Minnesota Review, #55-56 (2002)
New York-born, Columbia-educated, and a onetime student of Lionel Trilling, Morris Dickstein stands in the line of the New York Intellectuals, but at some remove, positioned between his mentors and the 60s generation. After his study of Keats and His Poetry (U of Chicago P, 1971), Dickstein captured a sense of the 60s in his widely read Gates of Eden: American Culture in the Sixties (Basic, 1977). He addresses the possibilities for contemporary criticism in Double Agent: The Critic and Society (Oxford UP, 1992), and, in his most recent book, Leopards in the Temple (Harvard UP, 2002), surveys American fiction from 1945 to 1970.
Robert S. Boynton: In Gates of Eden you write about coming to consciousness between the 50s and the 60s and claim that you never felt wholly comfortable in either world, “though both were passionately important to me in their turn.” What do you mean by this?
Morris Dickstein: One of the most exciting things about the 50s was its exploding intellectual culture, and in many ways I felt that I was a child of that culture. At the same time, during the period I was a student at Columbia, which was between 1957-61, my friends and I felt we were in rebellion against that culture. The books that we adopted as special for us were by writers like Norman O. Brown, Herbert Marcuse, Paul Goodman, Norman Mailer. In fact, in my last semester at Columbia we had a lecture series and invited all of them to come. Only Goodman actually came. A few years ago, when I was introducing Mailer at a reading, I was looking over some of his early novels and a letter from March 1961 dropped out of one of them in which he explained why he couldn’t make it.
Boynton: What was the goal behind assembling these figures?
Dickstein: We had fallen in love with the idea of the “guru,” the wise mentor. A friend of mine once ran into Lionel Trilling on the Columbia campus and Trilling had never heard the word before. He said, “Oh, I love that idea. I should use it sometime.” And of course he did.
Some of the figures who came to interest me later, like the social critics of the 50s David Riesman, William Whyte they were too tepid and liberal for us at the time, and too popular. What fascinated us were the more apocalyptic figures who came on the scene in the mid-50s, roughly around the time of Marcuse’s Eros and Civilization, although I hadn’t read it at the time. I was especially taken with Mailer’s “The White Negro,” and most of Advertisements for Myself. Norman O. Brown’s Life Against Death was practically a sacred text to us when it came out in 1960. I seemed to be out to confirm its message in the papers I was writing for my English courses. I was twenty years old. I sought out writers who would tell me that repression was bad for you, sex was redemptive, a revolution in consciousness was possible. We were looking for daring iconoclastic role models, outlaw intellectuals.
Of course, we were also getting a mainstream education in the Western tradition. We were the products of the Great Books curriculum at Columbia, which was not just a literary curriculum, but also involved contemporary civilization the history of social thought, philosophy, economics, politics. Unlike the University of Chicago’s Great Books curriculum, Columbia’s was organized chronologically. It had a very strong historical dimension. So although we were formed by the Great Books culture of the 50s, we had a kind of historicist take on it that really foreshadowed some of the political interests we developed in the 60s.
At the time I felt like a rebel. I loved Blake and D. H. Lawrence. But in retrospect I realized that I had been on the cusp between two periods. The curious thing is that many years later, when I came to work on Leopards in the Temple, I realized that the two periods were not as sharply distinct as I had thought, and much that I associated with the late-50s and the 60s had really begun right after the war. It was a long time before I understood that a harmless-looking book like, say, The Catcher in the Rye, anticipated the counter-culture of the 60s.
Boynton: I have to say that I’m a little surprised that you were so enamored of these apocalyptic figures. I’ve always thought of your criticism as being so tempered and judicious. At one point in Gates of Eden you quote Trilling as saying that “all criticism is autobiographical.” Do you think this is true for you?
Dickstein: In retrospect, I came to see the extent to which things I had taken for granted, like the postwar prosperity, were really decisive. The social forces that determined the 60s explosion, both intellectually and in the streets, were a product of the tremendous economic advances that took place after the war. Writers who seemed like rebels against affluence, like Kerouac, were actually playing off the economic expansion: they had an expansive, Whitmanesque mood that, in a curious way, reflected the expansiveness of the life of the middle class.
I’ve been working on a book about the 1930s along the lines of Gates of Eden and Leopards in the Temple. One of the themes in the book is the contrast between stasis and mobility. A key to the culture of the 30s was the dream of flow and movement, that can be seen in things as different as art deco and Fred Astaire. But of course the only real movement you got socially during this period is the movement of people like drifters and homeless people, people riding freight cars, not exactly voluntary movement. There was no movement between generations because the birthrate was low. And even the great black migration from the South really slowed down in the 30s because there were no jobs to be had.
It all comes to a head at the 1939 World’s Fair in the General Motors “Futurama” where you had these predictions about a car culture that seemed like a pipe-dream at the time. The “Futurama” was set in the year 1960 and it anticipated that there would be thirty-eight million cars on the road by the time. That was considered sheer fantasy. But when the year 1960 did roll around there were sixty-one million cars on the road! The postwar period enacted and lived out the dream of mobility that had been part of the fantasy culture of the 1930s.
The mobility began with the war, because it pulled people out of their small towns, cities, and ghettos. There was a tremendous migration of rural folk to places where there were jobs in war industries. People who had never left home were now sent off to Europe and Asia. It gave a tremendous impetus to the Civil Rights movement, because even soldiers who had fought in the segregated army were not willing to go back to a racist, segregated country after having fought for it especially having fought against the racism of the Germans and the Japanese. Even though much of the Civil Rights movement was sub rosa in the 40s and 50s, historians now understand that there was an almost perfect continuity between the agitation of Philip Randolph, who got Roosevelt to issue an order desegregating the defense industry in the early 40s, and the work of someone like Ralph Ellison. Ellison began work on Invisible Man towards the end of the war with the idea of writing a novel about the leadership problem, and although there is very little in the novel directly about the Civil Rights movement (except the activities of the Brotherhood), the book is part of that same restless rethinking of race after the war.
Once you’ve seen this, the ostensible acquiescence” and conservatism of the postwar period really has to be strongly qualified. This includes women, who were the people who did worst, and were indeed the victims of the reactionary social vision of the 40s and 50s. But the myth of “Rosie the Riveter” being forced out of her job and back to the suburbs when the boys came back from the war is simply that: a myth. It isn’t borne out by historical research. Instead, there was a very brief downturn of women working outside the home at the end of the war, numbers which very quickly turned upward again, and the percentage of women working outside of the home actually doubled between 1940-60. And that was probably because the social mobility of young couples after the war had to be funded by two incomes. So the movement to the suburbs, where veterans bought their own homes, was partly funded by the wife working outside the home. Of course they didn’t have many professional jobs. But on the other hand it was a momentous change.
Boynton: Tell me about your background.
Dickstein: I grew up in the Americanized end of an immigrant family. Both my mother and father were the next-youngest siblings of very large families. Their oldest brothers and sisters, who were very domineering, had come here in their twenties, and their culture was formed in Europe. They spoke Yiddish primarily. My parents came when they were much younger and had a high school education like my mother, or had a high school education from reading the New York Times every day, like my father. They were much more Americanized and spoke Yiddish only when they had something to say that the children weren’t supposed to understand.
Boynton: Where did you grow up?
Dickstein: On New York’s Lower East Side, on Henry Street, which was around the corner from the old Jewish Daily Forward and the famous Garden Cafeteria where I. B. Singer hung out. This was supposedly the Lower East Side way past its heyday, but when I later read Irving Howe’s World of Our Fathers and Ronald Sanders’ Downtown Jews, I could still recognize the Lower East Side culture that they were describing from the 10s and 20s.
Boynton: But unlike the famous New York intellectuals you didn’t go on to City College, you went to Columbia, which was practically unthinkable for them.
Dickstein: I was different in another way, too. I went to a yeshiva for twelve years, so I had a very strong, somewhat sequestered religious education. It wasn’t only that I knew more about Judaism than they did, but it meant a lot more to me. Their religion had been socialism, whereas my religion, at least initially, had been Orthodox Judaism.
The other difference was that by the time I was in college, ethnicity was beginning to be in. It wasn’t yet the time of “identity politics,” but ethnicity was no longer something you hid from. One of my beefs with the older intellectuals was their unwillingness to grapple with the fact that they were Jewish. Kazin was a major exception, as was Howe when he began to work on Yiddish literature in the 1950s. But the people I encountered most closely, like Trilling, seemed to be imitation Anglo-Saxons, utterly alienated from their Jewish backgrounds. The whole Columbia scene had a waspy air, though it was honeycombed with Jews.
Boynton: Was it difficult going from a yeshiva to Columbia? Wasn’t that what Norman Podhoretz did when he went to Columbia ten years before you did?
Dickstein: I don’t think Podhoretz went to a yeshiva high school before Columbia, but he did attend the same program at the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) that people like Robert Alter and I later did.
Boynton: What was the purpose of attending both Columbia and JTS?
Dickstein: JTS was primarily to train rabbis and cantors. But they also had a full program that was built around the schedule of a student who was attending another school. So going to classes there one afternoon and two evenings a week, you could do a degree program in Hebrew Studies, including Bible, Jewish history and Hebrew language.
The seminary was a very secular, scholarly institution at the time. The idea that Gershom Scholem twenty years earlier had given his lectures on Jewish mysticism at the Seminary is an astounding thing, though his approach is detached and completely analytical. Except for Abraham Joshua Heschel, the theologian, who has a Chasidic background, they were severe rationalists who had no truck with that side of Jewish culture. It is only recently that they have professorships in such Old World subjects as Yiddish literature. The Seminary was an offshoot of the Haskalah, or Hebrew Enlightenment, a part of the revival of Hebraic and Zionist culture that preceded the establishment of Israel.
Boynton: Did you go there intending to be a rabbi or cantor?
Dickstein: No, my intention was really to modernize the Hebrew education I had already had at the yeshiva. I wanted to update the rather old-fashioned education I’d had by learning more about modern Hebrew, Biblical scholarship, and Jewish philosophy.
Boynton: In Gates of Eden you describe attending a reading of Ginsberg’s Kaddish on a Friday night on the Lower East Side. You write, “for the first time I knew that poetry meant more to me than faith or ritual.” Was this your religious crisis?
Dickstein: Oddly enough, being at JTS didn’t involve any religious commitment. I was still keeping kosher, and did so for many years after that. I didn’t strictly observe the Sabbath. I was gradually moving away from Orthodox Judaism. It’s probably significant that I was taking the secular option by allying myself with someone who in many ways had Hebraic and messianic roots: Ginsberg. It used to drive him crazy when I wrote pieces about him that kept bringing him back to his Jewish origins. He once told me, “You have to come out to Naropa and study Buddhism. I’ll show you what my real background is.” I did the Seminary program for three-and-a-half years, but dropped out during my final semester at Columbia, when I wasn’t doing any work there either! But while I was at JTS I studied with all the greats on their faculty. I studied with Heschel, Halkin, Muffs, and others. But I avoided any study of the Talmud, to which I’d already been overexposed.
Boynton: Why is it that you write so much about Trilling and others at Columbia, but so little about your teachers from JTS?
Dickstein: Because this is where I was going. These secular intellectuals had the most impact on me. The people I studied with at JTS were world-class scholars but not cutting-edge intellectuals in the ways that mattered to me at the time. They represented an updating of my past rather than the future I wanted to pursue. Besides, I didn’t work that hard at it. It’s only recently that I’ve picked up some of the threads from that period, by teaching courses on the literature of the Bible, for example, or lecturing on Jewish writers.
Boynton: How did Columbia fit into that future?
Dickstein: I had loved reading since grade school, but I had never heard of anything like a literary critic, and couldn’t imagine that someone would actually pay you for doing that. So well into college I thought I’d become a journalist or perhaps a lawyer. It was only in my sophomore year in college that it dawned on me that I could continue doing what I had been doing as a student, reading and writing.
Boynton: Did any books in particular help move you towards this epiphany?
Dickstein: At the end of my sophomore year I read Jacques Barzun’s Teacher in America, which explained the profession to me, and Trilling’s The Liberal Imagination, which introduced me to literary criticism as an art and a calling.
Boynton: In your essays you often mention the impact that reading The Liberal Imagination had on you. What so drew you to it?
Dickstein: As much as anything it was the style of the book. Those essays were so seductive and beautifully written. Trilling found a way to write a critical essay that was itself a work of literature, but also a piece of writing that enabled you to track what seemed like Trilling’s actual process of mind, the way a critic really thought about a book and worked those ideas through. Whether the essays actually followed Trilling’s sequence of thinking, or whether this was a carefully crafted illusion, I didn’t know.
The other feature that attracted me was its political dimension. I had always been fascinated by politics and social history. I remember sitting up with my father to listen to the election returns in 1948. The fact that Trilling was able to pull together literature and politics appealed to me a great deal.
Boynton: I can see how it must have been inspirational to have a model like Trilling, but it must also have been quite daunting.
Dickstein: Yes, especially because he was a rather elevated figure. Almost the only classes he taught were graduate courses, which he didn’t like, or large lecture courses, in which he was very remote.
One exception was a very interesting experimental seminar he taught jointly with Daniel Bell and Steven Marcus on the Victorian Era in my last semester. As a class it didn’t really jell or come off well. The instructors were on different wave-lengths. But the theory behind the seminar was that by studying a period using documents, historical and cultural material, and literature especially, you could get between the lines of an era to what they called the “moral temper” of the times. I thought this was somewhat interesting. It wasn’t until twenty or thirty years later that I understood what an enormous impact the seminar had on me. After writing Gates of Eden, I realized I was attempting to capture the moral temper of the 60s in much the same way Trilling, Bell, and Marcus had tried to do with Victorian England in that seminar.
Boynton: Did you go directly from Columbia to graduate school?
Dickstein: I went from Columbia to Yale, where I stayed for two years. I had no idea what I was doing when I went to Yale. I had been warned that those who went to Columbia as undergraduates should not go on to graduate school there, for it was large and impersonal. I applied to Harvard, Yale, and Berkeley, but I had no idea who was teaching at any of them. I wasn’t au courant with academic scholarship.
Most of my papers in college had been close readings in the style of the New Criticism. I had found I was good at that. I loved taking texts apart, seeing what made them tick. At some point I had discovered Cleanth Brooks’s The Well Wrought Urn, and it became an alternative model of literary criticism for me. It was the kind of thing Trilling seldom did. On my first day at Yale there was an orientation session for new students; it had a program that featured Cleanth Brooks. But unfortunately, it was the Christian side of Brooks that was on display. He said, “I have read and I have known some of the great writers of our time, and as a Christian, I can say that they give me no reason for doubt.” But since doubt had been the basis of my entire undergraduate education, my intention of studying with Brooks ended that very moment.
I was at Yale on a Danforth Fellowship, which was from a religiously-oriented foundation. I got it in part because one of my Seminary professors had written me a strong recommendation. For many decades, they had given one hundred fellowships a year to Protestant gentlemen. But starting in 1957 they varied it to give ninety-seven to Protestants, two to Catholics, and one to a Jew. (Robert Alter had been that first Jew.) So even though I was there on a vaguely religious fellowship, my own approach by this point was resolutely secular.
Boynton: So I guess you didn’t study with Cleanth Brooks.
Dickstein: No. At a Danforth Fellows orientation in the Midwest, just before school started, some older Yale English grad students told me that I shouldn’t study with anyone I’d ever heard of, like Brooks, but should instead study with professors I’d never heard of, like R. W. B. Lewis, Martin Price, Charles Feidelson, and a couple of others. This excellent advice made me far less unhappy than my fellow graduate students.
Boynton: How did you end up writing your dissertation on Keats?
Dickstein: After my second year at Yale I got a Kellett Research Fellowship from Columbia to study at Clare College, Cambridge. During my year there I gravitated to the people who were most like American intellectuals, and in fact most like Trilling. My supervisor was Raymond Williams, whom Trilling introduced to America when he got Columbia University Press to publish Culture and Society and The Long Revolution. And, even though he had retired a year or two earlier, F. R. Leavis was giving an undergraduate tutorial in my residential college, which he gave me permission to audit. It was essentially a course on how to read. This was easily the highlight of my year there.
That year I planned a thesis with Williams about Victorian cultural criticism. It was going to be about Carlyle and his influence on Ruskin and Arnold and William Morris, how the very idea of culture led to a different kind of criticism from, say, utilitarian social criticism or purely aesthetic criticism. It was a study in the origins of cultural criticism, the pre-history of the kind of thing that Trilling did in his essay on the Kinsey Report, or in his book on Matthew Arnold, which meshed criticism with biography and social history. When I got back to Yale I was told that this was much too ambitious, and that the English faculty would never countenance a joint dissertation on Carlyle, Ruskin, and Arnold. So I gave up on that and had to look around for a new topic.
Two of the favorite papers I had written as a student were an essay on Keats for Steven Marcus at Columbia, and another Keats paper I had written for Fred Pottle’s Romantics course at Yale. Harold Bloom had gotten tenure the year I was at Cambridge and I showed him the Keats essays. He told me that if I reworked the papers and focused on Keats’s early work, which critics tended to ignore, I’d have a thesis. It was a great subject and I never regretted it for a moment. I never got tired of Keats. I’ll be teaching Wordsworth and Keats again this fall, so the wheel comes full circle. With their emotional weight and high moral intensity, the Romantics probably speak to something left of the religious sensibility in me.
Boynton: While in graduate school, did you feel you were preparing to become a literary critic in the mold of Trilling?
Dickstein: No, like most young writers, I wanted to give birth to myself, to shake off all influence, period. The only direct link was the desire to write for an audience broader than an academic audience, and a set of interests that were fairly wide-ranging. I had published a piece on Chekhov in an early issue of Salmagundi. I had published a few reviews in Partisan Review. One was a review of Geoffrey Hartman’s book on Wordsworth; another was a wicked little piece on Saul Bellow. Although I didn’t know it at the time, the Bellow article caused a split at Partisan Review and led him to break with the magazine, which had published all his early work. The essay was a rejoinder to a cranky talk Bellow had given at PEN. It sounded like one of Herzog’s slightly demented, complaining letters. I had loved the novel and I used it against him, and some of the Partisan Review editors used me to take him down a peg or two.
Boynton: How did such a young academic get into Partisan Review?
Dickstein: I wasn’t even an academic yet. I published my first piece there in my first year in graduate school. I had taken two courses with Steven Marcus, and he had recently become an editor at Partisan Review. It was he who wrote to me at Yale to invite me to review a book for them. I had published a senior paper I had done on Rousseau in Yale French Studies, and I must have sent a copy to Steven. So he saw that I could not only write course papers but could write intelligibly for publication.
Boynton: What was it like returning to Columbia for your first teaching job?
Dickstein: It was very exciting. The students were terrific. We were entering a period of turmoil at Columbia that distilled what was happening in the country at large. Perhaps not yet 1968, but it was 1966, and we were getting there. Politics was our daily bread. It was also thrilling to teach the humanities curriculum that had meant so much to me when I was a student. I hadn’t understood that much of it as a seventeen-year-old freshman, so it was as if I were reading the basic works, the landmarks of Western culture, for the first time. This was a tremendous adventure.
One of the disabling things about the Columbia curriculum was that it encouraged an affinity only for the greatest texts. Later on, when I gravitated toward American literature where there is very little that is up there in the pantheon with Cervantes and Rabelais it went against those earlier instincts, which told me wrongly! that America had produced only a minor, provincial literature, in short, that you don’t waste your time on anything but the greatest, most seminal works.
Boynton: But other than Keats, you’ve spent your whole career writing about literature American or otherwise that would not be judged as great according to this criterion. How did you make the transition?
Dickstein: In part because I soon came to see literature as part of an ongoing social or cultural history. Also, around the same time, I started reviewing books, for the most part contemporary books, which were by definition hit-or-miss. The second book I reviewed for Partisan Review was a collection of stories by Ivan Gold, who had also been a student of Trilling’s. I felt that no matter what your area of scholarly expertise, you should also keep up with contemporary literature, because that was your culture, part of the experience of your own age. Decades earlier, while Trilling was teaching Victorian literature, he was writing about James Agee! Although I wasn’t conscious of it, that must have been some kind of model for me. And the fact that I was writing about modern literature but was also strongly drawn to the Romantic writers also had to be influenced by Trilling and Marcus, who had both done the same.
Boynton: Still, it’s a long way from reviewing books for Partisan Review to becoming the kind of cultural critic you’ve fashioned yourself into. How did that happen?
Dickstein: In 1968, ten years after I heard Ginsberg read Kaddish, he came back to Columbia to read poems that would eventually be published in Planet News, which collected his work from the 1960s. I was very taken with them. I had an idea of doing a piece about Ginsberg for Commentary, but I didn’t want to do it strictly as a literary essay. Instead, I saw all the currents of the 60s flowing through Ginsberg. So I used the poetry as an occasion to talk about the differences between the 50s and the 60s: how the new young novelists, like Pynchon and Heller, were different from the 50s novelists, such as Bellow and Malamud. There was an implied history, a great deal about cultural rather than literary matters. I showed the piece to a book editor I had known at Columbia (Erwin Glikes, who was then at Basic Books), and he thought it could be expanded into a book on the 60s. As an editor Erwin was a great midwife, wonderful at conceiving how a book could be done. I did an outline of nine chapters. And that was Gates of Eden.
Boynton: You’ve told me that you are reluctant to write autobiographically, but there is a fairly strong sense of autobiography throughout that book.
Dickstein: I felt that I had not just textual but personal experience to bring to bear not just experiences with protest demonstrations, rock concerts, and pot-smoking sessions but with the elusive inner life of the period. So it ended up being a kind of hybrid that was part criticism, part cultural history, with some autobiography. I wrote about the mentors who had attracted me in college, the prophets of liberation who later presided over the decade. The book took me a couple of years longer than I thought it would. Part of this was because I had trouble sitting down to write the last chapter, which was the most autobiographical. A friend of mine later told me that it was Trilling’s death in 1975 that enabled me to write the final chapter. It must have freed me from the surveillance of an intellectual superego.
Boynton: You seem to be one of many critics and students who have been haunted by Trilling.
Dickstein: Yes, while he had a powerful, and in many ways positive, impact on younger writers including fiction writers he also was a great burden to them. He had very exacting standards and he was never pleased. I know writers who were paralyzed by this.
Boynton: How did interacting with so many “great” critics Trilling, Williams, Leavis, Bell, Marcus, Dupee, Bloom influence your own expectations for what criticism could be?
Dickstein: It gave me an unlikely affinity for the critics of that generation and made it harder for me to connect with critics of the generation after mine, the “theory generation,” whose style I found difficult to get down. Those “great” critics offered an appealing model of the generalist, but a rather special kind of a generalist. Not the generalist who becomes a talking head on McNeil-Lehrer, but the generalist who writes for the quarterlies or for the TLS. More like the Victorian men of letters, with a sense of tradition and a strong intellectual conscience, sometimes grappling with difficult philosophical issues. There is a widespread misconception that the New York intellectuals were the popular, accessible intellectuals of their period, when in fact they had a small audience. Partisan Review had a circulation of six or eight thousand at most. It was only in their last years, when they were perhaps not doing their best work and especially after their deaths that they were retrospectively canonized as the “last” American intellectuals, and perhaps the most impressive critics of their time. This was nostalgic, inaccurate, and unfair to those who followed them.
Boynton: Yes, it has always struck me that many of the people who most often praise the New York intellectuals clearly haven’t read them. They are in love with the idea of this group, but haven’t taken the time to grapple with the reality, which is that their texts were often quite demanding and specialized. Their serious work, like Phillip Rahv on Henry James or Trilling on Matthew Arnold, was anything but the work of a “generalist.” Or rather, they were very different from the way we conceive of generalists today. Someone like Trilling was a “generalist” only in the sense that he brought many different interests to bear on particular texts, such as when he wrote about Freud or the Kinsey Report.
Dickstein: Right. They were writing for a small but not strictly academic audience. There were plenty of hip, intelligent readers who weren’t at universities, who had intellectual aspirations and cultural interests, who read Partisan Review because it was the thing you read in order to keep up, to be cultured. It was almost the definition of seriousness for a certain class of people. For decades it was synonymous with highbrow, always good for a laugh.
From a later perspective, their so-called generalism was quite narrow. It rarely included anything to do with popular culture, which was one of my quarrels with them. I also had trouble with their strong anti-Communist position during the Cold War. It went back to experiences in the 30s that meant little or nothing to me. They were classic cold war liberals, and I was not. Coming of age during the 60s an age of great music and great new films I felt a strong affinity for popular culture, and for blurring the lines between different branches of the old cultural hierarchy. And that put me very much at odds with that older generation, though it didn’t quite give me the pop sensibility of the cultural studies generation that followed mine. I found the notion of “textuality” undiscriminating, since the arts had developed special ways of making their effect. I held on to differences between art and entertainment, literature and pulp writing, though I enjoyed both and could see where they overlapped.
Boynton: In Double Agent you asked whether meaningful criticism is still possible, or whether the professionalization of criticism has turned it into just another academic field where the “criticism of criticism” occupies a comfortable niche. How would you answer that question today?
Dickstein: I’m afraid both are true. The kind of criticism that responds vitally to art with strong literary judgment and a keen interpretive eye will always be available, but the canons of the profession discourage it. Literary commentary has been hemmed in by institutional pressures. As universities and their English departments have increased in size, literature and literary studies have been marginalized in the general culture, along with reading itself. This has increased the pressure on critics to be less intuitive and more “professional.” This began long ago, as literary scholarship became more technical: philological criticism a hundred years ago and New Criticism fifty years ago were trying to be more scientific than the old belletristic criticism. Now, from our perspective, the New Critics look belletristic, but from their point of view, they were much more rigorous than the gentleman “men of letters” they detested.
Jeff Williams once sent me a very good piece he wrote about the new fascination with the public critic and the public intellectual in the 90s; he described it as a turn toward the “belletristic.” But I think he doesn’t quite understand the invidious connotation of belletristic for the generation of public intellectuals I grew up reading. They thought it meant someone totally unserious, like some late Victorian gentleman essayist.
So academic criticism became highly specialized and quite separate from literary journalism. Theory was simply another step in this direction, with the old empirical constraints tossed overboard. But some theory went too far toward the politically correct, toward a more jargon-ridden specialization, and toward a criticism that not only had very little relation to literature, but was actually hostile to literature and to real authors. The “hermeneutics of suspicion” meant that your initial reaction to writers you’d been drawn to, partly out of admiration, was to find out what was wrong with them, what was flawed about them. Ideological critique took the place of interpretive reading.
But there was also a reaction against the “theory wave,” and much of what we’ve seen in the 90s autobiographical criticism, public intellectual writing, more accessible forms of social criticism have been reactions against the private quality of so much academic scholarship in the 70s and the 80s, against work that sometimes raised interesting questions but seemed addressed to a coterie of the like-minded. Now many former theorists have been reaching out to a wide audience in more personal ways. Theory reached a dead end, and it’s only human for a writer to want to be read. Besides, the post-Communist era hasn’t been kind to the politically-correct.
Boynton: One aspect of Double Agent I liked when I first read it was that you rejected the Spenglerian pessimism about contemporary criticism. You wrote, “the notion of the critic as generalist is very much alive today among younger writers in magazines as different as the Village Voice, the New Criterion, the New Yorker, Threepenny Review, Salmagundi and Vanity Fair. I could list two dozen superb young critics still in their thirties and forties who write for such general magazines.” But then you left me feeling cheated because you don’t name any of them!
Dickstein: I got into a lot of trouble because of that. Some otherwise favorable reviews gave me grief because I didn’t name names. I probably wounded some egos. The names I had in mind were critics like Luke Menand, Bruce Bawer, Paul Berman, Jed Perl, Mary Gordon, Andrew Delbanco, Sven Birkerts, Katha Pollitt, and Adam Gopnik. If I were making a list today I’d add Joan Acocella, James Wood, Geoffrey O’Brien, and Martin Amis.
Boynton: But there probably isn’t anyone on that list, except perhaps James Wood, who is under thirty-five.
Dickstein: Well the names I first mentioned were all in their thirties or early forties when I wrote that.
Boynton: Do you see a similarly gifted generation coming up behind them?
Dickstein: They are probably there, but I’m not necessarily the one to spot them. There are some first-rate critics writing for online magazines like Slate and Salon, which are more open to young writers than most print journals. The Times has a couple of superb young movie critics, including A. O. Scott and Elvis Mitchell. They bring to bear a new style, a different set of interests. So does the fine young music critic of the New Yorker, Alex Ross.
Boynton: So what contemporary critics do you admire?
Dickstein: I tremendously admire people who, though they began with some form of academic specialization, work their way through to the broad, general interests that underlie their field. They still call upon the strengths of their scholarship, but bring it to bear on a much wider area.
The sociologist Alan Wolfe, for example, is almost the ideal public intellectual. He can beautifully summarize almost any large social issue, and bring both wide reading and plain common sense to bear on it. He and I taught courses together at Queens College, where we loved poaching on each others’ fields. I know that when he went up to Boston he developed a personal relationship with some of the surviving social scientists of what he calls “the golden age of sociology” people like David Riesman and Daniel Bell because he felt more of an identification with them than he did with the more specialized sociologists of the next generation.
Skip Gates did the same thing. At the height of the theory period he was making his reputation by writing some very recondite things, earning the respect of his academic peers. But by the early 90s he was successfully addressing a much larger audience on a slew of literary and social issues.
Boynton: There is a passage in Double Agent where you question whether the academic star system has an adverse influence on the work itself. You write, “If the object of criticism is to gain attention, then our star academics certainly have the public’s ear. Why, then, do I feel that this splendid uproar, though sometimes good for professors’ salaries, has been less than ideal for criticism itself, especially the kind of cultural criticism to which this book is largely devoted?”
Dickstein: What I object to about the academic star system isn’t the ego involved, or the lemming-like movement of people at the MLA to the “star” sessions, or the vapidity of those sessions. It is the fact that during the theory years, not only theory itself, but various subsets of theory, developed a high degree of academic insularity. Marxist criticism and psychoanalytic criticism, reader-response criticism and post-colonial criticism led to the domination of methodology over what the subject of criticism might have been, which is literature, literary history, or the cultural object. The star system is very closely related to the marketing techniques by which each of these “stars” developed a recognizable method, one that could be imitated and reproduced. It’s that processing of literature through an advanced set of categories through a strict methodological paradigm, that then becomes your “corporate signature” or “brand” that I find difficult to take. The only thing that troubled me more were the critics who were so trendy that they shifted quickly from one brand to another, presenting a moving target. As soon as their latest tricks were exposed, they were on to something else! Criticism fell victim to the shifting tides of intellectual fashion.
Boynton: So I guess you don’t like the star system?
Dickstein: Well, it’s not an entirely dark picture. Some of the smartest, most energetic, most wide-ranging people in the profession became stars and became known for particular methodologies. And some of the most brilliant graduate students were attracted to them because these approaches could be intellectually very challenging.
There is an institutional basis for this. The academic job market collapsed, so that branding became a convenient way of creating a niche for yourself, to compensate for the fact that the broad range of jobs that once existed no longer did. For young scholars it became a device to compensate for the failures of the job market and the academic recession, but it was a device that worked against the power of literary criticism itself. There was very little of what I would consider criticism in the work done according to these theoretical methodologies.
Boynton: Are there any movements in contemporary criticism that intrigue you?
Dickstein: I was fascinated in the early 90s when critics wrote more personally and autobiographically. It was something I had done intuitively twenty years earlier. But since I believe that the basis of all criticism is autobiographical, that genuine criticism is ineluctably personal, I hope this doesn’t turn into the flavor-of-the-moment. One astute observer of this trend told me that a publisher had already asked him barely a year after it started go edit an anthology of autobiographical criticism.
A further problem is that not all autobiography is equally interesting. Soon after this criticism became fashionable, a number of writers brought in details that were boring, irrelevant, tasteless not everyone has something worthwhile to say autobiographically. It made me long for the older, more detached kind of criticism.
Boynton: How would you describe the critical stance which has come to fruition in a book like Leopards in the Temple?
Dickstein: Criticism nlike literature, but like translation dates rapidly. We very quickly perceive the stylistic presuppositions of the translation, and just as quickly see the intellectual suppositions of a critical essay. Criticism tends to survive not because of its ideas, which are soon either assimilated or forgotten, but because of its style. Very few people would read T. S. Eliot’s criticism today except as a moment in the evolution in modernism or an illumination of his own poetry, but for the fact that some of those essays are very well-turned: gnarled, crabby, wonderfully eccentric pieces of writing. That’s why some of the Victorian critics remain readable, and why modern critics like Trilling remain readable because of the elegance of their attack. Their idiosyncratic sensibility still engages us.
Criticism must spring from a personal engagement with a writer or text. Like all good writing, it should flow from something deep inside you. It turns intuition into discourse. It’s an interrogation of the gut response you had in the moment of reading, the moment when something you’ve read before seems suddenly different, or connected to things in a new way. The role of the critic is to unpack those fugitive intuitions, to open up the text to new and larger contexts, to see the way the language functions.
Great critics often write aphoristically, with bold leaps of metaphor and association. They’re invariably masters of the rhetoric of persuasion. Look at Hazlitt, Coleridge, or Arnold. The best critics have always been remarkable writers.
Boynton: In Irving Howe’s essay on the New York intellectuals he underscores the sense of “relatedness” that they felt. He writes, “One shorthand way of describing their situation, a cause of both their feverish intensity and their recurrent instability, is to say that they came late.” I sometimes get the feeling from your books that you share this sense of belatedness.
Dickstein: Everybody in the modern periods feels that he’s come late. T. S. Eliot felt he had come late to the Middle Ages, or the seventeenth century. That’s why we have so many “posts”, whether it is post-modernism or post-structuralism.
I felt a particular sense of belatedness because of my strong identification with the critics and intellectuals of a slightly earlier generation. I also felt a belatedness because I had come late to the works that most inspired them, which were the great modernist classics of the 20s. I don’t think Trilling and his contemporaries understood that we who read Eliot and Joyce and Pound and Proust and Kafka and Mann in the late 50s and early 60s were just as excited and transformed by them as his generation, reading them in 1920-30.
Boynton: Why was Trilling so reluctant to recognize this?
Dickstein: Trilling was enormously cranky, and he thought about things by being discontented with them. After several decades of teaching he was extremely disaffected with his students something that comes out in his essay on the teaching of modern literature, in which he essentially writes them off. Perhaps it was a rhetorical ploy, but since I was one of his students at the time, I was quite insulted by it. I felt that our generation at Columbia was one of the best student generations there, that we were right up there with the earlier generation of Norman Podhoretz, Richard Howard, and John Hollander in the late 40s. I know this sounds grandiose, but, hell, it was an exciting time. We felt the whole culture was opening up, and we were part of it.
Boynton: Why are you writing your next book on the 30s?
Dickstein: I hesitated to write about the 30s because I worried that it would be too much like the 60s another period of radicalism when culture and politics converged. I worked on it for a couple of years before I realized how different it was. The 60s were a product of the postwar culture of affluence, while the 30s were a product of the Depression. And how different the issues were: because of the centrality of the Communist Party, because I so loved the movies of the 30s, and because the economic situation created a whole other set of concerns.
It is a book like Gates of Eden in the sense that it uses literature and film and music as a way of reading the larger social text. I want to get at something elusive in the temper of the 30s that an historian working with more directly documentary material would have a hard time pinning down, the whole tenor of life, you might say.
Boynton: So you’re back to that Columbia seminar with Bell, Trilling, and Marcus.
Dickstein: Yes, in a way, my work still bears the mark of what they were trying to do with Victorian culture in that course. I guess I understood something after all.