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

By Mark Royden Winchell | Go to book overview

CHAPTER SEVEN
Discovering America

WHEN LESLIE arrived in Bloomington in the summer of 1952, he was coming west from Italy, not east from Missoula. Thanks to the Fulbright fellowship program, he had been appointed as a lecturer in medieval studies at the University of Rome. Although he had traveled to the South Pacific and to China during World War II, this was his first visit to the Europe he had dreamed of as a boy in Newark. He was accompanied by Margaret and his four children (a third son and a daughter had been born in Missoula), and he stayed long enough to produce a fifth. Although he had originally wanted to escape to a mythic Paris, he immediately fell in love with Italy and managed to extend his stay to a second year by teaching at universities in Bologna and Venice. It was in Italy that he almost died in his thirty-fifth year and that he first laid claim to the literature of his native land.

While overseas, Leslie formed a friendship with W. H. Auden, which would last for the rest of Auden's life. In the summers of 1952 and 1953, the Fiedler family vacationed on the island of Ischia, in the Bay of Naples. The island was beautiful and unspoiled, and in the summertime the local residents would move out into the countryside and rent their houses to tourists. Because no cars were allowed, one was forced to travel by horse and carriage. The expatriate community consisted mostly of refugee American artists and noblemen down on their luck—almost all of whom were gay. At the cafe where everyone gathered were two center tables. At one sat the Principe of Hesse, who would have been the next king of Italy, and at the other, W. H. Auden.

Although Leslie believed that intelligence was optional for poets, Auden was one poet who possessed this quality to an extraordinary degree. Leslie would try to tweak his Anglo-Catholic sensibility with anti-Christian remarks. For example, he would call Auden's attention to the fact that the man Jesus replaced on the cross was named Barabbas, which means “Son of the Father.” Might the whole story simply be allegorical? When they tired of theological conversation, they would exchange fantasy books. Auden introduced Leslie

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