Monsters of virtue or bitchery (Leslie Fiedler)

There is a real sense in which our prose fiction is immediately distinguishable from that of Europe, though this is a fact that is difficult for Americans (oddly defensive and flustered in its presence) to confess. In this sense, our novels seem not primitive, perhaps, but innocent, unfallen in a disturbing way, almost juvenile. The great works of American fiction are notoriously at home in the children’s section of the library, their level of sentimentality precisely that of a pre-adolescent. This is part of what we mean when we talk about the incapacity of the American novelist to develop; in a compulsive way he returns to a limited world experience, usually associated with his childhood, writing the same book over and over again until he lapses into silence or self-parody.

Merely finding a language, learning to talk in a land where there are no conventions of conversation, no special class idioms and no dialogue between classes, no continuing literary language – this exhausts the American writer. He is forever beginning, saying for the first time (without real tradition there can never be a second time) what it is like to stand alone before nature, or in a city as appallingly lonely as any virgin forest. He faces, moreover, another problem, which has resulted in a failure of feeling and imagination perceptible at the heart of even our most notable works. Our great novelists, though experts on indignity and assault, on loneliness and terror, tend to avoid treating the passionate encounter of a man and woman, which we expect at the center of a novel. Indeed they rather shy away from permitting in there fictions the presence of any full-fledged, mature women, giving us instead monsters of virtue or bitchery, symbols of the rejection or fear of sexuality.

From the introduction to Leslie Fiedler’s Love and Death in the American Novel (1960).

6 thoughts on “Monsters of virtue or bitchery (Leslie Fiedler)”

  1. So would that mean that, according to Leslie Fielder, that great American novels like Moby-Dick, The Scarlet Letter, and Blood Meridian fit comfortably in the children’s section?

    If that’s his meaning, I strongly disagree.

    However, American literature does have its unique flair compared to European literature. That doesn’t make American literature better or worse

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    1. No, but I’ll delete it and you can repost if you like and then I’ll delete both of these. This was your original text:

      I think we need to have the whole introduction and probably the whole book, to answer your questions. I think the poster of the above except wanted to create a lively discussion of why American
      is

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  2. “Merely finding a language, learning to talk in a land where there are no conventions of conversation, no special class idioms and no dialogue between classes, no continuing literary language – this exhausts the American writer.”

    This reminds me of something Hugh Kenner wrote in The Homemade World; the excerpt in question can be read at:

    http://bigother.com/2013/06/12/hugh-kenner-hits-a-home-run/

    “Our great novelists, though experts on indignity and assault, on loneliness and terror, tend to avoid treating the passionate encounter of a man and woman, which we expect at the center of a novel.”

    Well, quite a narrow-minded view of the novel there, Leslie; I certainly don’t expect, nor demand, nor particularly need that in the center of a novel. I just stare at the pretty words.

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    1. I find Fiedler’s big critique of American lit compelling, if not thoroughly convincing—basically (and I’m oversimplifying, but…) he’s pointing out that the American lit canon rests on what he calls “boys’ books” — many of which he loves and admires. He points out again and again a tendency in American literature to “light out to the territory” (to steal from Huck Finn), away from domestic responsibility (think of Rip Van Winkle sleeping through the American Revolution, awakening blissfully to find his shrew-wife has passed away). I don’t agree that we should expect *anything* at the center of the novel—my allegiances tend to be aesthetic, I guess–but I think Fiedler’s analysis obtains. His essay on Huck Finn is famous and compact:

      http://isites.harvard.edu/fs/docs/icb.topic1177700.files/FiedlerHuckHoney.pdf

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      1. Sure, I understand he has to exaggerate a bit to make his point; he probably doesn’t believe novels should have centers either. I know Fiedler (besides his rant on the Rosenbergs) only from his other 1960 book, ‘No in Thunder,’ and if anything his main idea of literature is that it’s all about freedom.

        I’ll read that Huck essay; thanks.

        Liked by 1 person

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