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Marshall Berman, 1940-2013

2014 September 11
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(My longtime friend Marshall Berman died suddenly on September 11, 2013, just a year ago today. To mark his yahrzeit I’m posting some remarks I made at a memorial service  in November at City College, where he taught for over 45 years.)

I first met Marshall in 1958 or ‘59 when we were sophomores at Columbia – can it be that long ago? We arrived at this melting pot on Morningside Heights from different places. He was a secular Jew from the Bronx who’d already gotten a terrific education at one of New York’s elite public schools, the Bronx High School of Science. I was a yeshiva boy from the Lower East Side and Queens, who had finally rebelled against a parochial school curriculum focused as much on Talmud as on English and math. He had been left raw and vulnerable a few years earlier by the early death of his father. Living at home, growing up too soon, he was the man in the family, the source of emotional support for his widowed mother and younger sister, while I had managed (with difficulty) to break away by moving out. Though he was in history and I was in English, we shared a vast intellectual hunger fed by many of the same books: classics of the Western tradition beginning with Homer and Plato, subversive modern works from Nietzsche and Dostoevsky to T. S. Eliot, radical contemporary books by the likes of Norman Mailer, James Baldwin, Norman O. Brown, and the Beats.

When Sam Cherniak, a mutual friend, and I started a literary supplement to the Columbia Daily Spectator, Marshall was the first person we pressed to write, though writing did not come easy to him then. After insistent cajoling we extracted from him a remarkable essay on the outlaw psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich, the prophet of the orgasm, who was almost forgotten and had recently died in prison. It was a foretaste of many essays and reviews he would wrote over the next five decades, not least in its feeling for Reich’s provocative synthesis of socialism and sexuality. The conservative, puritanical mood of the 1950s was breaking up and we were eager to help bury it for good.

He was only one in our group who had a steady girlfriend, Rita, dark-haired, disturbed, voluptuous. They cleaved to each other like orphans in a storm but she would eventually break down and be hospitalized, while he would survive and thrive. Intellectually, Marshall was always getting ahead of himself, boldly taking graduate courses with Columbia’s stellar intellectuals like Meyer Schapiro, Lionel Trilling, and Jacques Barzun, writing a sweeping essay on Romanticism- a subject on which we’d teach a course together twenty years later – and plunging into a senior seminar on the Enlightenment that drew him to Rousseau and would eventually lead to his first book, The Politics of Authenticity.

Marshall’s writing, even then, was singular for its luminous intelligence and direct conversational immediacy. With anecdotal ease, he could crack open difficult subjects and make them invitingly accessible. His work was always grounded in close reading yet he had a knack for taking his readers by the hand, leading them through a complicated discussion as if he were telling a story, unfolding a drama of ideas that never lost sight of actual people. After winning a coveted fellowship to Oxford, he performed such a feat of exposition with Karl Marx in a thesis overseen by Isaiah Berlin. In the process he became some kind of Marxist, not the dogmatic or theoretical kind, not the blood-curdling prophet of class struggle or revolutionary violence, but someone who believed that the happiness of individuals, their full self-expression, was the key to the well-being of the community, the basis for any just and satisfying social order. For Marshall the heart of Marxism was the vision of a society “in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all,” in the words of the Communist Manifesto. With special evangelical fervor, he saw good sex as a cornerstone of a good society, though I doubt this is what Marx and Engels had in mind, not even the dancing Marx on the cover of one of his books, significantly called Adventures in Marxism.

We can certainly wonder whether there’s ever been such a society, but in the 1960s it seemed more possible than ever before. That period – with its unlikely synergy between the anarchist ideas of the counterculture and the moral anguish of the New Left – came to Marshall as a precious gift he rarely questioned and never discarded. He loved its iconic figures like Bob Dylan, Allen Ginsberg, and Paul Goodman, and felt their work survived in the rebel spirit of rap and graffiti. His striking appearance – the billboard T-shirts, the shaggy, unkempt beard – were an in-your-face expression of his loyalty to that era. Yet he lived his life as a professor, not a sandaled hippie, and lived it not in a rural commune but amid the democratic cacophony of New York and its public university. Here he promoted the “free development” of hundreds of students whose parents never dreamed of attending a university; here he encouraged them to extend and transcend themselves.

With these kids, and in his own later writing, he explored the ideas of writers who had electrified him in his youth, initiating his students into the life of the mind. With them he analyzed the urban environment he considered synonymous with freedom, diversity, and authentic self-realization. Marshall himself was a visionary but hardly starry-eyed. There was no one I ran into more often on the street, no friend more given to conversation, intimacy, roving curiosity. In the face of his bubbling enthusiasms, I would joshingly accuse him of exaggerating, of romanticizing, and he would sometimes tax me with holding back, being too much the critic, not letting go – that categorical imperative of the 1960s. I thought our conversation, forged when we were so young, would go on forever. He asked me if I would join a seminar where we could go on talking after we all retired, though I doubt he planned ever to retire. It shocks me that I can’t pick up the phone and reach him at the other end. But his lyrical writing speaks to us, as it will for a long time to come, and somewhere, I hope, he might still be listening in.

My Cousin Harry

2014 July 4
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First published in Tablet (posted July 3, 2014)

My cousin Harry Krug, who died early last year at 88, was related to me only by marriage but he couldn’t have been more braided into my mother’s extended family. This matriarchy was dominated by strong-minded women like Harry’s mother-in-law, my aunt Lily, stubborn and spiky as a Russian peasant, and Harry’s wife Pauline, a force of nature, who had crisp reactions to everyone she knew. The climate of our clan was heated, the atmosphere operatic; the men who married in had to surrender their passports and go native, as my mild-mannered father readily did, trading in his dour Polish kin for some Russian joie de vivre. Harry too jumped in with both feet. Through stormy scenes he remained as genial and unflappable as his wife was volatile. With his generous girth and dark good looks, his twinkly, mischievous smile, it seemed impossible to upset him. Whatever the weather, no one was going to spoil his day.

Pauline and Harry, both born in 1924, met when they were twelve and became high school sweethearts on the Lower East Side. They always planned to marry but the war intervened and he was tapped for what would one day be dubbed the Greatest Generation. A year or so before he died I called him as part of my research for a memoir – he was one of the few people still around who had vivid memories of my childhood. Instead we spoke for an hour about his army experiences, none of which I had heard before, since he rarely talked about himself. Conversations with Harry usually focused on your life, about which he was endlessly curious, joshing, and funny. Unlike New York’s late, voluble mayor, he always wanted to know how you were doing.

When he was drafted at eighteen, he told me, he was a complete innocent, totally unworldly. He had never been out of New York, had barely left the Lower East Side, never smoked or drank (not even coffee, he recalled with amazement), and never knowingly strayed from kosher food. In the army at first he abstained from eating meat, only to find he couldn’t keep going on such a meager diet. Then, on his father’s advice, he tried simply to avoid pork. But after consuming what seemed like a veal chop, he found instead that he’d eaten a pork chop. This became part of his ongoing education.

At boot camp in Louisiana, Camp Claiborne, he was thrown together with even more clueless men from the South and Midwest who habitually razzed him as a Jewboy, a kike. They were shipped overseas on the Queen Mary, four thousand men in a single rocky, rainy sailing, then stationed in London preparing for the invasion of France. I had seen Saving Private Ryan but Harry’s description of the D-Day landing went beyond those gory images, with men falling all around him and corpses littering the beach. They remained pinned down on the beach for a full week. To me such a life-and-death situation was difficult to imagine, as hellish as being thrown into a concentration camp. Eventually he was sent to the deep-water port of Cherbourg, which had been liberated three weeks after D-Day. “The men around me had more brawn than brains,” he told me. “Even the officers made fun of Jews, but they found I was good with numbers and set me to work.” He survived the next months to fight in the Battle of the Bulge, a near disaster for the Allies, then learned that back home his mother had died. She was never told he had been sent overseas.

Emerging from the war penniless and ambitious, Harry followed a path for his generation: he married the girl he left behind and they began having children almost immediately. He moved from company to company, from sales to management; they relocated from one gilded suburb to another. Eventually he became a well-paid executive, the father of four growing children on whom he doted extravagantly. Their married life had begun in a walk-up apartment on Roosevelt Avenue in Jackson Heights, where the elevated train roared in their ears, but they moved on to towns on Long Island, then to St. Louis, Cleveland, and finally to New Jersey. Family and child-rearing were the one constant, for no one loved children more than Harry, and no one I knew was so good with them – easy, natural, and ingratiating. I felt this as a child, sixteen years his junior, and I saw it again in the ways he effortlessly engaged with my own kids and his grandchildren, who all got to spend time with him. “He had a large personality, he was funny, and he really seemed to like talking to you,” my daughter told me the other day. “He remembered everything you’d said, so you felt acknowledged by him. Most people don’t really like to talk to kids. You could tell he did.”

Never at a loss for words, he took kids seriously, quizzed them about their lives. There was something irrepressibly childlike about him, a sense of wonder he never gave up. Any project, any excursion was worthwhile if children came along. He teased them, tickled them with his banter, took them fishing – someone really interested in what they had to say. But he was just as gregarious with strangers, flirting harmlessly with waitresses, tipping generously, showering them with compliments and mock complaints until he set them giggling.

It was during the early summers of his marriage (and my childhood) that I got to know him best. We all called him Poogie, his wife’s nickname for him; “Harry” was reserved for formal occasions. Wherever he and his family were living then, once school let out they would return each year to Rocky Point, then a small blue-collar town on the Long Island Sound. There my mother and three of her brothers and sisters had built or bought rude cottages – bungalows, we always called them. There I grew up in a boisterous crowd of aunts, uncles, and cousins, some with histrionic personalities reminiscent of the Yiddish theater. For the sake of their children, but also out of attachment to the family, especially her feisty, widowed mother, Pauline and Harry would move their kids from a comfortable suburban ranch house to the equivalent of a railroad flat filled with beds, lacking every amenity imaginable. Well into the 1950s the house, built room by room with help from relatives and friends, had neither running water (instead, a hand-pump in the back yard) nor an indoor toilet (only a one-seater outhouse far back on the small lot). The bungalow also came equipped with a difficult mother-in-law. Yet he loved to return to this poor people’s paradise, where he taught himself carpentry and put his working life out of mind, since this was where he and the kids felt most at home.

During the day this tribe of cousins frolicked in sun, sea, and sand on pebbly beaches that dotted the pristine surf of the Sound. Then, as twilight descended, with no television for distraction, the men played cards on screened-in porches while the women gathered on the lawn for a never-ending stream of gossip, seasoned with ancient family feuds. So I grew up amid a gaggle of surrogate parents, Pauline and Poogie my favorites among them, for they were younger, bolder, less anxiety-ridden than my own folks. “I’m cold, go put on a sweater,” my mother would say to us, no matter how warm the evening. This amused Pauline so much she loved repeating it.

These summers ended when I turned fifteen and went off to jobs in Catskills hotels and in summer camps in the Poconos. I saw Harry, Pauline, and their kids less frequently but the early bond never weakened. They were among the few who welcomed my blunt, plain-speaking wife – born of German-Jewish, not East European extraction – into the family, and she took to them as much as I did. Harry appreciated forceful women, appreciated women in general, while Pauline took pleasure in a kindred spirit, prone to speak her mind, who was treated like an outsider by my mother and her two sisters. Pauline was a fountain of vitality, a seemingly unstoppable force, but to everyone’s dismay she fell ill and died of breast cancer, the family curse, in the mid-1990s. At her funeral Harry seemed, for the only time in his life, completely blighted. He eventually married again, luckily to a woman as warm and sociable as he was. Still full of family feeling, he became almost as involved with her children and grandchildren as with his own. “We thought we might have five good years together,” Shirley told me later. “We had thirteen.” He was grateful for the second chance.

Through all these changes we never lost contact. I would always be something of a kid to him, and as I grew older, after my parents died, my friendship with this last surviving throwback to my youth gave me a rare pleasure. Our phone conversations would always begin in the same way, “Hi, this is your favorite cousin,” to which the response would be, “Well, this is your favorite cousin.” He kept track of everyone’s birthday, and I mean everyone, children, grandchildren, cousins, spouses, no doubt many friends as well. He called partly with good wishes but mostly just to keep up. In later years he tried email and Facebook, convenient for posting pictures, but the telephone was his medium as he grew older. He typically wanted to know if I had published anything and would scold me if I hadn’t sent it to him, not necessarily to read but at least to put it on display, if only as a conversation piece, some grist for the daily mill.

Now that he is gone I’ve lost not only a warm friend but one of the few remaining links with my own past. A chunk of generational history was writ large in his journey, a circuit from the depths of Depression and bloody warfare to unexpected peacetime prosperity, from a miserably poor immigrant ghetto to handsome suburban comfort and, finally, to busy retirement in a warmer climate, in his case a gated community in Florida. Not all the war veterans prospered in the world that followed, the thriving economy, a postwar golden age for the nuclear family, but Harry was fortunate as well as canny and cautious. Like most children of the Depression he was careful about money, even frugal, but open-handed with those close to him. When my son became a junior stock broker, directly out of college, Harry was one of his first clients, not venturing much money but eager to show him the ropes, not afraid to be demanding, unpredictable, as if tutoring him with tough love while keeping an eye cocked for his own investment opportunities. An optimist to the last, he felt there was always something that might turn up, a stock tip, a mutual fund, and it made him quite happy to keep it all in the family.


The Best of the Best?

2013 October 30
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by Morris Dickstein

First posted on NBCC Reads (October 29, 2013)

So many of the finest works of the last 38 years have been nominated for the NBCC book awards that it’s almost impossible to choose a single title. Many of the best did not finally win the award, including Irving Howe’s seminal World of Our Fathers, Norman Mailer’s remarkable nonfiction novel The Executioner’s Song, J. M. Coetzee’s best novel, Disgrace, Marshall Berman’s irresistible study of modernism, All That Is Solid Melts Into Air, Paul Zweig’s unsurpassed biography of Whitman, and Wayne Koestenbaum’s delicious meditation on gay men and opera, The Queen’s Throat, to name just a few. Among those that did win the award, my favorites, singled out almost at random, include Ian McEwan’s Atonement, Joseph Frank’s definitive biography of Dostoevsky, perhaps Philip Roth’s best novel, The Counterlife, C. K. Williams’s collection of poems, Flesh and Blood, Marilynne Robinson’s poignantly intelligent Gilead, and two enduring collections of essays, Joseph Brodsky’s Less Than One and Gary Giddins’s Visions of Jazz. But faced with the impossible demand to select only one title, I’d have to plump for The Stories of John Cheever.

First of all the stories, one after another, are simply wonderful – beautifully shaped, seductively written – the evolving arc of a whole career, brought together with perfect tact. A good dozen of them are among the outstanding stories of the postwar years – quite a batting average. Then too, the book came out at a low ebb of Cheever’s career: his writing had changed, The New Yorker, long his literary home, had begun turning down his work, which had nevertheless been typed, quite wrongly, as a certain kind of New Yorker story, teacup tragedies about predictable material – the genteel, gentile middle class, the terminally boring life of the suburbs – in a predictable tone of bland, well-mannered civility. Also, Cheever’s reception had turned sour; his edgiest novel, Falconer, had hardly been understood by reviewers, let alone welcomed. But reading the stories en masse overturned the stereotypes about him and his work, which now looked much darker and more daring than anyone had realized. There was a dawning sense of his conflicted, surprisingly tormented nature, which would be amply confirmed by the posthumous publication of his journals. Finally, there was the man himself, who charmed the pants off everyone as he accepted the award. I can still recall the wicked grin on his face, along with that wry New England tone of voice, when he said that he was so used to presenting awards to his friend Saul Bellow (whom he hugely admired) that he never expected to take one home himself. It was a performance, one of the most winning I’ve seen, but it was also heartfelt, a long overdue recognition that had to be the best reason for handing out these awards in the first place.

My Life in Fiction

2013 October 9
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First published in The Threepenny Review (Fall 2013)

Novels demand a projection of self that varies with your moods and seasons, the stages of your life. Reading fiction is a way of finding yourself by losing yourself – getting immersed in stories about other people. It makes strange places seem familiar yet defamiliarizes people and places we thought we knew. You could describe it as a kind of possession. Fiction gives us not only access to but ownership of experiences not our own, even as it casts a kind of spell over us, drawing us out of where we are. Rosanna Warren describes it this way in her autobiographical essay “Midi”: “To read is to take possession. But it is also to give oneself completely, if temporarily, to the keeping of another mind, and to enter another world.”

For me as a young reader, that other world had two favorite regions I loved to explore – history, which seemed like a fabulous and richly peopled country, and sports, that fiercely competitive terrain where people from nowhere could make good. Since I was from nowhere too, a bright, ghetto-bred yeshiva boy, son of Americanized immigrants, it gave me bold figures with whom I could identify. I was particularly taken with a series of eight young adult novels by Joseph Altsheler about the Civil War, focused alternately on two cousins, close to each other before the war, who find themselves fighting on opposite sides. These books turned a divided family into a metaphor for a fractured nation pursuing a fratricidal war. First published during the first world war – Altsheler died in 1919 – they focused on major battles and had similar titles – The Guns of Bull Run, The Sword of Antietam, The Rock of Chicamauga – place names that were exotic, hard to pronounce, yet meant America to me, the real America as opposed to New York Jewish world I knew best.

We didn’t buy books in my family and there were only a few stray titles on the shelves; instead I haunted the local public library – the Seward Park branch on the Lower East Side, which survives today, a detached relic among large housing projects. I can still picture the exact spot on the shelf where these treasured books were to be found. I learned what little I knew about American history from these novels, where our worst national bloodletting came alive as a saga of broken ties and youthful adventures. Eager for tales of heroism and military campaigns, I was enchanted by the ground’s-eye view of colorful generals like Stonewall Jackson but also by the simple fact of young men leaving home and getting caught up in a critical turn of the nation’s history.

My other favorite was the sports novels of John R. Tunis, such as The Kid from Tomkinsville, about a rookie pitcher, a small-town kid, trying to make it with the Brooklyn Dodgers. It must have mattered that I had little athletic grace of my own, but hungered for it. As an ardent Yankee fan I was hardly disposed to like the Dodgers, their perennial, hapless hometown rival, but here was another tale of a young man setting out in the world, against humbling odds, to seek glory with a team itself the chronic underdog. The resulting teamwork and unlikely stardom were irresistible to me, besides offering privileged access to the baseball scene I already followed with passion. The rivalries of sports, the dreams and crotchets of its players, were as momentous to me then as the drums of war. Both catered to a boy’s fantasy of winning recognition, distinguishing yourself through luck and pluck – a dream of standing out just by being really good at what you did.

But something just as fundamental must have been at work, a sheer love of story, an bedrock fascination with what happens next. This was as potent for me in settings of everyday life as well as in heart stopping scenes of conflict or adventure. This may be why I gulped down Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn with such gusto. Mark Twain called them both “adventures” but they were really postwar memories of a simpler life, the lives of boys in border country before the Civil War. I picked up few of the deeper resonances of Huckleberry Finn, which I read simply as an engrossing continuation of the story, but the Mississippi River surroundings were as winningly remote to me as the India of Kipling’s Kim, another book about the perils and freedoms of a boy on his own that I wolfed down soon afterward. I basked in the unfamiliar world of these books as much as the stories they told. To recapture the pleasure I found in the Twain diptych I fell upon Booth Tarkington’s Penrod and its nifty sequel, Penrod and Sam, published around the same time as the Altsheler books. Like Twain’s novels but with a more literary vocabulary, a surprisingly arch style, they were about youthful misadventures, not real adventures. Since I was too much the ‘good’ boy, driven to perform and excel, the devil-may-care behavior of these boys, always getting into fixes, spoke loudly to my furtive, hidden impulse to misbehave. They let me savor the anarchic role of the boy I could never be, for I was eager to please, deeply invested in winning adult approval.

My craving for story came out even more in my love of movies, just about any movies so long as there were vivid figures on the screen and something happened to them. I never tired of the double bills at neighbor hood theatres, the B-film programmers as much as the features, and I once announced exultantly that I had never seen a film that wasn’t absolutely great – not an auspicious omen for a future critic. Soon I realized that richly woven storytelling was the web and woof of most fictional best sellers. Barely into high school, I began devouring as many popular books as I could lay my hands on, pillaging the local library after we had moved to Queens, eyeing the Locked Shelf where the racier titles were kept. The library was my second home on Saturday afternoons when observant Jews did little but sleep, read, or take long walks. For pennies a day I also borrowed books from the tiny lending library – was it Womrath’s? – that stocked recent titles in local drug stores. Branching out even further, I snagged free books for joining the Literary Guild, which featured novels that were all plot, all action, some steamily romantic in the style of Daphne du Maurier, some simply evocative and atmospheric like Island in the Sun, set in the Caribbean, by Evelyn Waugh’s less gifted older brother, Alec, who was also a travel writer. I joined the egregious Reader’s Digest Condensed Book Club where each volume boiled down four or five popular books into pure story, excising literary frills like subplots, digressions, and detailed descriptions.

Such surgical shortcuts were handy for a pedantically slow reader, as I then was, who relished every sentence yet also needed the feeling of keeping up, of being in the know. This is the truncated form in which I ‘read’ books like Herman Wouk’s Marjorie Morningstar, which sported Jewish characters who were closer to home than anything I expected to find in popular fiction. Such plot-driven novels were written efficiently in prose as transparent as Orwell’s windowpane, with few turns of style that could impede the flow of the telling or complicate the human relationships. But just then, as a high school sophomore, I stumbled on two novels that unexpectedly gave me a finer sense of where fiction could transport the reader.

The first was Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities, which propelled me breathlessly into the maelstrom of the French Revolution, a scene I had already encountered in the derring-do of a royalist thriller, The Scarlet Pimpernel. I was swept up by the larger-than-life quality of Dickens’s world of bloody carnage and social enmity, and by the sheer intensity of his themes of injustice, redemption, and self-sacrifice. Who could forget the famous opening (“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times . . . ”), the lethal knitting of the vengeful Madame Defarge, or the final speech by the wastrel Sydney Carton as he goes to the guillotine in place of a better man (“It is a far, far better thing I do, than I have even done . . . “)? But what impressed me most was the sinuous complication of Dickens’s sentences, with their elaborate dependent clauses, and the braided strands of his labyrinthine plot, its vast web of memorable characters. This dense plotting, with every loose thread tied up by the end, seemed such a perfect wonder that I began rereading the book as soon as I finished it, as if to unlock the secret of how it was constructed.

The other eye-opening work I came upon, this one for a book report, was Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. This too had a distant historical milieu, even more remote than the Civil War, all laid out in finely wrought sentences that bent my mind at unexpected angles. The lone figure of Hester Prynne, cast out of the community, bearing her badge of shame with defiant pride, reverberated for me, since I was already in adolescent rebellion against my strict religious upbringing. Once desperate to belong, I was now drawn to characters who resisted and went their own way. Above all these novels by Dickens and Hawthorne showed me the difference literary form could make, how deep language could plumb. For the first time I felt the spell not only of what the books were about, the elaborately imagined worlds they opened to me, but also the way they were written, their intricate embroidery of words and themes.

This dawning appreciation of language itself eventually led me to the work of Conrad and Joyce, whose work I happened upon shortly before my freshman year in college. A commodious collection of Conrad’s stories and short novels, Tales of Land and Sea, became my new bible, burnished by miracles of style that lent eloquence to adventures more subtle than anything I had read. My other new find was Harry Levin’s Portable Joyce, collecting all his early work in a beautifully printed format. A neighbor in the dorms, also a future English major, had come upon these two writers at just the same time, and we fell into a pattern of reading their stories in tandem, then chewing them over one by one.

It struck me that one of the serious pleasures of reading novels – or seeing movies – was talking about them afterward, turning the experience around in the mind and on the tongue. I was nowhere near ready to take on their big books, Nostromo or Ulysses, partly because I was still a pokey, masticating reader, but the mandarin prose, far-off milieu, and keen moral dilemmas of Conrad’s tales spoke to my undergraduate thirst for large existential questions. But where Conrad’s language, so tactile, so visual, enthralled me for being really written – it was anything but a transparent windowpane – Joyce’s writing in Dubliners and Portrait of the Artist looked understated, drab, as if reflecting his characters’ lives. Nothing much happened in his stories – the reign of plot seemed to have ended – yet I got the keen sense of an everyday world, itself grey and uneventful, utterly different from my own Jewish world, yet seen only through fugitive glimpses from story to story .

In Joyce’s shabby-genteel world, suffocating in middle-class propriety, much of the upholstery of fiction had vanished along with the neat plotting, the satisfying curve of storytelling. As a reader I would need to connect the dots, to line up the moments of insight on my own. This was my halting introduction to modern art, as I realized much later. If Dickens’s novel had amazed me with its ingenious architecture and Conrad’s prose for its gravity and plenitude, Joyce’s stories struck me most for their seemingly casual indirection. Their revelations were oblique, at times almost imperceptible. These final epiphanies, as Joyce liked to call them, were nothing like the twisty O. Henry endings I had come to expect from short stories.

One quite different book had somewhat prepared me for the uncanny quality of Joyce’s short fiction. In the local library I had come across a Kafka collection, The Penal Colony, which stitched together the meager volumes he’d brought out in his own lifetime. The earliest stories, mere sketches, didn’t register for me, but those that followed mesmerized me with their strangeness and open-endedness. They fleshed out fantastic stories with realistic detail but I had no idea what they were meant to be about. One story, barely a page or two, dealt with a provincial advocate who had once been Bucephalus, the noble steed ridden by Alexander the Great. Now he was settling down to a more humdrum life, nothing like his ancient days of glory. Another was about a country doctor who rides out for a nighttime call, finds himself abused and jeered at, only to realize he can never return – his life is changed forever. The story unfolded with a dreamlike logic that made it feel at once enigmatic and inevitable. But even at seventeen I could identify with its emotions of infinite regret and infinite longing, the dread sense of having made a wrong turn, done something trivial but fateful that could never be undone.

As I grew more intrigued with short fiction I decided to try writing some myself. Creative writing was not on the bill in Columbia College – a craft approach to the arts was frowned upon, on the notion that real art couldn’t be taught – so I signed on to a course in the School of General Studies with a veteran writing teacher. There was too much talk about tricks of the trade, about formulas for writing and getting published, but I was grateful for the incentive simply to write. For weeks and weeks I wrestled with turning stuff I remembered or invented into genuine stories but they never seemed to come together. It was easy to set the scene, much harder to keep things moving convincingly, let alone to find the right resolution – half a story was no trouble to write. From my discovery of touching collections by Bernard Malamud (The Magic Barrel) and Grace Paley (The Little Disturbances of Man) I already knew that Jewish lives, the folks who inhabited the world I knew best, could be material for fiction. But I had such a mystique of the creative, of Art with a capital A, that my small experience seemed too beggarly, too banal, for the exalted demands of authentic fiction. The writers I read and revered had left me awed, tongue-tied. Finally, at the last possible moment, I dropped the course. I despaired of being able to cast a spell, conjure up a world that would truly come alive, take hold of a reader, as my idols had done. My life in fiction was going to be in the fiction I read, not in the fiction I wrote, though I never quite surrendered the ambition of writing a novel.

As a college junior I had my first extended exposure to modern literature in a large lecture course given by Lionel Trilling. To my surprise I liked Ulysses less than Joyce’s earlier books, though Trilling wisely urged us to speed through it at the pace of an ordinary novel, without pausing to decipher every page, every phrase. But I took to everything of Kafka’s I could put my hands on: “The Judgment,” “The Metamorphosis,” The Castle, The Trial. Something about his work simply transfixed me I couldn’t explain it. There was nothing overtly Jewish about it, but it spoke to the imagination of disaster I must have imbibed from my immigrant parents, who evidently felt that if something could go wrong it inevitably would – a cold might develop into pneumonia, a bike ride was an invitation to an accident, a knock at the door could bring grief or bad trouble. These dark expectations, so often disappointed, were choice material for comedy, and I came to see Kafka as a poker-faced comic writer, at once excavating and exorcizing his own unhappy consciousness. Though I had never been unhappy in that radical way, I had such dismal intuitions in my bones.

This was the moment in one’s reading life when the mind was like virgin soil, when every seed sprouted, and each year, seemingly each week, brought fresh discoveries. In my senior year it was the landmark works of nineteenth-century fiction, first Jane Austen and Walter Scott, then Victorian fiction, which I studied with Trilling, Steven Marcus, and Daniel Bell in a newly conceived course on the Victorian “moral temper,” by which they meant the core values, the inner rhythm of the culture. Their aim was for us to pluck social insight from these novelists, especially Dickens and Trollope, to grasp key institutions like the church and the political system. But what we found in them instead was the exuberant vitality of a richly peopled world, something no sociology or professional history could furnish. It was no accident that these long books were works you could truly live in, self-contained, copiously imagined worlds. I developed a passion for such expansive works. I won’t go into the delectable summers spent with The Brothers Karamazov, War and Peace, The Way We Live Now, or Middlemarch, books I hoped would never end, which actually felt like they would never end.

The following year, as a graduate student at Yale, I had my first serious run-in with classic American literature, since The Scarlet Letter had not led me to try out other American books, which were patronized as slightly provincial in the precincts of Columbia’s English Department. To fill this gap in my reading, I burrowed my way through Melville, Poe, Emerson, Thoreau, whose books were so idiosyncratic they linked up better with modern writers than with the English tradition. Hawthorne’s austere moral allegories and Poe’s horrific stories reminded me of Kafka, while Melville reawakened my dormant feeling for Conrad. But that yearlong course, taught by Charles Feidelson, concluded with a full semester on Henry James that provided me with literary capital for a lifetime. I cherish a clear memory of every book and story I read in that class, from Roderick Hudson to The Golden Bowl, and of wrestling with a paper on The Portrait of a Lady that was perhaps the high-water mark of my life as a student. It showed me how well fiction could track the delicate operations of perception, the mind on which nothing is lost, but also the social features of classes and intimate relationships, all bottomless in their complexity.

But the best thing about this trek through James was probing the work of a many-sided writer from beginning to end, getting inside his imagination as it worked out its destiny from book to book. Two years earlier I had had the great fortune of spending a full year with Shakespeare’s thirty-seven plays; two years later, on a fellowship in Cambridge, I would do so again with most of the novels of Dickens. Henry James was not quite in their league but his work too had the copious variety of a universe as it deepened from decade to decade. You could not really settle down in his world, as you could in the Dickens world, but you had to be amazed at how he explored the filaments of human consciousness, beginning with Isabel Archer’s great fireside reverie, three-quarters of the way though The Portrait of a Lady, when she grasps at last the grim reality of her unfortunate marriage. In his insight into such relationships, the bachelor James had picked up where Jane Austen and George Eliot had left off. This was what F. R. Leavis hailed as the “great tradition.”

I won’t go into my later adventures with metafiction in the late 1960s, when I discovered Pynchon and Borges and Barthelme; with American Jewish writers from Henry Roth to Philip Roth, with neo-realist writers like Carver and Ford; or with American writers of the interwar years, whose work I began to teach in courses that were part literary and part cultural history – the life and times as seen from inside the novelist’s imagination. Suffice it to say that I learned the wisdom of Henry James’s metaphor of the house of fiction, with its many rooms. For Borges and Kafka those rooms form part of a labyrinth, like Kafka’s Castle or his edifice of the Law, structures with no real apertures. For James they have windows into which we can peer, to slake our unquenchable curiosity about how different people live and feel – “not one window,” says James in his preface to The Portrait of a Lady, “but a million . . . every one of which has been pierced, or is still piercable, in its vast front, by the need of the individual vision and by the pressure of the individual will.”

Thanks to these windows, behind which so many telling scenes are enacted, fiction has given me access to more people and places than ‘real’ life has ever done, access so vibrant that it belongs less to mere observation, more to the fullness of experience itself. My wife once complained when I was reading a Trollope novel that I was unreachable – “earth to dad,” the kids used to say, trying to snag their father’s attention. Glassy-eyed, I was living vicariously in that imagined world even when I was not actually reading. Not all novels offer us such an ample, enveloping reality, a sorcerer’s web of words that possesses us completely, with the very alchemy that eluded me in the stories I tried to write. All of them, when they work, take us out of ourselves, even as they drive us into ourselves, tapping into feelings we never knew we had, constructing a world more purified of circumstance and accident than the mundane world we think we know. As Keats put it in one of his inimitable letters, “the imagination may be compared to Adam’s dream – he awoke and found it truth.”

Norman Mailer and the Nobel Prize

2013 April 11
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by Morris Dickstein

From the Mailer Review, Fall 2012:

[Going through my papers recently I came across the carbon of a letter nominating Norman Mailer for the Nobel Prize in Literature. It probably dates from around 1980 since it refers to The Executioner’s Song as recently published. The PEN American Center no doubt solicited nominations and this was my response. The occasion seemed to demand an exhaustive C.V., a condensed catalogue raisonée, but even in this pedantic format I notice a few  phrases I’m moderately pleased to have written, since they evoke his talent in ways I had forgotten. The reference to André Gide particularly surprised me. Of course Mailer was not the only perpetual nominee never to be awarded the Nobel Prize. On this distinguished list he joins writers from Tolstoy and Proust to Graham Greene, Nabokov, and (so far) Philip Roth, some of them blocked by the dogged opposition of a single figure on the committee, others by their presumed failure to be sufficiently upbeat and life-enhancing, as the terms of the bequest officially demand.  -M.D.]     

Norman Mailer was born in 1923, attended Harvard University, from which he was graduated in 1943, served with the U.S. Army in the Pacific theater in World War II, and returned to write what is still considered one of the best of all American war novels, The Naked and the Dead (1948).  Yet Mailer was not content to continue writing in the naturalistic vein of this first novel. One of the hallmarks of his career is his shifts of style and ambition from book to book. His second and third novels, Barbary Shore (1951) and The Deer Park (1955), remain impressive experiments in allegorical and political writing, especially where they touch on sexual themes. During this period Mailer wrote two of the best American short stories, “The Man Who Studied Yoga” and “The Time of Her Time,” and began a truly extraordinary career as a writer of nonfiction and journalism with “The White Negro” (1957), later collected with his other shorter writings in Advertisements for Myself (1959). Interlaced with a remarkable autobiographical commentary, these writings were truly prophetic and helped usher in the drastic changes in American culture in the 1960s, with their new interest in politics, their fascination with Beat and bohemian countercultures, and their advanced treatment of sex, which was radically new for the still-Puritan American culture of the period.

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Joseph Frank and the Unknown Dostoevsky

2013 March 4
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by Morris Dickstein

As a tribute to the late Joseph Frank (1918-2013), I reprint my review, slightly updated here, of the first volume of his great biography of Dostoevsky, which first appeared in the New York Times Book Review (November 21, 1976).

Some great writers leave books behind that are like monuments, chiseled in alabaster, inviolable, or like tall mountain peaks which must be climbed simply because they’re there. Dostoevsky is one major writer who will never harden into a classic. He forces his readers to grapple with his books in a personal way, with some of the same intensity he brought to writing them. The author of the definitive biography, Joseph Frank, describes “the unusual sense of excitement that Dostoevsky manages to create from page to page, and the almost hypnotic fascination, quite aside from plotting, that he never fails to exercise on his readers.” At moments Dostoevsky seems to reach out and grab the unwary reader by the throat, enclosing us in an atmosphere of emotional violence that is sometimes comical but can also come to feel suffocating.

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Becoming Gore Vidal

2012 August 6
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First posted in The Daily Beast (August 4, 2012)

Gore Vidal liked to style himself a populist but for his political leanings this hardly fit tha man at all. Populists in America come in many shapes and sizes, from William Jennings Bryan to Frank Capra, from Thomas Hart Benton to Sarah Palin. Vidal didn’t resemble these would-be common folk prone to idealize the salt of the earth. He was a patrician radical, a type more common in Europe than here, since we have never had a formal aristocracy. His prototype was Henry Adams, the grandson and great grandson of presidents, who felt that he had been born to public service but found that the corrupt, rough-hewn America of the Gilded Age had no use for his talents. Becoming a writer instead, he turned his disappointment into cutting irony and wit, surveying the details of American history – and his own life – from an eagle’s perch. After his death in 1918 his autobiography, written largely for private consumption, became a surprise bestseller, evoking an era long gone.

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The Great Contrarian – Dwight Macdonald

2012 August 5
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by Morris Dickstein

First published in The East Hampton Star (July 19, 2012)

Masscult and Midcult (New York Review Books, $16.95) gives us only one phase of Dwight Macdonald’s storied career as a political gadfly, provocative journalist, nonpareil editor, and embattled critic. It showcases Macdonald as an endlessly entertaining highbrow scold, taking up the cudgels for literary standards, drawing a bead on misconceived cultural projects. His political writings are out of print but this side of his work is well worth revisiting. Macdonald died thirty years ago but, as many reviewers seem to agree, this may be the liveliest collection of essays published this year.

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Looking Back at the French New Wave

2012 June 7
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by Morris Dickstein

First posted in The Cine-files  (May 28, 2012)

At a time when movies seem more mass-produced than ever, we have every reason to wax nostalgic about the French New Wave. Rarely have so many divergent but pathfinding talents emerged at the same time and place. The New Wave was essentially the product of a single decade, from 1959 to 1969, set in motion by a handful of directors who had sharpened their teeth as film critics in the 1950s. Their gift for offbeat storytelling, propelled by an invigorating spontaneity, ran parallel to the social upheavals of that era.. Yet each had his own personality, and their most characteristic films are surprisingly unlike each other. What they had in common needs no rehearsing here: their dislike of the upholstered, screenplay- and star-driven French cinema of their day; their preference for underrated Hollywood directors ranging from Hitchcock, Hawks, and Welles to hard-boiled outliers like Sam Fuller and Nicholas Ray; their warm affinity for the European humanistic cinema of independent spirits like Vigo and Renoir, Cocteau and Melville, Bresson and Becker. With Melville they shared a love of the unsentimental brooding fatalism of American gangster films and pulp fiction, which were part of the heritage of postwar existentialism. But they were also caught between the buoyant, life-affirming legacy of Renoir, who showed them how to improvise and sympathize, and the plot-driven aesthetics of the more macabre Hitchcock, whose darker humor demanded iron control.

Though most of the New Wave directors enjoyed long careers, their best films came early on. Truffaut never equaled his first three breathtaking features, The 400 Blows, Shoot the Piano Player, Jules and Jim. These are the films I’ve invariably used in courses, and they still play beautifully, each in its own way. In his next feature, The Soft Skin, the Hitchcock influence weighs heavily on him, even as it kindles the imagination of Claude Chabrol who after his first features, such as the superb Les Bonnes Femmes, evolved his own style of bourgeois thriller over five productive decades. Yet his work too crested early, at the end of the 1960s with La Femme Infidle, This Man Must Die, and Le Boucher, all introduced here at the New York Film Festival under the Francophile direction of its devoted founder, Richard Roud. Godard is a special case since he produced so many varied films in the decade that followed the release of Breathless in 1960 – perhaps the film that most defines the New Wave and one that holds up astonishingly well on repeated viewings.

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The Work of a Critic

2012 March 22

First published in the Chronicle Review, Chronicle of Higher Education, March 2, 2012


The role of critics varies greatly according to the mission they imagine for themselves and the audience they address. Academic critics writing for their peers will take a different tack from public critics speaking to a general audience, large or small, or from writers themselves using criticism to carve out a space for their own work. Surprisingly, novelists and especially poets have proved to be among our best critics. Poet-critics from Johnson to Eliot form the main line of the English critical tradition, while the foundations for a coherent criticism of the novel were laid by Henry James. Yet American writers are better known for their prickly aversion to critics rather than their appreciation, even when critics built up the following for their work. My favorite example, one that set my blood boiling, was Saul Bellow’s likening of the critic to a deaf man tuning a piano. (Had he merely said “tone deaf” I wouldn’t have been so offended.) Then there are the old saws that continue to surface: “Those who can’t, criticize.” “No one ever grew up dreaming of becoming a critic.” All this implies that critics, with little imagination themselves, are hardly more than mechanical observers or failed writers, stewing in their inadequacy and taking out this resentment on their betters, the really creative spirits. As one wag put it, a critic is one who arrives late on the battlefield to kill off the survivors.

In fact, really good critics are writers, with their own style and literary personality, though their works feeds off other writing, as novelists and poets feed off the text of our common life. Both kinds of writers must somehow be faithful to their subjects yet find their own angle of vision. They have to tell the truth, a truth we’ll acknowledge, but, like Emily Dickinson, “tell it slant.” They distill art into meaning, they punish failure and lionize success, but like all writers they work by way of selection, even distortion. We remember critics for their temperament as much as their critical judgment: the pugilistic vigor of Hazlitt, the digressive idiosyncrasies of Ruskin, the clerical acerbity of Eliot, the transparent windowpane of Orwell, the poetic conjunctions of Benjamin, the Hegelian dynamics of Adorno. We can forgive a great deal in a critic who manifests a striking sensibility or a startling point of view, as we are seduced by writers who freshen our sense of the familiar world. Some critics survive on the strength of their prose alone; some by promoting new artists and movements; others by introducing seminal concepts (the objective correlative, the dissociation of sensibility); by demonstrating sheer intelligence or depth of learning; or by helping reorient the history and direction of an art form. As it happens, T. S. Eliot could qualify under any of these categories. read more…