Leslie Fiedler reports that an academic colleague, one of the old school, shocked by Fiedler's recent pronouncements, has suggested that it was his duty to resign from a profession he seems "hellbent on destroying." He should not: his manic forays upon ideas and literary assumptions are tonics against pedantry. Still, the fellow may have a point. If we are to take Fiedler seriously, and it is rarely clear when he intends us to, the time may have come for all of us to quit -- himself, his shocked colleague, me, and the other members of the Modern Language Association. I speak a bit wildly: the Fiedler manner is contagious.
Many moons have passed, as he might put it, since he lumbered out of the wilds of the University of Montana, carrying with him Love and Death in the American Novel, a brilliant, ungainly book which permanently affected the ways in which serious readers responded to American literature. It had been preceded in 1948 by an essay which was to become famous -- better yet, notorious. "Come Back to the Raft, Ag'in, Huck Honey" argues that "there has appeared over and over in books written by white American authors the same myth of an idyllic anti-marriage: a lifelong love, passionate though chaste, and consummated in the wilderness, on a whaling ship or a raft, anywhere but 'home,' between a white refugee from 'civilization,' and a dark-skinned 'savage,' both of them male." There, and in the book of which it was the germ, he turned for evidence to some of the central classics of our literature, The Leatherstocking Tales, Moby Dick, Huckleberry Finn.
His argument was at once deliberately shocking and persuasive. His method, a freewheeling assembly of whatever he found useful in Freud, Marx, Jung, and the New Criticism, liberated him. And now, some 20 books later, he is still running. In that early essay, he argued that the "archetypal story" which he laid bare revealed a profound aspect of America's "psycho-social fantasy life," and it was this life which he went on to claim as his special province.
But there was a methodological fissure buried within the argument, one which is implicit in the words "myth" and "archetypal story." In his early books, bullied, as he now believes, by "elite" and class-bound standards, he directed his attention to established "classics," referring to "low" or popular literature only apologetically. And yet, in logic, a "psycho-social fantasy" which informs an entire culture cannot be the sole possession of those writers canonized by the literary and academic establishments. Surely it must be equally present in popular literature, however commercial, however ill-written, however debased. Perhaps more richly present, for such writers are less self-conscious, less likely to complicate the myth with ironies and with stylistic reservations and ambiguities.
This fissure was discovered by Fiedler himself, who has a disarming habit of telling the worst about himself, lest his critics beat him to it. And he has now addressed himself to it with his customary gusty display of confidence. His present argument rests upon a diagnosis of our present cultural plight. The diagnosis is a familiar one, although he has jazzed it up with snappy presentation, of which the title is an example. College techers of literature attempt to teach the classics to students emerging out of a culture which has lost the habit of reading, and of course fail in the attempt. Poets, critics, and "highbrow" novelists write for each other, thereby creating a sterile, hermetic elite. We are living in a post-literate world and must make do with it. And "standards," after all, had always been artificial impositions.
We have been hearing all this for some years, and Fiedler knows that we have. Indeed, when he tells us, his voice does not entirely convince. For beneath it we hear the thin but unstranglable voice of a second Fiedler, the Fiedler who can read Pound and Eliot and Joyce with the best of them and who knows in his heart of hearts that The Sound and the Fury is a great work of art and that Tarzan of the Apes is something other and lesser.
What we haven't heard, he believes, is his solution to the problems he has re-specified. In this cure, Tarzan of the Apes looms large, swinging from vine to vine, and looking rather like Fiedler as he swings among his calculated outrages. What matters, he tells us, is "mythic resonance." It is by this, the sturdiest of his vines, that he travels. Literary standards do not work any longer, but "mythic resonance" does, and it may be found almost anywhere -- in Tarzan, in Buck Rogers, in Star Trek, in Roots, in Dracula. (Curiously, he does not say much about Frankenstein, although the monster is as strongly present in popular literature as is the vampire. Perhaps Mary Shelley hung out too long with her husband, imbibing his highfalutin notions and polysyllabic diction.) If a work has "mythic resonance" it is irrelevant that the language which embodies it is trite, slovenly, inert upon the page. And yet surely no one who savors language as he does, who uses it with such delight, can wholeheartedly believe that bad writing is redeemed by "mythic resonance" or by anything else.
The first half of What Was Literature? argues his case. The second half applies his new non-methodology to the discovery of a second American myth, counterpoised against his earlier one. In the first myth, "Home" is a kind of hell, from which Natty Bumppo and Huck Finn and Ishmael flee into the wilderness. In the new constellation, "Home" is a kind of paradise, maternal, sustaining, lost but longed-for. But there is now aadifference. Earlier, his texts had been the American classics. Now he deals entirely with the "popular," in some instances with the sub-literary--Uncle Tom's Cabin, The Clansman, Gone with The Wind, Roots. (The Clansman is Thomas Dixon's wretched 1905 glorification of the Ku Klux Klan: Griffith's Birth of a Nation was based upon it.)
In all four, their deepest meanings (all right, their "mythic resonances") lie not in their narrative surfaces, but in their images of a paradise lost, whether Scarlett's Tara or the west coast of Africa. Surface and deep meaning are joined, however, for these books also express, in their diverse ways, the forms in which the great national trauma -- slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction -- have been imprinted upon the popular imagination. The ways in which Fiedler explores the relationships between surfaces and depths display him at his best -- resourceful and subtle.
Fiedler is well aware that only one of his texts -- Uncle Tom's Cabin -- has marginal claims upon specifically literary grounds. He may have lost his bearings, but not his sense of literary discrimination. He knows that The Clansman is a vile book, and that Alex Haley's Roots is a "prefabricated piece of commodity schlock." But literary critics have not merely a professional but an ethical obligation not to lose their literary bearings. For the critic, for the teacher, for the novelist and poet, it is language which lies at the center of the enterprise. "Mythic resonances" are fun to write about, but it is mythic resonance shattered and re-shaped by language, by passions which have found for themselves the uniquely appropriate words and structural resources which makes Faulkner a powerful writer. And it is tin ears and heavy pens which confine Margaret Mitchell and Alex Haley to their ordained roles as manufacturers of ingratiating daydreams. As Fiedler knows and almost says, it is language which makes Ishmael Reed a black writer of controlled power, wit, and moral imagination. And it is unresponsiveness to language which makes Roots what it is.
As Auden put it, back in the days before the post-literate eraFiedler k, Time is intolerant of innocence, but it
Worships language and forgives
Everyone by whom it lives. Fiedler himself is one of those by whom language lives. Like the legendary writer who published a two-volume book on the virtues of silence, he has deployed his witty, boisterous, and muscular prose upon the defense of novels deaf to language. But time, if Auden is right, will have no difficulty forgiving him for What Was Literature? Come back to words ag'in, Leslie honey.