Volume XII, Number 2, Fall 2016


"Review of Prem Kumari Srivastava’s Leslie Fiedler: Critic, Provocateur and Pop Culture Guru" by Vinanti Vasishth

Vinanti Vasishth is a PhD scholar at the English Department of Delhi University, India. She is passionately interested in researching colonialism with a wholesome postcolonial perspective which involves, but is not limited to, studying the repercussions of colonialism on the colonized as well as the colonials. It is even more alluring for her to explore the impact of colonialism on the current postcolonial times without the ‘us’ and ‘them’ factor. Her further research interests include American literature and gender studies. Vasishth likes to maneuver the trajectory of her research towards being beneficial to mankind and feels strongly for all marginalized, regardless of species, nationality or gender. Her publications include articles in Indian national dailies and the Hindi translation of Verrier Elwin’s voluminous work Muria and Their Ghotul. Email:

Leslie Fiedler: Critic, Provocateur and Pop Culture Guru
Srivastava, Prem Kumari
2014
Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland
256 pp.
Print ISBN: 978-0-7864-6351-0
Ebook ISBN: 978-1-4766-0590-6

 

In Leslie Fiedler: Critic, Provocateur and Pop Culture Guru, Prem Kumari Srivastava investigates Fiedler’s theories in the three dimensions referred to in the title. Leslie Fiedler, a flamboyant American critic famous for his controversial observations on the American novel tapping into the non-traditional longings of the characters and the author of the renowned Love and Death in the American Novel (1960), is examined by Prem Kumari Srivastava, associate professor of English at the University of Delhi, as an intellectual giant with a heart full of love and compassion for all those who have been marginalized. Uniquely, Srivastava’s professed aim is not merely to analyze Fiedler’s thoughts in appreciation, but she proposes that the book be an ode and an elegy to Fiedler (211). As such, the book offers its readers a comprehensive and scholarly insight into Fiedler as a littérateur and as a pop culture guru, at the same time also uncovering the provocateur element in both of these two roles. Srivastava gives her unique opinion of Fiedler as she recognizes him as a postcolonial theorist. The book, coming after a spate of negative criticism on Fiedler, invites enquiry from the readers as to what is attractive in Fiedler’s thinking and why a woman intellectual of India would give him an encomium. The book promises to disappoint readers who thirst for serene and pedantic analysis because Fiedler tends to evoke strong reactions among his critics. However, it is to the author’s credit that the focus of the book is Fiedler’s work rather than his personality, unlike in the books written by his few but noted admirers: Mark Royden Winchell’s Too Good to Be True (2002) is a biography and Steven G. Kellman and Irving Malin’s Leslie Fiedler and American Culture (1999) is a festschrift which carries glowing personal tributes.

In the “Preface,” Srivastava declares that when she was searching for the “Other”—any “other”—she discovered Fiedler, the “Other” of American culture, the “American gadfly” (2), as she quotes Darshan Singh Maini. Srivastava states her own standpoint clearly: she would like to situate Fiedler globally since many of “the challenges he threw at the American critical establishment are also some that were bothering many scholars outside America” (3). In the introduction, Srivastava gives a scholarly account of the various types of criticisms on Fiedler and states that she would like to trace the pop culture guru aspect in Fiedler’s writings right from the first glimmer to the shine of a blazing sun (25).

The first chapter, titled “Fiedler’s Credo: Literary and Critical; Socio-political and Pedagogical,” gives an overview of Fiedler’s thoughts in different fields. In the field of literary criticism, Fiedler advocated strategic criticism, in which imagination played a crucial role. According to him, a literary critic should be like a poet whose consciousness can relate to and reach that of his subject in completion. Within the ambit of literary criticism, Fiedler considered negative criticism to be essential as an innate element of the complete truth, while the significance of the moral element made myths and archetypes important to him.

Fiedler wanted to be a teacher first and a writer second, and he stood up for the outcasts and subalterns of all kinds. The next two chapters, “Comradeship, Male Bonding or …?: Re-readings and Re-evaluations” and “Integration of the ‘Other’: Indians, Jews, Blacks, Freaks and …,” examine Fiedler as a literary critic in even more detail. The second chapter on male bonding explores the perspective of the ennobling love of a man for another man in American literature, especially concerning the love between a white and a dark man, as well as the myths related to this aspect, like that of the runaway American male who seeks to avoid the “petticoat government.” In the third chapter, the author says that, according to Fiedler, the West gains its identity by encountering the “Other” and goes on to discuss more myths related to the “Other,” such as “The Myth of the White Woman with the Tomahawk,” and “The Myth of Love in the Woods.” Jews are also broached as belonging to this “Others’” group, as are freaks.

The fourth chapter, “Toward Popular Culture: Establishment of a Pop Guru,” dwells on various theories of popular culture and then goes on to Fiedler’s understanding of the term. Fiedler regards pop culture as the domain of the youth whom he calls “the new mutants” (148). Fiedler notices that the new mutants have two other dominant traits—to shun masculinity (i.e. shunning women sexually) and to act more like African Americans (148).

The fifth chapter, titled “Perspectives of the ‘Other’: Postcolonial and Feminist Readings,” declares Fiedler as a postcolonial with a unique “insider-outsider” perspective, who writes for subalterns within the colony. Srivastava brings to the fore the fact that Fiedler can be treated as a feminist who clearly brought attention to women being treated as outcasts—as people to be shunned, petticoat governments to be avoided, and the creators of domesticity the American male needed to escape from—by American writers.

In the concluding chapter, “Come Back to the Raft Ag’in, Fiedler Honey!” Srivastava states that “Fiedler is a guru that every disciple would wish to have, Fiedler stood for the principles of Sanskritic paradigm of Vasudeva Kutumbakam, which forms the fulcrum of Hindu Upanishadic philosophy” (210-211). Thus Srivastava pays final homage to Fiedler by calling him a guru—a great intellectual who can instruct other scholars because he knows more than them and because he is more compassionate and views the whole world as his family. She ends the book by saying “Let the Book be treated as both an ode and an elegy to this columnist, the real ‘Brave Heavy Runner’ who has let out into the territory ahead of the rest” (211). The above quotation is not only a ratification of her aim—to praise Fiedler—in writing the book, it is also an endorsement of Fiedler’s appeal to different races. While Blackfeet Native Americans called him a leader who broke new grounds, Srivastava—an Indian—finds in him love for the underdogs of the whole world.

The chapters are sequenced according to the three viewpoints given in the title, and the content is of significant scholarly interest. However, the book also suffers from certain inherent clashes. Firstly, it does not make it clear how a “provocateur” can also be a “pop culture guru” at the same time, since the role of the former is destructive while that of the latter is constructive. In other words, while a provocateur incites, a guru pacifies. The provocateur motivates people from a state of peace to action—often unwholesome to the doer—but the guru maneuvers his disciples from a state of unrest to that of peace or, to put it simply, attempts to make them well-settled in the future. The explanation of the correlation between a provocateur and a guru would have been illuminating for the readers of the book. Secondly, there is a clash between authorial intent and authorial execution. Srivastava declares her aim to situate Fiedler globally right in the “Preface,” stating that it is against the American backdrop and “Indian, and a little global and contemporary—that I have embarked upon the study of Fiedler” (7). At the same time, she states in the “Preface” that her aim is also to establish Fiedler as a postcolonial. The book thus tries to situate Fiedler postcolonially by portraying him as a spokesman for the marginalized—women, freaks, Jews and blacks—with a unique “insider-outsider” perspective as Fiedler writes for subalterns within the erstwhile colony, the USA, and globally, by looking at the marginalized groups from a general perspective, regardless of political boundaries with Fiedler as their spokesman. However, saying that supporting American subalterns should make Fiedler a champion of subalterns globally is a statement that would require more convincing arguments. Moreover, if we accept Fiedler as a postcolonial simply because he favors the marginalized groups in the US suffering under hegemonic oppression, can the nationalist mainstream in the US and all other ex-colonies, where certain marginalized groups exist, be dubbed as hegemonic and therefore colonial as well? If Srivastava had explained why and on what ground Fiedler can be accepted by the intellectuals of the postcolonial camp scattered throughout the ex-colonies, her arguments about Fiedler’s identity and theories as postcolonial would have been better supported.

The answer to the interesting question as to why a controversial American writer is being hailed as a guru to whom the author has written a prose ode in her book, Leslie Fiedler: Critic, Provocateur and Pop Culture Guru, emerges in the form of latent compliments Srivastava pays to the multi-cultural and democratic system of the US, which allows disparate opinions to have a say, even if they are objectionable to the hegemony, which makes American thought rich and capable of supporting intellectuals outside it. Fiedler’s thought is attractive because it is that of a rebel, generally speaking. However, the system which allows him to flourish and, above all, to speak freely, should be equally alluring. Other critics have also praised Fiedler, but they have usually picked up just one particular trait and explored it in detail. In the “Introduction” of The Devil Gets His Due (2008), for example, the author’s praise is focused on Fiedler’s language, which, though that of a literary critic, is formulated to be comprehensible by not only experts, but laymen as well (Pardini XIX). Pardini brings out the positive features of Fiedler’s language elaborately, no doubt, but it is Srivastava’s book which illuminates Fiedler’s strengths in a comprehensive and discursive manner, going into the very nooks and corners of his thought. It is in its function as an ode and an elegy where the main strength of the book lies, written with genuine warmth and obvious admiration for Fiedler, making it a feast for those who really care about understanding the finer shades of Fiedlerian thought. Nevertheless, the brilliant critical flashes of investing Fiedler with postcolonial and global nuances, if explored to the full, would have made the book a more enriching experience for its readers.

 

Works Cited

  • Kellman, Steven G. and Irving Malin eds. 1999. Leslie Fiedler and American Culture. Newark, New Jersey: University of Delaware Press.
  • Pardini, Samuele F.S. ed. 2008. The Devil Gets His Due. The Uncollected Essays of Leslie Fiedler. Berkeley, California: Counterpoint.
  • Srivastava, Prem Kumari. 2014. Leslie Fiedler: Critic, Provocateur, Pop Culture Guru. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland.
  • Winchell, Mark Royden. 2002. In Too Good to Be True: The Life and Work of Leslie Fiedler. Columbia, South Carolina: University of Missouri Press.