Too Good to Be True: The Life and Work of Leslie Fiedler

By Mark Royden Winchell | Go to book overview

CHAPTER TWO
All the Irvings Did

LESLIE GRADUETED from high school in 1934, in the depth of the Great Depression. Although he had gotten a small college scholarship, his mother and father sat him down and told him that they couldn't afford to make up the difference. Fortunately, after six months of work, he was able to scrape together enough money to do so himself. So, every day, he would commute by bus, ferry, train, and subway from Newark to a school in the Bronx called NYU Heights. He remembers it as the kind of campus one would not have expected to find in what was already a decayed urban neighborhood. In addition to a neoclassical colonnade pretentiously called “The Hall of Fame, ” it housed an elegant but inefficient round library designed by Stanford White and a small arena called Goldmann Stadium, where concerts were held in the summertime.

There were some fifteen hundred students in the Arts College (about 90 percent of whom were Jewish) and an almost equal number (almost all Gentiles) in the Engineering School. Such de facto segregation existed because it was believed that Jews couldn't make it as engineers, and it was hoped that most who got into college would take pre-med courses. Because his interest was almost exclusively in literature, Leslie felt at home with neither group. Although he would later be better known for his criticism, his first literary passion was for poetry, which probably began when he was in first or second grade and was permitted to read his poem “Mercury and the Invention of the Lyre” to the entire student body. He later wrote his undergraduate honors thesis on Gerard Manley Hopkins, the Victorian poet whose achievement was only then beginning to be recognized. To this day, Leslie possesses a bibliography that Al Eisner compiled of all the volumes by or about Hopkins in the Widener Library at Harvard.

It was during his undergraduate years at the Heights that Leslie had his first direct encounter with a poet he admired. The experience proved disconcerting, as Robert Frost turned out to be anything but the kindly old man

-19-

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