A Piece of Lettuce: Personal Essays on Books, Beliefs, American Places, and Growing Up in a Strange Country
Waiting for the End
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 man’s jeu d’esprit, a spoof on academic solemnity, not at all as the weighty contribution to the understanding of American letters that Fielder, who is still pushing its proposition as hard as he can, apparently takes it to be.) Moreover, in this new book Fiedler’s tone is irritatingly jeering, even in discussing such superior literary artists as Faulkner and Hemingway; it is not exactly that he is tactless as that he is virtually allergic to tact. And in Waiting for the End he above all gives free rein to his worst impulse—that of shocking or scandalizing the reader and playing the enfant terrible at any price.
Yet in our present social and cultural stalemate he who plays the enfant terrible among us typically turns out to be no genuine rebel or heretic or prophet, even if he has the look of one; on the contrary, he is someone who characteristically expects to pay no penalty for his escapades but rather to be hugely rewarded for them. And with good reason too, for there is more diversion in him than dissidence, more impudence than courage. After all, if he violates or mocks national pieties, like sexual prohibitions and inhibitions, they are on the point of breakup anyhow. To be explicit about sex nowadays, even about its most scabrously technical detail, is like walking through an open door. When it comes, however, to orthodoxies still firmly held, as in the political sphere for instance, our enfant terrible either keeps mum or indulges in idle utopian fancies more amusing than threatening. Clearly, the stance of the bad boy has proved to be quite profitable of late, making for an easy climb to celebrity-status—that American sort of celebrity whom Daniel Boorstein has so aptly defined as a person known, not for any actual or lasting achievement, but primarily for his well-knownness. To judge by the welcoming and pleased reviews that Waiting for the End has received in some of our mass-circulation periodicals, Fiedler, if he fails to curb his appetite for histrionic blatancy of statement, will soon be officially certified by the publicity-media as the perennial bad boy of literary criticism.
The definition of avant-garde literature to which Fiedler has committed himself in a recent article is all too characteristic of him. “Highbrow or truly experimental art,” he tells us, “aims at insult; and the intent of its typical language is therefore exclusion. It recruits neither defenders of virtue nor opponents of sin; only shouts in the face of the world the simple slogan, épater les bourgeois, or ‘mock the middle classes,’ which is to say, mock most, if not quite all, its readers.” Now it is patently impossible to recognize such “highbrow or truly experimental” writers as, say, Proust, Gide, Sartre, Mann, Kafka, Joyce, Yeats, Eliot, and Stevens in this singular definition. Its emphasis is wholly on the writer’s putative attitude towards his prospective readers rather than towards himself. If the work of such literary artists is difficult and complex, it is surely because it reflects a highly intellectualized consciousness, the artist’s resolve not to simplify his imaginative experience and psychic obsessions, to remain true to the vision that compels him even in the teeth of convention and tradition. The specific Flaubertian hatred of the bourgeois is scarcely present in their books. Least of all are they willfully motivated by any such intent as excluding, or even merely provoking, the middle-class reader by means of the strategy of “insult.” Nothing can be more shallow than this bohemian theory of épatisme as the essence of avantegarde expression. Epatisme may well be Fiedler’s own stock-in-trade but it is largely foreign to the ethos of serious modern artists.
Moreover, the bourgeois of our time is no longer the solid citizen and respectable householder of Flaubert’s day. Having thrown over the moral code by which he was traditionally bound, he is now a nihilist like everyone else. Fiedler’s dream of the bourgeois as the ideal enemy is quite out of date, a mere memory of past literary wars; the bourgeois is not so easily frightened as in the past. A snob as well as a nihilist, he has ceased to be baffled or intimidated by culture, even culture of the more advanced sort that remains incomprehensible to him, for he has learned to deal in its prestige value as he deals in more material commodities. No longer deterred by considerations of piety or gentility, he wants his good time and enjoys even the new sexology that our “liberated” novels provide; the only thing that scares him is the possible loss of his economic and social privileges. On this score alone he is still adamant—adamant and dangerous. But it is precisely on this score that Fiedler makes not the least effort to challenge him.
In his essay, “Who Is We?” Elliott voices, not without humor and with a good deal of justice, a provincial’s protest against the presumptions of some of the New York literati, and among other things he has his mordant say about the role that Fiedler plays: “He has developed to perfection an ingroup tone which appeals very potently to outsiders who like the illusion of being let in. He is especially fond of telling his betters what their real (i.e., nastiest) motives are, and his attitude of superiority, often of indulgence, applies to everyone he discusses, even to those he is trying to praise…. He constantly finds archetypes and symbols where you least expect them: ‘the bum as American culture hero’; ‘the young Jew as writer and thinker is the very symbol of our urbanization (as also our ambivalent relationship to Europe, the atomization of our culture, and our joyful desperation).”’ Elliott is equally perceptive in nailing down Henry Miller and Norman Mailer as writers who have developed a kind of craft of self-promotion and have succeeded in converting themselves into their own scandal. This is a phenomenon symptomatic of our contemporary literature which Fiedler, unlike Elliott, is apparently more than willing to put up with.
For instance, he repeatedly makes his obeisances to the beats and hipsters, announcing the “triumphs of Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti” and assuring us that “willy-nilly the beats have triumphed in the academy too, and Whitman with them.” I have heard of the publicity triumphs of these two beat poets, of the former in particular, but that they have already, with so little effort and smaller accomplishment, triumphed in the academy is news to me. Fiedler is exceedingly literal-minded about the supposed Whitmanesque connection of the beats; in his view Ginsberg is no less than Whitman’s latest metamorphosis. But what does this connection finally consist of? There is of course Ginsberg’s long, loose and unmetered line, but apart from that the connection is flimsy indeed. As for his apostrophes cursing out America, so many American writers have gone in, positively or negatively, for such flights that it scarcely requires the enlistment of Whitman as the great exemplar. Nor is Fiedler more accurate in his notion of the influence of Burroughs, in whom he sees veritably the king of the beasts (or beats). “Any American abroad,” he writes without irony, “has come to expect to see the hordes of the new young descending on Athens or Paris or Florence or wherever, bearded and sandalled and carrying under their arms the holy books, Naked Lunch and The Soft Machine; and if they do not sing, ‘Burroughs is our leader, we will not be moved,’ they might just as well.” Such is the fantasy elaborated by our gullible critic in his perch at Montana State. No report that has ever reached me or any friend of mine has ever so much as alluded to these “hordes of the new young,” one and all devotees or hasidim of Burroughs. I would guess that Fiedler’s students in Montana have not in the slightest degree appreciated Naked Lunch (assuming, that is, that some of them read it), which is not the portentous anti-novel “exploding” the novel-form from within that Fiedler makes it out to be but truly a non-novel full of sadistic homosexual extravagance, a dream-sequence of gruesome and impossible pleasure, larded with plain, flat talk about narcotics. Nor have I ever heard my students, even the most self-consciously literary and bearded among them, express the enthusiastic rapport with Burroughs of which Fiedler brings us the glad tidings. The trouble with this critic, in my opinion, is that he has an excessively, even stiflingly, literary imagination. It is a morbid state of mind leading him to conceive of literature as always overpowering life. The actual is seldom real to him; its sole appeal is in its literary reflection. Hence it is no wonder that in his aberrant condition he is so obviously fascinated by the politics of literary careers and the public legends they give rise to. One has only to read him on the Hemingway legend to see that he can’t leave well enough alone.
It is primarily in connection with literature that ideas of race and ethnic origin seem to intrigue him, for he writes extensively about Negro and American-Jewish writers. In some few passages about the latter I seem to detect the tone of an informer to the goyim, and the less said about that the better. As for the Negro writers, his comment on Baldwin’s Another Country is that it “demonstrates that the hatred between black and white, only exacerbated by attempted inter-racial unions between men and women, can in fact be resolved in homosexual love.” Of course, “demonstrates” is about the worst possible word in this context, as no novel can ever be said really to demonstrate anything, least of all the kind of proposition that Fiedler professes to discover in Baldwin. I, for one, do not find this proposition either in The Fire Next Time or in Baldwin’s many other impassioned utterances on the race-issue. To be sure, there is a strong personal homosexual bias in Another Country, but it is no kindness to its author to interpret this bias in any sense as a programmatic statement. The attribution of it to Baldwin is rather to be explained by Fiedler’s persistent and futile effort to justify and confirm his early essay, “Come Back to the Raft Ag’in, Huck Honey!,” which is more like a burlesque account of Mark Twain’s novel than a serious examination of it. It is in Elliott’s book that I came upon an essay, “Wonder for Huckleberry Finn,” which I greatly admire. It is the best piece in the collection, I think, synthesizing with rare critical insight and revitalized interest the not inconsiderable studies of that novel which American scholarship and criticism have accumulated.