This article is from the archives of the UB Reporter.

Leslie Fiedler dies at age 85

Published: January 30, 2003

Contributing Editor

Leslie Fiedler, SUNY Distinguished Professor Emeritus and Samuel L. Clemens Professor of English at UB and one of America's foremost literary and cultural theorists of the last century, died yesterday in his North Buffalo home, a month short of his 86th birthday.


Leslie Fiedler

Funeral services will be held at 2 p.m. on Sunday in the Etkin-Schlager Funeral Home, 4614 Main St., Snyder. Burial will be in Forest Lawn. Calling hours will be held from 7-9 p.m. on Saturday in the funeral home.

A nationally distinguished, award-winning scholar, Fiedler was best known for his application of Jungian and Freudian concepts to U.S. literature and social thought. His controversial, disturbing and ingenious theories earned him an early reputation as a "bad-boy" of American letters.

His best-known work, "Love and Death in the American Novel" (1960), looks at the way in which a large portion of American literature emphasizes the theme of escape from a female-dominated society as manifested in close male relations in the wilderness and on the seas, and pointed to subtle homosexual themes in the work of Twain, Hawthorne and other writers.

"Leslie was certainly one of the 20th century's four or five most important critics of American literature and culture," said Joseph Conte, chair of the Department of English. "Several of his works in 19th-century literature are landmarks of American literary criticism, and his work helped define the UB English department and enhanced its national reputation."

Fiedler was the author of more than two dozen other books in which he explored a broad range of topics in a way that served as a rebellion against high culture itself. The events of campus life in the mid '70s were discussed in "Being Busted," literary issues in "What Was Literature?" and, in "An End to Innocence," science fiction.

His book, "In Dreams Awake," examined the cultural roles of Freud and Jung, and "Freaks: Myths and Images of the Secret Self" illuminated what stigmatic abnormality is used to signify in life and art-badness, weakness or evil, or unearthly purity, pathos, spirituality or self-abnegation.

His 1991 collection of essays, "Fiedler on the Roof," was published to popular and critical applause.

Fiedler was a popular teacher and speaker, and lectured before college and university audiences throughout the United States, as well as in Canada, England, Italy, Tunisia, Ireland, France, Germany, Japan, India, Greece, Yugoslavia, Turkey, Brazil, the Netherlands, Denmark, Spain, Israel, Venezuela and Korea.

During his career, he received two Fulbright Fellowships, a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Kenyon Review Fellowship and the Furioso Poetry Prize, as well as Princeton's Christian Gauss Fellowship, among other distinctions. Conte said Fiedler continued to work with graduate students and to guide dissertations until very recently.

"When he was 85—just a year ago—I participated with him in a dissertation defense and he had retained a remarkable clarity and offered a wealth of anecdotes about his life and the famous people he had interacted with over the years. We were both born in Newark (N.J.), and Leslie shared with me his recollections of boyhood in the Jewish section of the 'original multiethnic city' and described the vibrant Jewish, Italian and African-American communities there before World War II."

Born in 1917, Fiedler received his bachelor's degree from New York University and his master's and doctoral degrees from the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He was a member of the English department faculty at Montana State University from 1941-63, during which time he did post-doctoral work at Harvard University.

He studied at the University of Colorado's Japanese Language School during World War II and served as a Japanese interpreter with the U.S. Navy from 1943-45 in Hawaii, Guam, Iwo Jima, China and Okinawa.

Fiedler came to UB in 1964, where he served as chair of the English department from 1974-77 and was named Clemens chair in 1973. In l987, he was named SUNY Distinguished Professor. He was elected to the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters in 1988 and in 1989, was the recipient of Chancellor Charles P. Norton Medal, awarded by UB. In 1994, he was awarded the Hubbell Medal for his lifetime contribution to the study of literature.

He also taught during academic leaves at the universities of Bologna, Rome, Paris, Venice, Athens, Sussex and Princeton, and held summer appointments at New York University, Columbia University and the universities of Vermont and Indiana.

He was a junior fellow of the Indiana School of Letters, l954-73, an associate fellow in Yale University's Calhoun College and a member of the developmental faculty of SUNY's Empire State College.

He was a member of the Woodrow Wilson Committee of Regions XII and III, an advisory editor in English for St. Martin's Press, an associate editor of Ramparts, The Running Man, the Quarterly Review of Film Studies and Studies in Black Literature. He also was a contributing editor of Literature and Medicine and in 1946 and 1973 served as a fiction judge for the National Book Awards. He was a member of the editorial board of Witness.

He was the subject of personal and literary biographies, most recently "Good to be True" by Mark Royden Winchell, published last year.