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

By Mark Royden Winchell | Go to book overview

CHAPTER ELEVEN
American Gothic

IN 1984, LESLIE Fiedler told David Gates of Newsweek: “The typical pattern with one of my books ... is that when it comes out everybody abuses it. Ten years later they're still abusing it but they've begun to steal ideas from it. Twenty years go by and they decide it's a classic, although nobody's ever said anything good about it.” 1. This has clearly been the fate of Leslie's best known and most distinguished book, Love and Death in the American Novel. Having gone through its obligatory period of abuse decades ago, the book has long since taken its place as one of a handful of indispensable texts in the study of American culture. To appreciate its peculiar strengths, however, we need to understand why it was so widely vilified at the time that it was published.

As we have already seen, the serious study of American literature really didn't begin until the 1920s. Even then, the favored approach tended to be heavily social and political. When critics were not using our literature as a means of denouncing American life (a favored practice of bohemians and leftists alike), they were apt to be preaching an equally simplistic form of cultural nativism. Although it seems difficult to believe today, the first giant of modern American literary studies was the crudely populist Vernon Louis Parrington.

Perhaps reacting against the effete aestheticism he encountered at Harvard (where he graduated with Oswald Garrison Villiard and William Vaughan Moody in the class of 1893), Parrington was all too eager to evaluate literary works as cultural documents, which advanced ideas that he could either endorse or attack. Those writers who seemed largely indifferent to the great issues of the day (e. g., Henry James) were dismissed as “narrowly belletristic.” Although Parrington died in 1930, the democratic nativism he represented struck many as particularly appealing in the days leading up to World War II. Throughout the war and its immediate aftermath, cultural jingoists followed

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1.
See David Gates, “Fiedler's Utopian Vision.”

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