Lettuce and Tomatoes

A Piece of Lettuce: Personal Essays on Books, Beliefs, American Places, and Growing Up in a Strange Country

by George P. Elliott
Random House, 370 pp., $4.95

Waiting for the End

by Leslie A. Fielder
Stein & Day, 256 pp., $5.95

These two new works of criticism, dealing mainly with the American literary experience, make a startling contrast. Elliott, who has published fiction and poetry, is not a professional critic, but in so far as he ventures into criticism (mixing it, in some parts of his book, with personal reminiscences and asides that are much to the point), his writing is sensible, modest, pertinent, and for the most part reliable in judgment. He does have something definite to say on every subject he tackles—whether it be Raymond Chandler or Ezra Pound, George Orwell, or Henry Miller—and he says it as plainly as he knows how; and where one cannot agree with him the grounds of disagreement are clear, as in the essay on Dante in which the critical argument is weakened by pledges of faith too tenuous to be redeemed and gratuitous besides. He is remarkable, however, among latter-day literary men, for affecting few mannerisms and refraining altogether from straining for that facile and fashionable brilliance of phrase and reference to which we have recently become, if not accustomed exactly, then surely indurated. Elliott is still old-fashioned enough to be concerned with the sensibility of the common reader and with the virtues of plain prose. Quite alien to him is the ambition to dazzle with an impression of virtuosity, an impression more often than not deceptive because so largely derived from the kind of manic verbalization nowadays widely confused with excellence of style.

Fielder, on the other hand, is nothing if not brilliant, even at the cost of adopting postures that betray and attitudes that pall. His enormous knowingness about literature and patent intelligence are laid waste, it seems to me, by the stance to which he has of late given himself. His prose, in which the phrase now invariably goes beyond the content, is more vehement than virulent, needlessly vehement at times because excessive to the subject, and better adapted to the sheer display of superficially “daring” notions than to any true commitment to ideas or rigorous concern with them. Again, in this latest book, he is long on generalizations, most of them dubious in the extreme, and short on evidence. Once more we are belabored with the race-sex thesis (“the dream of a great love between white and colored men”), which is tied in with the contention that repressed and/or sublimated homosexuality is the inner secret of the American novel. Such notions are too prankishly childish to be worth serious examination. Fiedler has merely added a literary gloss and a homosexual twist to what are in essence the stereotypes of the popular folklore of the menace of miscegenation. No wonder his pages teem with terms like “stereotype” and “counter-stereotype,” not to mention “myth” and “archetype,” of which he never tires. (When his essay “Come Back to the Raft Ag’in, Huck Honey,” since become notorious, was printed in Partisan Review some fifteen years ago, the editors of that magazine thought of it as a talented young …

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