Review – Fiedler, “Love and Death in the American Novel”

Leslie Fiedler, “Love and Death in the American Novel” (1960) – This book is rich and filling like a big old German cake. I knew a little about what it said — among other things, had seen Meadow Soprano argue about Fiedler’s read of “Billy Budd” with her mother — but had no idea it would be so wide-ranging and ambitious, or that it would toss off huge statements with a devil-may-care bravado you seldom see in the academy these days (and when you do, it’s by hacks who can’t carry it off). In no wise did I agree with all of Fiedler’s points here, or even his main point, to the extent my historian, no-lit-classes-taking ass can have an opinion. But I was along for the ride, all six hundred pages, and exhilarated throughout.

Fiedler stormed out of Montana State University with a capital-T Thesis! American novelists, high and low, display profound discomfort with love (especially sexually active love between a man and a woman) and seem to much prefer death as a consummation than orgasm in the conventional sense. To make this point, Fiedler writes a history of the novel, its history in English (comparing it to French and German contemporaries), and the American novel, all to end with a chapter apiece on “The Scarlet Letter,” “Moby Dick,” and “Huckleberry Finn,” read in the light of the history and theory he spins out.

My understanding from the cheap seats is that the historiography of the novel and of literature more generally has “moved on” some since 1960, but Fiedler’s points are still compelling, if not always entirely convincing. The English language novel as we know it, Fiedler argues, began with sentimental novels of seduction, ala Samuel Richardson, who wrote “Pamela” (seduction rebuffed, yay!) and “Clarissa” (seduction accepted, oh no!) in the eighteenth century to massive readership and acclaim. More than a literary trend, these books instantiated the Sentimental Love Religion, which fused post-Puritan Protestantism to bourgeois habitus to conflate the Pure White Virgin with Christ and marriage with salvation. Among other things, this represented a break with the aristocratic tale of seduction popular in Southern Europe, ala Don Juan, where seduction was what aristocratic men did to prove their virility and their defiance of convention. Later novels in the grand European tradition might kick against “Richardsonism” and flirt with other models of what love and life should look like, but most often take the drama of the bourgeois family — courtship, adultery, etc — as the basis of the novel of psychological depth.

Despite the huge popularity of sentimental novels in America, Fiedler sees our literature — from the eighteenth century to the time of his writing — as incapable of following the European tradition of relationship-based novels of psychological depth. Both our “great tradition” and our popular novels seem to stream around… what, exactly? Here, Fiedler’s Freudianism comes into play. He does that weird thing you see with midcentury left-liberals (many of the better ones, I’d argue) where he is definitely guilty of “normativity” — of seeing a “genitally mature” relationship between one man and one woman as the standard — while also clearly not having an issue with deviance, seeing it as the spice of life in many ways. We don’t really accept that position now- is that a mistake? Especially given the ways our culture has proven capable of “normalizing” and thereby defanging, banalizing, many forms of difference? Who’s to say? In any event, when Fiedler talks about avoiding love, he means love in a Freudian sense. That’s not great, I grant, but I would say, in Fiedler’s defense, that the American writers he cites can’t talk about any other kind of love — directly — the way Flaubert or Lawrence could write about heterosexual love due to societal constrictions. He doesn’t rule out the possibility that you could write a great novel about queer love- it just wouldn’t, and by his time hadn’t, fit into “the tradition.”

Anyway- subliterature, in Fiedler’s take, avoids Big Love because it just repeats cliches, Richardson without the stakes (Fiedler goes to bat for Richardson and his seldom-read-these-days novels — they’re huge, corny, and weirdly indirect — with a touching fervor). But capital-L big time literature seemingly can’t take relationships with women seriously, either. Men wrote the vast majority of the American novels Fiedler discusses as real art (interestingly, he includes Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” on that list, which a lot of critics wouldn’t- more on Fiedler and sentimentality anon), the usual suspects more or less: Melville, Hawthorne, Twain, James, Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, with visitations from Poe (despite Poe never having finished writing a novel), Dreiser and Howells representing American “realism,” and some then-new writers like Saul Bellow. And none of them — not one — can relate to women (how’s that for a listicle!) or convincingly depict passion between men and women in a convincing, psychologically complex way. Even in stories of adultery (“The Scarlet Letter”) or longing (“The Great Gatsby”) love is never the subject: death, or escape, is.

In many respects, escape is more the subject than death, here, maybe because it’s generally more interesting. The closest thing to an ultimate theme to American literature, Fiedler declares, is escape from domesticity (represented as feminine) into the frontier or, anyway, just generally away. Even when writers clearly thought domesticity was a good thing, their subconscious (there’s that psychoanalysis again!) told on them, none more clearly than James Fenimore Cooper, cozened landowning fuddy-duddy in life and fantasist of western escape in writing. Fielder seems to sympathize- domesticity can, indeed, be a drag, especially if you don’t “swing that way” (as Melville, Whitman, and others assuredly didn’t). But these novels can’t attack domesticity directly (to the extent American literature can, it’s in various “gothic” traditions of horror and pornography). So you get this weird, occluded literature, that almost generates more power by not saying what it means to say than it could by just being like “yo, all these petticoats and all this elaborate furniture kills my vibe, fucking off with my dudes to kill whales, PEACE” directly, than it might otherwise.

You can argue that it both all fell apart, and continued on apace, after Fiedler published this in 1960. Did we ever get that great American bourgeois love novel? It seems guys like Jonathan Franzen and Jeffrey Eugenides have tried. I despise the former and dislike the latter but I probably am looking for other things in literature anyway (more on this below). As for great work coming out of men going their own way… well, the phrase and it’s contemporary connotations says it all, doesn’t it? Do you figure Norman Mailer read Fiedler? Or Bukowski? My understanding is that this book made the rounds outside the academy. Did this inspire every midcentury dude writer to lamp out for the territories, and hate women, in ways much more intentional and affected than Melville and Twain? I don’t know, but I know that shit doesn’t play like it used to.

One question I had was, how much does Fiedler believe that the Freudian version of heterosexual love is THE major topic for “great” novels, and how much was he questioning why a tradition didn’t get translated to the American context? Clearly, he thinks pretty highly of American literature even as he presents it as weird, illuminating little-known corners like the works of George Lippard and Charles Brockden Brown for our weird literary roots. He was also an early “serious” critic to take scifi seriously, though I disagree with some of the points he makes about it here. He’s not a traditionalist. But he does seem to take this Freud stuff seriously enough to think that without Freudian normativity, something is missing. What would his critiques look like if he had the depth of vision and bravado Freudian surety lent him, but without the normative baggage?

This book provoked a lot of thoughts in me. Like I said, Fiedler spun off systems of classification and analyses of complex works like it was nothing. I especially liked his take on Hawthorne and Melville (arguably maybe Twain too) as “Satanic,” “Faustian” writers, not so much rebuking the Sentimental Love Religion in any direct way (you know how those midcentury critics feel about didacticism… or anyway, anyone other than themselves being didactic) but through presenting a world where the characters make the choice to defy salvation and heavenly (whether understood as God’s heaven or that of sentimental domestic writers) order to follow a way and pursue knowledge. Especially given how many shitty edgelords I have to read who fancy themselves “Faustian” (and also somehow “natural,” as though that makes sense), seeing the real deal is inspiring.

There’s also the issue of sentimentality, which I’ve been thinking a lot about lately. Untrained critic that I am, I usually use Oscar Wilde’s definition of sentimentality: the desire to have a feeling without paying for it. Fiedler, and I’m guessing a lot of other critics, use it differently- something like “intentionally provoking and cultivating sentiment, that is, more-or-less officially-approved feeling. So back in the day, a sentimental novel could encourage various feelings like empathy for the heroine, sadness, even anger at the bad guys, but not, say, horniness, or even much in the way of laughter. It could be a useful definition for interrogating what feelings are permissible in polite society and what aren’t. I still think my use (and Wilde’s) is important, but I might rethink some critical projects involving sentimentality that I’ve had in mind.

A somewhat related point: Fiedler kind of leans on the term “gothic” a lot. Gothic is in many ways the opposite of sentimental, in his system. Gothic involved officially-unapproved-of feelings like terror and murderous rage. The sentimental novel traditionally probed the psychology of its characters in an attempt to illuminate (one reason why “subliterary” pre-romance fiction doesn’t count according to Fiedler), whereas Gothic shrouds things in mystery. Fair enough. I think Fiedler stumbles some when he insists that pretty much all American genre fiction, including scifi and crime, is Gothic. Comes from Gothic, in some genealogical sense, I could buy. But I actually think one of the strengths of much of genre fiction is precisely that it runs orthogonal, not (always) directly opposed to the systems of emotional classification (and regulation) that backstops much of literary fiction. It has its own concerns- sometimes concerns as deep and esoteric as any literature “bringing the torch to the back of the cave,” sometimes geeking out over spaceships and guns, sometimes both! I’m curious to read some of Fiedler’s later scifi criticism to see what he says.

Quibbles, even fundamental disagreements, didn’t stop me from loving this book, if anything they added to the experience. I hope to write something like it someday, if I can ever conjure the time and the focus and if they let me. I’m not sure who all among my readership would enjoy this as much as I have, but if you think it might be you, give it a look. *****

Review – Fiedler, “Love and Death in the American Novel”

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