Morris Dickstein ’61, Literary Critic and Cultural Historian

Morris Dickstein ’61 was a public intellectual who was passionate about reading and helping his students to appreciate books to their fullest. A noted literary critic and cultural historian who taught at Columbia during the tumult of the late 1960s before a distinguished career at the City University of New York, he died on March 24, 2021.

Dickstein was a man of Manhattan. Born on February 23, 1940, he lived on the Lower East Side until his family moved to Queens when he was 9. He majored in English at the College, where he also was an editor at Spectator. After earning an M.A. and Ph.D. at Yale and studying at Clare College, Cambridge, Dickstein returned to the Upper West Side and began a rich teaching career that spanned more than four decades.

His love of books was stoked as an undergraduate, when he read the work of two of Columbia’s most distinguished scholars: Jacques Barzun CC 1927, GSAS 1932’s Teacher in America (1946) and Lionel Trilling CC 1925, GSAS’38’s The Liberal Imagination (1950). Having originally considered a career in journalism or law, those books changed Dickstein’s thinking and he found his calling as a literary critic and teacher.

“The idea of teaching others to love books as a career was a gift,” his daughter, Rachel, told The New York Times. “Reading and writing about what he was reading was his passion.”

After earning a doctorate in 1967, Dickstein taught at Columbia before moving in 1974 to Queens College and the CUNY Graduate Center. He was a distinguished professor of English, theater and performance, and liberal studies and founded the Center for the Humanities in 1993. He retired in 2013.

Dickstein published a book review for Partisan Review when he was 22, and throughout his career frequently wrote for The Times Literary Supplement in Britain and The New York Times Book Review, Partisan Review and others. He authored numerous influential books including Gates of Eden: American Culture in the Sixties (1977); Double Agent: The Critic and Society (1992); Leopards in the Temple: The Transformation of American Fiction, 1945–1970 (2002); A Mirror in the Roadway: Literature and the Real World (2005); Dancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression (2009); and a memoir, Why Not Say What Happened: A Sentimental Education (2015). Gates of Eden was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award and Dancing in the Dark was a finalist for that award.

In his writings, Dickstein was careful to avoid what he considered the hyper-academic style that he felt was driving many readers away from literary criticism. Instead, he developed a style that was erudite but accessible.

Dickstein saw his responsibility, and that of any critic, to reveal the “sea of hype” that surrounded many books, films and other works of art. “Only when you read a serious review do you see the issues underneath,” he told The New York Times in 1998. “Criticism plays a very important role in keeping people honest. Otherwise, things will be hyped out of sight and reduced to the lowest common denominator.”

In addition to his daughter and her husband, Blake Eskin, Dickstein is survived by his wife of 56 years, Lore Willner; son, Jeremy ’88, and his wife, Jill; sister, Doris Fineberg; and four grandchildren. Memorial contributions may be made to Temple Adas Israel in Sag Harbor, N.Y.

— Alex Sachare ’71