"The Devil in the Details: Review of The Devil Gets His Due – The Uncollected Essays of Leslie Fiedler" by Zsolt Kelemen
Zsolt Kelemen is a PhD student at the Institute of English & American Studies, University of Szeged, Hungary. E-mail:
The Devil Gets His Due – The Uncollected Essays of Leslie Fiedler
Samuele F. S. Pardini (ed.)
Paperback: xxviii+315 pages
Publisher: Soft Skull Press, Berkeley, California
The Devil Gets His Due presents a distinctive insight into the works of the controversial American literary critic, Leslie Fiedler (1901-2007). Fiedler, the subversive scribbling devil, has been producing crucial essays and critical notes on American literature for almost sixty years. Fiedler, the enfant terrible of American literary criticism, produced a vast work of cultural criticism. He was credited by the OED as the first critic who ever “used the word ‘Post-Modernism’ in the literary field” (xiv). His works have been finally collected by Samuele F. S. Pardini, whose goal was to “present Leslie Fiedler to a new, hopefully younger generation of readers” and also to “re-introduce him to older readers” (xiv) in a superbly written introduction entitled “Sympathy for the Devil. Looking Backward for a New Tradition” (xiii-xxviii). As Pardini suggests in the introductory text, literary criticism is always talking about “something else” (xix), while it is always “something else” (xix). According to Fiedler, literary criticism always allows the position of another interpreter (5) in the sense that there is always another view that alters the way literature (or any other text) is interpreted.
Fiedler’s reception was similar to a hate-and-love relationship accurately represented by Leonard Cohen, who imagined Fiedler “leaning over the American moonlight / like the shyest gargoyle / who will not become angry and old” seconded by Saul Bellow, who laconically referred to him as “the worst fucking thing that ever happened to American literature.” Indeed, Fiedler tackles literary criticism with fierceness, creativity and in many cases with provocative wit. For example, his 600-page Love and Death in the American Novel published in 1960 questioned the existence of what was before labeled as the ‘great American novel.’ On several occasions, his writings were offensive to the mainstream readers and critics alike, as is the case of one of his stories, the “Nude Croquet” published in Esquire (1957) that had to eventually be withdrawn from newsstands, because of its eroticism and nudity. In spite of harsh criticism attacking his subversive literary criticism, Fiedler remained in the position of the progressive thinker. “The Canon and the Classroom: A Caveat” is, in this sense, his credo. It is in this essay where he explains that
“progressive” revisers of the canon end by excluding as well as including works on ideological grounds; so that their new canon is finally even narrower than the reactionary one they began by deploring. On the one hand, they urge teaching works written by members of previously underesteemed groups in our society, along with those written by anyone which present what are considered at the moment in liberal academic circles correct views on ethnicity, sexuality, age and physical impairment. Yet at the same time, and on the same high moral/political grounds, they urge dropping from our curriculum books which support views on the subjects with which they happen to disagree, labeling them “racist,” “sexist,” “ageist,” “homophobic,” etc. etc. (131)
In “Toward an Amateur Criticism,” Fiedler focuses primarily on his audience. He argues that critics write from an ideal position to a general audience, an audience that literary criticism sometimes forgets about. Fiedler believes that “what discourages sociability discourages style” (xix). His voice formulates complex theories with breezy wit and upscale style; his thoughts represent an out-of-the-box ‘look’ at American culture(s). For Fiedler, the critic should be a mediator between his audience and the literary work of art, a mediator whose job is to present whatever ideas in a rather ‘amateurish’ way (in the good sense of the word). However, he recognizes that is difficult to be an amateur interpreter and he ironically warns us about the dangers of extreme amateurism, which for him is equivalent with that of an onanist” (4) Nevertheless, the critic should talk to his audience in a way he would talk to a “man not to a specialist” (ibid.). It would be a mistake to establish a simplified point of view from which Fiedler criticizes his subjects. Despite his meticulously chosen classical examples ranging from Wordsworth to Salinger and Vonnegut, his attitude towards criticism is strongly rooted in popular culture. In his “talk” entitled “Giving the Devil His Due” he defines the term “Popular Culture” (13) referring primarily to Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones to illustrate his point in a wider cultural context in which the term dwells. The way Fiedler writes and thinks about criticism and popular culture in this essay mirrors his unusual openness to further interpretation. An eloquent example is his definition of “Popular Culture” on the basis of which the reader is interpellated to “decide whether or not” (ibid.) he or she agrees with the critic’s view.
Pardini divided this collection into seven sections. Pardini purposely avoided editing this book in a chronological order; he managed to bypass any dry and systematic division and provided a malleable structure in which thematic arrangements prevail. A minor inconvenience appears on the “Contents” page. Here the reader finds only the titles of the essays without any indication of thematic sections. The editor mentions four thematic sections in his “Introduction” (xiii-xxvii) part of the book. In the first group of essays, the reader will find a commentary on Dante’s Inferno XXVI: “Explication de Texte Inferno Canto XXVI” (25-34), followed by a short, witty text on D. H. Lawrence in “D. H. Lawrence on D. H. Lawrence As Told to Leslie Fiedler” (34-37), an enlightening essay, where Fiedler begins with his own contextualization of literary criticism. Among the essays of the first group is Fiedler’s last article written in 2002 entitled “The Deerslayer” (37-46) along with “New England and the Invention of the South”(54-64), an essay on Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The second section of Pardini’s compilation is Fiedler’s view on Mark Twain’s works. In “Huckleberry Finn: The Book We Love to Hate” (64-77), the critic examines the connection between high art and Huckleberry Finn commenting on Is Shakespeare Dead? (92-99), Twain’s “least well received and most misunderstood works“ (93). In the third section of the book the reader finds more writings on literary theory, such as “The State of Writing” (99-104) and “Edmund Wilson’s Criticism: A Re-Examination” (104-107). In “A Fortysh View” (120-125), Fiedler self-reflexively contemplates on his relationship with criticism while in the essay on “Ezra Pound: The Poet as Parodist” (136-148) he uses parody as a par excellence tool of criticism. The fourth and last part of the compilation envisages a complex mixture of Stanisław Lem’s literature, the movie Metropolis (1927), the characters of Jerry Lewis, Eddie Murphy and The Nutty Professor alongside J. F. Cooper, Ezra Pound and William Faulkner.
This edited book juxtaposes Fiedler’s exquisite humor and his unique voice with a wide range of subjects all put in an enjoyable complex form. Fiedler not only investigates criticism in a self-conscious way, but he also informs the reader about different “-isms” and “New Critics.” Furthermore, he reflects Kurt Vonnegut’s take on science fiction as sustainable literary investigation through the means of LSD and “smoking grass”(216) in “The Divine Stupidity of Kurt Vonnegut: Portrait of the Novelist as Bridge over Troubled Water” (215-230) and muses on the American metafiction of which F. S. Fitzgerald in “Francis Scott Fitzgerald” (148-149). The recurring theme of homosexuality is seen by Fiedler as a puzzle in “A Homosexual Dilemma” (204-207), an essay that analyzes the works of James Baldwin through the use of the author’s “wry ironics” (206) on heteronormativity. “Up From Adolescence” (210-214) is the critic’s lament about the bitter “unlearnings” (214) of children through J. D. Salinger’s Franny and Zoey. Fiedler, who was in Iwo Jima during the World War II, wrote about his shocking war memories in “Getting It Right: The Flag Raisings at Iwo Jima” (283-295) and is “Who Really Died in Vietnam? The Cost in Human Lives” (246-252). The critic attempts to tell a “tale” that is often “mistold” (295). Actually what he writes about exceeds the limit of a simple story; this narrative is a visual memento, a naturalistically depicted episode about a Japanese helmet full of blood and remnants of a skull, shedding light on the brutality of war that “has divided our society” (246)
The Devil Gets His Due – The Uncollected Essays of Leslie Fiedler has a reader-friendly logic praising Pardini’s editing work that presents the world according to Fiedler. So is he the Devil from the title? After reading all 42 essays the careful reader will find the answer hidden in the details.