Morris Dickstein, a public intellectual who examined such topics as the cultural ferment of the 1960s, the artistic legacy of the Depression and the evolution of the American novel in works that were both penetrating and penetrable, offering a model of what he regarded as the ideal role of the critic in modern society, died March 24 at his home in Manhattan. He was 81.

The cause was complications from Parkinson’s disease, said his wife, Lore Willner Dickstein. Dr. Dickstein taught for four decades at the City University of New York, where he founded the Center for the Humanities at its Graduate Center.

Dr. Dickstein was part cultural historian, part literary critic. His emergence followed the postwar heyday of the public intellectual, when such heavyweights as Irving Howe, Irving Kristol and Nathan Glazer battled for ideas in pages of magazines such as Dissent and Commentary and embodied what writer Jonah Raskin described as a “mystique” that extended far beyond the salon and ivory tower.

“We could round up the usual suspects,” Dr. Dickstein remarked, endeavoring to explain the forces that had conspired to push him and his colleagues to the margins — “the turn toward theory, jargon, professionalization; the decline of the centrality of literature among the arts, followed by the decline of book culture itself; the separation of academics from the wider world of general readers; the collapse of literary journalism.”

The Internet was a principal culprit, he added, “offering worldwide distribution but substituting the gripes and hosannas of ordinary readers for the authority of trained and experienced critics.”

A self-described “freethinking intelligence yet a child of the ghetto,” Dr. Dickstein was the son of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. He spent his boyhood on the Lower East Side of New York and eventually studied at Columbia, Yale and the University of Cambridge under the most renowned of those trained and experienced thinkers — among them F.R. Leavis, Lionel Trilling and Harold Bloom.

In his own books and prolific writings, which appeared in newspapers including the New York Times and journals such as Partisan Review, Dr. Dickstein eschewed the hyper-academic style that had driven readers away from literary criticism not because the readers were unintelligent, but because the critics were unintelligible. (Remarking on developments in his profession, he wryly observed that “criticism of criticism now has its own comfortable niche.”)

Instead he sought to cultivate a style that was erudite but accessible to readers engaged with the world of culture. Unlike colleagues who wielded their pen like a drill, boring a hole ever deeper into a single rarefied topic of interest (or noninterest), Dr. Dickstein displayed an intellectual virtuosity, exploring the works of writers as varied as the English Romantic poets and the Beat Generation. In typical fashion, he drew an unexpected connection between the two groups.

Dr. Dickstein said he fell in love with Romantic poets such as John Keats for the very reason they had earlier fallen out of favor with T.S. Eliot and critics of his ilk. “The Romantics were seen as loose and undisciplined in their language, their morals, their urgent strength of feeling,” Dr. Dickstein told Raskin, explaining the objections. With such qualities, though, he said the poets prepared him for his study of the 1960s, the subject of one of his best known books.

Gates of Eden: American Culture in the Sixties” (1977) was Dr. Dickstein’s first major work, an examination of a decade that, as he wrote, produced “one of those deep-seated shifts of sensibility that alter the whole terrain.”

He probed what he regarded as the enduring brilliance of Norman Mailer’s New Journalism, the poetry of Robert Lowell and the comic novels of Philip Roth in commentary that he leavened with personal confessions. Tom Wolfe’s 1968 book “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test” was “stupefyingly boring,” he wrote. “I got through only half of it.”

The result, Times book critic Dwight Garner wrote in 2009, was “a book warmed by [such] injections of his own experiences during the decade and by his willingness occasionally to shoot from the hip.”

Dr. Dickstein examined his own profession in “Double Agent: The Critic and Society” (1992), then delved into literary history in “Leopards in the Temple: The Transformation of American Fiction, 1945-1970” (2002). He published “A Mirror in the Roadway: Literature and the Real World” (2005) before turning to the Depression in the cultural history “Dancing in the Dark” (2009).

That book, a finalist for a National Book Critics Circle Award, was a collection of writings on the works of authors such as John Steinbeck, filmmakers such as Frank Capra, composers including George Gershwin and photographers such as Dorothea Lange. “These admirably written pieces,” the critic Richard Schickel wrote in a review for the Los Angeles Times, “are marked by a generosity of spirit that never deteriorates into the quarrelsome.”

Morris Dickstein was born in Manhattan on Feb. 23, 1940. He lived on the Lower East Side until he was 9 and then moved to Queens, where his mother and father, who came from Ukraine and Poland, respectively, ran a dry goods store.

His parents sent him to a yeshiva, although he would later resist the restrictions of Orthodox life. In a memoir, “Why Not Say What Happened” (2015), Dr. Dickstein described his personal evolution as an “education of the feelings as well as the mind, a journey from one world to another, from an immigrant Jewish family to a secular, cosmopolitan society, a coming of age in a culture that was itself going through startling transitions that inevitably carried me along.”

He obtained a scholarship to attend Columbia, where he received a bachelor’s degree in English in 1961. He then enrolled at Yale, where he received a master’s degree in English literature in 1963 and, after studies in England at Clare College Cambridge, a doctoral degree in 1967. (The adviser for his thesis, a study of Keats, was Bloom.)

Dr. Dickstein taught at Queens College before joining CUNY in 1974. He retired in 2013.

Besides his wife of 56 years, of Manhattan, survivors include two children, Jeremy Dickstein, also of Manhattan, and Rachel Dickstein of Brooklyn; a sister; and four grandchildren.

At its most essential, Dr. Dickstein saw his responsibility, and that of any critic, to reveal the “sea of hype” upon which he found many books, films and other works of art to be bobbing along. “Only when you read a serious review do you see the issues underneath,” he told the New York Times in 1998. “Criticism plays a very important role in keeping people honest.”