A Mulligan for Fiedler and Hugh Kenner
True Confession: sometimes I wish journalism were more like golf.
In golf, convivial buddies might give you a mulligan--a do-over.
A recent sentence of mine I'd like a mulligan for is this one about the ridiculous local myth that Buffalo residence in his final years lessened Leslie Fiedler's renown (from my March 16 review of the superb "The Devil Gets His Due: The Unexpected Essays of Leslie Fiedler") : "No crueler -- or more wrongheaded -- expression of that idea has ever existed than Hugh Kenner's Harper's review of (Fiedler's) 'What Was Literature?' etc."
Too glib. Way too glib. That "idea" I referred to should have been amplified and changed to the GENERAL idea that Leslie Fiedler's entire career began in geographical exile and was marked by it. Kenner didn't mention Buffalo at all in his essay on Fiedler's book. He was far too brilliant a writer and critic to be misrepresented, and I owe it to his memory to say so (not to mention Fiedler's).
What Kenner wrote was this: "In '41, straitjacketed in his new doctorate, the burly Fiedler was bundled by implacable Fate into the train that would haul him off kicking and fuming to the academic Gulag in Montana. Folklore has cherished and doubtless improved the scene at his departure: the sighs of commiseration on the platform, the indomitable leonine head at the coach window, its defiant shout through escaping steam 'I'll publish my way out in five years!'"
Another view entirely, of course, is that Montana residence wasn't academic exile at all but, in fact, one of the greatest -- certainly coolest -- things by far about the young academic named Leslie Fiedler.
The IDEA of Leslie Fiedler in exile -- anywhere at all, but especially here -- is a particularly appealing one to Buffalo residents (including many academics) who refuse to believe that, in some ways, it's been as much privilege living here as exile. A lot of extraordinary things have happened here since Fiedler arrived in 1964, and we've written about many in this newspaper.
Kenner's wicked image of Fiedler in geographical exile in life didn't specifically concern Buffalo. Nor, in re-reading Kenner now, was he as merciless as I remember.
Kenner was an extraordinarily brilliant writer -- one of the great critics of the last half-century -- no matter what one might think of his specialties and particular concerns. He died in 2003, eleven months after Fiedler, and he remains a huge pleasure to read. He deserves to be represented better than I did.
You'll find Kenner's Fiedler essay in "Historical Fictions," an essay collection still available in 1995 University of Georgia edition (check Amazon.com or your local bookstore's order dept.).
The publication of Fiedler's "The Devil Gets His Due" is still a couple weeks off. My review appeared early because of a misunderstanding about the actual publication date as originally reported.