cover image Why Not Say What Happened: A Sentimental Education

Why Not Say What Happened: A Sentimental Education

Morris Dickstein. Norton/Liveright, $27.95 (304p) ISBN 978-0-87140-431-2

A young man navigates the tensions between his Orthodox Jewish background and his calling as a literary intellectual in this rich coming-of-age memoir. Dickstein (Dancing in the Dark), an English professor and cultural historian, wanders episodically from his boyhood as a yeshiva student in New York in the 1950s, surrounded by a close-knit, eternally kvetching immigrant family, through adolescence, when his religious strictures were gradually displaced by books and a usually unrequited interest in girls, to his budding academic career at Columbia and Yale. It’s a mainly quiet and interior narrative of observation and reflection on ordinary life; Dickstein’s maturation is propelled by summer jobs, trips abroad, persistent conflicts between kosher living and the allure of secular lifestyles, strong friendships, and a deeply felt, luminously described romance with his future wife. Scholarship emerges as an engrossing, even adventurous activity in his vivid descriptions of often brilliant—though sometimes lousy—classroom lectures and seminars; his evocative portraits of such writers and critics as Lionel Trilling, Susan Sontag, and Harold Bloom; and his probing appreciations of novelists and poets (an extended exegesis of Keats is a tour de force). Dickstein’s rapt, unabashed delight in literature and his willingness to let it inform his own experience make for an indelible account of the life of the mind. Photos. [em](Feb.) [/em]