Thursday, May 24, 2018

Philip Roth—The Last of the Great American Novelists—Part I

Philip Roth in Newark--ever an inspiration and obsession. 
Word has come that Philip Roth died on Tuesday in New York City at the age of 85.  He was widely considered the last of the Great American Novelists of the late 20th Century the peer of heavy hitters John Updike and Saul Bellow.  Roth himself believed that the novel, which had ruled for a century as the supreme and exalted American literary form, is doomed to becoming a cult niche in the Age of the Internet for a diminishing educated elite, “I think always people will be reading them but it will be a small group of people. Maybe more people than now read Latin poetry, but somewhere in that range…” Ever a realist, Roth was sanguine with the prospect.
Roth was far more prolific than either of the novelists he was frequently lumped with—29 full length novels and a dazzling debut novella over nearly 50 years.  His output was also more diverse in style and topic than either of the other while reaping critical praise, armloads of awards, and commercial success.  Yet at the core of his varied output were common threads—a Jewish identity with which he was not always comfortable but could not deny, a sense of being profoundly American— “if I am not American what am I”—a, a sex drive that was often creepily compulsive, and the world observed by fictional doppelgangers for the author, or sometimes the author himself as a fictional character.
Today the lengthy obituaries are all laudatory.  Tomorrow or the next day I can safely predict that the backlash will begin with harshly critical essays.  Leading the way will be Feminists critics who will denounce the whole cabal of elite white men as the custodians of the literary cannon.  More pointedly they will charge Roth with toxic masculinity and misogyny and will come loaded for bear with plenty of quotes from his work.  They will also have the example and testimony of his two ex-wives, both of whom showed up thinly disguised in his novels—a Margaret Martinson in When She Was Good and actress Clare Bloom in I Married a Communist.  Bloom penned her own bitter exposé of their 14-year-long relationship and four year marriage in he memoir Leaving the Doll’s House.
Not far behind will be some Jewish critics who always found Roth’s portraits embarrassing for their relentless sexuality and discomfort with aspects of the culture that were at odds with his identity as an American.  Others were angered at his voraciously espoused atheism—“I’m exactly the opposite of religious, I’m anti-religious. I find religious people hideous. I hate the religious lies. It’s all a big lie.”  Some Jewish critics hounded him from the beginning of his career.  Rabbi Gershom Scholem, the great kabbalah scholar, said Portnoy’s Complaint was more harmful to Jews than The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.  And Roth was heckled and booed at an early appearance at Yeshiva University which stunned and shocked the author.

Irving Howe, the Jewish intellectual who attacked Roth and was savaged by the author in return.
Roth fought back skewering one of his harshest critics, Irving Howe who he cast as supercilious Milton Appel in 1983’s The Anatomy Lesson with a typically uproarious rant:
“The comedy is that the real haters of the bourgeois Jews, with the real contempt for their everyday lives, are these complex intellectual giants,” Zuckerman snorts. “They loathe them, and don’t particularly care for the smell of the Jewish proletariat either. All of them full of sympathy suddenly for the ghetto world of their traditional fathers now that the traditional fathers are filed for safekeeping in Beth Moses Memorial Park. When they were alive they wanted to strangle the immigrant bastards to death because they dared to think they could actually be of consequence without ever having read Proust past Swann’s Way. And the ghetto—what the ghetto saw of these guys was their heels: out, out, screaming for air, to write about great Jews like Ralph Waldo Emerson and William Dean Howells. But now that the Weathermen are around, and me and my friends Jerry Rubin and Herbert Marcuse and H. Rap Brown, it’s where oh where’s the inspired orderliness of those good old Hebrew school days? Where’s the linoleum? Where’s Aunt Rose? Where is all the wonderful inflexible patriarchal authority into which they wanted to stick a knife?”
Howe never got up off the floor after that screed.
On the other hand, many other Jews found much to admire in Roth’s work which mirrored a broader struggle with assimilation and the retention of a cultural identity distinct from a religious one.
Whatever the criticisms that arise, it is hard to deny Roth’s gifts as a writerhumor, insight, more than a dollop of droll understanding of the very foibles his critics ravish him for, and a fluid, evolving, writing style.
Moreover, the ascendancy of Donald Trump revived interest in Roth’s 2004 alternate universe novel The Plot Against America in which Charles Lindbergh, a shallow celebrity, defeats Franklin D. Roosevelt as an America First candidate for President in the election of 1940, strikes a hands-off-Europe deal with Adolph Hitler, and launches his own campaign of anti-Semitism sweeping up the not-so-fictional Roth family of Newark, New Jersey.  Roth recognized the parallels and told The New Yorker in an interview on the eve his inauguration that Trump was “just a con man… ignorant of government, of history, of science, of philosophy, of art, incapable of expressing or recognizing subtlety or nuance…destitute of all decency… A massive fraud, the evil sum of his deficiencies, devoid of everything but the hollow ideology of a megalomaniac.”
Don’t expect flowers from the Resident at Roth’s memorial service.  On the other hand, a nasty, semi-literate tweet is not out of the question.

Philip Roth with his mother at the beach, 1935.
Roth was born on March 19, 1933 in Newark.  His parents, Herman and Bess were second generation Eastern European Jews who had largely assimilated.  The family, which included an older brother, lived in a comfortable five room apartment in the middle class Weequahic neighborhood.  His father was an insurance broker and executive for Metropolitan Life who was resentful that his advancement in the company was blocked by WASP top management.  Yet he made a comfortable living and the family was relatively untouched by the Great Depression which scarred the childhood of others of Philip’s generation.  In his autobiography Roth described his father, “His repertoire has never been large: family, family, family, Newark, Newark, Newark, Jew, Jew, Jew. Somewhat like mine.”

Despite strains with his father as he was pulled into an evermore “American” life experience, Roth looked on his childhood and youth in Weequahic as in many ways nearly idyllic.  He enjoyed a robust childhood and was poplar in high school where he was a bright student but not quite diligent enough in his studies to win a prized full scholarship to Rutgers where he wanted to study law.  Years later he would specifically name Weequahic High School and his Newark haunts in his breakthrough novel Portnoy’s Complaint.  Both the author and his fictional creation graduated in 1950.  Both had also missed the direct horrors of the Second World War and instead came of age during the optimistic post-war boom that was ominously shaded by Red Scare witch hunts which seemed to find a hell of a lot of Jewish witches.
Less prestigious Bucknell University in Pennsylvania was Roth’s fallback school.  There he abandoned his vague dreams of becoming a lawyer for the underdog and turned his attention to writing.  He did very well indeed graduating suma cum laude in English with a Phi Beta Kapa key.  He became one of the generation of post-war writers to pursue his literary career in tandem with post-graduate education and the life of academia. He missed the hard knocks and hustling work as a journalist or freelancer that was typical of the generation of heavy weights that came of age during and after World War I.
It was on to the University of Chicago for graduate work.  It was a yeasty environment for a young writer.  Saul Bellow was a contemporary and with some what similar backgrounds and interests they could not avoid being rivals.  There was also a lively left political scene and the emergence of new and unconventional art forms.  In the year that Roth earned his MA, 1955, the Compass Players, forerunner of Second City launched their improvisational comedy reviews.  Roth, a natural comic himself, absorbed it all. 
One of Roth's earliest appearances in print was a short story in this local Chicago magazine.  He didn't even make a cover mention.
Roth enlisted in the Army that year to avoid being drafted and assigned to unpleasant duty like the infantry.  The Cold War Army was said to be a democratizing experience bringing together young men of different backgrounds for the first time in their lives.  If so, Roth was not enthralled with the experience.  He injured his back during Basic Training and ultimately was given a medical discharge.
The experience became fodder for an early short story, Defender of the Faith, about a tough Jewish Drill Sergeant faced with goldbricking recruits from the Tribe.  Implicit was the suggestion that he himself was one of the malingerers and that perhaps the back injury which was his escape ticket may have been exaggerated.  It was this story in particular that drew the early wrath of his Jewish critics.  

Roth as a young writer and academic.
Back in Chicago in 1956 he resumed studies for a doctorate while teaching writing to undergrads. During that year he met a lovely shiksa waitress Margaret Martinson, a single woman with a small child.  He was smitten.  An intense, but often troubled relationship ensued.  At the end of the year he dropped out of the U of C and headed to the University of Iowa to teach in its creative writing program, then emerging as a national flagship for academic instruction of promising young writers.  None the less, Roth was not happy there, perhaps because the semi-rural Midwesterness of Ames was alien to him.  After a while with Martinson in tow he moved on to a similar position at Princeton, another WASP bastion but one with even more prestige.  Everyone who knew him recognized Roth as a comer.
During these years he polished his early short stories and finished his first novella while publishing fiction and reviews in publications including The New Republic.  In 1959 he finally married Martinson, although he would later claim to have been emotionally blackmailed into the wedding.  The same year Goodbye, Columbus and Five Short Stories was published to critical acclaim.  It won the National Book Award for 1960, a notable achievement for a freshman outing and one that put Roth on the literary map.

The novella and all of the stories dealt in some way with the struggles of second and third generation Jews with assimilation, class bias within the Jewish community, and various crises of identity.  All would be themes that Roth would continue to engage throughout his career.
He followed up in fairly rapid succession with two novels, Letting Go in 1962, set in the academic world he knew well at U of C and Iowa and When She Was Good in 1967.  Both novels feature characters inspired by Martinson.  The couple separated acrimoniously in 1963 and she subsequently refused to divorce Roth.  They seemed to have continued to mutually torment each other even over disentrances.  When She Was Good was the only time Roth employed a female main character and the only time the main character was a Goy.  While generally well received, neither of these books were initially commercially successful. 

An extremely rare photo of Roth first wife Margaret Martinson.  A mutually tormented relationship.
Martinson died in a car wreck in 1968, emotionally devastating Roth who was both grief stricken and mortified that an initial reaction was one of relief.
Taken together Roth considered these three books to be apprentice efforts.  Although artfully executed and dealing in the themes that would engage Roth throughout his life, they were the product of his years as a student and academic.  However, daring in subject, they remained shackled to the ideals of the novel that he both learned and taught—especially the restrictions of a so-called objective narrator.  His next novel, Portnoy’s Complaint would defiantly smash convention and plunge into an earthy froth of libido, and language as liberated and challenging as the shockingly unconventional coming of age tale it told.  It also became an instant commercial success, a pop icon, and turned the academic writer into a ‘60’s superstar.
To meet an insatiable public demand, Roth’s earlier work was rushed into print in popular paperback formats and became hits themselves, especially to college students and counter cultural youth who stuffed them into their back jeans pockets. 
Goodbye Columbus was made into a successful film starring Richard Benjamin and Ali McGraw in 1969.  Three years later Portnoy’s Complaint made it to the screen again with Benjamin but was a failure due to both a ham handed script and the inability of a commercial film to “go there.”  In some ways the true film heir to Roth’s book was the raunchy 1999 teen comedy American Pie.
Tomorrow—Portnoy and after.

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