1994-Leslie Fiedler

Professor Fieldler’s Acceptance Speech

Churlish as it may seem, I propose today–before thanking you properly–to reflect a little on the ironies implicit in your giving me this award. Let me begin by making it clear that, unlike most of you and those you have thus honored before, I am not a professional scholar, specializing in American literature, but an unreconstructed amateur, a dilettante who stumbled accidentally into your area of expertise. I have, as you are surely aware, never been a member of the American Literature Section of the MLA. Indeed, if my failing flesh had permitted me to attend this luncheon, it would have been the first time I have ever attended one.

This is not, let me assure you, out of mere snobbishness, but because I would have felt an interloper, an uninvited guest. After all, in graduate school I took no courses and wrote no papers on American literature, concentrating instead on the poetry of the Middle Ages and the English Seventeenth Century under mentors who believed and sought to persuade me that only second-rate minds wasted their time in studying American books. I did not even then, however, share their elitist beliefs, convinced indeed that the canon should be opened even wider than the pioneers of American Studies were then proposing.

In fact, in a review of The Literary History of the United States, which I wrote shortly after getting my final degree, I scolded its editors for having sought to canonize only those classic American authors already dead and sanctified by the passage of time, while ignoring still living and problematical modernists like T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. Nonetheless, I was not sure (indeed, I have doubts to this very day) that any writers, living or dead, who embody in our own tongue our own deepest nightmares and dreams ought to be taught in American classrooms. Would it not be better, I wondered, to keep them sources of private delight rather than turning them into required reading for students in quest of good grades and teachers seeking promotion and tenure.

In any case, for nearly a decade after I had myself become an instructor, I taught no courses in American writers nor did I publish anything about them; though, of course, I did continue to read them secretly and in silence, not breaking that silence until one day in 1947 when quite inadvertently I found myself writing my infamous little essay, “Come Back to the Raft, Ag’in, Huck Honey.”

I had been reading to my two sons (then seven and nine), as I was accustomed to do at bedtime, a passage from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn about Huck and Jim on the raft; and afterwards between sleeping and waking, I found myself redreaming Twain’s idyllic dream of inter-ethnic male bonding and the flight from civilization. Then, I awoke fully to realize how central that erotic myth was not just to our literature but to our whole culture and rushed to my desk to get the insight down before it vanished forever. The little prose lyric which it insisted on becoming I sent off immediately to the Partisan Review –the kind of little magazine, publication in which, in those benighted times, was still more of a hindrance than a help to academic advancement.

To my surprise, however, it was widely read (or more often misread) and responded to in the academy as well as out. Not that it was generally admired. On the contrary, it was either dismissed as a boutade, a joke in bad taste, or condemned as a calumny of the tradition it purported to explore and a travesty of scholarship. Needless to say, among those condemning it on the latter grounds were the sort of scholars who had at that point been awarded the honor you bestow on me today.

A half century later, however, that much-maligned essay has refused to die. I myself reprinted it in my first book, An End to Innocence, where it was flanked by a dozen or so other pieces, some literary, some autobiographical or political–but all more like what academics of the old school would have called “mere journalism,” rather than “true scholarship”. Yet it has appeared since in many languages; and, in another ironic turn of the screw, has become assigned reading in university classes on literature. In addition, it was this volume, that persuaded those with no sense of where I was really coming from or heading to, that I was–however misguided and perverse I might be–a would-be scholar of American letters.

Certainly, it was that misapprehension which led to my being granted a Fulbright Fellowship to Italy, where, I discovered I was expected to lecture (as I had never yet done at home) on the literature of my native land. Though I thought of myself as a comparatist, a mythographer, a literary anthropologist, anything but an “Americanist”, I felt disconcertingly at ease in that new role. This was, I have come to realize, because as a stranger in a strange land, I was able to teach our books as a literature in a foreign tongue. Indeed, at the University of Bologna my own language was so unfamiliar to the students I addressed that I had to lecture in theirs. In any case, what I ended up trying to do was to translate the parochial insights I had sketched out in “Come Back to the Raft” into more university terms; which is to say, treating our literature not in isolation but in relation to Western culture as a whole–specifically, to deal with it as the first post-colonial literature of the modern world.

To do so properly, it soon became clear to me, would require more than a handful of irregularly scheduled lectures; and so, on my return home, I began to plan what turned out to be a rather formidable series of books, four in all, which together constituted a critical history of our literature from the end of the eighteenth century to the last decades of the twentieth. It took me nearly three decades to complete that project, and, indeed, I did not start Love and Death in the American Novel, the first of those books, until seven or eight years after I had conceived it. Though that volume has turned out to be finally the best-known and most highly respected of all my works, initially it baffled and dismayed many of its readers–mostly, perhaps, because of its generic ambiguity. Librarians have classified it either as literary history or criticism, but I have always considered it a work of art rather than scholarship, since it seeks not to prove its most outrageous theses but to charm the skeptical into a willing suspension of disbelief. More specifically, I think of it as a gothic novel in scholarly disguise: haunted like the dark novels so central to our tradition, by ghosts out of the European past which our white founding fathers fled, along with vengeful spectres of the Native Americans they displaced and menacing shadows cast by the Africans they enslaved to work the soil. But as its title indicates, its themes are erotic as well as thanatic, though, to be sure, its eros is as dark as thanatos, eventuating not in happy heterosexual unions, but in foredoomed male bonding, brother-sister incest and necrophilia.

Moreover, to make clear that the tale it seeks to tell is mythic rather than factual, poetic rather than prosaic, I eschewed such conventional academic trappings as footnotes and bibliographies. So, too, I spoke not just in the solemn and magisterial third person, but also in the informal first; thus permitting myself to indulge in high rhetoric and low humor. For this reason, the reaction of more conventional scholars was overwhelmingly negative, as it was to the three succeeding volumes, Waiting for the End, The Return of the Vanishing American and What Was Literature? So that for while it seemed as if I were to be doomed forever to be labeled a disturber of the peace, an enfant terrible, the “wild man of American Letters”.

But nothing is forever, of course. As I approach my eightieth year, I am made aware by occasions like this that I have come to be thought of as a perfectly respectable scholar, an Americanist par excellence . I must confess to being pleased a little, but even more I am dismayed–wanting to cry out against such misapprehensions, to protest that I have remained a jack-of-all-fields and master of none, continuing to write and speak as I have from the first, about whatever moves me at the moment. And this has turned out to be not just the literature of many nations and eras beside my own: ancient Greek tragedy, the classic Chinese novel, Old Provencal poetry, the English Victorian novel, Kafka and James Joyce, Jaroslav Hasek and Chr├ętien de Troyes, and especially Shakespeare and Dante.

I have also dealt with subjects as remote from my presumable field of expertise as theology and psychology, voting studies and the war in Vietnam, Japanese woodblock engravings, pornography and comic books, sideshows and circuses, bioethics and organ transplants. I have talked about them, moreover, not just in the classroom and at gatherings of my fellow-academics, but to trade-unionists, nurses and dermatologists, as well as on talk shows presided over by Dick Cavett and William Buckley, Merv Griffin and Phil Donahue–earning myself a listing in Who’s Who in Entertainment .

Similarly, I have less and less often published in academic journals (never in the PMLA), preferring to appear in magazines aimed at a non-professional audience, like the Nation, the New Republic, Psychology Today, Esquire and (most scandalous of all) Playboy . Despite all this, I am presently praised by the sort of scholars who first ignored me, then vilified me (sometimes while stealing my ideas without acknowledgement)–though, to be sure, it is only for what I have written about American literature.

Even more disturbingly, I am now routinely quoted in jargon-ridden, reader-unfriendly works I cannot bring myself to read, and am listed honorifically in the kind of footnotes and bibliographies I have always eschewed. But most disturbingly of all, as a result (in a culture where nothing fails like success) some younger, future-oriented critics have begun to speak of me as old-fashioned, a member of a moribund establishment. I was, however, heartened when Camille Paglia, the most future-oriented of them all, the enfant terrible, in fact, of her generation as I was of mine, was moved by a new edition of Love and Death in the American Novel to write, “Fiedler created an American intellectual style that was truncated by the invasion of faddish French theory in the 70’s and 80’s. Let’s turn back to Fiedler and begin again.”

Her words not merely reassure me that I am still not P.C. They also make me aware that whatever I have written about it has always been from an essentially American point of view and in an essentially American voice; and that therefore I am in the deepest sense an “Americanist”–a true colleague (despite their original doubts and my own continuing ones) of all those who have earlier received this award and you who so graciously bestow it on me now. As such a colleague, I feel free to say in conclusion–straight out and without irony–what I hope you realize I have been–in my customary perverse and ambivalent way–trying to say throughout these remarks, thank you, thank you very much.

Leslie A. Fiedler
Buffalo, New York
December 19, 1994