Leslie Fiedler's "Lifelong Identity Crisis"

By Birnbaum, Milton | Midstream, September-October 2003 | Go to article overview

Leslie Fiedler's "Lifelong Identity Crisis"


Birnbaum, Milton, Midstream


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. …

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