Looking back over this year in New York City, with a new Whitney Museum, a new sculpture that shouts OY or YO, depending on what side of the East River you’re on, a new World Trade Center observatory back in use and a much-discussed new novel set here called “City on Fire,” I’m still drawn to an older New York, to pockets of time that are no more.
Two new memoirs beautifully evoke earlier Gotham days. Both by distinguished men of letters who came of age in the 1950s, Morris Dickstein’s “Why Not Say What Happened: A Sentimental Education” and Jack Schwartz’s “The Fine Print: My Life as a Deskman” are stories very well told. Dickstein writes of his trajectory from an Orthodox upbringing in a community of immigrants on the Lower East Side to the Ivy League and academia. Schwartz describes the pre-digital city with its many competing daily newspapers, and his journalistic career included stints at many of them.
A literary critic and professor, Dickstein, 75, chronicles his intellectual awakening; his book is also the story of his family, a love story (with his wife, who is called L), and an account of intellectual clashes and cultural shifts of the times. The title is a line from Robert Lowell’s introspective poem “Epilogue.”
In the opening scene of the memoir, Dickstein recalls a time when he was living in New Haven, newly married and studying at Yale, and finds himself in front of an apartment he had previously lived in, and filled with great curiosity. When no one answers the unlocked door, he lets himself in, feeling as though he is trespassing on his own life. That this past matters to him was clear. And in Dickstein’s fluent style, the incident reminds him of a favorite poem by William Wordsworth about time and memory.
Until he was 9, Dickstein lived on the first floor of a five-story walk-up on Henry Street on the Lower East Side, surrounded by quarreling relatives, with a row of eight or more shtieblach, or tiny synagogues, on the opposite side of the street. The family then moved to Flushing, where they lived across from and then above their dry goods store. (Later, he would review Bernard Malamud’s “The Tenants” and mention parallels with the tiny grocery described in "The Assistant"). The young Dickstein continued to attend the Orthodox Rabbi Jacob Joseph School on Henry Street, traveling by bus and subways on his own to get there. A happy, precocious kid who “spoke early and said clever things,” Dickstein felt loved, protected and worried about — but was not praised to his face for fear of attracting the evil eye.
Dickstein became the orator of his Boy Scout troop, read from the Torah weekly in the family’s Flushing shul, and, toward the end of high school, discovered that if he tucked works of Shakespeare and other books he wanted to read into the large volumes of the Talmud during class, the teachers wouldn’t notice.
Others have written about growing up poor on the Lower East Side, and about exuberant summers working in the Catskills, but Dickstein’s eye is distinctive, with clear memories stretching back decades. I recognize my own grandparents’ colorful yet melancholy Henry Street neighbors in Dickstein’s accounts of his surrogate parents across the hall: a childless couple, he a wheezing bookie who doted on his petite wife who spoke her own version of English.
Columbia College was a leap from RJJ, but Dickstein flourished. Many who graduated from college even more recently than Dickstein will be struck by the detail with which he remembers his courses, themes that engaged him and his precise evolution of thought.
“The things I remember, I remember very powerfully, I almost hallucinate them,” he tells The Jewish Week. “My college studies were life changing experiences, not simply classes. I had very good teachers at Columbia College, who also provided a larger connection to the worlds of New York intellectuals.” Many of the people he studied with, like Lionel Trilling, remained a presence in his life.
“College set me on a path I continue to pursue. Not many stay on the same path. I remained in the university world.” At Columbia, he wrote for “The Spectator,” and then launched a literary review called “The Supplement.”
After his undergraduate years at Columbia (with courses at JTS) and graduate studies at Yale (where he earned his doctorate) with a term at Cambridge, he got his first teaching position at Columbia. He then moved to Queens College, and a few years later received an additional appointment to the Graduate Center at CUNY, where he is now Distinguished Professor Emeritus of English and Theatre.
This is a very personal memoir: He writes openly about love, sex, anxiety and psychoanalysis. “If you’re not doing anything that makes you uncomfortable, you’re not being truthful,” he says. “I was determined not to idealize, or to make myself the hero of my own story. He then quotes George Orwell, as he does in the book: “Autobiography is only to be trusted when it reveals something disgraceful.”
About how his yeshiva education shaped him, he says, “Probably more than I realize. You can say that literary interpretation and being book-oriented is related to the Talmudic discourses and interpretation that you do in Talmudic analysis.”
Through the book, even as he leaves aside certain Jewish rituals, he continues to observe kashrut. These days, he says he keeps “symbolically kosher,” still making certain distinctions that are meaningful to him that “preserve my connection to my parents and their world, as well as to the history of the Jews.” When his father died in 1992, he would go to shul to say Kaddish and discovered the morning minyan at Ansche Chesed, not far from his Upper West Side home. He wrote about that experience, calling the piece “The Law of Return.”
Dickstein, who has published the cultural histories “Gates of Eden” and “Dancing in the Dark” along with other literary works, recalls hearing playwright David Hare recently talk about publishing a memoir, and how he felt the weight of association with certain times and places. Writing was a way to offload them, to no longer be burdened. Dickstein agrees, “In a sense I’m parking my memories in a volume, both preserving them and detaching myself. “
Around the time that Dickstein was writing for “The Spectator,” Jack Schwartz was at City College, writing and editing The City College Campus while also working as a copy boy at The Daily Mirror, a tabloid that was then the flagship Hearst newspaper in New York. Over the next half century — through “the heyday of American print journalism” — he worked at the Daily News, the New York Post, Newsday, the Long Island Press and The New York Times, as well as the Paris Herald-Tribune.
His early days at the Mirror, as he recounts in “The Fine Print: My Life as a Deskman,” were peopled with Damon Runyon-esque characters, with lots of shouting, smoking and growling. It wasn’t uncommon for reporters and the men of the rewrite bank to keep a bottle of booze on their desks. One memorable night, he had to fetch a photographer from a nearby bar and race over to Radio City with him to photograph Marilyn Monroe.
Schwartz always has a great story, and he shares his insider’s view with great wit, understated erudition and deep insight. He worked his way up from copy boy, and served as reporter on many beats in newsrooms more dignified than the Mirror, foreign correspondent, creator and editor of a new book section at Newsday, and he worked the “backfield” all over The New York Times. Along the way, he befriended the linotype operators, copy-cutters and truck drivers.
Most of his career was spent as a “deskman,” an intermediary between the reporter and reader — assigning stories, supervising and shaping coverage, rewriting and polishing other people’s copy to the highest standards that they would be pleased to call their own.
“It was not a sentimental education in Flaubert’s terms,” he tells The Jewish Week. “At the beginning, it was a learning experience, and after a while a teaching experience, when I knew enough to impart whatever wisdom I had acquired to others. “
Schwartz, who retired from The New York Times in 2009, was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard and an International Affairs Reporting Fellow at Columbia and has taught at the Columbia School of Journalism and NYU, and served as a writing mentor at the CUNY Graduate Center. He is a most affable guide and a terrific writer. Even as more news is read on computer screens from a range of sources, this is an important story of the people who continue to shape the news that’s fit to print.