Promoting the Jew in American literature Leslie Fiedler delights in being the rude scholar

March 09, 1992|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Staff Writer

When Leslie Fiedler applied to graduate school in 1938, one teacher wrote this "recommendation":

"Mr. Fiedler is a very bright student, but he will never be a scholar and a gentleman."

"He was absolutely right," Mr. Fiedler says, laughing with glee, as he recalls the story. "I was never a scholar and certainly never will be a gentleman!"

But Leslie Fiedler certainly became a famous and provocative literary and cultural critic. Though he's best known for his early work on American literature, Mr. Fiedler -- who holds the Samuel L. Clemens Chair in English at the State University of New York at Buffalo -- was honored yesterday (on his 75th birthday) at Baltimore Hebrew University with the Maurice A. Stiller Prize, which is awarded annually to major figures in creative Jewish literature and scholarship.

His speech was called "The Image of the Jew in American Literature." Certainly, no one -- least of all the honoree himself -- would deny that if the Jew has played an important role in American literature, Mr. Fiedler played an important role in getting him there.

In the world of letters, it's almost impossible to exaggerate Mr. Fiedler's importance. His pioneering "Love and Death in the American Novel" (1960) helped make familiar the homo-erotic strains in American literature and opened the closet in which secrets of race and gender had been hidden.

At the height of the '60s, Mr. Fiedler was gassed in anti-Vietnam War demonstrations, and later arrested for marijuana possession at a Passover celebration in his own home. (His account of his trial and conviction, and its reversal on appeal, was the subject of "Being Busted," one of his 24 books.)

His fame and/or notoriety are such that he has been parodied, both by literary critics and by a pornographer in the novel "Sea of Thighs," in which Mr. Fiedler appears as a professor named Lusty Fiddler, who performs extraordinarily subtle cultural-anthropological analyses upon dirty limericks.

"Really?" Mr. Fiedler chortles. " 'Sea of Thighs' -- what a clever title. I'm really in it? Wonderful!"

Few people seem to enjoy being themselves as much as Leslie Fiedler. In his personal essays, he does not so much as drop names as drop his own. In parenthetical aside after aside, he helps himself to the credit for everything -- from establishing the critical reputations of such Jewish-American writers as Saul Bellow and Bernard Malamud and those of their goyish, post-modern successors such as John Hawkes and John Barth, to creating a place for pop culture in the modern university curriculum. In print, Mr. Fiedler can promote himself with an abrasive disdain for good manners that is decidedly ungentlemanly.

But in a conversation before his talk, Mr. Fiedler -- with his merry, blueberry eyes, patriarchal beard, glowing smile and equally glowing handmade Mexican cigar -- was generous, charming and non-acerbic. In fact, to use a metaphor from a tradition foreign to those of Baltimore Hebrew University, he seemed rather like Santa Claus. And the truth is that the gifts he has brought to both the general reading public and the literary academy are rich indeed.

In yesterday's talk, Mr. Fiedler addressed himself to what he perceives as the fact that only three "non-Wasp" groups have enjoyed mythic status in American literature -- American Indians, blacks and Jews -- and that it is the Jews that reached such status last.

Even Whitman, who witnessed the early large-scale migrations of Eastern European Jews to this country, never mentions them in 'Leaves of Grass,' " Mr. Fiedler said. "The Jews were almost invisible."

That changed, Mr. Fiedler added, with the revelations about the Holocaust that followed World War II and with the appearance of such writers as Bellow and Malamud. But Jewish establishment figures didn't always like the way Jewish-American themes were assimilated into the mainstream, he said.

"I can remember going to a production of Bellow's sole play, 'Final Analysis,' " he said. "A Jewish woman stood up in the middle of the first act, said, 'This is doing the Jews no good,' and walked out, almost knocking me over."

Mr. Fiedler is not particularly Jewish in a traditional sense. His two marriages have been to non-Jewish women. His children were raised in homes in which the Passover Seder often was celebrated after the Easter eggs had been painted, and in which Hanukkah candles were lighted next to the Christmas tree.

In one of his essays, a meditation on what he calls the "Two Holocausts," Mr. Fiedler refers to himself -- not entirely seriously but not entirely unseriously, either -- as "the Last Jew" in America.

"Like many other Jewish-Americans, I have become assimilated," he says. "But American culture has been Judaized. There's no one who doesn't know what 'maven' or 'chutzpah' means, and the cadences of Yiddish have spread all over America. We're the most Judaized nation on Earth -- much more so than Israel."

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