An esteemed cultural and literary critic charts the intellectual and religious paths of his early years, sometimes saying too much in the process.
In this varyingly astute and chatty memoir, Dickstein (Emeritus, English and Theater/CUNY Graduate Center; Dancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression, 2009, etc.) recalls his journey from Lower East Side yeshiva boy to Ivy League academic and critic. Along the way, he lost inhibitions, struggled against ingrained Jewish beliefs and customs, and contracted at least as many neuroses as he shed. Dickstein had the good fortune to come of age during the late 1950s and 1960s, when books (and eventually movies) were still at the center of cultural debate. The author was part of that conversation, and he leaves indelible portraits of his contemporaries and mentors. There’s the brilliant Lionel Trilling, who tended to wing his way through lectures; F.R. Leavis, a “slash and burn” critic cowed by his imperious wife; and the redoubtable Harold Bloom, who even then was already the smartest guy in every room. Dickstein also ably captures his own nervous embrace of secular culture, as the world of his youth proved all but impervious to assault. “As a freethinking intelligence yet a child of the ghetto, a vagrant offshoot of a venerable tradition,” he writes, “I would either learn to live with contradictions or perish under their weight.” He was both old and young; a member of the Columbia University establishment during the protests of 1968, his sympathies were squarely on the side of the students. He’s still that young man in many ways; while the book can get long-winded, especially as he recalls trips abroad, Dickstein hasn’t lost his zeal for art or ideas or his passion for writing about them.
There’s a compelling story in this late-in-life memoir, which is at its best when Dickstein sticks to that story.