Spring/Summer 1993, Volume 10.2

Book Review

Reviewed by Ludger Brinker, Department of English, Macomb College

Double Agent: The Critic and Society by Morris Dickstein. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992, 220 pp., $23.00 (cloth).

The 1890's saw the beginning of the great and arduous debate over who would ultimatelv own American literature, refined native-born or struggling immigrant, an issue brought to the forefront of the public debate by the sheer numbers of immigrants arriving here on a daily basis. From Henry Adams and Edith Wharton to William Dean Howells and Abraham Cahan, writers and critics alike felt called upon to bear witness to the momentous changes that were rapidly transforming American Society. Howells, the dean of American literature and one of the most authoritative critics of his age, was one of the few voices to mediate between the forces that were pulling apart the cultura I and literary consensus; of course, his way of building consensus was by incorporating the new writers into the nexus of traditional American beliefs, of observing how they accommodated themselves to these values, thus reassuring himself and his readers that the center did still hold. He was one of the last critics for whom such a balancing act was possible.

A century later, we witness an equally urgent and often acrimonious debate. While the multi-ethnic and multi-cultural makeup of our literary scene has becomean accepted commonplace, the battleground has shifted to an internecine fight between literary critics of every conceivable orientation. Many readers avidly follow each seismographic shift in the critical landscape, but others have become so alienated by the often esoteric language of critics that they have lost interest in critical endeavors altogether.

Double Agent sets out to remedy this state of affairs; it is a passionate and personal credo on how literary criticism should be written, what its contents should be, and who is or was a supreme practitioner of that craft. Whether the book will delight or infuriate readers does, of course, depend on their own theories about literary criticism. Dickstein makes a case, and often a compelling one, for what many critics will undoubtedly dub an old-fashioned approach to criticism-text-oriented, without giving in to the excesses of the New Criticism, historical in outlook, journalistic and public in discourse. Lionel Trilling's phrase about the "dark and bloody crossroads where literature and politics meet" provides the leitmotif that runs through Dickstein's argument. In his belief, a golden age of criticism existed between 1920 and 1960 during which "public critics," writing in a very personal style yet clearly aware of their writing as a social activity, "played the double agent, combining a deep feeling for art with a powerful sense of its changing place in human society" (xiv). Like Howells before him, Dickstein wants to create a new critical consensus, a consensus based on the premise that serious criticism must leave the narrow confines of the academy and return to the broader public sphere.

This ambitious study does not lay claim to comprehensiveness, instead its richly evoked individual portraits are designed to appeal both to the specialist and interested lay reader. Those who agree with Dickstein's premise, that today there is an impenetrable critical jungle out there, will be thrilled by his attempt to correct this picture with portraits of critics who, in his opinion, have been supreme mediators between literature and the public at large. For him these critics work in a tradition which originated with Matthew Arnold and nineteenth-century historicism and who, despite the professionalization of criticism into an academic field, have not given up on the notion of the critic as a generalist who writes with a sense of social reference in an effort of "intervention in the world that seeks subtly to change the world" (7). His list of heroes includes Arnold, Edmund Wilson, his beloved mentor Lionel Trilling, R.P. Blackmur, F.W. Dupee, Alfred Kazin, and Phillip Rhav. And here lies the rub: most of these critics are in one way or another affiliated with the New York Intellectuals, that loosely knit group of writers, critics, and historians who gained national prominence in the late thirties and who dominated the American intellectual scene until the fifties. True enough, all of these writers practiced public criticism, were imbued with a strong sense of history, and never ignored the aesthetic components of the works they discussed. But they are, of course, also the writers with whom Dickstein studied and whose outlook comes closest to his own. Thus to declare that their-and, by implication, his own-approach is the only legitimate one may seem a bit too smug and self-serving.

A major weakness of Dickstein's approach is its survey nature and the lack of a specific focus and compellingly maintained central argument. For example, I am not sure why Trilling is discussed in two chapters, and why separate discussions of Kazin's work in appear in three. Many of the mini-chapters on any given critic read like introductions to specific works and not like building blocks for a sustained argument. Another problem is the fact that, although Dickstein claims that the critic as generalist is a notion that "is still very much alive today among younger writers" (xiii), the youngest of the critics he discusses is Alfred Kazin who turns seventy-eight this June. And he never makes good on his promise that he could "list two dozen superb young critics still in their thirties and forties who write for ... general magazines" (xiii). Thus the reconciliation between academy and cultural journalism which Dickstein so hopefully envisions never really takes place, at least not in the pages of his book.

But these flaws are offset by Dickstein's eloquence and his genuine emotion; his observations are all the more welcome since many of the critics he feels drawn to are severely neglected by academics today. Thus his enterprise is a work of love, an attempt to set the record straight, to turn the tide of criticism again into the direction of public relevance and public discourse. He is the most eloquent when it comes to defending this particular mode of writing, which is not only practiced by the writers he has singled out for discussion, but by himself as well.

This method may not be to everyone's liking; it may not reflect a political correctness valued and advocated by many critics today; but it is an attempt to reconnect the general reader with the world of criticism and the academy. And for that, Dickstein deserves our respect.