“Literary Theory and Historical Understanding,” Morris Dickstein, Revisited

Joseph Deumer, writing on Morris Dickstein, nicely sums up the affiliation between the new critics and the new theory crowd:

I’ve often thought, in passing, that there is a close relationship between the New Critics & the various Deconstructionists…Both schools reject claims of expressive meaning in the texts they examine in favor of a forensic hermeneutics.

I’m with him. I wonder again, though: is the new historicist approach so different? When Hamlet becomes a conduit for doctrinal medieval spats over the nature of Purgatory, as Stephen Greenblatt would have it, or when Frank Norris gets tied up into mercantilist disputes, in Walter Benn Michaels’s work, expressive meaning gives way to a dreary fatalism. The hermeneutics used in the historicists’ calculus of exploitation and oppression are less hermetic than those of new criticism and theory, but they are just as schematic. I’m inclined to see these historicist investigations as a subset of the general theoretical mindset in the last thirty years, not as their own genre.

Despite his delineation between historical and theoretical criticism (see last entry), Dickstein probably agrees. I understated the grouchiness of the article, and Dickstein’s obvious unhappiness with a lot of new historicism. He appears to be scouring the literary world for any sort of real political engagement, and grudgingly settling for new historicism’s unpleasantly impractical intersection of cultural history and class warfare.

A look back at Dickstein’s 1977 book Gates of Eden, a weird amalgam of history and literature of the 60′s, reveals a yearning–sublimated in “Literary Theory and Historical Understanding”–for a time in which literature and literary studies were both heavily invested in social change. Dickstein finds it in his experiences as a young professor in the 60′s. Unlike Lionel Trilling and Irving Howe, Dickstein was involved in the new radicalism in the early part of the 60′s, long before Berkeley and Kent, and his yearning for its union of aesthetic and political involvement comes out clearly. For him, new historicism is a clearly inadequate shadow of that period.

Coming out of the 50′s, the correlation of social unrest with important-seeming books by people like Joseph Heller, Philip Roth, James Baldwin, Norman Mailer, John Barth, William Gaddis, and Thomas Pynchon made it appear to some that the harmony was at hand and that the locus of change was right where it should be: in the centers of higher learning. (They were so, so wrong.)

But even Gates of Eden suggests that Dickstein found himself on the wrong side of the literary fence. His book focuses far more on literature than it does literary studies. Marcuse and Norman O. Brown, both about as “radical” as you can get in 60′s intellectuals, are cited half-disapprovingly by Dickstein: they talked the talk and exhorted students to rethink political and social foundations, but the merit of their work was its practical effects, not its theoretical basis. He lays into Marcuse for having failed to generate a neo-Marxist project, but congratulates him on having inspired countless students to challenge orthodoxy. His greatest pride, which he echoes in the article, was in being part and parcel with the activists, and in shaping their mindset and critical apparati.

Finally, it is not the product of the academic establishment that interests Dickstein, the parade of editions of 500 that are slotted into university libraries around the country and only pulled out for dissertations, but the process of the university, where established models of discourse and engagement are used to produce halfway decent human beings. At points it nearly seems as though Dickstein treats modern criticism, historicist or not, as an expedient doctrine, not of value for its intrinsic meaning, but for getting people to think more sharply, before (or while) they reorient themselves to political activism. Ironically, this is a historicist view to take of literary criticism itself, and like many historicist treatments, it denigrates the integrity of the work it considers.

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