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IN BRIEF

Nonfiction

August 16, 1992|CHRIS GOODRICH

DOUBLE AGENT: The Critic and Society by Morris Dickstein (Oxford University Press: $24.95; 256 pp.) Literary critics have had a hard time justifying their existence, at least since the 1940s, when the New Criticism and its glorification of The Text made writing seem a question of technique. More recent decades, of course, brought counterreaction, with Marxists and deconstructionists and other, younger critics abandoning, in the words of Columbia English professor Morris Dickstein, "fetishism of the text" for cultural studies' "fetishism of the context." Often lost in the shuffle was the middle ground--the province of the "public critic" previously occupied by the likes of Matthew Arnold, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Edmund Wilson and Alfred Kazin. These critics assumed, unlike many modern (not to mention postmodern) theorists, that they had a role to play in shaping society, and in this book Dickstein holds up their approach to literature as a model. "Double Agent" doesn't have a compelling central argument--it is essentially a collection of previously published articles--but it is a civilized examination of what Lionel Trilling called, grandiosely, "the dark and bloody crossroads where literature and politics meet."

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