The Devil Gets His Due: The Uncollected Essays of Leslie Fiedler

The final piece in The Devil Gets His Due: The Uncollected Essays of Leslie Fiedler is a short work written in 2002, a year before the gadfly critic?s death at age 85. “Whatever Happened to Jerry Lewis: That?s Amore?” is vintage Fiedler: In it, the “anti-academic academic” focuses on Lewis?s unusual coupling in “sublimated passion” to Dean Martin, their best buddy movies comprising the scenes from a marriage. Jerry?s pain resulting from the end of the Martin-and-Lewis love affair is played out after the divorce in The Nutty Professor (1963), in which the schlub chemistry teacher and his Dino-like alter ego, Buddy Love, splice the two performers into a single character. It is reprised as well as in Martin Scorsese?s 1983 King of Comedy (here Fiedler interprets the nudnik Rupert Pupkin, played by Robert De Niro, as a surrogate for Lewis; he tries pathetically to land the affections of a Johnny Carson-ish figure, who is himself played by Lewis). Anyone familiar at all with Fiedler?s now-classic reading of the homoerotic bonds in American literature will recognize where Fiedler is headed with his portrait of Lewis. He turns again to another discussion of the male couples in The Last of the Mohicans, Moby-Dick, and Huckleberry Finn. Fiedler doesn?t stop there but attempts to contextualize Lewis?s frequently panned Muscular Dystrophy Telethons: “Though they have come to be officially known as ‘Jerry?s Kids,’ I think of them as ‘this year?s Tiny Tim,’ and of the portly solid citizen who beams down on them as this year?s Scrooge: not the earlier Scrooge who is almost indistinguishable from a ‘stingy old Jew’ but Scrooge after his conversion into the professional founder of the feast for all deserving poor.” The essay is an apt conclusion to this collection of all things Fiedleresque.

Apt indeed — and not only because Lewis is, like Fiedler, a Newark Jew and the essay returns the author to his roots, or because his trademark ideas on ethnicity, homoeroticism, and myth as well as his incendiary devil-may-care political incorrectness are on display. It?s fitting too because, like the actor, Fiedler spent his career inhabiting a particular myth himself, the myth of “Leslie Fiedler,” the wildman-prophet of the academy, with all the contradictions that role entails. As he summed it up in Being Busted (1969), he was “an Easterner in the West; a Jew in a Gentile world; an ex-Communist among those to whom the very word with or without an ex- was a curse; a liberal, which is to say an exponent of the third way, in a time of right-wing repression and left-wing lies; a lover of courage in a time of no heroes at all.” As a critic and commentator, he arrived on the disputatious intellectual scene of the late 1940s as a southpaw hurling Molotovs against both the academy and the already-beleaguered Stalinist left (Alger Hiss, the Rosenbergs, et al., whom he viciously attacked in the CIA-funded “little magazine” Encounter). In fact, it is almost as if Fiedler chose his destiny in order to fit, retroactively, the mantle of a sort of critical John the Baptist in the wilderness. He wended his way westward as an academic, from his New Jersey birth city to the University of Montana in the middle part of the last century; from there he gleefully preached a sermon that scandalized the academy and opened up American literature to unconscious sexual and racial themes. (He eventually wound up in the all-star English Department at Buffalo University.) In his most famous essay, “Come Back to the Raft ‘Agin, Huck Honey” (1948), Fiedler recast the canonical works of James Fennimore Cooper, Mark Twain, and Herman Melville in terms of deliriously repressed, gay marriages blancs joining rebellious white youths and native Americans and/or blacks.

Fiedler worked hard at promulgating his ideas and was a prolific essayist. He published numerous collections, including a two-volume set in 1971 — a fact that hangs over The Devil Gets His Due. Hasn?t all the good stuff already been taken? The range in subject matter here is promising: from further ruminations on Cooper, Twain, and Melville to book reviews of work by the likes of Mary McCarthy and Alfred Kazin; review essays on Kurt Vonnegut, James Baldwin, James Branch Cabell, and so on; polemical interventions in critical and curricular debates; and a few politically tinged pieces on Vietnam and Iwo Jima. But many of the pieces are of dubious distinction. Some are nugatory journalistic assignments, others hail from the academic outbacks of superspecialized journals and conference proceedings. The collection is not without the occasional gem, particularly Fielder?s 1950 Kenyon Review essay titled “Toward an Amateur Criticism,” which argues forcefully against the professionalization of literary discovery and the mandarinate of the then-regnant New Criticism. (“It is?testimony, testimony to the possibility of literature being assimilated to the experience of the individual in richness and joy, that is vital in our time, not another reassurance that the parts and wholes of individual works cohere, or that the meanings of a single work are multiple and even inexhaustible.”) Ultimately he points to his interest in myth as the best tool for examining literature, for with myth, “the critic finds it possible to speak of the profound interconnections of the art work and other areas of human experience, without translating the work of art into unsatisfactory equivalents of ‘ideas’ or ‘tendencies.’ ” If “Toward an Amateur Criticism” is an important work within the history of American letters and one worth revisiting, it?s telling that the editor, the deep-digging Samuele F. S. Pardini, chose to include “Come Back to the Raft” in The Devil Gets His Due as the sole essay that hadn?t been previously unpublished, as if he needed it as an anchor to so many second-rate pieces of writing.

The Devil Gets His Due suffers too from its lack of editorial apparatus. The 42 pieces included would have benefited greatly from more annotation. It?s often difficult to know whether a text was assembled for the MLA or the Missoula Kiwanis Club. Because the essays are arranged by theme rather than chronology, there is a jarring tendency to jump from a piece railing against PTA censorship penned in the 1980s to a polemic written for The New Republic in the early 1950s. What?s worse, in some of the shorter book reviews that are included, it?s not even clear until well into the essay what volume is under consideration (see Fiedler?s review of Kazin?s A Walker in the City for a particularly poor example). Much of the material is highly redundant; I doubt even Mrs. Cooper wanted to hear as much about James Fennimore as is present here. For a lesson in how even a rhetoritician as talented as Fiedler can lean on a catchphrase, The Devil Gets His Due is a great place to look. I found at least five instances of Dr. Johnson?s quasi-sylleptic phrase praising the classics (that they “pleased many, and pleased long”) before I stopped counting.

If this sounds churlish, it may be that Fiedler?s work feels much more dated than one might expect when The Devil Gets His Due is cracked open. Some of his best insights, particularly on homoeroticism and on the centrality of the Jewish writer in the 20th century, have been fully digested by the academy and the critical establishment. The alacrity that animated Fiedler?s writing of the 1950s, particularly the promise of reconnecting literature with the tacit unconscious myths of the collective readership, is simply hard to resummon over the course of the book. (It?s tempting, given some of his more intemperate attempts at off-color impiousness, to think him a literary Jackie Mason, but Jackie Mason?s material is fresher.) I wish this collection were more rigorous. Fiedler wrote in an essay from 1957 (reprinted here) ?The young, who should be fatuously but profitably attacking us, instead discreetly expand, analyze, and dissect us. How dull they are!? Pardini may have unconsciously taken this to heart.