In his new memoir Why Not Say What Happened (an apt line borrowed from poet Robert Lowell), the distinguished critic, professor, scholar, and book author Morris Dickstein adds a particularly telling subtitle: “A Sentimental Education.” Even those who haven’t read Flaubert’s second most famous novel (Sentimental Education is usually alluded to after Madame Bovary) will have no trouble getting the gist of that.
It’s the sort of subtitle (restrained, modest, and tasteful) that is spot-on for this type of restrained, modest, and tasteful memoir. Most importantly of all is that in Why Not Say What Happened, a looming gap is filled. Memoirs abound about coming of age in the 1950s and 1960s, but this one’s different: Books are in this author’s DNA, and therefore the life-transforming effects of studious reading are ultimate issues.
Another great element in Dickstein’s generously spirited autobiography is that he charts the course of a life that repeatedly dovetails with monumental cultural shifts, which have in many other chronicles evolved into clichés about the 1950s and the 1960s. Those decades have been routinely reduced to “conformist” vs. “radical.”
Morris Dickstein was born in 1940 into an extremely conservative, Jewish-American environment on the Lower East Side of New York City. While making his way from his youth as an academic maven in yeshiva school to being a superlative university student of literature and history (Dickstein passed muster at Columbia, Yale, and Cambridge as he segued out of the Fifties and into the Sixties), he constantly noted the connections between past and present. How so?
One example: before Beat poet Allen Ginsberg acquired any respect in the academy, Dickstein clearly ascertained that there was, indeed, a clear and discernible line to be drawn that connected the author of “Howl” with the work of English Romantic poet William Blake and also the 19th-century “barbaric yawp” of Walt Whitman.
But it wasn’t just the contrasts between seminars dominated by the Great Books paradigm and the increasingly noisy world outside that created conflict and tension in Dickstein’s early years—there was also his intimidating sense that to be plunging so headlong into university life was a one-way ticket far and away from the Jewish orthodoxies of his childhood and adolescence.
Unlike archetypal young rebels seeking to break away from all aspects of family “tradition,” Dickstein had no such simple impulses. He wanted to retain certain connections to some of what had defined his boyhood-to-manhood formation in the milieus of his yeshiva, a kosher home, Zionist summer camps, his first jobs in the Catskills, and family life.
And yet, he was driven to aspire to secular academic excellence, with a career as a professor always in view. Such an exalted goal was a given in the life and the mind of Dickstein, whose willingness to work like a yeoman with books and ideas led to esteemed professors and critics a’ la F. R. Leavis, Lionel Trilling, and later on Harold Bloom becoming his mentors. By age 30, in 1970, Dickstein’s career was launched.
The heart of this memoir is revealed again and again as we see in the arc of the author’s life that while he was always steeped in Old World classroom protocols throughout his student years, he was also aware at all times of the wider world’s cacophony and tumult and how it was affecting his generation, more and more.
Dickstein writes: “There were also momentous changes in the arts that kindled and channeled a new rebellious spirit: often scandalous Beat poetry readings before immense audiences like the one at Columbia in 1959; the lively bohemian folk music and coffeehouse scene that blossomed in Greenwich Village and in college towns, its roots in the old left-wing protest culture of the 1930s; the mind-bending new wave of foreign and low-budget independent films that challenged the Hollywood system and ushered in an exceptional moment of moviemaking and cinephilia; a vibrant modern jazz scene, linked with both Beat poetry and abstract expressionist art; and a restless, adventurous off-Broadway theater featuring the most innovative modern playwrights like Luigi Pirandello, Samuel Beckett, and Bertolt Brecht alongside provocative young American writers such as Edward Albee and Jack Gelber.”
That sweeping assessment of the New York ambiance surrounding Columbia University as America tipped into the Sixties is the perfect sequel to Dickstein’s earlier anecdote about “a peculiar standoff [that] developed between me and my Hebrew teachers . . . One of them, 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. Instead of tearing the book up in front of the class, as he would have done with a comic book, he stared at it blankly, as at a foreign body that had insinuated itself into Jewish life.”
Such royal paradoxes inform the book throughout. And it’s no shock to the reader that gradually, incrementally, as the narrative peaks in the late 1960s and early 1970s, we see Morris Dickstein bridging the gap between the Old Guard of the patriarchal academe and the student radicals who succeeding at shutting down Columbia University in April 1968, the same month Martin Luther King was killed.
At its most personal, Why Not Say What Happened also offers readers a great love story, because in addition to his storied career as an intellectual maverick, the author’s life has also been defined by one marriage (of fifty years) and the joys he discovered when rising to the challenges of fatherhood. A life of blessings, indeed.
In 2015, as Twitter and texting reduce human interactions to fleeting, oftentimes idiotic jabbering, a memoir as textured, bookish, and capacious as Why Not Say What Happened affirms not just the life’s work of Morris Dickstein, but the life of the mind.
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