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High-minded lowdown

Leslie Fiedler wasn't afraid to meet pop culture on its own level. A new look at his essays proves the critic's prescience.

May 04, 2008|Scott Timberg | Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

In the long and often embarrassing history of intellectuals' attempts to grapple with pop culture, there are, at least, a few high points. One of them is the work of the late Leslie Fiedler, the garrulous and provocative critic of literature who could write equally well on Nathaniel Hawthorne and circus freaks.

While that kind of high-low mix-and-match has become commonplace, Fiedler's catholic tastes and wild-man writing style were first unleashed in the 1940s, when the genteel WASP tradition still reigned. In his 2003 Slate obituary of Fiedler, Sam Tanenhaus calls him "a master of the hectoring overstatement" whose writing "ridicules its own high-mindedness."

His influence shows up in unexpected places. David Ritz, the Los Angeles author of "Divided Soul: The Life of Marvin Gaye," considers Fiedler his mentor. "His prose style I found so muscular and bombastic and extravagant," said Ritz, who studied with him in the '60s. "As an essayist, he had a rhythm and a groove; he had a jazz-like prose that was always turning a corner and comparing crazy things together. And he had this great Norman Mailer charisma."

Though Fiedler has become unfashionable since his peak in the '60s and '70s, Counterpoint's recent publication of "The Devil Gets His Due: The Uncollected Essays of Leslie Fiedler," edited by Samuele F.S. Pardini, could introduce him to a new audience. It may be the right time too: To writer Camille Paglia, he was one of the three great thinkers, along with Marshall McLuhan and Norman O. Brown, who prepared America's midcentury culture for the wider and wilder world of cyberspace. He's credited, by the way, with being the first to use the term "postmodern."

"Fiedler created an American intellectual style that was truncated by the invasion of faddish French theory in the '70s and '80s," Paglia wrote in a blurb on the reissue of Fiedler's "Love and Death in the American Novel," from 1960. "Let's turn back to Fiedler and begin again."

Fiedler was from the beginning a maverick. He shared an early biography with many of the so-called New York Intellectuals, such as Lionel Trilling and Irving Kristol -- working-class Jewish upbringing in or around the city, in Fiedler's case mostly Newark, then New York University -- but he broke from that group's twin obsessions: leftist politics and high modernist literature. He avoided their dedication to anti-Stalinist socialism as completely as he did their later swing to neoconservatism. And his passion for literature was not for Proust-Joyce-Mann but for American novelists from Hawthorne to Bernard Malamud, of whom he was an important early champion.

Years before the ironic worship of kitsch came into vogue, he loved writing on "bad" authors, which is how he described James Fenimore Cooper: He became the most important interpreter of the "Last of the Mohicans" author whose books, set mostly in upstate New York, embodied what Fielder saw as the key to American fiction: The flight of men west, away from women and domesticity, and often (in one way or another) into each others' arms.

"American literature is distinguished by the number of dangerous and disturbing books in its canon," he once wrote, "and American scholarship by its ability to conceal this fact."

Unlike the rest of the Partisan Review gang, which circled Greenwich Village and City College of New York, Fiedler took off for the frontiers he'd been reading about: He became, intellectually and personally, a Westerner. His first berth was at University of Montana at Missoula, where he wrote much of his most important work over two decades.

"He was a pugnacious person who was determined to be at once the life of the party and never to be accepted," said Greil Marcus, who name-checked Fiedler in "Mystery Train," his groundbreaking 1975 study of rock music and American myth. "When you read Fiedler, if you have any germ of wanting to write, you have to wonder, 'Do I have the nerve to do this?' You're making criticism into a kind of public performance -- leaving yourself completely exposed."

Embracing the new

Before Fiedler, intellectuals mostly wrote about "mass culture" with a combination of anxiety, discomfort and condescension. To a thinker trained in formal criticism and high culture, the post- World War II period was bewildering: Mass literacy and affluence led to the explosion of youth fashion, comic books and magazines and, by the mid-'50s, rock 'n' roll.

The suspicious approach was best embodied by Theodor Adorno, the Frankfurt School philosopher who settled in Los Angeles during World War II. A new biography, "Theodor W. Adorno: One Last Genius" by Detlev Claussen, chronicles this co-founder of the notion of "the culture industry." Adorno could write stirringly on the late works of Beethoven or the dangers of rationalism but ham-handedly about popular forms. His essay on jazz is notoriously bad.

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