Readers of Morris Dickstein's newest book, Dancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression, should find it an agreeable survey of the cultural expressions of the 1930s that reveals how the Depression years were portrayed and understood by those living through them. Readers of Dickstein's previous books will recognize its method, a fastidious interrogation of novels, films, and other works of art for their historical resonances and mutual assumptions, their ability to show how an entire culture at a particular time is "thinking." Readers less interested in Dickstein's signature critical approach or in the context his earlier books provide nevertheless could easily enough from Dancing in the Dark be made aware of "Depression culture" in a coherent and often insightful way. Dickstein's painstaking scrutiny of texts for their clues to cultural developments can occaionally get bogged down in some turgid writing, but that he can be an acute analyst of these texts within the framework of a consistentently applied historical criticism is undeniable.
While I don't find this sort of historical criticism invalid--there is ultimately nothing wrong with situating a work of art or literature in its period and cultural mileu, as long as the limits of this strategy as a way to "understand" the work are acknowledged--I do find Dickstein's relentless pursuit of the strategy frequently tedious and finally not much service to literature, although Dickstein often assures us it is. Since a great deal of his criticism has been focused on post-World War II American fiction, I think that Dickstein has especially done some misservice to contemporary fiction, my own critical bailiwick, distorting its achievement and finally reducing it to a function as barometer of the cultural and political changes that have taken place in the United States between 1945 and the present.
I make this criticism regretfully, as Dickstein's 1979 book, Gates of Eden, was probably more responsible for setting me on a path of study of contemporary fiction than any other critical book I read or any course I took. It introduced me to the work of experimental writers such as John Barth and Donald Barthelme, of whom I don't think I'd ever heard at the time, and although I could sense even when reading the book as a undiscriminating undergraduate that Dickstein didn't entirely approve of their fiction, especially the Barthleme of the late '60s and after, just the suggestion that Barthleme was "radical" (Dickstein meant to associate him with the decadent, Weatherman phase of 60s radicalism) was enough to make me want to read his books posthaste.
Actually, much of Dickstein's analysis of the fiction of the 1960s still holds up, as I disovered when I recently re-read the book, even if the tacit impatience with postmodernism seems more apparent to me now. (The term "postmodernism" is never used, however; Dickstein in 1979 preferred to identify writers like Barth and Barthelme as modernists, emphasizing the continuity between the formal experimentation of modernism and that which came to be called postmodernism. Dickstein thinks that late modernism radicalized itself beyond redemption in the work of writers such as Rudolph Wurlitzer, but while I can't agree that the experimental impulse inevitably leads to an aesthetic impasse, his implicit suggestion that the adventurous writing of the 1960s and 1970s was really a second flowering of modernism usefully emphasizes that "postmodernism" was first of all a phenomenon of literary history, not a reorientation of history itself.) Above all, his recognition that the fiction of the 1960s represents a significant achievement still seems audacious:
In a topsy-turvy age that often turned trash into art and art into trash, that gaily pursued topical fascination and ephemeral performances and showed a real genius for self-consuming artifacts--an age that sometimes valued art too little because it loved raw life too much--novels were written that are among the handful of art-works, few enough in any age, that are likely to endure. It's a bizzare prospect, but the sixties are as likely to be remembered through novels as through anything else they left behind.
Dickstein finds much that is praiseworthy in the fiction of Thomas Pynchon, Joseph Heller, Kurt Vonnegut, and even Barth and Barthleme, despite his judgment that they ultimately take things too far. However ambivalent his reaction to the most adventurous of adventurous fiction, and however much attention he gives to writers whose work will not, in my opinion, "endure," such as Bellow and Mailer, Dickstein's consideration of the experimental fiction of the sixties inspired me at least to take this fiction seriously and to discover for myself whether it produced work "likely to endure."
Unfortunately, the very passage I have quoted, I now see, also signals the real limitations of Dickstein's approach, of the assumptions about fiction's utility as a clue to culture. The last sentence arguably implies that the novels of the era will endure because they are the best way to "remember" the sixties. For those who lived through the era, they will continue to evoke it; for those future readers who did not, they will still enable a cultural "remembering" that will likely allow us to get a glimpse of the kind of "topical" and "ephemeral" attractions Dickstein describes in the rest of the passage. These novels will be "left behind" for scholars and others interested in that "topsy-turvy age" to recreate it, either critically or imaginatively. Fiction is ultimately of value, especially fiction particularly attuned to the social wavelength of its period, as a window onto history. It perhaps enlivens history in a way that straight historical narrative or cultural criticism, cannot, but otherwise it remains an adjunct to the study of culture in its historical manifestations.
My own initial response to Gates of Eden demonstrates that it is possible to read the book as an illuminating appraisal of American fiction of the 1950s and 1960s, but turning to Dickstein's other writing on postwar fiction only confirms that ultimately his purpose seems to be to pin postwar writers down as specimens of their time and place, at best figures in a procession of "tendencies." In the essays "The Face in the Mirror: The Eclipse of Distance in Contemporary Fiction" and "Ordinary People: Carver, Ford and Blue-Collar Realism" (both reprinted in A Mirror in the Roadway, Dickstein's explicit defense of realism), he extends his survey of postwar fiction into the 1970s and 1980s. In the first, he notes a shift in the 1970s toward novels "built around characters who are the very self and voice of the author," exemplified by Philip Roth, William Styron, and John Irving. In the second he discusses the rise of minimalism in the work of Raymond Carver, as well as the subsequent move away from minimalism to "a more expansive, more full-bodied fiction" in the work of Richard Ford and Russell Banks. In the latter he predicts a further shift to "some transformed and heightened version of the social novel." Clearly Dickstein is most interested in contemporary fiction as an opportunity to chart developments in fiction's way of registering social realities. Chronicling the rise and fall of trends in fiction is not necessarily a trivial activity, but in Dickstein's case the single-minded manner in which he pursues the task does threaten to make criticism an intellectual version of fashion journalism.
Leopards in the Temple (2002) is probably Dickstein's summary statement of the historical progression of postwar American fiction. Subtitled "The Transformation of American Fiction 1945-1970," it again focuses on the 1950s and 1960s, this time treating only fiction but otherwise covering much of the same ground scrutinized in Gates of Eden. The biggest change in approach to the fiction of this period is a considerable narrowing of the the terrain on which Dickstein is willing to cast his critical eye, leaving experimental or postmodern fiction out of view almost completely. He instead devotes most of the book to discussions of well-publicized mainstream writers such as Gore Vidal, Truman Capote, Mailer, James Jones, Jack Kerouac, James Baldwin, John Updike, Bellow, and Roth, although there are a few welcome considerations of Paul Bowles, Nabokov, Heller, and Vonnegut. Dickstein's implicit dismissal of experimental fiction is perhaps best exemplified in his discussion of John Barth's End of the Road, which Dickstein calls "Barth's best novel" and is included in Leopards in the Temple in the first place mainly because it illustrates the "road" theme Dickstein traces from Kerouac to other writers of the '50s and early '60s. His attitude toward Barth's later metafiction, truly his most important achievement, well beyond End of the Road, is surely encapsulated in his observation that "In Lost in the Funhouse and Chimera Barth's genial narrators soon grow as heartily sick of [their] self-consciousness as we do."
One can legitimately find the work of John Barth and other metafictionists not to one's liking without distorting the fact of its prominence during the period Dickstein is examining. It is hardly credible to suggest that the 1960s are most appropriately represented by Bellow, Malamud, and James Baldwin, which Dickstein does in his final chapter by highlighting their work rather than the postmodern writers, whose work rebelled against the quiescent realism preferred by the gatekeepers of literary culture, much as others rebelled against the constraints of conformity and established practice in other arts and in politics during this time. A survey of the "transformation" of American fiction after World War II that willfully excludes this work is finally hard to take seriously.
Leopards in the Temple posits a postwar literary history that begins with war novelists, proceeds through the early fiction of certain writers who first came to public attention immediately after the war, such as Vidal and Capote, further through sensation-causing writers such as Kerouac and J.D Salinger, and, with some pauses along the way to acknowledge a few other noteworthy authors, winds up affirming the centrality of culturally sanctioned novelists such as Bellow, Baldwin, and Mailer. Another history of postwar fiction is possible, however, one that begins with, say, John Hawkes, emphasizes Nabokov's work beyond Lolita, carefully considers William Gaddis, includes James Purdy and Thomas Berger along with Joseph Heller, and takes as the apogee of the period the work of Pynchon, Barth, Robert Coover, and Donald Barthelme. Dickstein's history is a history of American culture as reflected in his chosen authors and books; the alternative history is more properly a literary history of the years 1945-60, one that focuses on the response of writers to the legacy and the challenges of modernism by extending that legacy through fiction that continued to challenge readers' expectations and that, in my opinion, more accurately encompasses the writers whose work will still likely be read once this period more firmly recedes into literal history.
What now alienates me the most from Dickstein's critical method, however, are the grand generalizations he makes about the practice of fiction, generalizations that interpose great distance between the critic and the texts he/she ostensibly tries to illuminate. He writes, for example, that for novelists of the 1940s and 1950s
They were obsessed more with Oedipal struggle than with class struggle, concerned about the limits of civilization rather than the conflicts within civilization. Their premises were more Freudian than Marxist. . .Auschwitz and Hiroshima had set them thinking about the nature and destiny of man, and relative affluence gave them the leisure to focus on spiritual confusions in their own lives.
How does Dickstein know what "they" were thinking? How can "they," as opposed to individual writers, be thinking anything except insofar as the critic has self-selected a few of "them," invested them with "premises" and speculated about "their" social standing ("relative affluence") and the state of their souls ("spiritual confusions")? Occasionally Dickstein does offer an interesting critical reading of a particular text, as when he observes of Catcher in the Rye that "Holden's adventures in New York are really a series of Jewish jokes, at once sad, funny, and self-accusing," but the overwhelmingly dominant impression left by Leopards in the Temple, and by Morris Dickstein's books as a whole, is that fiction is most worthwhile as a leading indicator not just of just of writers', but an entire culture's temporal obsessions. If I thought this was the foremost reason to read novels, I'd probably never read another one.
ADDENDUM Morris Dickstein has responded to this post in the comment thread below.