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Love and Death in the American Novel.

I first read Love and Death in the American Novel shortly after it was published in 1960, when I was in my early twenties, and I remember it gratefully for its having unearthed certain deep feelings which I had thought too dark to be admitted into even the dimmest light. These isolating feelings I assumed no one else but I had ever had, but the book revealed them as having a historical and cultural context that made them, for the very fact that they isolated me so painfully, essentially American. The deep feelings had to do with sex and death, commingled in such a profound way that they had the force of one, overwhelming feeling.

I understood for the first time that if the body electric in Walt Whitman's poetry roused in me longings I could not give into because they were sexual, and sex, especially homosexual sex, was totally forbidden, then the love of death in his poetry moved my longing soul to swoon for something beyond sex that was at least as vast as death - which is one of the premises of Love and Death in the American Novel.

As it did for me, so, I'm sure, Fiedler's book did for many people of my generation whose most profound, inexplicable, and inexpressible feelings made them feel almost alone, but who realized that we all shared the sense of living with a secret for which the world, if it found out, would condemn us. This went not only for repressed homosexuals, but for everyone around the time who wanted to be free - free of sexual constraints, and free, too, of political constraints, free of constraints on imagination and creativity, and free, particularly, of racial prejudice. (Love and Death in the American Novel has a great deal to say about race in America.)

If you were a writer and wanted to be free to write openly about what had been previously hidden, Love and Death in the American Novel allowed you your desire. To read that an essential characteristic of American literature is an attempt "to carry the torch to the back of the cave" was to be given the freedom to go into the darkness of yourself, not just as a lonely individual, but as an American lonely individual. Of course, there was a danger in thinking that your search into your own darkness was justified by critical inquiry: you could simply be indulging yourself, a common American trait. But Love and Death in the American Novel did make it possible to see your penetrating more and more deeply into your own darkness as penetrating more and more deeply into America's darkness, so that you might be writing about yourself but in the full awareness of belonging to a country that was a country of darkness.

I would like to become even more personal, and hope I'm forgiven for doing so. I'd like to come back to what Love and Death in the American Novel did for me by freeing me to write about my own most secret feeling. It made me able to write about my attraction to, say, a college roommate - a homosexual attraction that was not entirely aware that it was homosexual, but, as Fiedler might write, "innocent" and idealized into a great romance of male friendship, into "the holy marriage of males." What had been for me a totally isolating feeling became, because of Fiedler's book, mainstream American - as did my accompanying sense that the love I felt for him could never really be fulfilled this side of death. Fiedler himself mentions "the homosexual's conviction of the impossibility of love," a conviction homosexuals, and especially repressed homosexuals, did have of themselves in the early '60s, but which Love and Death in the American Novel helped change.

The chapter that most centered my feelings was chapter eleven - the one Fiedler wrote in a footnote was the most notorious and the least understood of the book. It is part of a section called "Achievement and Frustration," and in it Fiedler looks closely at the relationship between Ishmael and Queequeg in Herman Melville's Moby Dick, starting with the night they spend sharing a bed in a crowded inn, Ishmael waking to find Queequeg's arm about him. Apprehensive about rereading the book after so many years - because what had almost forty years ago struck me with such daring freedom of expression might now seem dated compared to the present total freedom to write about sex in whatever way - it was chapter eleven I was most apprehensive about rereading, as though what had once seemed vividly original I might think of presently as, well, sophomoric.

In fact, there is, inevitably, a lot in the book that does appear dated. Fiedler was dealing with American culture just at the beginning of the revolutionary '60s, which could be seen to have expanded on his ideas with a self-consciousness illuminated by them, but which finally superseded them as much as they superseded themselves and became the '70s and '80s and '90s. In 1960, though they were to die shortly after, Hemingway and Faulkner were still alive, and dominated American literature with the extreme idiosyncrasies of their styles, idiosyncrasies that seem to have disappeared to a large extent from American prose style. At a time when James Baldwin, Philip Roth, and John Updike were just starting their careers, Marjorie Morningstar, by Herman Wouk, was the great best-seller, but this novel I should think very few people under forty remember. Though Fiedler did interpret popular novels and movies (Marjorie Morningstar was made into a big Hollywood film starring Natalie Wood) and television shows (Gunsmoke and Wyatt Earp) as derived from the great American myths, he nevertheless used the terms "low brow," "middle brow" and "high brow," with a marked admiration of the "high brow," in a way that would today, when such distinctions are seen to be a form of rigid class system, be considered incorrect. He writes of "the current image" of African-Americans as that of "Uncle Tom." And there are omissions of American writers that I was not aware of when I first read the book but am now, perhaps in part because of feminist studies, puzzled by. Why did Fiedler not look into the novels of Willa Cather, particularly The Professor's House, which so richly illustrate his subject matter?

But in its insights the book remains immensely intelligent, immediate, and vital. When I, having forgotten much of it, read, "The so-called literature of escape is always at its depths religious, a ritual statement of what its audience prays the world might be or even hopes it is," I was not so much reminded of what I had forgotten as astonished by what seemed to reveal so much about my own present writing. And that most meaningful chapter, chapter eleven, which so freed me when I first read it - though I perhaps misunderstood it - now reads to me as a confirmation of a freedom I have expanded not only in my writing, but in my life. It is a freedom I, as an American, am constantly testing, a freedom I always suspect may be merely a form of escape, as sex and death are forms of escape, but an escape I nevertheless believe is in some way at its depth religious. To reread Love and Death in the American Novel has been to be reinspired, and I realized I had a longing for this reinspiration.

I had a longing for it because of the revived sense of literature the book gave me. When I reread the simple affirmation Fiedler made in 1960 that "we still live in the Age of the Novel," the great doubt occurred to me, as it has occurred to many novelists I know, that we still do. When I first read Love and Death in the American Novel, I never thought the Age of the Novel could possibly end, never thought there would come a time when literature, to which I would devote my life, would not give the context - the moral, the spiritual context - to the culture I most aspired to join. It was with a sense of the reaffirmation of something that may be horribly lost that I read in Fiedler's book his quotations - say, from the writings of Richardson or Rousseau - in which the whole Western world is exposed, studied, found wanting, and transformed. I felt that Fiedler wrote his major book at a moment, well within my lifetime, when the world, at its most relevant to our daily lives, was assumed to be made up of great books. To go on writing, I have to believe this still.

David Plante's next novel will by published by St. Martin's Press in 1999.
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Author:Plante, David
Publication:Artforum International
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 1, 1998
Words:1456
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