A Midcentury Journey

Morris Dickstein left Jewish Orthodoxy, but never embraced a Mailer-like egotism.

In any moderately literate and moderately free society there is always and inevitably a “battle of the books” (as Swift put it) as part of a larger “culture war,” either chronic or acute: a battle over beliefs and values as articulated and conveyed in books and films, school curricula, and music and art works, as well as in political elections and legislation. As the cultural critic Morris Dickstein noted in 1997, “We are a nation . . . at war over basic social and moral values.” But we are also part of an increasingly interdependent global culture where a similar “Kulturkampf” is being waged.

One of Dickstein’s teachers, Harold Bloom, has been very influential in the world of literary criticism and literary studies — of how and what our very brightest students read in college and graduate school — and both Dickstein and Bloom, ten years apart in age (Bloom was born in 1930 and Dickstein in 1940), are important figures in a massive cultural-social development in post–World War II America: the emergence of Jewish intellectuals in positions of prominence in American cultural life. There is a great and grievous irony behind this emergence, itself a proof of the promise of American life through mobility: The last 75 years have represented both a Hell and a Promised Land for Jews. The Hell was, of course, the German Holocaust of 1938–1945, which destroyed several million European Jews (and many non-Jews, particularly Slavs). The Promised Land was not so much Israel as it is the history and success of Jewish immigration to and prosperity and prominence in the United States.

In the cultural-intellectual sphere in the U.S., Jews were already heavily involved in the New York and Hollywood entertainment worlds in the 1930s, as Dickstein himself has shown in his finely wrought book Dancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Depression (2009). But it was only after World War II — after the exposure of the horrors of the Holocaust as an indubitable proof of the evil of anti-Semitism — that Jews moved into elite universities and high positions in editing and publishing, and ceased to be a marginal, embattled subculture. They are perhaps the greatest modern examples of the success of equality under the law and equality of opportunity, rights promised to them by George Washington in his 1790 Letter to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, R.I., but not systematically realized until the 1950s.

In getting tenure in the English Department at Yale in the 1960s, Bloom himself represented the arrival of Jews and the gradual weakening and eventual fading of the WASP character of elite American institutions. Disposing of snobbish WASP hegemony was a victory, but for the brilliant and ambitious Bloom there was another victory that must have been even sweeter: the overthrow at Yale of a traditionally Christian ethos that had always assumed that Judaism — if not Jews — had been superseded by Christianity. Himself a heterodox, radical, antinomian, even Gnostic Jewish thinker, Bloom saw as malignant the Anglo-Christian revival of T. S. Eliot, C. S. Lewis, Northrop Frye, and Yale’s Cleanth Brooks. By the mid-1970s its authority was gone, though eventually Bloom himself was not happy with what replaced it — various species of French-Nietzschean radicalism that established one of their main power bases at Yale itself. For the resulting ironies — history as dialectical and paradoxical rather than progressive and linear — David Lehman’s fine exposé Signs of the Times: Deconstruction and the Fall of Paul de Man (1991) is an indispensable account.

These speculations on religion, ethnicity, ideology, academic politics, and “the battle of the books” are relevant to Morris Dickstein’s poignant memoir of the first 37 years of his life, from his birth in 1940 until the publication of his influential cultural history Gates of Eden: American Culture in the Sixties, first published in 1977, reprinted in a Harvard University Press edition 20 years later with a new preface, and soon to be republished again. Dickstein’s new book, Why Not Say What Happened: A Sentimental Education (Liveright, 2015) is both memoir and intellectual-cultural history, involving a highly intelligent observer who was also a participant in the cultural changes he documents.

It is also a pervasively Jewish book. Raised in the 1940s and ’50s in Jewish communities on the Lower East Side of Manhattan and in Queens, Dickstein grew up in a devoutly Orthodox Jewish family and attended a Yeshiva. He felt as a young man a large measure of consenting agreement with this world and even served as a worship leader in school, synagogue, and Jewish summer camps. His description of the varieties of Judaism and Jewishness is a reminder of what a complex, contentious world this was and still is, in the U.S. and in Israel. The non-Jewish reader will once again marvel at the emphasis that Jews have so often put on education, culture, and separateness from the majority culture surrounding them.

Dickstein’s path from the poor Jewish Lower East Side (and then slightly more upscale Queens) to elite Columbia University and the Upper West Side is a path similar to that of Norman Podhoretz a few years earlier. Both attended Columbia but also the nearby Jewish Theological Seminary. Both were brilliant students at Columbia of the essayist, literary critic, and moralist Lionel Trilling (1905–1975), himself the first Jew to get tenure in the English Department at the then WASP bastion of Columbia around 1940. Both won Columbia traveling fellowships to Cambridge University and studied there with the critic and moralist F. R. Leavis. But Podhoretz did not finish his Ph.D. at Cambridge; he joined the U.S. Army (serving in postwar Germany) instead, then became the influential editor of the New York monthly Commentary, put out by the American Jewish Committee, while Dickstein finished his Ph.D. at Yale, where Bloom was his dissertation adviser.

Lionel Trilling had written his own Columbia dissertation on Matthew Arnold, and the published book version was very influential, especially when augmented by Trilling’s brilliant, wide-selling essay collection The Liberal Imagination (1950) and his Arnold anthology, The Portable Matthew Arnold (1949). Harold Bloom was himself to write in 1994, surprisingly for a figure so fundamentally antagonistic to Christianity, of the Christian rationalist Samuel Johnson (1709–1784) that he was “unmatched by any critic in any nation before or after him”; but for Trilling, Leavis, Podhoretz, and Dickstein, Arnold was the central figure. Unlike Johnson’s dogged Christian orthodoxy, Arnold’s liberal Christianity and cultural liberalism appealed deeply to men moving away from religious orthodoxy who nevertheless wanted to find some ethical and intellectual guidance in the literature and life of the past for the crises of the present and future. (Leavis was not Jewish but married a Jewish woman whose observant parents disowned her for the marriage.) Arnold’s graceful, nuanced essays on education, culture, and literature, and especially his 1869 treatise Culture and Anarchy (reprinted in full in Trilling’s anthology), set a model that had an incalculably great influence on Anglo-American educational thinking, 1870–1960, and also on urbane cultural critics who wished to “see life steadily and see it whole,” interested in cultural tradition as “the best that has been thought and said in the world,” but open to new and positive developments in politics, philosophy, and science. Trilling, Leavis, Podhoretz, and Dickstein were such critics.

The Sixties was the great divide. The radicalism of the Sixties, in the streets and in the universities, grievously damaged American society and civic culture, and overthrew the Arnoldian liberal compromise that had shaped the conception and delivery, and the very ethos, of liberal education for 75 years in the elite universities and even in the upper secondary schools in England and America. Trilling and Leavis had been stung by Marxism in the ’30s and eventually became “neo-conservatives” avant la lettre, increasingly alienated from revolutionary Marxism and its fellow-travelers. Then in the ’60s they grew resentful of radical rage, which they took to be infantile, self-indulgent, and dangerously antinomian. In The Dream and the Nightmare: The Sixties’ Legacy to the Underclass (1993), Myron Magnet quoted the Harvard sociologist Christopher Jencks on the differential class effects of Sixties radical libertarianism: “One way to read the Sixties is to say that it was a failed experiment whose price was paid by the Have-Nots. The rest of us landed on our feet.”

Podhoretz and Commentary eventually took the same stance against what Trilling called “modernism in the streets,” with Podhoretz returning to a religious rather than mainly ethnic-Zionist Judaism. Dickstein, instead, saw much good in the Sixties, and he chronicled and defended it effectively and influentially in Gates of Eden (1977). Why Not Say What Happened is an illuminating chronicle of the development of his views in the 20 years before Gates of Eden, with the new memoir reflecting his deepening and widening experience as an increasingly influential cultural critic in the nearly 40 years after it, which saw the publication of several of his books, including three important literary-critical books on fiction and an anthology, Great Film Directors (1978). His “Cultural History of the Great Depression,” Dancing in the Dark, is a masterpiece of its kind, taking in literature, photography, movies, music, and dance, and eschewing the quasi-utopian advocacy and loyalties of Gates of Eden.

By 1992 Dickstein was worried about the increasing radicalism of the academy and of both high and popular culture, which he had earlier welcomed. “I used to loathe empiricism for its limited horizons,” he wrote then. “I loved utopian and totalizing systems. But I’ve come to feel that only a genuinely modest and personal approach to race, class, and gender, anchored in facts and individual feelings, will really work.” By the 1990s he had become one of the key figures in the traditionalist professional splinter-group called the ALSCW, the Association of Literary Scholars, Critics, and Writers; like the neo-conservative English scholar-critic Christopher Ricks, he served as one of its presidents.

The older critics Trilling and Leavis, both teachers of Dickstein, were complex disciples of Matthew Arnold and, like him, fundamentally loyal to the Judaeo-Christian and Greco-Roman traditions, which, however, they thought more traditionalist scholars had embalmed and made “dry as dust.” Their loyalty to these traditions, and especially to the English literature these traditions had helped inspire, drew on Arnold’s appropriation of them in conceptual and verbal formulations of great and appealing power: the need for both “Hebraism” (“strictness of conscience”) and Hellenism (“spontaneity of consciousness”) and the adaptation of Biblical phrases such as “the saving remnant” and “the one thing needful.” Unlike John Henry Newman, G. K. Chesterton, T. S. Eliot, C. S. Lewis, Jacques Maritain, Northrop Frye, or Cleanth Brooks, and despite their own traditional sensibilities, Trilling and Leavis could not see their way back to traditional Jewish or Christian theism. Darwin, Marx, and Freud, for better or for worse, had closed this great door — a great movement of secularization and desacralization that left only a kind of honorable stoicism, late Victorian or late Freudian, as a legitimation of ethics and art and the basis for a decent worldview on the nightmarish history of the world from 1914 onward (Leavis was gassed in World War I).

Morris Dickstein’s progress from a narrow Judaism to a cosmopolitan intellectualism (he has edited a volume called The Revival of Pragmatism, surely an interminable philosophical half-life if ever there was one) has great personal pathos and also serves as a paradigm for these larger cultural movements over the last 75 years. In effect, the shedding of Orthodox Judaism (or Christianity) entails a large-scale personal and cultural revolution — a movement from the sacred to the profane in education and culture, and a movement from the private and public belief in “the One beyond the many” (God and the moral law), and the “strictness of conscience” that it traditionally enjoins, to a radical pluralism that cannot easily or steadily be distinguished from relativism: The relativization of the Absolute leads to the absolutization of the relative. The self becomes God. Dostoevsky unforgettably illuminates these dynamics. By contrast, however liberal and open to the future and to novelty, Arnold himself affirmed what he called “the old and true Socratic thesis of the inter-dependence of virtue and knowledge,” perhaps the bedrock of Western civilization whenever it has lived up to the spirit of those shop-worn words.

The nihilistic “transvaluation of values” that Dostoevsky critiqued and that we associate with Nietzsche (and which, via Paris, is now installed in our universities) was already underway in Nietzsche’s American predecessor Walt Whitman, who understood, as Dickstein’s sometime Columbia colleague Quentin Anderson put it, “that a rejection of Christianity in behalf of an emotional egalitarianism would have to begin with a rejection of the idea that the self was internally structured by conscience.” Thus Whitman’s life and work “add up to a remarkably radical assault on the basis of western consciousness [that is both] inclusive and . . . destructive.” Anderson’s The Imperial Self: An Essay in American Literary and Cultural History (1971) pre-dated Dickstein’s Gates of Eden by six years and provides a valuable alternative view of culture and reality, as does Daniel Bell’s equally profound but more wide-ranging The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism (1976), published a year before Dickstein’s book. From sacred to profane; from One to many; from moral universalism to radical pluralism or relativism; from a Torah-centered or logocentric consciousness to “spontaneity of consciousness” and hedonism; from ethics to aestheticism; from the self as moral agent in a rational and ethical universe to the aesthetic, post-moral self: this is a very dubious so-called emancipation, enlightenment, or liberation. “For what is liberty,” Burke wrote, “without wisdom and without virtue? It is the greatest of all possible evils” — i.e., the liberation to selfishness, criminality, or madness. It is no wonder that, as Dickstein puts it, “Trilling came to see modernism in increasingly apocalyptic terms . . . as a form of spiritual violence.”

Dickstein’s ALSCW colleague Christopher Ricks has written very movingly of John Milton as a great enemy of aestheticism and “art for art’s sake”: Milton’s art, Ricks says, “praises a verity external to itself.” The Whitman/ Nietzsche/Gide/Heidegger/Allen Ginsberg/Norman Mailer atheistic-existentialist tradition cannot, of course, do this: Everything is explicitly or implicitly a “song of myself” or an “advertisement for myself,” the assertion of sheer egotistical will. In The Dream and the Nightmare, Magnet sees Mailer, especially starting with the influential antinomian essay “The White Negro” in 1957, as the most lethal figure of the high culture that influenced the Sixties and beyond, and whose greatest victims were the growing, demoralized underclass of poor blacks, Hispanics, and whites.

Dickstein himself writes of Mailer that “No writer since Gide has written so obsessively about himself.” And with his misogyny, his sadistic-fascist cult of macho violence, his histrionic moral extremism (the American bombing of Hiroshima makes the U.S. equivalent in evil to the Nazi holocaust), Mailer, along with Gide and Heidegger (a true intellectual villain, in Fritz Stern’s formulation), is a truly satanic figure, a vividly, poisonously blooming flower of evil. Those of us who admire Morris Dickstein will be grateful that in his graduation from what he takes to be the narrowness of his childhood Judaism he never “graduated” to the sophisticated fecklessness and antinomian immoralism of Gide, Heidegger, or Mailer. We are grateful to be told by Dickstein, in Dancing in the Dark, of his reaction to Frank Capra’s “last great film, It’s a Wonderful Life”: that “few films are more genuinely moving: I can’t think of another that brings me so readily to tears.”

The tears do him honor.

M. D. Aeschliman is professor emeritus of education at Boston University and recently retired after teaching Anglophone culture for 25 years at the University of Italian Switzerland. The new edition of his The Restoration of Man: C.S. Lewis and the Continuing Case against Scientism was published by Discovery Institute Press (Seattle) in 2019 and in French by Pierre Téqui (Paris) in 2020. The French edition reprints several of his essays. He has published new editions of novels by Charles Dickens (2012) and Malcolm Muggeridge (1987).


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