An edition of "Politically Incorrect" on the Comedy Central network. Leslie Fiedler's name comes up in some context or other. Someone asks, "Who's Leslie Fiedler?" Says Bill Maher, the grinning moderator, by way of explanation: "A famous film critic."
"Leslie Fiedler? I don't know where her office is. She's in the English department, so I think that her office is downstairs." -- Said by a young woman who was, in fact, only two doors away from Fiedler's office in Samuel Langhorne Clemens Hall on the North Campus of the University at Buffalo.
Leslie Fiedler explodes in laughter when told the latest bit of befuddlement about his identity. "The name is a problem for me," he admits with the highest humor. "I constantly get letters addressed to Ms. Leslie Fiedler. I always write back that I prefer to be called 'Mrs.' "
Actually, it shouldn't be hard for anyone to find him. All you have to do is take a deep whiff through your nose in Clemens Hall and follow the aroma of cigar smoke.
If his reputation in certain cable TV quarters is just as pronounced but weirdly indefinable, it's because the very idea of a famous literary critic, poet and short story writer is as distant and rarefied to most tastes as the finest Havana panatela. And yet you could well argue that in the past four decades the most important resident of the City of Buffalo -- certainly the greatest man on our section of Lake Erie's shores -- has been Leslie Fiedler.
Jack Kemp may have graduated to supply-side evangelism and a vice presidential campaign, O.J. Simpson may have starred in the most famous murder trial in American history, and the late composer Morton Feldman -- who taught at UB in his final years -- may, in his esoteric world, have classical music's wildly burgeoning reputation of the moment. But Fiedler is one of the most important figures in the history of American cultural thought in this century.
Not only is there likely never to be a time when his work won't come up in the study of American literature -- whether in Omaha or Osaka -- but his ideas and concerns have become common currency among people who haven't the foggiest notion where they came from.
Still, wherever there are people who perceive a homoerotic element in bedrock American machismo or an interracial dependence as the classic American bond or who think of "high" and "low" culture as being a continuum rather than a quasi-biblical battle on a white-sand desert, they are in Fiedler country. Wherever those on the social margins are revered as the "secret selves" of everyone nestled comfortably in the center, advanced Fiedler is being spoken.
To anyone who cares even glancingly about America as a subject, Leslie Fiedler -- cultural explorer and intuitionist -- is contestably there, a one-man Lewis and Clark in our intellectual history.
He'll freely admit that, among others, he drew heartily from D.H. Lawrence's remarkable "Studies in Classic American Literature." And it isn't hard to locate De Tocqueville's idea of the "tyranny of the majority" somewhere in the shadows of "The Tyranny of the Normal," the title of his fine new collection of essays on "bioethics, theology and myth" (Godine, 155 pages, $22.95). But they are merely among the intellectual suppliers of Fiedler's six decades of cultural expeditions. They gave him the picks and shovels and pack mules,
but he found ways through the wilderness himself.
His has been a fabulous life, by any reckoning. You can't talk to him without mind-boggling stories tumbling forth -- the Battle of Iwo Jima, traveling to Toronto with O.J. Simpson and Allen Ginsberg to catch Bob Dylan, and chatting about Marilyn Monroe with John Huston in Ireland (more on this below).
And yet it is almost impossible for his own colleagues -- and those of his wife, well-regarded poet and beloved local teacher Sally Fiedler -- to deal with the true size of his life and achievement on a daily basis.
See him from a little bit of a distance, though, and Leslie Fiedler is very special indeed. The Samuel Langhorne Clemens professor of English at UB has been a great man in our midst -- a fact so many were reminded of with horror and sadness when a fire gutted his house and library last year. Nor was his stay in Buffalo easy before that. His egregious pot bust and trial in the late '60s made him a cause celebre with a youthful generation and became the center of his book "Being Busted," an endemic chronicle of a seminal time.
He will be 80 in March. He has battled Parkinson's and prostate cancer to a truce that requires constant pharmacological monitoring. He can joke easily about the inevitability of a world someday without Leslie Fiedler in it. His voice may no longer have the vigor of bygone years, but his acuity seems undiminished. And friends report that he has been working hard of late -- writing all manner of things at a card table.
The publication of his new book was, frankly, a pretext for the following conversation with a longtime friendly acquaintance and admirer of Fiedler's (whose devotion to his work precedes, by a few years, Fiedler's arrival in Buffalo in 1964).
Q: When I heard about the things that had been lost in the fire, Sally mentioned to me a John Huston caricature of you. How did that come about?
A: We had a friend in common, a woman who was an editor at Esquire magazine. She wrote me a letter of introduction to him. When I was in Ireland one time, I went to see him. We spent a couple of days talking -- mostly about Marilyn (Monroe), who was just dead. He was very strange on that subject. If she had done something socially useful, he said, she would still be alive. He didn't know what to do with me, of course. He didn't know whether I was a fan or a reporter or so forth. When he discovered that we had one thing in common -- cigars -- we sat and smoked together, and actually he drew that picture on the liner from a cigar box. That was finally rescued, fortunately.
He was a good artist. He was a painter. Most of his paintings were of his daughter (actress Anjelica Huston). The second time I met him, I and my oldest daughter, Debbie, had coffee with him and his daughter. This was in Paris, where we saw her first film ("A Walk With Love and Death"), which was so terrible that I predicted this woman will never be an actress. (Laughs.)
Q: It almost seems now that some of the subjects in the book picked you.
A: That's the thing that happens. I don't know whether it's true with all writers, it's certainly happened to me as I grow older. I don't make any decisions anymore about what to write. I always wait for someone to ask me a question. Or drop a hint. Also, there are some subjects that sneak into the interstices of my life. For instance, I find myself writing, for reasons I don't entirely understand, what promises to be a very long essay on minstrel shows. I spoke before a group of conservative black writers in California not so long ago. Very strange audience. A lot of them very strong Christians -- and every one of them equipped with a white wife. I guess the essay is a spinoff of that.
(When told that Louis Armstrong had once been photographed in blackface during Mardi Gras in New Orleans:) The strangest blackface story that I know -- which is something I know from doing this -- is that at the worst point of Mark Twain's life, when everything was falling apart financially, he went into his room and disappeared. And when he came out, he was in blackface. He said it made him feel better.
Q: The two essays in the book about Eros and old age got me thinking about the current climate for old age in America. It seems to me that because TV's advertisers demand an 18-to-49 audience, old age has never seemed in lower estate than it does now. The idea that old age presumes wisdom seems in some danger of disappearing altogether.
A: That's true in large part, but not completely. Even thinking in terms of television programs, there are images of old age which are meant to attract an old-age audience, like "Murder, She Wrote" and the Dick Van Dyke show ("Diagnosis Murder").
Q: The "tyranny of the normal" seems to extend very far these days. There's a lot. Because of the entertainment business being so powerful and so rich and so big, it defines what's normal fairly narrowly. Old age, for instance, is generally not considered normal on TV.
A: It's true. You know, I watch soap operas a lot. Old age has a funny status on those things. It's required on a couple of programs to have a couple of oldsters, but they're never central. They're always being shifted offscreen. The whole idea of normal is something which has obsessed me for a long time, especially since I wrote "Freaks."
There's a counterimpulse which is appearing here and there on the margins of society to attack the idea of the normal, to undercut that kind of tyranny and subvert it.
Q: Could you foresee that counterinfluence ever becoming stronger -- or just remaining outside, on the margins?
A: I don't know. I hope it gets stronger. (Smiles.) If it does, I'll live out my full 120 years. It will be worth it. In the back of my head, you know, I still think of old age as being something other than myself. The notion that my next birthday is going to be my 80th birthday is something I don't know how to deal with.
Q: You're a major international figure in the understanding and legitimation of pop culture. Given what so many people see about TV and entertainment values subsuming so much of current America -- things that weren't subsumed by TV and entertainment values before -- have you had second thoughts about pop culture?
A: I have second thoughts about everything. I have second thoughts at the same moment I have first thoughts. You know, one of the things I keep telling my kids from time to time -- half-seriously and half in jest -- is what I want inscribed on my tombstone: "Nothing if not ambivalent." I have someplace a profound distrust of popular culture -- indeed, of all culture. One of the things I appreciate in popular culture is the way it undercuts high culture. One of the things I like about high culture is the way it challenges pop culture.
I've been writing a lot about Mark Twain, whom I come back to all the time. That confrontation is summed up by his quotation on Jane Austen, which is one of my favorites: "It's a pity they allowed her to die a natural death."
Q: Why are you ambivalent about all culture, high and low?
A: (Long, thoughtful pause. Then the phone, with perfect timing, rings with a problem from home.) For many people, culture becomes an escape from or a substitute for what I think of as the primary living process. Culture, especially high culture, is surrounded by culture vultures -- what we called on Walkout Terrace, where I lived when I was a kid, "art farts." As I grew up, there were two things I wanted to be -- one, God willing, an artist. And never, God willing, an art fart. I wanted to make art and despise most of the people who thought they loved it. That's sort of the heart of all that ambivalence that I talked about.
Q: In the book, you talk ever so briefly about doing the talk show tour for "Freaks." I may have misapprehended this, but looking at your career from the outside it seems to have been the last time you did such a public thing. It almost seemed as if, because of disillusionment with publicity, you found after that renewed pleasure in being a teacher.
A: That makes it sound as if I once lost my initial commitment to teaching. But I'm a teacher first of all. I've had two bouts with TV in my life. Back in the '60s, I did a lot of it, too -- mostly on "The Merv Griffin Show."
I don't think there's a complete disjunction between the two, because one of the primary functions of being a teacher is to be an entertainer. One of the things I'm proudest of is that I'm listed in "Who's Who in Entertainment." One of the first things I learned as a teacher -- and it was very hard for me -- was that what was demanded of a teacher most of all was to keep the students amused and therefore awake and therefore open. The thing that finally bugged me is that as an entertainer I got stuck playing one part, that of the professor.
I like being a teacher. I believe I'm misrepresented by being a professor.
Q: How are you best represented, then?
A: My basic image of myself goes back to my first teaching experience, which is on a soapbox on a street corner. I think of myself as a speaker, an orator. I like that very much. I remember reading one day a quotation from Lenin, who was asked what the first duty of the revolutionary was. He said, "Patiently to explain." That's also the first and last duty of the teacher.
Q: As you know, I've wanted for years to get you to talk a little more specifically about television. What do you watch? We know about the soaps. What else specifically?
A: My tastes change from time to time. One of the things that intrigues me most of all are those British detective flicks on A & E. They're very good indeed. They amuse me a lot. I have a tough time with sitcoms, though "Seinfeld" I can still do. What I like about it is one of the things I gather you don't like very much, which is its total cynicism. When I feel that all of my life is meaningless and am inclined to weep about it, I discover it can be laughed at, too. Whatever it is, it's done well. Then there are things I watch nostalgically, like "Murder, She Wrote." I feel as if she and I have grown old together.
Q: "NYPD Blue"?
A: Yeah. I like it quite a bit.
Q: How about "ER" and "Homicide"?
A: Yeah, I watch those, too. I like "ER" and hate "Chicago Hope." On "Homicide," those are some extraordinary actors. I love actors. When I started out in life, acting was one of the possibilities for me. I appeared in a lot of plays. I like to see things well-done in the theater -- when somebody is right there because he's supposed to be there and not just because he stumbled there. It's like watching a well-played football game -- which I also like to do.
Q: On a huge scale, it always seemed to me that the O.J. Simpson trial is a Fiedlerian subject, a sort of powerful display of national ambivalences about race and sex and violence and all kinds of things. Did you follow it at all?
A: Yeah, I did. I followed it for a while. And then it got boring. I thought it was going to end with him confessing, because I don't have the slightest doubt he was guilty. I think it's palpably clear.
I knew him a little. We had a strange and wonderful experience together. When Bob Dylan was doing his Rolling Thunder tour, Allen Ginsberg came through town and said: "I'm taking a couple of people from Buffalo to see it when it's in Toronto. O.J. Simpson is coming. You want to come, too?" So this strange crew went up -- Ginsberg, O.J. and I. And we saw little Bobby Zimmerman; I had seen him when he was little Bobby Zimmerman in Minneapolis. One of my sons was going to school there at the time.
O.J. is an absolutely charming person. He comes on absolutely winningly.
But then, it's very hard for me to watch courtroom scenes because of my own experience. It doesn't surprise me to know that what goes on in courtrooms is not the process of finding out the truth. It's kind of a contest between lawyers to see who can get away with more. Everything in (my legal troubles) came out OK. It now seems high comedy. Judge Buswell Roberts, for instance, (who tried Fiedler), lived to repent. He actually has apologized.
Q: I remember Hugh Kenner's review of "What Was Literature." His contention was that one way or another you were a literary and cultural thinker in geographic exile. An eccentric provincial. Montana, Buffalo, whatever.
A: Newark, N.J., to begin with.
Q: Would you have been a different critic if you had taught at Harvard for the past 30 years?
A: I suppose so. I did finally spend a couple of years teaching at Harvard. I did become a fellow of Calhoun College at Yale. I did teach for a year at Princeton. I taught at the Sorbonne. But it's been very good for me that my home was away from these cultural centers.
I learned a lot -- especially in Montana. It turned me into a populist. When I went to Montana, there was scarcely anybody there I could talk to about the books I was currently reading or the books out of the past that I most loved or the ideas that seemed closest to me or the political experiences I had. I had to learn to talk to people about heating problems and kid problems and so forth.
Montana, as everybody comes to know, is, underneath it all, delightfully mad. It's a strange kind of state which has no middle. It has a strong right wing, a strong left wing, a strong working class, a strong owning class and very little middle class as a buffer in between.
The space of it blew my mind, too. I came from New Jersey, where everything is so constricted. And I discovered that you went to dinner at a place 125 miles away, and because there's no speed limit, it took no time to get there. There's all that space -- and no time. People never hit the ground there. They went from their horse to their automobile to their airplane. Nobody walked there. You can't walk in cowboy boots.
Q: Have you taken anything from this city? Or have you merely lived here for the past 30 years?
A: This city was like going home to me. It's a working-class, blue-collar, ethnically divided city, much like Newark. I felt at home. In Montana, I was learning but I was always somehow an alien still. I fell in love with Buffalo in a strange kind of way. I don't know how to justify that feeling to anybody. My family does have old connections here. My grandfather worked here in factories in 1904 and 1905. My mother went to school here as a little girl. One of my aunts was born here.
I've had troubles with class all my life. Both my grandparents were working men. I'm the first member of my family to go to a university. In some ways, I feel de-classed. Un-classed sometimes. I can't really re-establish my working-class roots. I never feel at home when I go to sherry parties with the upper classes of Buffalo. I guess I was always a secret populist. Buffalo also makes it possible to be a populist. This is a beautiful city in its own way.
Q: You're a revered and beloved figure in a lot of ways -- by readers, ex-students, other writers, Buffalonians. There's no doubt that your life, despite all your problems now, looks like a lot of struggle and then a lot of triumph. And yet it seems very important to you to continue thinking of yourself in a struggle. Why is that?
A: I don't know. If I could answer that question, I could write the book I've wanted to write for 10 or 15 years, which is my autobiography. I suppose in the very beginning of my life I felt very much an outsider -- the first time I was in school, I went to a school where my brother and I were the only Jews in the entire school. The great division in that school was between the Protestants and the Catholics. Often they had fights in the schoolyard.
One day when they were lining up for one of their struggles, they came around to me: "Which are you?" I explained I was neither, a Jew. They joined together, and the ecumenical movement was invented as they chased me all the way home, screaming, "You killed our Christ." My first sense of my identity was as a lonely outsider.
The second thing is much deeper and harder to deal with. I come from a very physically vain family where I was always considered the ugly duckling. My grandmother told horror stories about when I was a kid and she would wheel me down the street, she would keep the lid of the carriage down so the neighbors wouldn't look at me and say what a monster I was.
So having defined myself that way, I find if I join the majority or even if the majority joins me, I'm betraying my essential identity. Fortunately, there's always something that reminds me how perilous and temporary any kind of success is -- the latest being the fire.
I like being accepted and admired. It's just that I feel guilty about it. On the other hand, I guess I like feeling guilty.