I am not quite anything ever.
--Leslie Fiedler, Fieder on the Roof, Preface
PREFACE: Leslie Fiedler's lifelong search for an identity is now over. He died at the age of 85 on January 29, 2003.
At various stages of his maverick lip he would ask himself, like Shakespeare's King Lear, "Who is it that can tell me who I am?" He never did quite find out, but he never gave up asking and probing life's conundrums. At the very end of his lip, he was working on an article on D.H. Lawrence and was giving an interview to a magazine writer. He recalled going to a Bob Dylan (ne Zimmerman) concert in Canada in the company of Allen Ginsberg.
D.H. Lawrence, Bob Dylan, Allen Ginsberg--mavericks all, in different ways--but it is another maverick, Henry David Thoreau, who supplies perhaps the most appropriate epitaph for Fiedler's tombstone: "Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other's eyes for an instant?" (Walden)
Fiedler was always sympathetic to those who somehow did not fit into the mainstream of American culture. He was sympathetic to native American Indians, to blacks--and outside of America, to the Palestinians, and to the Japanese war prisoners in World War II, during which he was an interrogator of Japanese P.O.W.s He wrote about freaks and opened up his home to students to allow them to smoke pot (although he himself did not). He was sympathetic to all these groups. If only he had been equally sympathetic to his own people and more knowledgeable in his own religion!
One may disagree with many of his conclusions, but for trying to see the world through the eyes of "the Other," and for his stimulatingly provocative contributions to literary/cultural criticism, Leslie Fiedler will be long remembered.--MILTON BIRNBAUM
When the definitive book on major literary critics of the 20th century comes out, Leslie Fiedler is bound to be among the top ten. If the list is limited to the top five Jewish American literary critics, he would undoubtedly be listed along with Harold Bloom, Irving Howe, Alfred Kazin, and Lionel Trilling.
Fiedler, however, would stand out among these five, not only by the length of his service in academia and by the many awards he received in his incredibly long and distinguished career, (1) but chiefly because of the innovative slant he has given literary interpretation.
Whereas Lionel Trilling, for example, wrote elegant prose, which essentially followed in the footsteps of that 19th-century apostle of culture and "high seriousness," Matthew Arnold, Fiedler has been a pioneer, departing brashly from rather than following loyally in the footsteps of others.
His major work of criticism, Love and Death in the American Novel (1960), expounds the thesis that American fiction (at least until World War II) has not dealt openly with such topics as the potentially homoerotic male bonding in novels by writers like Mark Twain, James Fenimore Cooper, Herman Melville, William Faulkner, and Ernest Hemingway. This bonding (Fiedler called it "the myth of interethnic male bonding") expresses a desire for liberation from the confines of both a stifling civilization and feminist domination. In addition, Fiedler's exploration of the uses of myth and archetypes also propelled his fame (some would call it his infamy) during the post-World War II period.
Although Fiedler claimed that he had been pursuing this "myth of interethnic bonding with almost monomaniacal exclusiveness for all my critical career," he was, of course, exaggerating here with typical Fiedlerian flourish. If I had to choose one concern that deserves the term "monomaniacal exclusiveness," I would pick his "life-long search for identity."
In an essay published in 1989 ("In Every Generation"), he writes of "my lifelong identity crisis." And in the introduction he wrote for his Tyranny of the Normal: Essays on Bioethics, Theology and Myth (1996), he impishly refers to himself as "interloper, kibitzer, double agent, mole, wolf in sheep's clothing, lion in Daniel's den." (2)
Despite his having already become an octogenarian, Leslie Fiedler's intellectual and spiritual journey was not yet over. Although his major involvement for almost six decades--as previously mentioned--had been in the groves of academia, he dabbled in many areas outside his major field of literary and cultural criticism--psychology, mythology, sociology, science fiction, Pop Art. He participated in conferences and gave lectures all over the world, appeared on national television talk shows, was published not only in respectable, serious magazines (Partisan Review, Midstream, The New York Times Book Review, etc.), but in such popular places as Esquire and Playboy.
He published almost 30 books (including fiction and poetry), but despite the divergence of topics, the common thread in them was a search for answers to "the ultimate questions about morality, normality, and identity." (3) He admitted that "though we cannot finally answer them, whatever our area of expertise, it is incumbent on us, for the sake of our common humanity, to keep on asking." (4) My concern in this article is to analyze his search for his identity, especially his Jewish identity.
Give me a child for the first seven years, and you may do what you like with him afterwards. --Anonymous
Leslie Aaron Fiedler--Eliezer ben Leah, as he once revealed his Hebrew name to the Lubavitcher Rebbe--was born in Newark, New Jersey, in 1917, to native-born, secular, non-observant Jewish parents. His father, a pharmacist, was an anti-Marxist, an atheist, and a fierce patriot who gave his son the works of "irreligious" (sic) writers like Tom Paine. His grandparents were secular rather than religious Jews, although his grandfather (to whom Fiedler dedicated his book Fiedler on the Roof) praised Fiedler's "Yiddishe kopf," and his grandmother used to make invidious comparisons between the Jews and the goyim. Fiedler was taught by a rabbi for his Bar Mitzvah despite his father's "scandalized protests." As he tells us, Fiedler didn't take these preparations seriously:
But I stubbornly resisted learning Hebrew--spending most of my lesson time haranguing the rabbi, who sought to instruct me, about Jewish discrimination against Negroes in America and Arabs in Palestine; or trying to explain to him why all religions including his own, were the opium of the people. To all of this he would retort only that I read Hebrew "like a Cossack," which was, alas, true. (5)
Fiedler's family never observed a Seder or the laws of kashrut--and neither his parents nor his grandparents belonged to any synagogue.
The public school he attended with his brother conrained only two Jews--the two Fiedlers. He remembers that he was once attacked by a gentile gang of schoolmates as a killer of their Lord. Little wonder that by the time he was in college, his identity had undergone many shifts, but none was a serious link with Judaism.
His college education did not help Fiedler to a greater commitment to either his ancestral Jewish faith or to Zionism. He received his undergraduate degree from New York University and both his M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin. Later, he also did some graduate work at Harvard University, including a course in Hebrew. His exposure to the Western canon in literature and culture, and to the overwhelmingly non-Jewish faculty, did not encourage him to return to his ancestral roots. The great figures in the Western canon--from Chaucer to Shakespeare to T. S. Eliot--are not conducive to producing love for Jews or Judaism.
Yet one's religion (like one's fingerprints) is not easy to erase. As one of my favorite rabbis, Dr. Norman Lamm, retiring president of Yeshiva University, once declared in his Yom Kippur sermon, "There always remains a pintele Yid regardless of what a person undergoes."
This pintele Yid in Fiedler (descended from the priestly clan of Aaron, he reminds us) always stayed with him, as he began his public writing and lecturing. But the pintele Yid evolved into a bifurcated pattern: Eliezer ben Leah, the Jew, versus the Other.
For Fiedler, the Other assumed many stances. It could be identification with those literary characters who wanted to flee from the confines of race, religion, and country (as with Stephen Dedalus in James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, or the restraints of civilization (as with Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn, James Fenimore Cooper's American Indian Natty Bumppo, or Herman Melville's Ishmael). It could be the American Negro, or Shakespeare's Shylock and Othello. It could be the Palestinians in conflict with the Israelis, or the defeated Japanese in World War II. (6)
The Other could also be those who were bom disfigured, or abnormal in some way or other (e.g., the Fat Lady, dwarfs, and others in a circus). (7) The Other could also be the subterranean urges of the psyche (e.g., "the dirty old man's" desire for sexual activity with nubile gifts). But always, the Other was in conflict with the pintele Yid in him, whom he could not evade despite his shifting allegiances and alliances, because, as he tells in his "The Roots of Anti-Semitism": "In blood, in blood shalt thou remember," (8) (a statement, he reminds us, that is part of the mohel's recitation at a bris). Significantly, this quotation is also the epigraph to his Fiedler on the Roof.
The constant confrontation of the Jew in Fiedler with the Other led to many ambiguous tums in both his personal and professional life. Much closer than his earlier identification with Stephen Dedalus in James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man was his identification with Leopold Bloom, the major character in Joyce's Ulysses. The curious feature, of course, is that Bloom is not halachically a Jew. Bom of a gentile mother and a non-observant Jewish father, poor Bloom is married to a promiscuous gentile woman; he quixotically defends Jews against antisemitic Irishmen in a pub. Fiedler himself was married twice--both times to a gentile woman--he had six children by his first wife and two children by his second wife. He stated that none of his eight children had a Jewish spouse, and yet he tells us in his essay, "In Every Generation":
Last Jew that I am, I cannot resist confessing, in conclusion, that each autumn, though I do not, of course, go to shul, I dutifully observe the fast of Yom Kippur. So, too, each winter, I light the lights of Chanukah, more often than not beside an already lighted Christmas tree. And each spring, after dyeing Easter eggs, I gather my family together for a Passover seder--crying out to the God in whom I do not think I believe, "Pour out your wrath upon the goyim...." (9)
His political and social stances on various questions of the last few decades were similarly vacillating and ambivalent:
I was a communist of the Stalinist persuasion at age thirteen, a Trotskyist before I was twenty. My holy books, therefore, were not the Torah and Talmud, but the collected works of Marx, Engels, and Lenin, which seemed to me then to teach the True Way: not just a way to make a better world, but a way to escape the limitations of my ancestral religion. (10)
A similar ambivalent attitude characterized his position in the case of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. He sided with those who thought them (Julius, at least) guilty; also with those who thought them innocent; and with those who (if the Rosenbergs were guilty) felt that they committed their treason for a higher cause--a better world society. (11)
This ambivalence is also seen in his reactions to World War II, and to the two major events that followed the end of the war: the Arab-Israeli conflict and the counterculture movement (sometimes referred to as the "Woodstock Generation"). At first, he opposed entry into World War II, later volunteered for the U.S. Navy, and was not quite sure which side he wanted to win. He felt quite guilty when he had to interrogate Japanese prisoners of war in Japan. In the Arab-Israeli conflict, he first sided with the Arabs
who preferred (like the American Indians, with whom I could not help identifying them) poverty, disorganization, even tyranny under a regime of their co-religionists, to prosperity, law and order, and a modicum of democracy under the auspices of colonizers whose technology, culture and myths were utterly alien to their own." (12)
When the counterculture movement took place, Fiedler again was ambivalent. He wrote a powerful criticism of the excesses of the Woodstock Generation, (13) and yet he offered his home to students at SUNY at Buffalo to allow them to smoke pot (although he did not partake of it) and was originally quite envious of their freedom from the restraints of civilization. In a postscript to this essay, written in 1996, he wrote that the AIDS plague could be traced to San Francisco, where the rules of health were not observed, and that this lack of observance of the rules of health was also found in Africa, where the AIDS plague had reached epic proportions. He ended the postscript with this warning: "No new Gods without new diseases."
The most traumatic instance of his ambivalence is seen in his changing attitudes towards the Holocaust. When news of the Holocaust first emerged, he, like many other "intellectuals," felt that it was mere propaganda, similar to the stories of German atrocities in Belgium in World War I. When there was no longer any doubt about the reality of the Holocaust, Fiedler again, like many other liberals, began to suffer pangs of guilt--not only because of his previous attitude of detachment and because all of his relations in Europe had been killed--but because he thought that now that the war was over, he had helped contribute to a second Holocaust, the one called the "Silent Holocaust." This Holocaust, as many believed, was caused by an increasing number of Jews becoming more assimilationist and intermarrying. The realization that all his previous political and social positions were intended to bring about a better, loving, and warless world but had not, did not help him much.
Shortly after he reached his 70th birthday, Fiedler came to grips with the consequences of his drang towards assimilation. He began to wonder about the wisdom of his actions (and inactions)--that he himself had twice married a gentile woman; that none of his eight children had a Jewish spouse; that only three of his six grandsons had been circumcised; that there would be no one to say kaddish for him when he died. These reflections turned out to be more melancholic than self-transforming:
In any case, there is no one to say kaddish for me when I die. I am, in short, not just as I have long known, a minimal Jew--my Judaism nearly nonexistent--but, as I have only recently become aware, a terminal one as well, the last of a four-thousand year line. Yet whatever regrets I may feel, I cannot deny that I have wanted this, worked for it. (italics added) From childhood on, I dreamed a world without ethnic or religious divisions, though I knew that this meant a world without Jews. (14)
This lugubrious confession is quite a departure from the one he had made back in 1967 in his essay "Master of Dreams: The Jew in a Gentile World" (included in his To the Gentiles, New York: Stein and Day, 1972). In this essay, he claims he came "as near as I suspect I ever shall to a final mythical definition of the situation which defines me as well as many of the Jewish writers whom I most love." Here, Fiedler attempts a definition of the "mission" of the Jews to the Gentiles. He determines that it is to bring both material and psychological well-being to the gentiles. The "mission" began with the Biblical Joseph, "the Master of Dreams," and continued through the ages. It included such "missionaries" as Marx, Freud, and Kafka. After this attempt to define his "mission" (and that of other Jewish writers), he became more ambiguous and ambivalent about his identity as a Jew, "whatever that means" (sic). You can't get more ambiguous than that! (15)
I believe, however, that this ambiguity, about what it meant for him to be a Jew, is a mask that he assumed (consciously or unconsciously) to allow him to do and say and write whatever he wanted. The pintele Yid could not be erased--as evidenced by his having seders for his family, lighting Chanukah candles, regretting that there'd be nobody to say kaddish for him, and fasting on Yom Kippur. Instead of allowing this pintele Yid to grow into a more enhancing endorsement of his Jewish identity and inheritance, he preferred to dangle between his 1960 logo "No! in Thunder" and the inevitable recurrent reminder that after all, he was a Jew--although a vanishing one--and that he could not change what was in his blood.
(1.) Fiedler received a Rockefeller Fellowship, two Fulbright Fellowships, was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters, was awarded the Chancellor Charles F. Norton Medal by SUNY at Buffalo, and the Baltimore Hebrew University's Maurice A. Stiller Prize, a prize previously awarded to Aharon Appelfeld, Amos Elon, Bernard Malamud, Martin Peretz, and Irving Howe, among others. It may also be of interest to readers of Midstream to recall that Fiedler's essay "Negro and Jew: Encounter in America" appeared in the summer 1956 issue and that his essay "Breakthrough--the American Jewish Novelist and the Fictional Image of the Jew" appeared in the winter 11958 issue. His book review of Philip Roth's Goodbye Columbus appeared in the summer 1959 issue.
(2.) Tyranny of the Normal: Essays on Bioethics, Theology and Myth, Boston: David R. Godine, 1996, p. ix.
(3.) Ibid., p. xvi.
(5.) Leslie Fiedler, "In Every Generation: A Meditation on the Two Holocausts," Fiedler on the Roof' Essays on Literature and Jewish Identity. Boston: David R. Godine, 1991, p. 166.
(6.) Fiedler traveled all over the world. He went to Israel about six times; he also traveled to Ireland, Italy, Japan, Africa Latin America, and other places. The only place he really felt at home, he tells us, was in Italy, where he once thought of settling.
(7.) One of Fiedler's most popular books has been been Freaks: Myths and Images of the Secret Self (1991).
(8.) "The Roots of Anti-Semitism," Fiedler on the Roof, p. 21.
(9.) "In Every Generation," Fiedler on the Roof, pp. 180-181.
(10.) Ibid., p. 163.
(11.) See "The Rosenbergs: A Dialogue," Unfinished Business (1971).
(12.) "In Every Generation," Fiedler on the Roof, p. 169.
(13.) See the "Rebirth of God and the Death of Man," Tyranny of the Normal (1996).
(14.) "In Every Generation", Fiedler on the Roof, p. 179
(15.) This preoccupation with ambiguity goes back a long way. In "No! in Thunder" (1960) he wrote: "Ambiguity is the first resource of the novelist."
MILTON BIRNBAUM, a retired dean of the School of Arts and Sciences and professor of English at American International College, Springfield, Massachusetts, has published articles on a variety of topics in many scholarly magazines. He is the author of Aldous Huxley's Quest for Values.…