Reviews of Double Agent: The Critic & Society
Morris Dickstein’s “Double Agent” is a study of literary criticism from Matthew Arnold to the present day, but it’s not a history of literary criticism nor does it pretend to be one. Instead it’s a selective and highly personal study, a sort of love letter to the critics closest to Dickstein’s heart. It’s a thoughtful book, and finally-unexpectedly-a moving one.
What has gone wrong with literary criticism? A lot, but not quite everything, according to Morris Dickstein in his anxious but ultimately rather hopeful study “Double Agent: The Critic and Society.”
Mr. Dickstein made a reputation for himself with “Gates of Eden” (1977), a convincing reading of the 1960’s and its culture. He perceived in that decade “one of those deep-seated shifts of sensibility that alter the whole terrain.” More specifically, the 1960’s witnessed one of the great eruptions of American romanticism. For a blissful moment everything seemed to come together. Mr. Dickstein placed iconic significance on the unlikely person of Allen Ginsberg — guru, latter-day Whitman, pop star, politician, gay spokesman and intellectual. In his view, the omnicompetent, culturally omnipresent Mr. Ginsberg, equally at home at a rock concert and in a Columbia seminar room, was a Renaissance man for our time, a living fusion of straight and alternative culture. It was E. M. Forster’s vision of “connection” come true.
Times change. In “Double Agent,” Mr. Dickstein, who teaches English at Queens College and at the City University of New York, pictures the 1980’s and the start of the 90’s as a torn and fissured era in which both poet and critic have been marginalized and disconnected from the center. He argues that intelligent lay people no longer read literary criticism for the good reason that they cannot understand it. More important, they do not want to understand the precise point at which structuralism shades into post-structuralism. Publishers complain that sales of critical monographs are at an all-time low. The critics have lost touch with their larger constituency. More damaging, as Mr. Dickstein alleges, they have lost touch with their subject matter — literature.
Deconstruction and new historicism, the modish critical lines of the present day, are, in the author’s opinion, incorrigibly self-reflexive — much more interested in their own procedures than in great books (the fact that one can raise a cheap laugh in academic company with that once respectable phrase is symptomatic of how low things have sunk). Mr. Dickstein quotes Alfred Kazin, who wrote 30 years ago, “Criticism should never be so professional that only professionals can read it.” It is contemporary criticism’s unparalleled achievement that not even many professionals can stomach the stuff.
By “double agent” Mr. Dickstein means that old-fashioned kind of literary critic who is committed to both literature and criticism. To find such double agents, Mr. Dickstein has to look backward to the giants of his youth — academic critics like Lionel Trilling, F. W. Dupee, R. P. Blackmur and F. R. Leavis as well as figures like Philip Rahv, Edmund Wilson and George Orwell, who belonged to “an urban intellectual tradition that extended beyond the university…”
By the title of his thoughtful new study of writing about books, “Double Agent: The Critic and Society,” Morris Dickstein means the role Matthew Arnold played: “by day a mild-mannered school inspector, on weekends the scourge of barbarians and philistines — the engaged critic as double agent trying to balance art and social concern.”
As Mr. Dickstein records, we’ve come a long way from Matthew Arnold to the present day, when an unbridgeable gulf has opened between the academic critic and the popular commentator. “Arnold’s influence was like a divided stream, part of which led toward up-to-date literary journalism and subjective impressionism while the other part, the academic current, aimed for rigor by objectifying the text and detaching it from the mind and purpose of both writer and reader.” What we are left with today are two worlds that never meet: in one of them, the post-structuralist academics speak only to their students and one another; in the other, popular reviewers commit what Gore Vidal demeans as “bookchat.”
How this sundering happened and whether it might be healed are Mr. Dickstein’s concerns in “Double Agent.” Or as he writes: “The question it raises is how a strong sense of literature in itself can be reconciled with an equally strong sense of the place of literature in the course of history and the lives of men and women. It asks whether a meaningful criticism is still possible, or whether the professionalization of criticism has turned it simply into an academic ‘field’ where the criticism of criticism now has its own comfortable niche…”
After examining the widening gulf between the babel of the academy and the narrowed prestige of book reviewers, Dickstein proposes a solution in the form of an alternative history or countertradition of cultural criticism (Matthew Arnold, Van Wyck Brooks, Lionel Trilling, Irving Howe, Philip Rahv, Alfred Kazin, and the discipline of American Studies), literary journalism (Francis Jeffrey, Edmund Wilson, F. W. Dupee), and belletristic survivors like Malcolm Cowley and–in two of his strongest and most surprising sections–H. L. Mencken and George Orwell. Appreciating and revising this humanistic tradition, Dickstein argues, offers the best hope for “recaptur[ing] the public space occupied by the independent man or woman of letters not only between the wars but throughout the nineteenth century.” Dickstein’s revival of this tradition is timely and welcome…