The Pequod Review:
In Love and Death in the American Novel, Leslie Fiedler’s primary thesis is that American literature is “almost pathologically incapable of dealing with adult sexuality” and is instead obsessed with death. Fiedler paints with too broad a brush in his descriptions of “the American novel,” but he is lively and interesting throughout:
Our great novelists, though experts on indignity and assault, on loneliness and terror, tend to avoid treating the passionate encounter of a man and a woman, which we expect at the center of a novel. Indeed, they rather shy away from permitting in their fictions the presence of any full-fledged, mature women, giving us instead monsters of virtue or bitchery, symbols of the rejection or fear of sexuality.
Beneath the haunted castle lies the dungeon keep: the womb from whose darkness the ego first emerged, the tomb to which it knows it must return at last. Beneath the crumbling shell or paternal authority, lies the maternal blackness, imagined by the Gothic writer as a prison, as a torture chamber - from which the cries of the kidnapped animal cannot even be heard. The upper and the lower levels of the ruined castle or abbey represent the contradictory fears at the heart of Gothic terror: dread of the superego, whose splendid battlements have been battered but not quite cast down- and of the id, whose buried darkness abounds in dark visions no stormer of the castle had ever touched.
The novel not only attacks the sovereignty of reason, it challenges the primacy of ideas… The irrational essence of the novel is revealed by the very nature of its form, a form without a theory. It was born by accident, as it were, out of an odd mating of allegory with the plot structure of sensational drama, and of the letter book with prose history or scandalmongering. It is a genre that still defies an Aristotelian definition, a kind contrived when all the kinds had already been classified and arranged, an unforeseen and disruptive stranger.
There is a real sense in which our prose fiction is immediately distinguishable from that of Europe, though this is a fact that is difficult for Americans (oddly defensive and flustered in its presence) to confess. In this sense, our novels seem not primitive, perhaps, but innocent, unfallen in a disturbing way, almost juvenile. The great works of American fiction are notoriously at home in the children's section of the library, their level of sentimentality precisely that of a pre-adolescent. This is part of what we mean when we talk about the incapacity of the American novelist to develop; in a compulsive way he returns to a limited world of experience, usually associated with his childhood, writing the same book over and over again until he lapses into silence or self-parody.
Our literature as a whole seems a chamber of horrors disguised as an amusement park "fun house."
So it continues, with arguments that are overconfident, incorrect or incomplete — but nonetheless engaging.