In the late 1940s Americans began afresh to confront—slowly, partially, and often reluctantly—the discrepancy between their ideals of equality and justice, and the reality of how they treated certain traditionally despised classes of people. There was, it seems not too grand to say, a broad, mild but insistent cultural pressure toward these confrontations, deriving its force from anti-racist propaganda of the war effort and from civil rights organizations as well as, perhaps, from the general experience of war, in which so many different kinds of Americans had been thrown into service with so many others. Sometimes these confrontations were ugly, but sometimes they were formidably thoughtful, as in the case of An American Dilemma or Sexual Behavior in the Human Male. Out of this same culture, somewhere between Myrdal and Kinsey, appeared a small Partisan Review essay by Leslie Fiedler, “Come Back to the Raft Ag’in, Huck Honey,” swiftly touring American literature in an effort to confront these same themes.
Or rather, this one theme, Fiedler said.
[T]he fact of homosexual passion contradicts a national myth of masculine love, just as our real relationship with the Negro contradicts a myth of that relationship; and those two myths with their betrayals are, as we shall see, one.
One? Yes, one. Just look at what were then regarded as the great works of American literature, all of them—Huckleberry Finn, the Leatherstocking tales, Moby Dick, Stephen Crane, Ernest Hemingway—overwhelmingly boys’ books, as Papa’s short-story collection frankly admitted.
“As boys’ books,” Fiedler wrote, “we should expect them shyly, guiltlessly as it were, to proffer a chaste male love as the ultimate emotional experience—and this is spectacularly the case.”
At the focus of emotion, where we are accustomed to find in the world’s great novels some heterosexual passion, be it “platonic” love or adultery, seduction, rape, or long-drawn-out flirtation, we come instead on the fugitive slave and the no-account boy lying side by side on a raft borne by the endless river toward an impossible escape, or the pariah sailor waking in the tattooed arms of the brown harpooner on the verge of their impossible quest.
Fiedler believed “we are, though vaguely, aware” of the homoeroticism in these stories.1 But, he said, it appeared to have escaped Americans’ notice that not only were the great books of the canon about the chaste manly mutual love of men for men, which they could find by escaping to the great outdoors where women didn’t go, but about the chaste manly mutual love of a white man for—as Fiedler put it, in 1948-speak—“a colored.”
In the myth, one notes finally, it is typically in the role of outcast, ragged woodsman, or despised sailor (“Call me Ishmael!”), or unregenerate boy (Huck before the prospect of being “sivilized” cries out, “I been there before!”) that we turn to the love of a colored man….
Our dark-skinned beloved will take us in, we assure ourselves, when we have been cut off, or have cut ourselves off, from all others, without rancor or the insult of forgiveness. He will fold us in his arms saying, “Honey” or “Aikane”; he will comfort us, as if our offense against him were long ago remitted, were never truly real. And yet we cannot ever really forget our guilt; the stories that embody the myth dramatize as if compulsively the role of the colored man as the victim….
In each generation we play out the impossible mythos, and we live to see our children play it: the white boy and the black we can discover wrestling affectionately on any American sidewalk, along which they will walk in adulthood, eyes averted from each other, unwilling to touch even by accident. The dream recedes; the immaculate passion and the astonishing reconciliation become a memory, and less, a regret, at last the unrecognized motifs of a child’s book. “It’s too good to be true, Honey,” Jim says to Huck. “It’s too good to be true.”
Fiedler expanded on this essay in Love and Death in the American Novel, ascribing, I think it’s fair to say, Americans’ literary obsessions to a kind of cultural immaturity. But his insights might have more to do with that moment in the late 1940s when those books became the unarguably great American books, when they surpassed the palefaces Irving and Howells and James and Eliot and Wharton, enshrining as supremely normal a thinly disguised marginal America, ridden with guilt and driven by id, whose great book’s secret motto was “I do not baptize you in the name of the father, but in the name of the devil!”
1Vaguely? From Moby Dick: “Squeeze! squeeze! squeeze! all the morning long; I squeezed that sperm till I myself almost melted into it; I squeezed that sperm till a strange sort of insanity came over me; and I found myself unwittingly squeezing my co-laborers’ hands in it, mistaking their hands for the gentle globules. Such an abounding, affectionate, friendly, loving feeling did this avocation beget; that at last I was continually squeezing their hands, and looking up into their eyes sentimentally; as much as to say, –Oh! my dear fellow beings, why should we longer cherish any social acerbities, or know the slightest ill-humor or envy! Come; let us squeeze hands all round; nay, let us all squeeze ourselves into each other; let us squeeze ourselves universally into the very milk and sperm of kindness. Would that I could keep squeezing that sperm for ever!”