Leslie Fiedler: “Come Back to the Raft Ag'in, Huck Honey!”, June 1948

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Literary critic Leslie Fiedler's first important published work appeared in June 1948, and came about as a result of his reading American novels to his sons. The essay appeared in the Partisan Review, a journal, and was the subject of a great amount of critical debate and controversy.


"Come Back to the Raft Ag'in, Huck Honey!" argued that a recurrent theme in American literature was an unspoken or implied homoerotic relationship between men, and famously used Mark Twain's iconic fictional creations, Huckleberry Finn and his African American companion Jim, as examples.


Fiedler argued that in numbers of American novels pairs of men flee together into the wilderness rather than remain in the civilizing and domesticated world of women. Fiedler also deals with this theme of male bonding in his books Love and Death in the American Novel (1960), Waiting for the End (1964) and The Return of the Vanishing American (1968).


As Mark Royden Winchell writes in his 2002 book on Fiedler, "Reading ‘Come Back to the Raft’ over half a century later, one tends to forget that, prior to Fiedler, few critics had discussed classic American literature in terms of race, gender, and sexuality" (Winchell 53). Fiedler emphasized that males paired in these wilderness adventures tend to be of different races, and that their relationships include issues of masculinity and touch on intimacy, sensuality, and suppressed sexuality between men.


Thomas Witholt writes that in his "Come Back" essay

Fiedler reveals the frequent homoeroticism of tales about lost boys written for men too afraid of heterosexual relationships to truly grow up. And while Fiedler later claimed that he never intended to shock with the article, "something so sweetly simple, so seductively obvious" that he thought everyone would agree with his claims (Fiedler qtd. in DeMott), it was shocking enough that many people could not take the article seriously. According to reviewer John Leonard, Philip Rahv only published the piece because he thought it was a parody. And a New York Times review of Fiedler's first book, An End to Innocence, which includes a slightly modified version of the Huck essay as its centerpiece, fails to mention the shocking essay. Despite its initial neglect in these two sources, the essay has since been well-utilized and required little explanation in a New York Times article as late as 1986 (O'Connor). As Fiedler explains in his introduction to the second edition of An End to Innocence, for a time people spoke of the homoerotic undertones of American male literature "as if everyone had always known what was really at issue between Huck and Jim on the raft" (Collected I xvii).

Withold adds that while An End to Innocence was favorably reviewed when it first came out ..., Love and Death in the American Novel was the most significant of Fiedler's early works. It extends the thesis of "Huck Honey" to all American novels and elaborates it, arguing that "the failure of the American fictionist to deal with adult heterosexual love and his consequent obsession with death...affect the lives we lead from day to day" (12).[1]


"Come Back to the Raft" not only caused a stream of letters of protest to be sent to the Partisan Review, but it also was attacked by the critical community.


Research Request: ADD DESCRIPTIONS OF THE CRITICAL LETTERS.


Contents

Love and Death in the American Novel: 1960

In this large book on the history of American literature, Fiedler continued in more detail the consideration of intimate relationships between men that he began to speak about in his earlier essay.


Reviewing Love and Death in the New York Times Book Review, literary critic Malcolm Crowley commented on Fiedler's discussion of this theme:

A great deal of American fiction, Fiedler says, has been an escape from a society under female domination into an imagined world of male companionship. Much of it has revealed a fear of darker races, which represent wild Nature; and the hero of the novel is often involved in some close relation with an Indian, a Polynesian or a Negro (Chingachgook, in “The Last of the Mohicans,” Queequeg in “Moby Dick.” Nigger Jim in “Huckleberry Finn” and Sam Fathers in “The Bear”). Fiedler wants us to believe that this relation is “a homoerotic fable,” and he adduces a great deal of evidence—sometimes persuasive, sometimes based on a mis-reading of the text—in favor of special interpretation.


Later in his review Crowley noted:

Besides those dark fears of love and death that Fiedler discusses at such length, the writing of a novel expresses two fundamental human passions: the desire to create something with a life of its own and the longing for immortality.


And still later Cowley criticizes Fiedler’s “Freudianism” which, Cowley says, “introduces a new vocabulary as a means of reinterpreting almost everything in terms of sexual pathology." Crowley gives examples:

Never say friendship; say “innocent homosexuality.” Never say curiosity; say “voyeurism,” or refer to the curious man as a “castrated peeper.” Instead of mourning for the dead, refer to “necrophilia.” Instead of self-awareness, speak of “narcissism.” Remember that fun and games do not exist in the Freudian world except as “the symbolic enactment of sado=masochistic desires.” Remember that family affection is merely “a repressed incestuous longing” and that chastity is “the morbid fear of full genital development.” A tomboy is a “transvestite” and a writer is – what?
A gifted American writer is . . . almost all these Freudian things, if we agree with Fiedler. The more gifted he is, the more deplorable are his lapses from what seems to be the Fiedlerian ideal of responsible genitality. But what if he does somehow become fully mature, wise, temperate, successfully married? Then he suffers the worst fate of all; he is condemned to be a “middlebrow” or even, compounding the punishment, an “upper middlebrow.” The author can’t win, ever, by Fiedler’s standard of judgment. Only the critic can win; only the critic can pry into secret places without being a voyeur, can makes deliberately shocking statements without being an exhibitionist, can torture authors without being a sadist, and can dance on their mutilated bodies without being accused of necrophilia.[2]


Fiedler on Fiedler: 1967

Fiedler, Leslie A. Second Thoughts on "Love and Death in the American Novel": My First Gothic Novel. NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction, Vol. 1, No. 1 (Autumn, 1967), pp. 9-11. Three pages. Duke University Press. Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1345345


Looby on Fiedler:1995

In 1995, queer theorist Christopher Looby argues that Fiedler's claims, published the late 1940s and 1960s, were noticeably given from his own urban, 20th century perspective and did not adequately address the time period in which Mark Twain wrote Huckleberry Finn, or the time period in which the story was set. (See, for example, the debate on the sexuality of Abraham Lincoln; and see: "'Innocent Homosexuality': The Fiedler Thesis in Retrospect." In Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: A Case Study in Critical Conroversy. Ed. Gerald Graff and James Phelan. Boston: Bedford Books, 1995. Pp. 535-50.)[3]

Notes

  1. Thomas Witholt, "A Second Look at Leslie Fiedler", The Minnesota Review, Winter/Spring 2009. Accessed January 4, 2012 online at: http://www.theminnesotareview.org/journal/ns7172/witholt.shtml
  2. Cowley, Malcolm. “EXPLORING A WORLD OF NIGHTMARES; A Critic Looks at American Fiction In the Light of Freud's Teachings”. Review of LOVE AND DEATH IN THE AMERICAN NOVEL By Leslie A. Fiedler. 603 pp. New York: Criterion Books. New York Times Book Review, March 27, 1960, pages 1, 40.
  3. Adapted from the Wikipedia entry on Leslie Fiedler, and specifically the section on his “Come Back to the Raft Ag'in, Huck Honey!”, accessed January 4, 2012.


Bibliography



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