In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Leslie Fiedler

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Reassessments
  • Biographies
  • Interviews
  • Literary Theory
  • Political Theory

American Literature Leslie Fiedler
Steven G. Kellman
  • LAST REVIEWED: 10 January 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 November 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0072


Leslie Aaron Fiedler (b. 1917–d. 2003) was a provocative American literary and cultural critic, essayist, and fiction writer. Born in Newark, New Jersey, he was an outspoken gadfly who, living at the peripheries of literary power, challenged conventional ideas and styles. After receiving his PhD from the University of Wisconsin in 1941, he taught at the University of Montana from 1941 to 1965 before moving to the State University of New York at Buffalo, where he taught until his death in 2003. He was a brash contrarian who, more than such contemporaries as Irving Howe, Alfred Kazin, and Lionel Trilling, exulted in his celebrity status inside and outside the academy, the fact that he, a professor of literature, could be invited onto TV talk shows and into the pages of Playboy. Fiedler’s career coincided with and contributed to the efflorescence of postwar American Jewish literature and to the movement away from formalism. His own fiction, often preoccupied with the tenuous position of Jews in modern America, shared with contemporaries such as Saul Bellow and Bernard Malamud a concern for the alienated and marginalized. An early champion of multiculturalism, feminism, Native American studies, and queer studies and one of the first to apply the term “postmodern” to literature, Fiedler pioneered the study of popular culture, including science fiction and comic strips. Rejecting the constraints of New Criticism, Fiedler applied psychological and mythopoeic concepts to his analysis of cultural phenomena, including canonical and noncanonical works of literature. His idiosyncratic writing eschewed the decorum and abstraction of academic prose in favor of a direct, passionate engagement with the reader, and he contributed to the loosening of structures and styles within American universities. Although most famous for his reinterpretations of American literature, particularly his influential book Love and Death in the American Novel (Fiedler 1966), Fiedler was a multilingual literary comparatist who also wrote and taught on such figures as Dante, William Shakespeare, and James Joyce. He wrote his doctoral dissertation on John Donne and medieval thought. Though proud of his outsider, even outlaw, status within the academy, Fiedler was invited to lecture at prestigious universities in the United States and abroad. In 1988, he was elected to the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, and in 1994 he received the prestigious Jay Hubbell Medal. In 1998, the National Book Critics Circle bestowed on him its Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award.

General Overviews

At an early stage in his academic career, Fiedler became not just a literary scholar but also the subject of literary scholarship. His books were widely reviewed not only in scholarly journals and literary quarterlies but also in general-circulation newspapers and magazines. Because of his prominence and popularity, articles occasioned by the appearance of one book often tended to be assessment of his entire oeuvre to that point. Fiedler’s death in 2003 occasioned numerous reassessments of his achievement and personal reminiscences by people who knew him. Though incomplete and somewhat dated, Winchell 1985 follows the Twayne format in providing essential information and a survey of the man and his work. Bramen 2009 situates Fiedler’s emergence within its historical and cultural moment. Cerrito 1999 offers a collective portrait through statements about Fiedler by ten critics, and Blau, et al. 1982 does something similar through statements by four critics. Harmon 1984 sums up Fiedler’s work as a battle against conventionality and an attempt to bridge high and low culture. Kellman and Malin 1999 is a volume of essays by diverse critics that covers a wide range of Fiedler’s work. Srivastava 2014 studies Fiedler as an outsider and a champion of outsiders. In Fiedler 1999, his speech accepting the prestigious Jay Hubbell Medal for distinguished scholarship in American literature, Fiedler characterizes himself as a passionate amateur and outsider.

  • Blau, Herbert, Paul Robinson, Sandra Gilbert, and Richard P. Brickner. “Responses to Leslie Fiedler.” Salmagundi 57 (1982): 70–86.

    Four prominent critics offer a variety of assessments of the work of Leslie Fiedler.

  • Bramen, Carrie Tirado. “1941: Leslie Fiedler Becomes an Assistant Professor of English at Montana State University: An Insolent Style.” In A New Literary History of America. Edited by Greil Marcus and Werner Sollors, 747–752. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009.

    The year Fiedler began his academic career was, claims Bremen, a signal moment in the history of literary studies. She suggests that he was “the last romantic, holding onto a notion of the vulgar as a way to thumb his nose at the genteel mores of ‘Anglo-Saxon polite culture’” (p. 752).

  • Cerrito, Joann. “Fiedler, Leslie (1917–).” In Modern American Literature. Vol. 1. 5th ed. Edited by Joann Cerrito, 358–360. Detroit: St. James, 1999.

    Excerpts from statements about Fiedler by ten critics, followed by an abbreviated primary bibliography. Also see Reference Works.

  • Fiedler, Leslie. “Hubbell Acceptance Speech.” In Leslie Fiedler and American Culture. Edited by Steven G. Kellman and Irving Malin, 21–25. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1999.

    Fiedler’s own self-assessment at age seventy-nine, on the occasion of receiving the prestigious Jay Hubbell Medal. He notes the irony that he, an amateur and an interloper, was being honored by scholars.

  • Harmon, Gary. “Afterword: The Meaning and Importance of Leslie Fiedler.” Studies in Popular Culture 7 (1984): 14–17.

    Pondering the fact that Fiedler’s unusual popularity makes many suspect his seriousness as a scholar, Harmon hails him as a liberator from conventional ideas about literature and criticism and a mediator between elite and popular culture.

  • Kellman, Steven G., and Irving Malin, eds. Leslie Fiedler and American Culture. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1999.

    Nine essays about facets of Fiedler’s work, followed by reminiscences by nine people who knew him.

  • Srivastava, Prem Kumari. Leslie Fiedler: Critic, Provocateur, Pop Culture Guru. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2014.

    With emphasis on Fiedler as a rebellious champion of popular culture and pioneer of queer theory, Srivastava offers an outsider’s admiring examination of how Fiedler, a provocative connoisseur of social outsiders, evolved throughout his career.

  • Winchell, Mark Royden. Leslie Fiedler. Boston: Twayne, 1985.

    The first book-length study of Fiedler and his work. Still useful, although it does not cover the last two decades of his life.

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