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Double Agent: The Critic and Society,

Dickstein, M., Pp. xvii + 220. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press. 19.50][pounds].

AT the end of |The Return to History? A Dialogue on Criticism Today', which is the final section of this book, Dickstein's mask identifies his favoured critic: |the public critic rather than the technical critic; the novelist and poet as critic; the personal critic rather than the systematiser; the critic as intellectual and generalist rather than the idealogical critic' (192). During the past four decades this species of critic has been marginalized; criticism has become the preserve of the academic specialist who has detached literature from its social, political, and moral milieu in one phase and assigned to literature the role of reflector of its cultural contexts in another. Zealously embracing a series of |-isms', from the New Criticism to the New Historicism, the professional critic has insisted on using an increasingly discrete language accessible only to other professionals.

The founding father of the sort of criticism that Dickstein wants to see restored is Arnold, the writer of |a criticism of sensibility' (19) who assimilated literary criticism to social criticism, used a biographical method and emphasized value judgments. These are the qualities found in the writing of Edmund Wilson and Trilling, the latter's manner suggesting |the Victorian man of letters or the more relaxed essayists of the Edinburgh Review' (76). Wilson was the literary intellectual giant of the twentieth century who |writes criticism closely allied to history and biography. But his crystalline narrative method, the very hallmark of the public critic and literary journalist, is refined by his acute literary judgment' (124). It is literary journalism which particularly appeals to Dickstein because, at its best, it |combines the wide-ranging freedom, the gifted unprofessionalism of Victorian criticism, with a more modern textual attention and an awareness that a reading is not the Truth but only a quick take upon it, a singular perspective' (65). Dickstein laments the absence of these attributes in mainstream academic criticism: to the deconstructionist, for example, |life is a construct, a series of fictions; art is a discourse which helps create those fictions; and criticism is a competing discourse without genuine access to either art or |life' -- an illusion created by language'(40). The theoretical basis of such criticism does not allow public access.

Double Agent is a polemical work: lively, provocative, and insistent in the thrust of its argument. Earlier versions of some of the chapters appeared as essays, lectures, and reviews; this is all too evident when reading the book. By the time Dickstein reaches his central section -- |The Critic and Society, 1900-1950: The Counter Tradition'-- the reader is very familiar with the ground covered and the critics concerned, from their extensive, and sometimes repetitive, treatment in foregoing sections. Wilson, Trilling, Kazin, and others reappear to reconfirm their status as public critics whose writing combines the virtues of lucidity, fine literary judgement, and socio-historical awareness, virtues noticeably absent from specialist criticism. Such repetition of his material is all the more unfortunate because it diminishes the impact of Dickstein's important and timely book.

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Author:Embley, Keith
Publication:Notes and Queries
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 1994
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