became the most influential single essay ever written about American literature. It served as the basis of Fiedler's masterpiece Love and Death in the American Novel (1960), usually regarded, along with the book that influenced it, D.H. Lawrence's Studies in Classic American Literature, as one of the few indispensable works in the field.
But Fiedler's ideas resonated far beyond the academy to echo throughout American culture. His influence is palpable in Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1962), with its redemptive comradeship between red man and white, revealing a self-conscious primitivism Fiedler would later call the "Higher Masculine Sentimentality." Indeed, Fiedler helped in another, smaller way to make the novel possible: He urged a national fellowship committee he sat on to make an award to Kesey, enabling him to enter Stanford's creative-writing program, where the book was born. This past January, just before his death at the age of eighty-five, the New York Times reported Fiedler's surprised delight upon finding himself mentioned on The Sopranos. In the show, Columbia undergraduate Meadow Soprano tells her mother she has been reading Leslie Fiedler for a paper about homoeroticism in Billy Budd. "Who is she?" asks Carmela Soprano.
Gender confusion aside, Mrs. Soprano's question has often been answered with phrases like "enfant terrible" and "bad boy"; indeed, the first phrase is the title of a chapter in Mark Royden Winchell's informative recent biography of Fiedler. Pugnacious, if sweet tempered, a self-described troublemaker, Fiedler made Melville's "No! in thunder" his motto and the title of his second book. But the rude-boy public image is only part of the story. His reputation rests on his incisive critiques of literary and political innocence and immaturity.
The point is not only to draw an ironyóthat the guardian of maturity was himself invested in immaturityóbut to note how this tension informs Fiedler's judgments. Seldom observed about the Huck Finn essay is Fiedler's sympathy toward the interracial bonding he found in American classics. Even though his argument implies a heterosexist normativity (as they say in cultural studies), the essay is remarkably free of censure. Recall his conclusion that "immaculate male love" expresses, for white men, a dream of acceptance "so outrageous, so desperate, that it redeems our concept of boyhood from nostalgia to tragedy." A crucial element of Fiedler's brilliance as a critic was the generous capaciousness of his responses. His fascination with the unconfessed and inadmissible is a poised withholding of both condemnation and deification that permits his keenly intuitive powers of analysis and description to flourish. In short, he was never a guardian; the moral certitude such a role requires was anathema to him. Rather, the tension between his public image and critical project produced a richly complicated relationship to innocence and maturity, encouraging an ambivalence that fueled his avidity for discovering the marginal, the taboo, and the freakish that reside uneasily within the "normal." Over the course of some twenty-five books, Fiedler sought to enlarge notions of the normal, the innocent, and the immature and distrusted the role of critic as smug dispenser of answers. He was rarely the "searcher out and defender of Victims," to borrow a phrase he used to describe the "genteel conscience" of well-intentioned liberals. To put it in contemporary parlance, Fiedler did not play the game of identity politics. This openness to struggle and to being unsettled is the mark of Fiedler's innocence.
A Newark Jew whose erudition, gift for polemic, and distrust of political cant could easily have gained him a prosperous niche as an insider among the New York Intellectuals and an academic career at a major university (he turned down a job at Berkeley), Fiedler instead was an indomitable maverick who taught for twenty-three years at Montana State in Missoula before moving to SUNY Buffalo in 1965, where he remained for the rest of his life. Thriving in the role of odd man out, Fiedler cultivated a distance from the centers of power. That removal allowed his iconoclasm to flower. Decades before cultural and queer studies became the new orthodoxy in literary study, Fiedler discussed the erotics of race and the dynamics of guilt and love between oppressor and oppressed. He excavated works of literature as cultural myth, expressions of taboo psychosexual impulses sedimented in archetypes. Not only did he challenge the reign of New Critical formalism, he expanded the domain of close reading to include contemporary political events, a move that anticipated the conversion of world into text that structuralism would make a working premise twenty years later. In the preface to his first book, An End to Innocence (1955), he announces his method as the application "to the testimony of a witness before a Senate committee or the letters of the Rosenbergs the same careful scrutiny we have learned to practice on the shorter poems of John Donne."
Fiedler was an exuberant imp of the perverse, an inveterate counterpuncher not only in literature but in politics. A Trotskyite in the '30s who by 1940 had joined a socialist splinter group led by Max Schachtman opposed to Trotsky's increasing party-line rigidity, he became, like many in the postwar-era Partisan Review circle, a liberal anti-Communist. This was the turbulent breeding ground for Fiedler's contrarian skepticism, which, for instance, stripped Alger Hiss and the Rosenbergs of the moral sainthood conferred by liberals and leftists alike. What disturbed Fiedler was their defenders' desperate investment in innocence: "he is, we are, innocent" is what he hears Hiss's advocates implying, as if clinging to belief in a "magic in the words 'left' or 'progressive' or 'socialist' that can prevent deceit and the abuse of power." He proffered an antidote: A "liberalism of responsibility" must replace a "liberalism of innocence." With more hope than conviction, Fiedler concluded that "the age of innocence is dead," naming innocence as the affliction stunting not only American political but literary culture as well. The final chapters of An End to Innocence explored his claim that "even our best writers appear unable to mature. . . . Their themes belong to a pre-adult world." The regressive state of both realms, politics and literature, reflects the consequences of "having substituted sentimentality for intelligence."
Here a question arises: Given that in his first book Fiedler emphatically fashioned himself as the apostle of responsibility, how did he manage, in the ensuing decades, to avoid following his favorite editor Irving Kristol along the road to the stern moralism of neoconservatism? (He was already on this road, according to old friends and new enemies who denounced his political judgments as "Red-baiting.") Or, given that Fiedler's critique of liberalism recalls (and is no doubt influenced by) Lionel Trilling's Liberal Imagination (1950), why didn't Fiedler come to share Trilling's genteel, fastidious detachment when the 1960s erupted into the youth culture? Maybe because the inveterate skepticism of the enfant terrible helped check the temptation to prescribe solutions in his analyses of immaturity. In literary essays, at least, Fiedler remained more descriptive than prescriptive; this becomes evident when we realize that his emphatic critique of innocence and immaturity is made in the name of . . . what? Fiedler was strategically vague, invoking intelligence, responsibility, irony, ambiguity, complexity, the familiar pap of '50s liberal humanism. The benign generality of these terms had the virtue of keeping moralism at bay; they functioned as placeholders, as a strategy to keep the ground fertile for future developments and revisions as Fiedler immersed himself in what always compelled him: the new. He remarked, "I'm always talking about innocence ending, but that's just my own way of rediscovering a new kind of innocence."
All sorts of innocence were on display amid the frantic histrionics of the '60s cultural revolution. Fiedler's sympathetic skepticism kept him uneasily but avidly attuned to what he called "new mutants," the generation of antipuritans creating the "obsolescence of everything our society understands by maturity." "The New Mutants" (1965), one of the first synoptic overviews of the new sensibility (and still the best), is distinguished for its poise in the midst of tumult. Fiedler meticulously sketches the seismic cultural moment when various movementsósexual liberation, civil rights, and the rise of drug subculturesóconverged, reconfiguring literary form, masculine identity, the dignity of labor, the status of racial identity, and the basic premises of liberal enlightenment. Fiedler produces an array of "post" prefixes to announce this upheaval: postsexual (by which he means "post-heterosexual," that is, the reign of the "polymorphous perverse" that Norman O. Brown applauded as an alternative to "full genitality"), posthumanist, postmale, postwhite, postheroic, and "post-Modernist," this last earning Fiedler mention in the OED for being the first to use the word. Remarking on changing literary taste in the essay, Fiedler subtly notes that even as the "hippier young" have made William S. Burroughs their laureate, replacing the sage with the schizophrenic as cultural ideal, "we live in a time when readers in general respond sympathetically to madness in literature wherever it is found. . . . Surely it is not the lucidity and logic of Robert Lowell or Theodore Roethke or John Berryman which we admire, but their flirtation with incoherence and disorder." Fiedler would later describe "The New Mutants" as "immensely ambivalent and much misunderstood," perhaps a clue as to how Fiedler himself avoided becoming their cheerleader or guru.
His commitment to eluding partisanship, a stance analogous to contemporaries like the Frankfurt School philosophers Herbert Marcuse and Theodor Adorno, "infuriates Our Side as well as Theirs," Fiedler remarked in 1960. Always attuned to the trap of being either a militant highbrow or cultural populist, Fiedler once described his stance of skeptical engagement as "scandalous in a way with which the righteous cannot seem to come to terms. Not only the Great Audience but also, and even especially, the Little Elite Audiences demand of the writer its disavowal in the name of a kind of loyalty which is for him death." In the same text, the 1960 introduction to his essay collection No! In Thunder, Fiedler practices his principled disloyalty by posing a rhetorical question: What image of man does the serious literature of our age proffer? It is not the struggle "to fulfill some revealed or inherited view of himself and his destiny; but of man learning that it is the struggle itself which is his definition." A more visceral version of this struggle can occur on a visit to a freak show where, amid unsettling identifications, we experience the "precariousness and absurdity of being, however we define it, fully human."
Ultimately, Fiedler might be best understood as Melvillean if we mean that he contains both the thunderous No of Ahab and the ludic Yes of Ishmael infused with the spirit of "godly gamesomeness." "I condemn and affirm, say no and say yes," declares Ralph Ellison's narrator at the majestic end of Invisible Man (1952). This canonical postwar double voice signals a deliberate gesture of kinship with Fiedler. While looking for work in New York, the novel's bumpkin protagonist meets Mr. Emerson, a young white homosexual who attempts to befriend him. To put the recently arrived Southerner at ease, Mr. Emerson says of his racially mixed social set, "With us it's still Jim and Huck Finn," and describes himself as "one of the unspeakables . . . I'm Huckleberry, you see . . ." The baffled narrator wonders to himself: "Huckleberry? Why did he keep talking about that kid's story?" All invisible man wants is a job, but young Emerson pointedly asks, "Aren't you curious about what lies behind the face of things?" Not only does Ellison have fun here with his naive narrator, he also allusively enlists Fiedler's thesis to serve as a metaphor for the debunking of American innocence, a skepticism about the mere "face of things" that invisible man will eventually achieve. In effect, Ellison makes Fiedler an ally in achieving a flexibly self-aware adulthood.
Both men risk speaking the unspeakable about our most revered mythologies, especially stalwart American authenticity, which they replace with the more probing recognition that, in Ellison's words, "when American life is most American it is apt to be most theatrical." Huck Finn's mobile, adaptive improvisations of identity had helped Ellison to this realization. And Fiedler, in his memoir Being Busted (1969), speaks of
the truth of what Mark Twain had first suggested to me: that no one was born an American even in America, only adopted or reborn as one. . . . And understanding this, I understood that to keep on being an Americanóor more properly, to keep on becoming oneórequired not a pledge of allegiance to some definition given once and for all but a resolution to change that definition . . . to suit oneself, one's history, and one's fate. . . . Redskin, Paleface, Negro and Jewówe were all each other's invention, no one of us more real than another.
Ellison could not have agreed more. Immune to a metaphysics of the real, Fiedler was also immune to the lure of those endlessly belabored cultural debates in the '50s that pitted "Paleface" against "Redskin"; he found the urge toward this polar split between "'elegant introspection,' and 'honest crudity'" a symptom of "tough-minded provincialism."
These convictions were put to the test when he visited the quintessential American Redskin exemplar of the real. Fiedler's highly subjective narrative of their meeting, "An Almost Imaginary Interview: Hemingway in Ketchum" (1962), is one of his most memorable essays. The literary incarnation of Gary Cooper, Hemingway was as much persona as writer, a man whom Fiedler, along with many of his literary generation, loathed and admired. Ever skeptical, Fiedler assumes he will be indifferent to the power of the cultural myth. Indeed, he begins his essay by portraying his visit as a western: "There would have been something appropriately comic, after all, in casting the boy from Oak Park, Illinois, in a script composed by the boy from Newark, New Jersey, both of them on location in the Great West." But Fiedler's fantasy of a showdown evaporates as he confronts face-to-face the haunted, broken Hemingway, only a few months from suicide. He offers a handclasp that Fiedler can scarcely feel: "I stood there baffled, a little ashamed of how I had braced myself involuntarily for a bone-crushing grip, how I must have yearned for some wordless preliminary test of strength." In retrospect, Fiedler chides himself for the "insolence" and "absurdity" of his presumption that he was above being taken in. But by experiencing the power of the myth, Fiedler gains sympathy for the dying warrior. Looking into Hemingway's smile, Fiedler sees him "suddenly, beautifully, twelve years old. A tough, cocky, gentle boy still," but also a fragile man about to die. Hemingway in the flesh, Fiedler realizes, is precisely what his novels could never representóa tragic figure, "with meanings for all of us, meanings utterly different from those of his myth." In recognizing a Hemingway who does not fit neatly into the confines of his myth, Fiedler is "puzzled" and admits he will have to ponder these meanings "later." Here he acknowledges the defeat of his critical ingenuity, but he ends reaffirming his ambivalence: "I loved him for his weakness without ceasing to despise him for his strength." The essay's willingness to record without sentimentality the fierce struggle of oedipal combat leaves a residue of raw irresolution, an untidiness that testifies to Fiedler's fidelity to visceral truth. This fidelity is at the heart of Fiedler's own kind of innocenceóand what makes him an indelible, invaluable critic.
Ross Posnock is professor of English at New York University.