It would be easy to group the literary critic Morris Dickstein under the catch-all “New York intellectual”: He’s from New York and has never lived anywhere else, except New Haven, for graduate school; and he’s a career professor who wrote for the famous small magazines of the New York left, like Partisan Review and Dissent. But that would make it sound as if Dickstein, born in 1940, were a peer of, say, Lionel Trilling his Columbia teacher, born in 1905. In fact, if Trilling was the oldest of the New York intellectual crowd, Dickstein was the youngest. He was also, as he notes dryly in Tablet’s original documentary The Last of the Morrises, pretty much the last Lower East Side boy to be named “Morris”—although the name could always come back in a retro way, as Sadie, for example, already has.
Dickstein, who began as a Keats scholar, was also one of the only members of the gang to take seriously the 1960s as something other than an epoch of cultural decline. As he made clear in Gates of Eden: American Culture in the Sixties (1977), he liked rock music. He even, as you can see in this film, had long hair, for a little while. He never moved rightward in his politics, as some New York intellectuals did, never dropped hankies for Washington politicians, to paraphrase an old Christopher Hitchens line about the neocons. He still goes to the movies, still thinks that there’s good stuff being made.
Dickstein’s new memoir, Why Not Say What Happened: A Sentimental Education, was just published. (Read an excerpt in Tablet magazine here.) It begins downtown, where it drops in on the author’s Orthodox cheder and, to his rabbis’ dismay, the Seward Park branch of the public library, all the better to sully a young yeshiva bocher’s mind. It zips uptown to Columbia, detours to Yale (where sex happens!), and returns to the City (yeah, the City) in time to catch the last gasp of the folk revival, the kickstarting of rock, and a lot of good poetry. Watching The Last of the Morrises won’t spoil the book for you. In fact, it may be better to watch the movie first, all 11 minutes of it. Then, when you read the book, you’ll have the last Morris’ creaky, quizzical voice to bring you along.
Music: “Our Socks Forever More,” This Is The Kit
Daniel Oppenheimer is an author and director. Mark Oppenheimer is Tablet’s editor at large. They are related.