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Gates of Eden

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 18)

Morris Dickstein is a contributing editor of Partisan Review and has published in such journals as New Republic, Commentary, and The New York Times Book Review. He was educated at Columbia and Yale and is now Professor of English at Queens College. His forte is literary criticism, and although the subtitle of Gates of Eden addresses the topic of American culture in the 1960’s, Dickstein uses an analysis of the literature of the decade to represent the culture of the decade.

The book can be divided into three basic parts, although it is not strictly chronological in coverage. The first section covers the events of the 1950’s that laid the groundwork for the following decade; the second, the 1960’s proper; and the third, an evaluation of the 1960’s from the perspective of the mid-1970’s. Dickstein’s experience of the 1960’s and consequently his record thereof, is colored by his having been a product of the 1950’s, thus making him older than the most active of the radical students of the 1960’s. This vantage point provides a perspective that he might not have had otherwise, but it also may be the cause of his tendency to idealize the cultural changes that he witnessed.

Dickstein first delves into the intellectual and social milieu of the 1950’s, especially as reflected in the literature, to provide a backdrop against which to display the dramatic cultural upheavals of the 1960’s. His primary concern in this regard is in discussing the emergence of the Jewish novel as an important force in American fiction of the time. He actually begins with the Jewish writers of the 1930’s and 1940’s, with their emphasis on the secular Jewish intellectual as the essential alienated modern man—alienated both from his traditional culture and from the American national culture.

Although Dickstein analyzes much of both the Jewish literature and the Jewish criticism of the 1950’s, his most extensive commentary is reserved, curiously, for an analysis of one specific political event: the trial and conviction of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. To him, the treatment that they and their case received from the intellectual community was a signal of the total loss of America’s previous idealism concerning her moral innocence. Dickstein claims that this emphasis on the Jewish experience and significance in the 1950’s can be paralleled with the experience and significance of blacks in the 1960’s.

The author begins his discussion of culture in the 1960’s with an analysis of the role played by Allen Ginsberg beginning in the late 1950’s in providing a break from traditional literary forms of expression. He emphasizes that the culture which developed in the next decade was liberating, providing freedom to express sensual enjoyment. Sexual frankness was one way in which this change of emphasis was made manifest, but it can also be seen in a new visionary style of writing and the element of fantasy apparent in the literature of the time. Opposed to this and yet interwoven with it was a demand for relevance, especially for political relevance. The synthesis of these two strains, embodied in Allen Ginsberg, is what Dickstein describes at one point as Romantic Socialism. He sees in the 1960’s such a deep-seated change in sensibility as to alter the entire moral climate of the culture, and he tries to show that this change to a new sensibility was permanent. The self was still the most important concept, but in combination with a concern for social justice. This Utopian goal—in both politics and personal life—was a movement toward a modern Eden.

The ideological milieu created earlier by the writings of Marcuse, Goodman, and others provided the basis for the permanent cultural revolution which expressed itself through black writers, rock music, black humor, the new journalism, and more experimental and modernist fiction. Although Marshall McLuhan claims that the novel died in the cultural revolution to be replaced by the electronic media,...

(The entire section is 1,657 words.)