Reviewed by Bob Williams
A Mirror in the Road
by Morris Dickstein
Princeton University Press
2005, ISBN 978-0-69113033-0, $ 18.95, 280 pages
Morris Dickstein is Distinguished Professor of English at the University of New York Graduate Center and has been published in numerous literary publications of distinction. His previous books are Gates of Eden: American Culture in the 1960s (nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award) and Legends in the Temple, a study of postwar American literature.
Dickstein spends several pages extricating himself from the muddle of possible critical approaches. These are exercises of academic obscurity and somewhat incestuous in that the audience for the customary academic book is other academics. His own style is a well-tempered instrument that has no room for foolishness. He is clear where clarity serves and brave in his explanations of complexities. The title of the book is a quotation from Stendhal and he explains it carefully to avoid a simplistic interpretations.
In his examination of individual authors he often uses an approach that results in varied and stimulating insights. He derives the origin of a book, describes it in terms of its immediate effect, and analyzes it in terms of the posture that it has acquired. By the generous use of collateral texts – letters, memoirs, and literary criticisms – he is able to explicate his subjects with notable skill.
In his study of a work’s origins, he does not confine his effort to purely literary considerations: he also looks at the political circumstances and social inflections. In this light his opening study of Upton Sinclair is a model in the study of literary activity within the ambiance of establishment corruption.
If you chart Dickstein’s emphases as a line graph, you will find that it spikes sharply upward at certain authors. Although he sees Joyce, Mann, and Kafka as the dominant modernists, he writes relatively little about the first two compared to what he writes about Kafka. Joyce is too knotty a problem to be dealt with in a book that has many other considerations. (There are in fact almost no books about Joyce that are worth reading although many books about Joyce are fun to read.) Dickstein notes about Mann that his struggle with a latent homosexuality had an intimate relationship to his creative life. What he writes about F. Scott Fitzgerald, Edmund Wilson, Kafka, and Beckett is outstanding, but our imaginary chart tends to be a flat line when he discusses the Jewish novelists. He can praise them all for many things but finds none of them so perfect as to merit unqualified eulogy. How many, indeed, and which of their works – surely not all – will be read or much noted in the course of the next few years?
After particular study of individual authors or the schools that include them, he takes up broader subjects. In the first – Damaged Literacy – he considers the growth of a special class of book that has none of the resonance of the authors he has written of in the earlier pages of his book. Apropos of Gone with the Wind and its paltry successor, Scarlet, he writes: “Popular reading is essentially rereading – the pursuit of a known quantity, a familiar experience: this is where culture and commerce meet. The dream of pop culture is an endlessly reproducible commodity, a story that never ends, no matter how many times it’s been told and retold.”
The spread of impaired literacy is a serious matter and although he discusses it to some slight degree, he is more anxious to deal once more, as he already did at the beginning of the book, with the professional readers’ determination to read, as he describes it, against the grain. He has not altogether forsaken the original subject since the determination to read against the grain is itself a good example of impaired literacy. Largely an affectation of difference, this preciosity results in studies of Byzantine obscurity and uselessness. It takes an intelligence that functions in a vacuum to be as foolish as this.
Dickstein is more acid: “Advanced critics disregard the intent and attack the writer for writing the wrong book. The book reviewer has been described as someone who arrives on the field after the battle is over, to finish off the survivors. In this spirit, academic critics have come along to de-construct the reading process after it has already self-destructed.”
It has been apparent at various points that this book is an assemblage of pieces that have done service elsewhere. This becomes clear in the closing studies that loosely repeat some things that Dickstein has already written. In the closing essay he settles into a political mode that is sharply critical of a government that spares the rich and cripples social services. Various readers will take this in various ways: I applauded.
It’s a perceptive book. The number of pages is a poor indication of its density because there are many lines to the page and many words, thanks to small type, to the line. If you are interested in the literary life of the past century and want an authoritative source, this will be the book, lively and often witty, for you.
About the Reviewer: Bob Williams is retired and lives in a small town with his wife, dogs and a cat. He has been collecting books all his life, and has done freelance writing, mostly on classical music. His principal interests are James Joyce, Jane Austen and Homer. His writings, two books and a number of short articles on Joyce, can be accessed at: http://www.grand-teton.com/service/Persons_Places