Why Not Say What Happened: 
A Sentimental Education

by morris dickstein

norton, 320 pages, $27.95

For nearly five decades, ­Morris Dickstein has been a recognized figure in the New York intellectual scene and the academic humanities. This well-known cultural historian and critic has now written a memoir of his life leading up to that ­professional maturation, covering his childhood and early adulthood in the middle decades of the twentieth ­century.

It is a tale of Jewish upbringing in the Lower East Side and Queens, summers in Long Island and the Catskills, undergraduate days at Columbia, a Grand Tour of Europe (avoiding Germany) and the Middle East, a scholarship year at Cambridge, graduate school at Yale, marriage and children, and assistant professorship at Columbia, where a denial of tenure and subsequent departure for Queens College ends the story.

He is only thirty years old at that point but already has participated in seminal events of postwar American history. His grandparents and parents are colorful working-class figures whose homes have outhouses but whose prosperity is rising. Their son’s entry into the Ivy League and the New York Times exemplifies the surge of young Jews into mainstream professions and WASP enclaves, as well as their loss of religious observance. He mingles with the New York Intellectuals, publishing in Partisan Review, the New Republic, and Commentary just as that golden age of ideas and ideologies is waning, and he welcomes the Beats and rock and roll just as they begin their conquest of mass culture. The sexual revolution swirls around him as he meets his future wife and experiences sex as a sensuous awakening (“with L my awkwardness and shyness were miraculously dispelled”).

In his progress from Great Books classes at Columbia to F. R. Leavis’s evaluative criticism at Cambridge to Yale’s English department in the mid-sixties, Dickstein’s path parallels the extraordinary transformation of the humanities from a traditionalist study of the best that has been thought and said to a theoretical inquest into the nature of representation, in his case under the tutelage of the young ­Geoffrey Hartman and Harold Bloom.

A committed liberal, he joins an antiwar rally in Central Park and marches to the United Nations behind Martin Luther King, Jr. He hops on a bus with his wife to make the gathering at the Lincoln Memorial and heads across the river to the Pentagon along with Norman Mailer, who recorded the episode in The Armies of the Night, and Abbie Hoffman and Allen Ginsberg, who try to “levitate” the building. And he watches in troubled sympathy in 1968 as Columbia students occupy the administration buildings (“I saw the campus I loved turned into a war zone”).

As these cultural events and trends unfold in Dickstein’s account, however, another plot fills the foreground: the bildung of the boy, teenager, man. As we move through the forties, fifties, and sixties, emphasis falls on Dickstein’s feelings and beliefs; his personal misadventures, ailings, and anxieties; chance encounters such as a tense cab ride with Susan Sontag; the impact of Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Keats, and Dickens. The subtitle “A Sentimental Education” signals an account of the formation of a sensibility more than it does the history of a turbulent era or a list of academic accomplishments. The action echoes Rousseau’s Confessions and Flaubert’s Sentimental Education, plus a little of Philip Roth’s ­Portnoy in the adolescent years.

One scene nicely draws out the development in process. At fifteen years old, Dickstein feels stuck in a “Yeshiva backwater” studying the Talmud, which “had grown tasteless to me.” An impudent kid, he can’t keep his mouth shut and do the work, but instead takes to mocking teachers and sneaking peeks into livelier things. At one point, one teacher in class,

having spied me reading ­something behind my Talmud volume, swooped down on me and seized not a comic book, as he ­expected, but a slim volume of the Yale Shakespeare—appro­priately, As You Like It, a play about leaving the city and the court behind, to find passion and regeneration in more natural surroundings, just what was missing on the Lower East Side.

It’s a whimsical moment, but a significant one. As You Like It evokes an idyllic world of love and play, with an undercurrent of melancholy. ­Dickstein’s sentiments aren’t aimed toward the dark side of things or the law that holds it at bay. He wants to enjoy Shakespeare’s comic imagination. The real and lasting contrast is between two texts, one from his Jewish heritage and the other from the European literary canon. They reflect the conflict that runs throughout his early life.

So we have a studious, ambitious, smart-alecky kid whose spiritual strivings drive him to the novel, not the Pentateuch. He majors in English, not the Torah. Dickstein’s renditions of fun at camp, sex with his wife, nervous reactions to awkward situations, and run-ins with academic and religious authorities are engaging and believable, but familiar. The compelling drama is educational: his discovery of Romantic poetry, classic coming-of-age novels, films by Buñuel, Welles, and Eisenstein, and social theorists from Marx to Hayek. They exhilarate him. It’s a personal pursuit, not an academic one. He joins the Literary Guild and the Reader’s Digest Condensed Book Club to keep up with bestsellers, edits student newspapers, and tracks the day’s cutting-edge intellectuals (Paul Goodman, Norman O. Brown, Norman Podhoretz).

The classroom is where his passion for self-discovery in literature reaches an existential climax. Given the perfunctory air of professors and careerist motives of students today, we can barely imagine the challenge and intensity of ­Dickstein’s sessions with Lionel Trilling, Peter Gay, and others, but he details them as if they were the testing ground of his progress. Not that they were all great teachers. Trilling was “uneven,” he reports. But students approached the class meeting as an exciting and unpredictable encounter, and the teachers did, too. There, one might receive an illumination—or fail and face disappointment. Dickstein admits, “It’s strange that I should be writing about my undergraduate courses and teachers more than half a century later.” But the explanation is self-evident: “the best of these were not simply courses but life-altering experiences.”

Everyone felt the pressure, even the renowned Leavis. Dickstein describes weekly classes with him at Cambridge. The topic was Dickens, whom Leavis had previously dispraised. Rumor had it that Leavis had changed his mind, and the students were intrigued. (Can you possibly conceive of American undergraduates in 2015 caring so much about what a professor thinks of a nineteenth-century writer?) The last session was on Little Dorrit:

When the day came, Leavis arrived with the usual stack of passages, which he distributed to us, since his method was to build directly on the words of the text. He tried one, then another, then another, but the session stubbornly refused to take wing. He seemed for once inarticulate.

The fall term ended and so did the official course, but Leavis asked for another chance after Christmas break. The students agreed and they met in January, but “still, no tack he tried seemed to work.” Leavis then asked for another meeting the following week, and he arrived with more pages. The result: “Of what he said that morning I recall nothing, only the sense that it clicked from the first moment and never let up. Like an actor in synch with his audience, he felt the connection and so did we.”

Those classroom revelations launched Dickstein into an academic career, and books on Keats, the counterculture, American literary realism, American pragmatism, and popular culture during the Depression followed. The memoir ends in 1970, which is a fortuitous moment for him. The counterculture he enjoys has ­exploded into mainstream culture, while the traditional humanities, which he loves, still dominate higher education. But not for long. In the 1980s, his favorite authors were grouped as Dead White Males and his admired teachers pushed aside by ­deconstruction, feminism, post-colonialism, and other theoretical schools. It would be a welcome sequel if Dickstein were to continue his biographia literaria from 1971 onward, to see what became of his inspiration as postmodernism and identity politics inundated literary studies.

He does, however, provide a hint of the world to come in a telling incident at Yale. It’s another exchange with a professor—Harold Bloom, who serves as his thesis director. As Dickstein nears the end of the project, a flash of doubt strikes. Much of his argument rests on a reading of Keats’s lyric “In drear-nighted December,” and in a “last-minute panic,” Dickstein wonders if he got it right. He meets Bloom in his home and explains his concerns. Bloom doesn’t see the problem. “Well,” Dickstein says, “it’s my reading, the reference, the ‘it’—I thought I might be, well, wrong.” Bloom looks puzzled; he pauses and thinks, then replies, “It’s just as plausible as any other reading.” Dickstein hears no cynicism in Bloom’s voice, only a protective assurance, and it gives him confidence to proceed.

Nevertheless, “for years afterward his reaction resonated with me.” It was a glimpse of the coming attitude, which cast every interpretation as a construct and a position, not a determination of the poem’s truth. Dickstein notes that Bloom later famously renounced that easy relativism and regretted “the corrosive effects of literary theory.”

Literature was Dickstein’s Torah. He grew up with and through Songs of Innocence and Experience, The Trial, Great Expectations, “Ode on Melancholy,” and more. They equipped him for living; they were his passion and faith. As a graduate student at Yale, he dedicated his future to reading, writing, and talking about them. When Dickstein heard Bloom say that it didn’t really matter what he thought about the poem, it must have shaken his understanding of literature as the education for life. It was like a rabbi whispering to an earnest yeshiva student, “Now, let’s not take all this too seriously.”

He was a grad student in a hurry to finish and the brilliant professor was offering paternal advice. It made sense for Dickstein to accept Bloom’s deflating comment and continue. After all, it’s reassuring to be told that less is at stake than you had feared. I wonder, however, whether that long-ago encounter was more complicated than it seems. Perhaps it marked a test on Bloom’s part, or even an unconscious plea, as if the soon-to-be-acclaimed literary theorist would have been gratified if Dickstein had replied, “But I want my reading to be more plausible than any other. I want it to be sharp and evocative and true.”  

Mark Bauerlein is senior editor of First Things.