Literary Critics at War: On Irving Howe’s Takedown of Leslie Fiedler


A.O. Scott’s New York Times Magazine article on the current state of American culture (as evidenced by film and TV), “The Death of Adulthood in American Culture” has been widely circulated and discussed.   In the article, he laments that America is devolving and entering into a state of “perpetual adolescence.” It has yet to go through adulthood and the reason for this is to be found deep in the roots of American culture. Its history and novels show it to be a culture that was born out of resistance and a desire to leave civilization behind. It is also caught up in a kind of innocence. For this reason, it is more interested in “good bad boys” like Huck Finn than in tragic characters that we find in the pages of many European novels. The intellectual underpinning of his article – and these above mentioned claims – is Leslie Fiedler. His book Love and Death in the American Novel, is cited throughout Scott’s article.   Like Fiedler, Scott thinks American literature and film, to date, are “sophomoric.” American culture needs to go through “adulthood” if it is to be more mature; but, laments Scott, this may be too late. Since there is a crisis in authority that has been caused by the end of patriarachy that we see in many TV shows and films (where the father or male figure is debunked), the result is: more films by Judd Apatow, Seth Rogen, and Ben Stiller, the enormous popularity of books that become films like Harry Potter, etc., and a growing readership between the ages of 30 and 45.

Like many readers of Scott’s article, I was troubled and wondered if his claims were valid. Looking into the issue, I came across a review of Fiedler’s book by one of the most celebrated American literary critics of the 20th century, Irving Howe. To be sure, Howe is incredibly harsh.   And his reading suggests that Feidler is, as he says, a “crank” and that his literary criticism must be exposed. His review, entitled “Literature on the Couch,” is one of the most intense takedowns of a literary critic I have ever read. It, in short, claims that Fiedler’s literary criticism is without conscience and fraudulent because it pretends to be all-knowing:

In American literary life, the crank is by now a familiar figure. He is a man who believes he has found a total and thereby solacing explanation for the chaos and multiplicity of existence…There has been a similar development in literary criticism….What can one say about such books except that they are sincere, often ingenious, and quite batty? (Irving Howe: Celebrations and Attacks, p.150)

The last part of the sentence sticks.   Howe’s review takes on a tone that speaks to his rhetorical question. Feidler, writes Howe, has “composed another of those fascinating catastrophes with our literary scholarship is strewn.   Love and Death in the American Novel seems to me destined to become a classic instance of sophisticated crankiness”(150).

Howe, like Scott, notes the main point Fiedler makes throughout his book on the American novel. “Most American fiction, suggests Fiedler,” does not, “allow a confrontation with the needs of maturity”(151). Even thought there “might be some truth in this,” says Howe, the Fiedler’s insistence overlooks so many facets of American fiction:

When pressed with Fiedler’s monomania, this approach requires us to ignore and – what is worse – to dissolve Melville’s feelings about American society, the metaphysical concerns he inherited from Calvinism, the quasi-anarchist revulsion from civilized life which dominates some of his books. (151).

Fiedler’s obsession with a psychological-archetypal reading troubles Howe, deeply:

What Fiedler discards meanwhile is awesome. Literature is removed from any fluid relation to the development of ideas; it becomes an eternally recurrent psychodrama, dissociated from history, in which bloodless and abstracted Presences (the Dark Lady, the Good Good Girl, Good Bad Girl, the Handsome Sailor, the Great Mother, the Avenging Seducer) monotonously rehearse a charade of frustration; it has nothing to do with, and does not even credit the reality of socio-economic problems…and its apparent concern with moral problems can usually be exposed as evasion or disguise. Like a mass-culture imitation of a psychoanalyst, Fiedler refuses on principle to honor the “surface” events, characters, statements, and meanings, of the novel. He will never allow himself to be deluded by what an author says, he invariably knows better. (152)

Howe, as one can see, has become sarcastic and vindictive toward Fiedler.   In Fiedler he sees the dangers of bringing in a psychological reading of literature to bear on a culture. The greatest danger of all is the threat it poses to the notion of the critic:

For him the manifest content of a work signifies only insofar as he can penetrate it, and the plunge into the depths of the latent content. Otherwise, he seems to feel, what use would there be for a critic? (152)

As we can see, Howe thinks of Fiedler as arrogant. Fiedler “speaks with the assurance of maturity” while authors like Twain and Hawthorne do not.   Moreover, Howe lists half a page of Fiedler’s statements and notes who all of them are “inaccurate, absurd, and sensational.” They have “little to do with literature and even less with that scrupulous loyalty to a work of art that is the critic’s primary obligation.” With these words, Howe makes it clear that he thinks that Fiedler is unethical; he is not longer “loyal” to the “primary obligation” of the critic.

But Howe ends his review essay with an even bigger claim against Fiedler. Not only has he betrayed the obligation of the critic, he has also revealed a serious character flaw!

Mr. Fiedler lacks the one gift – I think it is gift of character – which is essential to the critic: the willingness to subordinate his schemes and preconceptions of the actualities of a particular novel or poem. (154)

In Howe’s view, a critic must never bend a work to his “personal or ideological needs.” To do this is to lack a “conscience”(154).

Reading Howe’s trenchant criticism of Fiedler and his literary criticism, one wonders about the claims Scott makes in his essay, “The Death of Adulthood in American Culture.” Are these claims, in drawing mainly on Fiedler, to be read as a continuation of Fiedler’s monomania or are they to be read otherwise?   Is adulthood over in America and are we stuck in perpetual adolescence? Or is this scheme of maturity and immaturity yet another archetype?

In the wake of Howe’s reading of Fiedler, perhaps we need to rethink whether or not this is the right way to read not just American film but American literature as well.

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