Why Not Say What Hap­pened: A Sen­ti­men­tal Education

Mor­ris Dickstein
  • Review
By – January 21, 2015

Mor­ris Dick­stein, Pro­fes­sor Emer­i­tus of Eng­lish and The­atre at the CUNY Gradu­ate Cen­ter, is best known for the outstand­ing Gates of Eden, a study of Amer­i­can cul­ture in the 1960s, and Danc­ing in the Dark, a cul­tur­al his­to­ry of the Great Depres­sion. This time he turns his lens on him­self, pro­vid­ing an account of his own intel­lec­tu­al devel­op­ment from child­hood to his expe­ri­ence of the stu­dent upris­ing at Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty in 1968

Dick­stein treats the read­er to mem­o­rable, if some­what gener­ic, por­traits of his ear­ly life, start­ing on the Low­er East Side and then mov­ing to Brook­lyn and Queens, with sum­mers spent at Rocky Point, on Long Island. Some­thing of a prodi­gy at yeshi­va, he went on to spend four years as an under­grad­u­ate at Colum­bia, com­plet­ed his Ph.D. in Eng­lish at Yale, includ­ing a year as a Kel­lett Fel­low at Cam­bridge, and returned to Colum­bia to teach. Along the way, he main­tained and broad­ened his reli­gious iden­ti­ty, spent some cru­cial teenage sum­mers work­ing at hotels in the Catskills, fell in love and mar­ried, and im­mersed him­self in the ocean of art, lit­er­a­ture, the­atre, and film that was swelling all around him at the time. 

The sub­ti­tle A Sen­ti­men­tal Edu­ca­tion” evokes Flaubert and sug­gests that we will receive a gran­u­lar account of the develop­ment of the critic’s sen­si­bil­i­ties. More often than not, how­ev­er, Dick­stein set­tles for what his main title, drawn from Robert Low­ell, sug­gests, a syn­op­tic and rel­a­tive­ly arid nar­ra­tive of the author’s aca­d­e­m­ic com­ing of age in the 1950s and 1960s. Too often he pro­vides gen­er­al descrip­tions and lists of names rather than delv­ing into how spe­cif­ic expe­ri­ences and works shaped his con­scious­ness. The read­er comes away feel­ing that Dickstein’s intel­lect was ful­ly formed at an ear­ly age and sim­ply sailed intact through the sub­se­quent years. 

Aca­d­e­m­ic mem­oir is an inher­ent­ly tricky genre in oth­er ways as well. Sim­ply say­ing what hap­pened runs the risk of los­ing the gen­eral read­er in a thick­et of jar­gon and unfamil­iar names while prompt­ing oth­er aca­d­e­mics, who have gone through sim­i­lar expe­ri­ences, to shrug and say, So what?” Read­ers with an aca­d­e­m­ic back­ground will nod know­ing­ly at Dickstein’s delin­eation of the sharp dis­tinc­tion between the pas­sion that can inspire and dri­ve an under­grad­u­ate career and the stark drudgery of grad­u­ate work; oth­ers may have a hard time relat­ing to his frus­tra­tion. He pro­vides fas­ci­nat­ing glimpses of some leg­endary fig­ures he encoun­ters along the way, includ­ing F.R. Leav­is and E.M. Forster, at Cam­bridge, and Harold Bloom, at Yale, but non-aca­d­e­mics may won­der what all the fuss is about. 

Of more uni­ver­sal inter­est is Dickstein’s near-obses­sion with the quan­ti­ty and qual­i­ty of the food on offer in the var­i­ous worlds he inhab­its, from the kosher com­forts of home to the sub­sis­tence fare of grad­u­ate life, from the glo­ry that was France to the blandeur that was Britain. For Dick­stein, as for the vast major­i­ty of his like­ly read­ers, kishke was as impor­tant a cul­tur­al touch­stone as Kafka.

Relat­ed content:

Bill Bren­nan is an inde­pen­dent schol­ar and enter­tain­er based in Las Vegas. Bren­nan has taught lit­er­a­ture and the human­i­ties at Prince­ton and The Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go. He holds degrees from Yale, Prince­ton, and Northwestern.

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