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A Mirror in the Roadway: Literature and the Real World
By Morris Dickstein
Princeton, 280 pp., $26.95

Since the publication of ''Gates of Eden: American Culture in the 1960s" in 1977, Morris Dickstein has worked intently to affirm and explore the relation between American literature and its underlying social-historical reality, an enterprise that puts him directly in the lineage of critics like Edmund Wilson, Alfred Kazin, and Irving Howe, all of whom he would claim as shaping influences. Until the arrival of academic literary theory in the 1970s, theirs was the main avenue of literary discourse, as is partly attested by the fact that when any critic of this ilk and stature had accumulated enough essays, the publisher would bring them out with fanfare as necessary gatherings.

But as Dickstein would be the first to affirm, the social-historical reality has changed significantly in the last decades. One sign of this is that publishers have lost confidence, if not in the product, then certainly in the market, so that when such works are published -- which is ever more rarely -- they are almost invariably dressed up as single-subject books, the idea being that labeled artifacts have a better chance of finding readers than anything tagged as merely ''selected."

Dickstein's ''A Mirror in the Roadway" is a case in point. Reviews, essays, and symposia presentations on various topics, the pieces have been coaxed toward the unity suggested in the book's subtitle. But if they manifest a certain cohesion -- and I think they do -- it is less owing to any structural logic of argumentation and more because they all emerge from this one writer's very definite sensibility. Here is the wolf of a ''selected" in the sheep's dress of the topical. We feel no strain in moving from general reflections on realism, Stendhal's idea of the novel as ''a mirror carried along a roadway," to overview considerations of Mary McCarthy, Wilson, or Louis-Ferdinand Celine, to reviews of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Günter Grass, and William Kennedy. But we needn't pretend that the whole has any through-line of argument beyond Dickstein's constant remarking of the percolation between the material givens of a culture and the works of literary imagination.

Dickstein is a deeply read and securely grounded critic, willing to greet a book first as a reader, but then able to register and evaluate its thematic ambition and its responsiveness to historical pressures. He is as succinct as he is insightful, especially when he turns his focus to mid-20th-century literary culture.

Discussing McCarthy's satirical novels ''The Oasis" and ''The Groves of Academe," for instance, he writes: ''McCarthy is wonderful at setting the stage and inserting the actors as comic props. She has the born essayist's gift for describing a world but not the novelist's power to make it move, or make it moving."

Tracing the formation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's sensibility to his reading of what Dickstein calls the ''great Romantic crisis poems," meanwhile, he offers this: ''On the surface it appears that Fitzgerald goes from being a pie-eyed romantic in the twenties to a disillusioned realist in the 1930s, except that this very disintoxication is a crucial moment of the Romantic imagination. It's the moment of clarity when the dreamer, the visionary, is humanized by loss, by suffering, by fellow feeling -- when the mental traveler, no longer adrift in 'faery lands forlorn,' turns homeward, in Keats's words, to the 'sole self,' the self without romantic illusions." Summaries like these conceal behind their graceful clarity a considerable compression of thought.

As Dickstein makes his way through what is for him the relevant canon, we mainly nod and approve -- there is no denying the scope and sureness of his intelligence. But the reader invested in the ongoing possibilities of serious literature might grow restless after five or six essays, wishing for more friction, or to see the critic bring his honed skills to bear on works that are grounded in some different understanding of the ''real." There is little sense here of engaging the adversary. I find no mention at all of Don DeLillo, Toni Morrison, David Foster Wallace, or Robert Coover, for example, though surely each of these writers takes on the problem of reflecting the known world as passionately as any of Dickstein's more contemporary exemplars.

Of course, a reviewer can always make a case for what has not been ventured. If I raise the question it is because such considerations might broaden the reach of the argument by hinting at its possible limits.

Overall, though, Dickstein is a supple writer, free of ideological tether. He honors through his practice what he defines as the role of the critic, which is ''not to read notionally and cleverly, and certainly not to arraign writers for their politics, but to raise ordinary reading to a higher power -- to make it more insightful, more acute, without losing the vital authenticity of a deeply personal reaction."

Sven Birkerts recently completed ''Then, Again," about the art of memoir. He teaches at the Bennington Writing Seminars and edits the journal Agni.

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