The title of Morris Dickstein’s memoir alludes to an often-quoted line from Robert Lowell’s epilogue to his last book of poems, Day by Day. “Yet why not say what happened?” is Lowell’s question to himself as he prays for “the grace of accuracy.” Dickstein, emeritus professor at CUNY Graduate Center and the author, most recently, of a cultural history of the 1930s, takes Lowell’s question as a personal challenge. Why not say what happened to a man who has lived “a slightly suffocating life” in a Jewish family in New York’s Lower East Side and Flushing, Queens, and who then came to maturity in the distinguished academic purlieus of Columbia and Yale? The “sentimental education,” as he calls it in his subtitle, has less to do with Flaubert’s dreary masterpiece than with a cultivation of the self as instanced in Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey,” a poem Dickstein loves: “An education of the feelings as well as the mind” is what he hopes to have explored in thinking and writing about his past.
Perhaps the first thing to note about his book is how much Dickstein must have enjoyed writing it, confronting his past and turning it into a satisfying story. His enthusiasm and high spirits are pervasive, whether he is remembering postwar block parties on Henry Street, a few blocks from the East River, or studying the Talmud at the Rabbi Jacob Joseph School, where he stayed through the 12th grade, “at first perfectly content, then . . . increasingly restive, and finally in continual rebellion.” But the rebellion was never total. He continued to live with his parents in Flushing while an undergraduate at Columbia, and, as an observant Jew, kept kosher for long afterwards. When he and his wife (referred to as “L”) are tempted by Parisian cuisine, L breaks kosher with a baguette viande froide while Dickstein remains chaste, still following the rules of a way of life that had “nurtured and sustained” him.
His undergraduate years at Columbia, which he describes as “a college full of brilliant teachers and ravenous students,” were of special interest to me, as I had, in a single year of graduate study there, observed what Dickstein accurately calls the “rough-and-tumble classes” customary at the college. Even the least rough-and-tumble of professors, Lionel Trilling, whose undergraduate class I audited and about whom Dickstein writes with penetration, had the challenge of putting up with, and probably enjoying, the questioning and irreverent students. (This was before the late 1960s, of course, when irreverence became the fashion.) Trilling, who, to Dickstein’s perception, “seemed to be of two minds about everything,” took it upon himself to provide an alternative mind to the single-minded ones in his classroom.
Dickstein took the course that Trilling famously wrote about in his essay “On the Teaching of Modern Literature.” But when Dickstein later read Trilling’s essay, he was shocked by how it distorted the class as he remembered it. Trilling had claimed that, when confronted by the “abyss” of modern writers like Joyce, Kafka, Eliot, and Proust, the students took it all too easily in stride, writing capable papers that seemed untouched by the assaultive genius they had encountered.
For Dickstein, however, the essay was a caricature of the actual, combative class that had found—or at least, in which Dickstein had found—those writers “as unsettling as they had been to [Trilling’s] generation almost forty years earlier.”
The portrait of Trilling, along with similarly sharp ones of Dickstein’s other professors—among them Jacob Taubes, Peter Gay, F. W. Dupee, and Sidney Morganbesser—made this reader feel that, however one might put on rose-colored glasses in viewing the academic classroom of five decades ago, Dickstein’s education at Columbia College was the real thing, perhaps even a thing not to be encountered again.