"Leslie Fiedler: An Appreciation" (The Massachusetts Review, XLV, 2)
Leslie Fiedler was the only person I know who could--or at least would--quote Dante and the Talmud during a lecture on the literature of the American west. It was an indication of the immensity of his knowledge and his facility for relating seemingly disparate things. That was the source of his critical insights. That and his fearlessness in exploring new ground. As he put it in the title of one of his essays, he was always seeking to "Cross the Border--Close the Gap."
I knew Leslie at the University of Montana (then Montana State University) when I taught there in the early '60s. The English Department at that time was pretty much divided into pro and anti-Leslie forces stemming from his successful campaign several years earlier to get the University president to resign. The fight resulted from his stint as department chairman when he tried to hire an African-American and the president turned down the appointment. The incident demonstrated several things about him: his principle, his passion, and his obliviousness to odds. It also demonstrated his ability to stir up passion in others. His literary criticism often had the same effects. Henry Nash Smith, who wrote the seminal study Virgin Land, once described Leslie to me as "a wild man."
Leslie understood that literary criticism was not brain surgery, that a mistake was not fatal and one could therefore take chances. He was classically trained at NYU and the University of Wisconsin where he wrote a dissertation on John Donne and he began his career in a conventional way, writing academic articles for literary quarterlies, but at an unconventional place, Missoula, Montana. He learned French and German for his doctorate, Japanese as a translator for the Navy in World War II, enough Italian to get by during a year in Italy, and retained enough Yiddish to carry on a conversation with my mother when we visited him in Buffalo.
He ranged as widely in his interests, from the medieval literature of his graduate studies to the commentary on American popular literature for which he is most well known, and in politics from the Marxism of his youth to the liberalism of his later years. He brought all of this to his lectures and classes as well as to his writing. Unlike many senior professors who begrudge the teaching part of their jobs, Leslie loved it. At Montana, throughout his career, he taught the introductory humanities course with an enthusiasm that was evident to his students.
There was a dramatic quality to his lectures. Pacing his platform, speaking without notes but often glancing at the back of his left hand as if ideas were written there, or running his hand through the curling, gray Mosaic locks of hair that surrounded the great vault of his forehead, nurtured by his street corner oratory as a young radical and fed by his suppressed acting ambitions, each lecture was a performance. Professors whose audiences tended to doze off found that another reason to disparage what he had to say.
What Leslie did that no other literary critic was doing at the time was to look at novels not as single works, or as part of an author's oeuvre, or in a simple historical context, but for themes that related it to other novels. He was particularly interested in why some works endure in popular regard despite having been dismissed by critics. That led him to cross the boundary from canon to popular literature. This did not mean any lowering of standards. When students told him how much they loved Richard Bach's Jonathan Livingston Seagull, he protested that it was "pretentious banality." (He also had a reputation as a hard grader and some students avoided his classes because of that.)
What it did mean, as he wrote in What Was Literature?, was that the effective teacher "must show himself capable of responding not only to those works which his students are not likely to discover without his guidance, but also to those which have persisted in spite of critical disapproval." (p. 114)
This is no longer regarded as quite so startling an idea as it was in the 1950s and '60s. In fact, the very idea has itself been canonized to such an extent that in his speech accepting the Modern Language Association's Hubbel Award for lifetime achievement in 1994, he said: "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." (Quoted in Mark Royden Winchell's Too Good To Be True, The Life and Work of Leslie Fiedler, p. 333.)
That of course was an exaggeration, but only an exaggeration. It was often the way he made his point. He did think the ivory tower should be more of a multi-story pavilion, and for that he was considered a danger to the Academy. (When I left Montana to pursue doctoral studies he told me: "Don't confuse getting a Ph.D. with getting an education.") There were universities where he would have liked to teach, but they were afraid to invite him for more than a lecture. Finally, in 1964, Albert Cook, the adventurous chair of the English Department at the new State University of New York at Buffalo, eager to gain quick recognition for the department, offered him a position.
Wherever he went he soon became the center of a kind of ferment, attracting famous people to lecture at Montana (including William Faulkner who when asked what it took to write so well about a region astonished people by replying "To write well about a place you have to hate it, the way one hates his wife.") and later to his infamous 4th of July parties in Buffalo. At Montana he was active in the teachers union (American Federation of Teachers) and though not particularly observant in his religion conducted seders when a minyan was sometimes difficult to round up. He had so much energy that he wrote standing up.
Perhaps it was finding himself, a Jewish boy from Newark, in Montana that made him look at things differently. Initially disappointed that this remote outpost of academia was the only job he was offered out of graduate school, he developed towards the state something of the attitude that Faulkner held towards Mississippi. In his autobiographical account Being Busted, he wrote of Montana that he "had come to love that absurd place." (p. 62) This was particularly true when the Blackfeet Indians adopted him in recognition of his civil rights work and gave him the name "Heavy Runner." Still, in fact, characteristically, he did not hesitate to bite the hands that were feeding him. He did it in an essay, notorious in Big Sky country, called "Montana, or the End of Jean-Jacques Rousseau."
At least some Montanans were also ambivalent. When he arrived in Buffalo he received a letter from a former colleague informing him that someone described only as "an old Indian fighter" had said "I always knew he would run out on us some day."
Now he has run out on us all. But he has left this behind for everyone (or almost everyone) who has ever read him or heard him speak: his criticism never had the quality of an autopsy. In fact, he left literature more alive than any other critic.