Email this review


Fiedler, once more in a recanting and revisionist frame of mind--but distressingly Procrustean too. The thesis behind these five short essays (originally Canadian radio talks) is that an ""inadvertent epic"" has been produced in America, stretching from Uncle Tom's Cabin to Roots and TV soap operas, a ""countertradition dominated by women and domestic values,"" by ""death, sexual purity, and the bourgeois home."" Well, maybe--but when Fiedler gets to cases, the frame groans. His initial point is intriguing and perhaps valuable: that Stowe's Uncle Tom Cabin and its popular 19th-century spin-offs (the so-called ""Tom Plays"") represent the beginning of an American strain of fantasy about inter-ethnic rape; and that such a fantasy lies at our popular heart--as proven by the anti-Tom novels of Thomas Dixon, D. W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation (based on a Dixon novel), and the later, equally anti-Reconstructionist Gone With the Wind. But Fiedler isn't satisfied with merely presenting this premise. He goes on to reverse it, claiming that these inadvertent epics are good. Why? Because they're popular, ""like rituals in primitive societies or dreams in our own."" The logic here gets badly muddled as Fiedler insists on having it both ways: the inadvertent epics became popular because they're bad, but they're good because they're popular! And his way of resolving this contradiction is to resort to the old chestnut of myth. (Similar tactics are used, with equal desperation, by critics on the ""high"" side when it comes to Ulysses and Finnegan's Wake: Joyce is great art, they say, because he's un-understandable, mythic.) Ultimately, then, the overall impression here is one of Fiedler being mostly just contrary, for its own sake--and not with the lucidity he has so notoriously shown in the past.

Pub Date: May 12th, 1980
Publisher: Simon & Schuster