“Literature, strictly consider’d, has never recognized the people, and whatever may be said, does not today. Speaking generally, the tendencies of literature, as hitherto pursued, have been to make most critical and querulous men.”
—Walt Whitman

In a prepublication interview, Leslie Fiedler remarked that he had wanted for years to use the title he has given to his latest book. In Fiedler on the Roof, however, the authorial persona resembles neither that of the effervescent Lev Teitlebaum of the Broadway stage, nor of the genially witty Fiedler of many previous books (Love and Death in the American Novel, What Was Literature?, etc.). This unfamiliar Fiedler is not so much a new Fiedler (the essays comprising the present volume were written between 1970 and 1989) as it is an unexpected one, although readers who have followed the critic’s work closely over the past half-century (I have not read To the Gentiles, published in 1973) will likely be in some way prepared for what is anyway another Fielder—angry, at times spiteful, intending insult, and tormented always by a strain of cultural confusion that John Murray Cuddihy so well explained in The Ordeal of Civility, a sociological work of significance published sixteen years ago.

As a young professor of English at the state university at Missoula, Montana, Leslie Fiedler wrote to T.S. Eliot in London to demand from the poet an explanation of the “obsessive hostility” toward Jews evinced in his work; when Eliot replied by saying, in part, that some of his best friends were “jews,” Fiedler flung the letter across the room. Today, he denounces “the pathological hatred of Jews endemic in Western culture, pre-Christian, Christian, or post-Christian,” and insists that “it is hard for me to be at ease in the United States, as long as The Merchant of Venice is played and replayed on stage and screen and television and remains required reading in classes in English.” (In What Was Literature?, published only seven years before he wrote the above lines, Fiedler attacked the “censors” who prevented the showing of a film of The Merchant, as well as of Griffith’s Birth of a Nation.) It enrages him to recall how, as a “Jew-boy” attending public school in Newark, New Jersey, he was forced to endure prayers offered to “their Lord”—an indignity which he seeks now to repay by employing the word “Gentile” only when absolutely necessary to remind us that he is indeed familiar with the English equivalent of goy and goyish with which he lards his pages. He admits to “doubts about whether assimilation into the traditional High Culture of the West did not mean for me—offspring of plebeian Eastern European Jews—a kind of apostasy, a falsification of my very identity,” and declares that Europe is suspect for him for its anti-Semitic culture and history, while in America he remains a stranger in a strange land, forever an exile. Yet he adds, “I feel myself more hopelessly a foreigner in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv and the Holy City of Safad than I do in Rome or Bologna or Florence.” Beyond this, there is still another twist, since, “Even as in America I know I am a Jew and doubt that I am an American, in Zion . . . I know that I am an American and doubt that I am a Jew. Only in the land of Dante am I sure that I am both; a happy stranger in an amiable strange land, aware at every moment that I can and will return to my native land, where I will feel not at ease, as ill-befits a Jew, but at home; just one more exile in the midst of other exiles.” When finally Fiedler—after admitting that, while considering himself a Jew (though not a believing one), he is more uncertain of what being a Jew actually means—confesses to suffering from “a life-long identity crisis,” it is easy to agree with him that he has a problem.

That problem being essentially personal in nature, it is of itself no proper concern to Fiedler’s readers, who will be more likely to notice the bearing it has on the world’s stock-in-trade: namely, his insistence upon the “mythic” validity of what he calls “pop literature,” as opposed to “High Literature” and particularly Modernism, whose aim he identifies as the reinterpretation and general intellectualization of old and dying myths. High Literature, Fiedler argues, begins in America with Melville and Hawthorne and extends through Eliot, Pound, Faulkner, and Tate. Literally and figuratively, it has always traveled abroad to study, while “pop literature,” despising Europe and European values, has gone to school at home; and it is in this hatred, Fiedler believes, that American Jews and goyish American writers of the “popular” school meet, as on native ground. “It is our common revulsion from the values of [the old] world that makes the most authentic American writers, WASPS that they are—Mark Twain, for instance, and Walt Whitman—seem spokesmen for my kind as well as theirs. ‘Sivilization’ Twain calls that rejected European cultural inheritance. . . . And Whitman makes explicit that it is not only the hierarchical class structures and limited freedoms of the Old World that he, like Twain, abjures, but Christian humanism itself ‘Cross out, please,’ he chants, inviting the Muse to migrate to America, ‘those immensely overpaid accounts, / That matter of Troy and Achilles’ wrath, and Aeneas’, Odysseus’ wanderings, / Placard “Removed” and “To Let” on the rocks of your snowy Parnassus, / Repeat at Jerusalem.'”

If Fiedler on the Roof is notable chiefly for revealing a partially hidden agenda based on ressentiment, this is not enough to discredit much of what Leslie Fiedler has written over the years concerning life and literature in America. Fiedler’s primary purpose, it seems to me, has been not to praise “pop literature” unduly but to discredit the Modernist agenda, whose aesthetics he has come to detest nearly as much as he does the politics of many of its practitioners. The trouble is that Fiedler, in his efforts to desacralize the gods before whom he himself once bowed, is tempted to misrepresent the unbelievers who refused to climb Parnassus but contented themselves instead with mixing among the hoi polloi below. This misrepresentation Fiedler accomplishes by a critical sleight-of-hand, the success of which is almost wholly dependent upon his disingenuous use of the word “pop.”

The trick becomes apparent when Fiedler, with distractive casualness, includes the Leatherstocking Tales, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Huckleberry Finn, Tarzan of the Apes, The Wizard of Oz, the novels of Charles Dickens, Wonder Woman comic books, and The Valley of the Dolls under the rubric of “pop literature.” Slyly, he allows “pop” to emerge contextually as shorthand for “popular”; when in fact ever since the 60’s “pop” and “popular” have meant two distinctly different things—the first represented by an Andy Warhol soup can, the second by a work of Norman Rockwell or of Frederick Remington. Also by trickish oversight, Fiedler conveniently ignores the difference between bourgeois culture in the 19th century and mass culture in the 20th, a ploy that allows him to make insupportable comparisons regarding the “popularity” of Poe, H. Rider Haggard, and Jacqueline Susann as forgers in the smithies of their souls of the uncreated conscience of their times. The truth is, Fiedler knows better than that. “I am not suggesting,” he has written elsewhere, “that the search for standards be abandoned completely and that evaluation be confined to noises of admiration or distaste, the simple ‘Wow!’ or ‘Ech!’ which seems to satisfy some of our students.”

Essentially, Fiedler’s arguments against the formalism, bloodlessness, self-consciousness, and “elitism” of much of “High Art” in general and of Modernism in particular are attempts at answering the question, “How intellectual should literature really be?” To which the answer, I suppose, is, “It doesn’t matter, so long as the intellect—whether by its presence or its absence—doesn’t obtrude.” “Best of all,” Fiedler suggests in What Is Literature?, “are those works which, like Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex or Shakespeare’s Hamlet, satisfy both the guardians of Aristotelian-Horatian ‘standards’ and the mass audience, which responds to the mysterious tertium quid which the former do not even deign to notice.”

As for “popular” culture in the sense of mass entertainment, Fiedler only reinforces my suspicion that there is a sinister quality inherent in it—a quality having less to do with the profit motive that reduces it to the lowest common denominator than with the quest for an artificial homogeneity that performs the same function in the interest of obviating cultural, class, ethnic, and religious ressentiments within our classless, godless, and multicultural “sivilization.” There is a sense in which contemporary popular culture is created by nobody for nobody, generating vast sums in ill-gotten gains in the process of being sold to nobody. As Emily Dickinson wrote, “I’m nobody! Who are you? / Are you nobody, too? / Then there’s a pair of us. . . .”


[Fiedler on the Roof: Essays on Literature and Jewish Identity, by Leslie Fiedler (Boston: David R. Godine, Publishers, Inc.) 161 pp., $19.95]