Of all the literary critics, Leslie Fiedler might be the one with the most labels attached to him. He has been portrayed as a post-modernist (on the strength of him being the first to utter the word); as a Queer Theorists–his 1948 breakthrough essay–“Come Back To The Raft A’gin Huck Honey”–argued that the relationship between Huck Finn and “Nigger” Jim was homoerotic as were many male bonding relationships in American literature; a New Leftist, despite his age–he was in his 50s during the 1960s– based on police raiding his house and finding marijuana, and his view of Vietnam as the latest instance of America destroying non-whites, traceable all the way back to America’s founding.
But the real Fiedler did not fit any of these labels. Despite his joining the Young Communist League while in college during the 1930s, he was a trenchant critic of old shoe Stalinism. He found the Old Left condescending” to “the working class,” its literature, classified as proletarian, as worthless, and its predictions that capitalism was in its death throes in the 1930s (he argued during the postwar boom, that capitalism was even “making inroads into the Soviet Union). Indeed, he was very much an anticommunist. While other liberals, in the aftermath of the Hiss case (Alger Hiss, a member of the Agricultural Adjustment Administration, and served in the State Department during the FDR era, was revealed to be a Soviet mole) were scrambling to salvage liberalism, he found it naive toward Stalinism. He was as harsh on his own side as any conservative Republican. He declared in an essay asserting Hiss’ guilt, that such blindness toward the Soviet Union had resulted in liberals doing “great evil:”
“We who would still like to think of ourselves as liberals must be willing to declare that mere liberals principle is not in itself a guarantee against evil; that the wrongdoer is not always the other–“they” and not “us;” that there is no magic in the words, “left” or “progressive” or “socialist” that can prevent deceit and abuse of power.”
At times his anti-communism was so belligerent that it caused other anticommunists to recoil. Sidney Hook (who advocated universities expelling communists who hid behind liberalism from faculties) was taken aback by an article Fielder wrote for Encounter magazine (a magazine devoted to countering Soviet propaganda efforts in Western European countries, and later discovered to have been CIA-funded). The article was an attack on Soviet spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. not only supporting the guilty verdict of transmitting atomic secrets to the Soviet Union, but attacking even their low-class apartment as “the visible manifestation of the Stalinized petty bourgeoisie mind” and the communist press who defended them as akin “to a dog’s saliva at the tingling of a bell” (this led Hook, no fan of the Rosenbergs, to urge a disclaimer to the article to counter this “attack against human beings who are dead”).
Literary critics have overlooked, or more probable, edited out Fiedler’s politics, and instead have championed him as both a pioneer in postmodernist literary criticism (many of them link him to this movement simply by virtue of him being the first to use the term). Indeed, almost every trendy academic label has been attached to him: Marxist (based not on the surer foundation on him joining the Young Communist League while in college, but because he viewed novels as mass-produced for the masses); New Leftist (in this, biography is used; he was arrested when police raided his house and found marijuana, and he saw the Vietnam war as the latest instance of white American destroying non-whites, traceable all the way back to America’s founding ); Queer Theorist (his 1948 breakthrough essay–“Come Back to the Raft Ag’in, Huck Honey!” argued that the relationship between Huck Finn and Nigger Jim was homoerotic, as were many male bonding relationships in American literature).
Rather than follow the dictates of postmodernism, which saw the use of evidence as fascist and literature to be malleable to the wishes of any theory-peddler, Fiedler grounded his idea of homosexual relationships in literature based on over passages. An example was the following from Moby Dick:
“I found Queequeg’s arms thrown over me in the most loving and affectionate manner. You had almost thought I had been his wife..he still hugged me tightly, as though naught but death should part us twain…in our heart’s honeymoon, lay I and Queequeg–a cosy loving pair.”
Far from being a total New Leftist, he castigated the movement for substituting in place of hawkish anticommunism “one hard orthodoxy for another.” An opponent of Vietnam, which he likened to the Indian-killing days of 19th century America, he nevertheless criticized the movement for being far from peaceful:
“Rather than taking a stand against violence in whatever cause and condemning combat heroism under whatever flag, they were apologists for violence and terrorism as long as it was directed against the United States in Vietnam, and actual practitioners of it against cops on their own grounds.”
When the war ended, “it became harder and harder for the ‘Doves, who sought to mythologize the Vietcong as archetypal heroes to explain” why it had “broken the peace by launching series of imperialist forays against its neighbors.
But it wasn’t just Fiedler’s complicated politics that frustrated any politically correct labels. HIs assertion that academics “failed to connect” with non-academic readers led him into examining verboten material. As such he found value in the Rambo series as a gauge of the masses in post-Vietnam America. Rather than the “talky and didactic” Apocalypse Now,” Rambo, written off by academics as racist and politically reactionary (which he agreed with), nevertheless was “a lie that told the truth,” about silent majority anger over America’s loss in Vietnam. Fielder noted that although the series was gratuitously violent toward the Vietcong, the real anger was directed at Rambo’s fellow Americans who spat on him when he returned home, jailed him as a vagrant, and abandoned him on a rescue mission in Vietnam when he located American POWS still in tiger cages there. He locates the appeal for Rambo for mass audiences not only because of Reagan-era American anger at the government betraying the vets and leaving behind American soldiers, but because Stall one’s character battling Soviet tanks and airplanes with only a bow and arrow (explosively tipped) taps into such mythic noble savage figures (Rambo is revealed to be half-Indian) as “Natty Bumpo and Tarzan.”
If there is a comparable figure for Fielder it isn’t Ken Kesey or Lionel Trilling (another liberal anticommunist) but George Orwell. Both were willing to study pulp in order to see what the ordinary reader thought. With Fiedler it was not only Rambo but the undeniably racist and pro-Klu Klux Klan novel and film Gone With the Wind, as well as the pseudo-pornography of science fiction writer Phillip Jose Farmer (another writer tapping into myth, this time around the myth of the “Castrating mother” figure) that served as a gauge. With Orwell, it was Boy’s Weeklies, Rudyard Kipling–all frankly reactionary but indicators of how the masses thought. Both are united by their willingness to examine why such pulp lasts whereas such politically correct genres of proletarian literature do not.
Sadly, in today’s postmodernist climate where empiricism and verbs are denounced as “fascist” and literature is hammered into dialectical shapes, critics of the Fielder type, those willing to risk the wrath of the politically correct are few and far between. There is an attendant irony for the theory-ridden academia who claim him as one of their own. It is a pity that they are so blinkered that they cannot even consider this concept of irony.