A Mirror in the Roadway: Literature and the Real World

A Mirror in the Roadway: Literature and the Real World

by Morris Dickstein
     
 

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In a famous passage in The Red and the Black, the French writer Stendhal described the novel as a mirror being carried along a roadway. In the twentieth century this was derided as a naïve notion of realism. Instead, modern writers experimented with creative forms of invention and dislocation. Deconstructive theorists went even further, questioning

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Overview

In a famous passage in The Red and the Black, the French writer Stendhal described the novel as a mirror being carried along a roadway. In the twentieth century this was derided as a naïve notion of realism. Instead, modern writers experimented with creative forms of invention and dislocation. Deconstructive theorists went even further, questioning whether literature had any real reference to a world outside its own language, while traditional historians challenged whether novels gave a trustworthy representation of history and society.

In this book, Morris Dickstein reinterprets Stendhal's metaphor and tracks the different worlds of a wide array of twentieth-century writers, from realists like Theodore Dreiser, Sinclair Lewis, Edith Wharton, and Willa Cather, through modernists like Franz Kafka and Samuel Beckett, to wildly inventive postwar writers like Saul Bellow, Günter Grass, Mary McCarthy, George Orwell, Philip Roth, and Gabriel García Márquez. Dickstein argues that fiction will always yield rich insight into its subject, and that literature can also be a form of historical understanding. Writers refract the world through their forms and sensibilities. He shows how the work of these writers recaptures—yet also transforms—the life around them, the world inside them, and the universe of language and feeling they share with their readers.

Through lively and incisive essays directed to general readers as well as students of literature, Dickstein redefines the literary landscape—a landscape in which reading has for decades been devalued by society and distorted by theory. Having begun with a reconsideration of realism, the book concludes with several essays probing the strengths and limitations of a historical approach to literature and criticism.

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Editorial Reviews

Forward
[An] admirable new collection of critical essays. . . . [E]very page in the volume displays curiosity, incision and surprise.
Washington Post Book World - Ron Charles
Moving from Melville to Bellow, from Wharton to Roth, Dickstein follows the novel's progress and the trends of literary theory to show that every period produces a literature that reflects something essential about the age.
Times Higher Education Supplement - Madeleine Minson
A firm traditionalist, Dickstein takes issue with deconstructive theorists, who see literature as a separate, self-referential world of language, and with new historicists who deny fiction its integrity by grounding it too stubbornly in a social context that may not be relevant to the writer's purposes. . . .The best pieces engage in a quirky and personal way with their subjects.
The New York Sun - Adam Kirsch
If Mr. Dickstein were a less intelligent critic, his book might be more aggressively polemical. As it is, what he offers is . . . a series of thoughtful studies. The book makes one envy Mr. Dickstein's students who get to be introduced to these writers . . . by a critic of such warm and varied sympathies. And even an experienced reader will make some new acquaintance in these pages.
National Review - Jeffrey Hart
Good news is at hand, and Morris Dickstein's new book is an example of it. He actually enjoys talking with us about literature, here mainly the novel.
Antioch Review - Jay Martin
Dickstein wants to show that the real world counts, and suffuses fictions. . . . Weve learned . . . to see Stendhal better and to regard novels not so much as mirrors but as "prisms" with many facets that refract and refresh the world we know.
" Forward n Stavans

[An] admirable new collection of critical essays. . . . [E]very page in the volume displays curiosity, incision and surprise.
From the Publisher
"Dickstein paints in broad strokes, providing brief biographical portraits of a diverse group of writers and their cultural moments. The essays on Bellow and Fitzgerald are especially fine. . . . The ability of the imagination to constitute an interpretable but nevertheless real world is, for Dickstein, the core of literary work."The New Yorker

"Moving from Melville to Bellow, from Wharton to Roth, Dickstein follows the novel's progress and the trends of literary theory to show that every period produces a literature that reflects something essential about the age."—Ron Charles, Washington Post Book World

"A firm traditionalist, Dickstein takes issue with deconstructive theorists, who see literature as a separate, self-referential world of language, and with new historicists who deny fiction its integrity by grounding it too stubbornly in a social context that may not be relevant to the writer's purposes. . . .The best pieces engage in a quirky and personal way with their subjects."—Madeleine Minson,Times Higher Education Supplement

"Beginning with how American writers like Whitman, Melville, Wharton, Ellison and Bellow variously depicted life in New York City, literary critic Dickstein examines an array of authors in relation to their historical moments and explores the significance of how they represented their worlds. . . . [He] makes a case for the social awareness of F. Scott Fitzgerald's late, Depression-era writing, and reflects on the notion of alienation, and on the enigmatic sensibilities of Kafka and Beckett."Publishers Weekly

"Blending cultural history and literary biography with the barest traces of memoir, Dickstein has produced in his newest essay collection that rarest of species of literary criticism: one as genial to the general reader as to the academic."Library Journal

"Twenty illuminating essays . . . on literature's elusive, prophetic interpretations of a changing American society. . . . A fine, accessible collection."Kirkus Reviews

"If Mr. Dickstein were a less intelligent critic, his book might be more aggressively polemical. As it is, what he offers is . . . a series of thoughtful studies. The book makes one envy Mr. Dickstein's students who get to be introduced to these writers . . . by a critic of such warm and varied sympathies. And even an experienced reader will make some new acquaintance in these pages."—Adam Kirsch, The New York Sun

"[An] admirable new collection of critical essays. . . . [E]very page in the volume displays curiosity, incision and surprise."—Ilan Stavans, Forward

"A particular strength of this volume is its deft combination of historical and formal reading practices; Dickinson brings together literature's social and aesthetic registers to produce insightful discussion of canonical authors. . . . A strong contribution to American literary criticism."Choice

"Good news is at hand, and Morris Dickstein's new book is an example of it. He actually enjoys talking with us about literature, here mainly the novel."—Jeffrey Hart, National Review

"Dickstein wants to show that the real world counts, and suffuses fictions. . . . Weve learned . . . to see Stendhal better and to regard novels not so much as mirrors but as "prisms" with many facets that refract and refresh the world we know."—Jay Martin, Antioch Review

Washington Post Book World
Moving from Melville to Bellow, from Wharton to Roth, Dickstein follows the novel's progress and the trends of literary theory to show that every period produces a literature that reflects something essential about the age.
— Ron Charles
Times Higher Education Supplement
A firm traditionalist, Dickstein takes issue with deconstructive theorists, who see literature as a separate, self-referential world of language, and with new historicists who deny fiction its integrity by grounding it too stubbornly in a social context that may not be relevant to the writer's purposes. . . .The best pieces engage in a quirky and personal way with their subjects.
— Madeleine Minson
Choice
A particular strength of this volume is its deft combination of historical and formal reading practices; Dickinson brings together literature's social and aesthetic registers to produce insightful discussion of canonical authors. . . . A strong contribution to American literary criticism.
National Review
Good news is at hand, and Morris Dickstein's new book is an example of it. He actually enjoys talking with us about literature, here mainly the novel.
— Jeffrey Hart
Antioch Review
Dickstein wants to show that the real world counts, and suffuses fictions. . . . Weve learned . . . to see Stendhal better and to regard novels not so much as mirrors but as "prisms" with many facets that refract and refresh the world we know.
— Jay Martin
The New Yorker
Dickstein paints in broad strokes, providing brief biographical portraits of a diverse group of writers and their cultural moments. The essays on Bellow and Fitzgerald are especially fine. . . . The ability of the imagination to constitute an interpretable but nevertheless real world is, for Dickstein, the core of literary work.
The New York Sun
If Mr. Dickstein were a less intelligent critic, his book might be more aggressively polemical. As it is, what he offers is . . . a series of thoughtful studies. The book makes one envy Mr. Dickstein's students who get to be introduced to these writers . . . by a critic of such warm and varied sympathies. And even an experienced reader will make some new acquaintance in these pages.
— Adam Kirsch
Publishers Weekly
Beginning with how American writers like Whitman, Melville, Wharton, Ellison and Bellow variously depicted life in New York City, literary critic Dickstein (Gates of Eden) examines an array of authors in relation to their historical moments and explores the significance of how they represented their worlds. Dickstein, who openly expresses his reservations about poststructuralist and new historicist approaches to literary criticism, writes in what he calls a tradition that is intuitive, experiential, historicist and semi-sociological. A section on representations of Chicago compares Theodore Dreiser's canny social history of that city in Sister Carrie with Upton Sinclair's more crudely journalistic novel The Jungle. In additional essays Dickstein makes a case for the social awareness of F. Scott Fitzgerald's late, Depression-era writing, and reflects on the notion of alienation and on the enigmatic sensibilities of Kafka and Beckett. The author, a professor of English at the CUNY Graduate Center, is at his most persuasive when tracing the French writer CEline's influence on American black humorists of the '60s such as Philip Roth and when assessing the cultural forces that have shaped the styles of such American Jewish writers as Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, Delmore Schwartz, Paul Goodman and I.B. Singer. Agent, Georges Borchardt. (June) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Twenty illuminating essays published over the decades on literature's elusive, prophetic interpretations of a changing American society. In his title piece, Dickstein (Distinguished Professor of English/CUNY Graduate Center; Double Agent: The Critic and Society, 1992, etc.) explains that the "mirror in the roadway" reflects Stendhal's metaphor in Le Rouge et le noir that a novel is like a mirror carried along a highway, sometimes reflecting the sky, sometimes the mud in the road-and consequently you can't blame the puddle for the mire but "the road inspector who lets the water stagnate and the puddle form." The novel has a social function, and Dickstein explores it, beginning with the early mythmakers of urban centers New York (Poe, Whitman, Dos Passos, Melville, James, Ellison) and "Second City" Chicago (Dreiser, Richard Wright, James T. Farrell, Bellow). In considering the rise of American Realism, he argues that Upton Sinclair's The Jungle (1906) truly "changed the course of history," not only by exposing the unconscionable practices of the meat-packing industry, but also by revealing perhaps for the first time the "inner humanity of those trapped by birth or occupation near the bottom of the social hierarchy." Dickstein has a facile ability to convey the great swath of literary criticism in a most readable fashion, sans clunky jargon, such as in "Edmund Wilson: Three Phrases," where he explores the reasons this notably prickly critic continues to engage contemporary readers. Dickstein offers a cogent argument for reevaluating the work of Fitzgerald ("The Authority of Failure") as a writer whose "reverses" made him more introspective, as well as more interesting to read. Other authorsDickstein reevaluates, moving from realism to modernism, include Mary McCarthy, Kafka and Raymond Carver. Celine (thanks to a 1966 translation) receives credit for the explosion of American vernacular, while "The Complex Fate of the Jewish American Writer" is a most thoughtful essay on American identity. A fine, accessible collection worthy of Dickstein's former CUNY mentor, Irving Howe.

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780691130330
Publisher:
Princeton University Press
Publication date:
02/05/2007
Edition description:
New
Pages:
304
Product dimensions:
6.10(w) x 9.20(h) x 0.90(d)

What People are saying about this

Harold Bloom
Morris Dickstein's A Mirror in the Roadway is refreshing criticism, particularly in its contrast to our current chorus of Resentment. Like Edmund Wilson, his precursor, Dickstein favors realism and reality over theories of theories. Dickstein is admirable on Jewish writers (Kafka, Agnon, Bellow, Malamud, Philip Roth, Ozick) who in a sense are his true subject.
Harold Bloom, author and literary critic
Maria DiBattista
Dickstein's essays are original, genially reflective and, at apt moments, invitingly autobiographical. He consistently shows himself to be a fair-minded but exacting critic who is not afraid to tell us what books are worth reading and why. His critical commentaries are saturated with the knowledge accumulated over years of attentive and sympathetic encounters with some of the most distinctive writers of modern American and European letters.
Maria DiBattista, Princeton University
Richard Rorty
Morris Dickstein has neither theories nor hobbyhorses. His critical tools are the old fashioned ones: a vast range of reading, fellow feeling for the author he is discussing, and the urge to put the work in the context of the life. He is as illuminating about Cather as about Celine, as perceptive about Philip Roth as about Upton Sinclair.
Richard Rorty, Stanford University
Robert Alter
Morris Dickstein is one of the few critics who still can bridge, vigorously and engagingly, the gap between the academic world and the common reader. These essays are especially fine on American writing of the 1920's and 30's, exhibiting balanced judgment, insight, and a rich fund of knowledge about American literary and cultural history. One can apply to Dickstein a phrase he uses for Edmund Wilson—that he is able to apply a wide range of resources "to hold fast to the elusive human dimension of literature.
Robert Alter, University of California, Berkeley
Norman Mailer
This is a book by one of our best and most distinguished critics of American literature.
Norman Mailer, author
Ross Posnock
In arguing for an exuberant and dynamic notion of realism, Morris Dickstein reanimates a great and nearly vanished tradition of literary and cultural criticism that speaks to the common reader.
Ross Posnock, New York University
Roger Rosenblatt
Morris Dickstein gives the phrase 'the art of criticism' real meaning. He makes literature in writing about literature. His essays are rare birds. They only soar.
Roger Rosenblatt, commentator and journalist

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Meet the Author

Morris Dickstein is Distinguished Professor of English at the City University of New York Graduate Center and a widely published literary and cultural critic. His work has appeared in the "New York Times Book Review", the "Times Literary Supplement", "Partisan Review", "The Nation", and the "Chronicle of Higher Education". His books include "Gates of Eden: American culture in the 1960's", nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award in criticism, and "Leopards in the Temple", a study of postwar American fiction.

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