Professor, critic, and author Morris Dickstein, author of Gates of Eden (1977) and Dancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression (2009), recently published a new memoir, Why Not Say What Happened: A Sentimental Education (Liveright Publishing, 2015). In this book he addresses his coming-of-age and his struggles with what he viewed as the confines of his Orthodox upbringing, among other themes.
As a graduate student of history now studying the culture of the Great Depression, I took the bull by the horn and reached out to Dr. Dickstein. He was gracious enough to grant me an interview.
The Whole Megillah (TWM): Why a memoir and why now?
Morris Dickstein (MD): Well, I’ve reached a certain age and can’t help noticing that I’ve put on some mileage. There are worlds I wanted to revisit and recapture. Also, after quite a lot of critical and historical writing I wanted to do something more personal, to tap into a different part of the brain and write in a different voice—more evocative and less analytical, more narrative and less argumentative. And why not, since I’ve always thought of myself as a writer, not strictly a critic?
TWM: How much do you think your yeshiva upbringing factors into your writing style?
MD: I doubt it affected my writing style but it certainly affected the life I’ve lived, with one foot in the Jewish tradition and another in the secular world–exactly how my day was split when I was a yeshiva student. My yeshiva training also affected me as a critic: I became very comfortable not only with the whole process of commentary and interpretation but also with a certain reverence for the written tradition, even as secular texts, themselves hallowed by time but ripe for reinterpretation, gradually took the place of religious texts—scripture, Mishneh, the whole nine yards.
TWM: Can you comment on how you applied the “voice of innocence” and the “voice of experience” in your memoir?
MD: As a coming-of-age story it’s partly about getting wised up, taking on a wider range of experience while at the same time looking back in wonderment at where you came from and how much distance you’ve traveled. When I first learned (rather late) what actually happens between men and women I was incredulous but then angry at how such vital facts of life had been withheld from me. Of course I continued to remain innocent for a long time to come, though at times, laughably, I took on a swaggering air of knowingness.
TWM: What authors inspire you now? Why?
MD: I go back often to the 19th-century poets, especially Wordsworth, Blake and Keats in England, Whitman and Dickinson in America. The latter two never fail to knock me off my feet—in opposite ways, Whitman with his prosey inclusiveness, seemingly swallowing the world, Dickinson with her laser-like intelligence. Among modern poets I’ve come to like Frost more and more—I go back to him frequently—and my early passion for Eliot has been reviving. Fitzgerald has gradually become my favorite novelist—his stories, Gatsby, and Tender Is the Night especially—but I had a wonderful time teaching short fiction by Tolstoy and Chekhov a few years ago. Among modern American novelists, along with Fitzgerald, I’m very partial to Willa Cather, Theodore Dreiser, Henry James, Edith Wharton, Henry Roth, Nella Larsen, and too many others. I won’t even go into the postwar writers I frequently reread. The common denominator among them is their emotional intelligence, a rich and complicated sense of how people interact, relationships they explore with a strong moral compass.
TWM: The book includes so many wonderful revelations. (My favorite is your comment on living through the Cold War: “Over the years students have asked me about the level of anxiety for people living under the shadow of annihilation during the cold war years. I’ve told then that we lived bifocally, in compartments, casually going about our daily lives while remaining under the gun, never quite forgetting that a cold peace, occasionally punctuated by hot wars, was built on the threat of mutual destruction.”)
Did you recognize these insights at the time, did they come later, and/or through the writing process?
MD: This is something I understood only later on, under the prodding of students, after the cold war ended. It’s remarkable in retrospect, how we all managed to go about our business and live ordinary lives while a sword of mutual and total destruction hung over our heads. Not everyone in other parts of the world was so lucky. As Americans we’ve mostly lived privileged lives in a sea of tranquility and prosperity, and as American Jews in a free society we’ve lived lives without any precedent in Jewish history.
TWM: Why did you decide to structure the memoir as you did?
MD: It actually began with the incident described in the prologue, showing me literally trespassing on the past, barging into the apartment in New Haven where I’d once lived. Abruptly, it established how much the past meant to me. From there it seemed inevitable to evoke my mostly unhappy but productive first years at Yale, in part because I was on my own for the first time and it was when I began writing for publication and fell in love. From there it seemed natural to swoop back to my childhood, my extended immigrant family, and to proceed more chronologically. So you might say I began in medias res. Following its own course, the book seemed to round itself off when I turned thirty and left Columbia, which transformed it unexpectedly from a family memoir to a Sixties memoir, and above all the history of an education in the broadest sense.
TWM: Had you kept a journal?
MD: I kept some travel journals but only during a later period. But I did have lots of very detailed letters, especially from the time I spent in England.
TWM: What advice would you have for aspiring memoirists?
MD: I can repeat the advice a friend gave me: “Follow the emotion.” If you delve deeply into what really matters to you, it will matter to your readers as well. Also, though it’s a cliche, try to stay in the moment, to evoke the the feeling of the time you’re writing about without slighting the rush of feelings at the moment you’re actually writing. But never let hindsight distort what you richly remember.