A renowned cultural critic tells his own deeply engaging story of growing up in the turbulent American culture of the postwar decades.
At once a coming-of-age story, an intellectual autobiography, and vivid cultural history, Why Not Say What Happened is an eloquent, gripping account of an intellectual and emotional education from one of our leading critics. In this "acutely observed, slyly funny memoir" (Molly Haskell), Morris Dickstein evokes his boisterous and close-knit Jewish family, his years as a yeshiva student that eventually led to fierce rebellion, his teenage adventures in the Catskills and in a Zionist summer camp, and the later education that thrust him into a life-changing world of ideas and far-reaching literary traditions. Dickstein brilliantly depicts the tension between the parochial religious world of his youth and the siren call of a larger cosmopolitan culture, a rebellion that manifested itself in a yarmulka replaced by Yankees cap, a Shakespeare play concealed behind a heavy tractate of the Talmud, and classes cut on Wednesday afternoons to take in the Broadway theater.
Tracing a path from the Lower East Side to Columbia University, Yale, and Cambridge, Dickstein leaves home, travels widely, and falls in love, breaking through to new experiences of intimacy and sexual awakening, only to be brought low by emotional conflicts that beset him as a graduate student—homesickness, a sense of cultural dislocation—issues that come to a head during a troubled year abroad. In Why Not Say What Happened we see Dickstein come into his own as a teacher and writer deeply engaged with poetry: the "daringly modern" Blake, the bittersweet "negotiations of time and loss" in Wordsworth, and the "shifting turns of consciousness itself" in Keats. While eloquently evoking the tumult of the sixties and a culture in flux, Why Not Say What Happened is enlivened by Dickstein's "Zelig-like presence at nearly every significant aesthetic and political turning of the second half of the American twentieth century" (Cynthia Ozick). Dickstein crafts memorable portraits of his own mentors and legendary teachers like Lionel Trilling, Peter Gay, F. R. Leavis, and Harold Bloom, who become inimitable role models. They provide him with a world-class understanding of how to read and nourish his burgeoning feeling for literature and history. In the tradition of classic memoirs by Alfred Kazin and Irving Howe, this frank and revealing story, at once keenly personal and broadly cultural, sheds light on the many different forms education can take.
A young man navigates the tensions between his Orthodox Jewish background and his calling as a literary intellectual in this rich coming-of-age memoir. Dickstein (Dancing in the Dark), an English professor and cultural historian, wanders episodically from his boyhood as a yeshiva student in New York in the 1950s, surrounded by a close-knit, eternally kvetching immigrant family, through adolescence, when his religious strictures were gradually displaced by books and a usually unrequited interest in girls, to his budding academic career at Columbia and Yale. It's a mainly quiet and interior narrative of observation and reflection on ordinary life; Dickstein's maturation is propelled by summer jobs, trips abroad, persistent conflicts between kosher living and the allure of secular lifestyles, strong friendships, and a deeply felt, luminously described romance with his future wife. Scholarship emerges as an engrossing, even adventurous activity in his vivid descriptions of often brilliant though sometimes lousy classroom lectures and seminars; his evocative portraits of such writers and critics as Lionel Trilling, Susan Sontag, and Harold Bloom; and his probing appreciations of novelists and poets (an extended exegesis of Keats is a tour de force). Dickstein's rapt, unabashed delight in literature and his willingness to let it inform his own experience make for an indelible account of the life of the mind. Photos.