Leslie Fiedler, rot in hell
lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Feb 5 08:01:56 MST 2003
Fear and Loathing
How Leslie Fiedler turned American criticism on its head.
By Sam Tanenhaus
Leslie Fiedler, who died last week at age 85, was the last—or rather the
first—of the wild-man literary critics. We're used to the type now:
Harold Bloom with his sprawling, egomaniacal tomes and kitschy
sad-Falstaff routine; Stanley Fish with his "subversive" provocations
produced on cue for the op-ed page; Frank Lentricchia in his muscle
shirt. But Fiedler was the original chest-thumping extrovert of American
criticism, and no one ever did it better.
He's best remembered for his protean transformations. The phases
included gloating ex-communism (in the 1950s he was a hatchet man for
the Committee on Cultural Freedom) and self-aggrandizing New Leftism.
(The cops who raided his house in Buffalo dug up some pot and hashish;
Fielder got an entire book out of it, Being Busted.) Next came
rhapsodic-encyclopedic essays on comic books, junk fiction, and geek
movies. And there was, always, the theme of Jewishness. Like the
protagonist in his short story "The Last Jew in America"—Fiedler was the
rare academic scholar who dared write fiction—Fiedler himself "burn[ed]
with baffled rage."
His most notorious performance, "Afterthoughts on the Rosenbergs," was
commissioned in 1953 for the first issue of Encounter, the CIA-funded
magazine conceived as a highbrow weapon in the war for the "hearts and
minds" of the European intelligentsia. Few in Fiedler's circle doubted
that the "atom spies" were guilty—if not of actually handing Moscow the
keys to the nuclear kingdom, then at least of having ardently wished to
do so. But Fiedler wasn't content just to endorse the verdict. He jeered
at the pair's rotten taste and aesthetic lapses, which he treated as
synecdoches of their political transgressions: their shabby apartment in
the low-cost apartment building ("the visible manifestation of the
Stalinized pretty-bourgeois mind"); the sappy folk songs the couple sang
in their jail cells; and, worst of all, Ethel's self-righteous,
pamphleteering "death-house letters," in which the Brooklyn Dodgers are
recast as emblems of "the masses" and, as Fiedler said (or screamed),
"the ready-made epithets of the Communist press are released like a
dog's saliva at the ting of a bell."
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