Why Not Say What Happened: A Sentimental Education

Liveright  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.

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