he first fan letter I ever wrote was to Philip Roth in 1959 after reading Goodbye, Columbus. I was not in the habit of complimenting writers, not Saul Bellow for The Adventures of Augie March, or Herman Wouk for Marjorie Morningstar, or even Leon Uris for Exodus. I was then between college and graduate school, aspiring to be Virginia Woolf’s ideal reader, and I was teaching myself to distinguish between good writing (Bellow’s) and what my favorite professor called “push-button” prose (Uris’s). But reading Roth’s stories, I was beyond caring whether this was a “critical” or merely “commercial” success. I felt these stories were written, if not for me alone, then close enough—for someone about my age with the same disdain for the bourgeois limitations of Jewish life and the organized Jewish community. At the time, I shared some of those attitudes and thus identified almost completely with the Roth stand-in in most of the stories. And though I have since then learned to love much of what I once distrusted, I remain thankful for the freedom to identify with the male narrator, since no one had yet told me I was expected as a female to identify only with other females in literature—with Miriam rather than Moses! Happily, I came of age before Women’s Lib tried to pen me in.
Roth’s title story transcribed in credible dialogue the summer romance of clever Neil Klugman (klug is Yiddish for clever) with Brenda Patimkin, whose family had already moved from Newark, where Neil still lives with his aunt, to more prosperous Short Hills. This was the familiar adventure of a boy attracted erotically and economically to the girl who would satisfy both sets of his ambitions but who is upended by her bourgeois scruples. The erotic part of the plot centers on his demand that she facilitate their sex by getting a diaphragm from the Margaret Sanger Clinic, and the economic part, on preparations for the wedding of Brenda’s older brother Ron in the kind of merger-marriage the family expects. Rather than pursue his real ambition of becoming a gym instructor, Ron is headed for the family business—Patimkin Kitchen and Bathroom Sinks, located “in the heart of the Negro section of Newark.” I would have paid greater attention than I did to the sociology of the novella had I realized that this would remain Roth territory over his lifetime.
The mature Philip Roth was not proud of this debut collection, and I am likewise a little embarrassed to admit the almost unreserved admiration I felt for all its six stories and the title one in particular. I laughed at the preliminary exchanges between the sparring couple (“What do you look like?” “I’m…dark.” “Are you a Negro?”), and at the portrait of the Hadassah-member mother who asks about Martin Buber, “Is he orthodox or conservative?”I thought brilliantly funny the scene in which Ron plays his record of “Goodbye, Columbus” that turns out to be a transcript of the final game of his basketball career at Ohio State. Columbus—get it? I especially fancied Neil’s discovery in the basement of Brenda’s wealthy home the family’s old Newark refrigerator that had once stocked butter, eggs, and herring in cream sauce but was now heaped with
fruit, shelves swelled with it, every color, every texture, and hidden within, every kind of pit. There were greengage plums, black plums, red plums, apricots, nectarines, peaches, long horns of grapes, black, yellow, red, and cherries, cherries flowing out of boxes and staining everything scarlet. And there were melons—cantaloupes and honeydews—and on the top shelf, half of a huge watermelon, a thin sheet of wax paper clinging to its bare red face like a wet lip. Oh Patimkin! Fruit grew in their refrigerator and sporting goods dropped from their trees!
Because the three Patimkin children are competitively proficient in every trendy sport, the yard is similarly overstocked with their equipment. This was the most energetically rendered put-down of the Jewish upper middle class I had ever seen. And it was such fun! I sent my fan letter to Roth, c/o Houghton Mifflin Company, complimenting him for blasting “the Battleship Patimkin.” Get it? I felt I was almost in his class of wit.
But already back then I had one reservation about the story. A subplot involves a little Negro boy who comes to the library, where Neil has a summer job, looking for books on “heart”—by which he means “art.” Neil alone among the staff encourages and shields the little boy whom others mistake for a potential thief.
“Who took these pictures?” he asked me.
“Gauguin. He didn’t take them, he painted them. Paul Gauguin. He was a Frenchman.”
“Is he a white man or a colored man?
“Man,” the boy smiled, chuckled almost, “I knew that. He don’t take pictures like no colored men would. He’s a good picture taker.…Look, look, look here at this one. Ain’t that the fuckin life?”
What I distrusted about this sequence, in addition to the self-serving portrait of the racially sensitive narrator and the condescending portrait of his protégé, was the contrast the story set up between the alleged boorishness of prosperous Jews and the “spontaneous” appreciation of art by the indigent black child. This was only a little less heavy-handed than the stuff of Jewish Communist or Socialist propaganda. It was one thing to play off the more genuine or honest Jew against phonies, as Roth does in several of the other stories, but it was itself part of the phoniness to make an invidious comparison between crass Jews and the allegedly more genuine and honest (because less privileged and more discriminated-against) non-Jews.
The corrupted Jew/untainted non-Jew dichotomy seemed to me not only dumb, but trite. That same year, 1959, in Montreal where I lived, there appeared Mordecai Richler’s The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz. It was a novel uncommonly similar in its cultural assumptions, though whereas Neil Klugman is the sympathetic alternative to the smug Jews of New Jersey, Duddy Kravitz is himself the Jew who aspires to acquire—in his case, land. Roth’s satire of the Patimkin wedding has its comic parallel in Richler’s parody of a crass bar mitzvah, and both works assume that Jews sacrifice their souls in their climb from immigrant poverty into what passes for security. The only characters capable of true affection and loyalty in Richler’s plot are a French-Canadian young woman and a Gentile epileptic, both of whom he betrays. Duddy Kravitz was a knock-off of Budd Schulberg’s Sammy Glick in What Makes Sammy Run? (1952), who scrambles over people in his climb from New York’s Lower East Side to Hollywood. That was preceded, in turn, by Abraham Cahan’s The Rise of David Levinsky (1917)…and along the way there was plenty of fiction of varying artistic quality featuring similarly avaricious members of the tribe. I appreciated the wonderfully rendered cliché of the Jewish nouveaux-riches Patimkins but less so the redemptive Gentile as “heart” instructor of the uglier Jew.
Philip Roth was in no permanent danger of yielding to that cliché. Rather than follow up Goodbye, Columbus with books in the same vein, he moved away from Jews and tried his hand at more conventional American subjects and literary approaches. Maybe because I read his next novels, Letting Go and When She Was Good, mostly out of duty, I felt that he had written them dutifully to prove himself master of American fiction and not just its Jewish precincts. But for that I didn’t need Roth and could have gone straight to Henry James. Then something happened. On an overnight trip to New York in 1967, I stayed with Montreal expatriates who suggested we invite another friend to join us for dinner. Our friend agreed to come on condition that we let him bring a new story he had just discovered. He insisted on reading us—aloud and in company!—“The Jewish Blues” from the first issue of a paperback magazine called New American Review. We laughed harder than we ever had (maybe ever would again) at this shpritz of stand-up comedy delivered from a horizontal position. “The Jewish Blues” became the third chapter of Portnoy’s Complaint.
Written as a series of monologues that form six psychoanalytic sessions, Portnoy’s Complaint was built entirely on clichés—the Jewish son with an Oedipal complex, the vociferous mother and constipated father, Freudian analysis with a Viennese refugee, the Jew’s sexual attraction to the Gentile shiksa and corresponding fear of the assertive Jewish woman. But because joking depends on a shared cultural vocabulary, Roth’s recourse to the clichés of American Jewish culture were in this case justified and, indeed, indispensable to the comedy’s success.
Freud had explained it all in his study of Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious, leaving comic writers to combine as they saw fit the features of joking that he identified, such as condensation, double entendre, displacement, faulty reasoning, etc., for purposes ranging from pleasure to aggression. Freud poignantly explains the need for this irreverence: “What these jokes whisper may be said aloud: that the wishes and desires of men have a right to make themselves acceptable alongside of exacting and ruthless morality.” Civilized adults may be forgiven for using comedy to bring release from taboos they must continue to observe. When Alex Portnoy says, “I am the son in the Jewish joke—Only it ain’t no joke!” the comedy exposes the distress that laughter only momentarily relieves.
Once the laughter subsided, a number of questions arose: Did the joking of insiders suit a general public? And did Portnoy’s Complaint really break taboos, or did it exploit a cultural shift that had already set in? On the sex front, Roth was barely keeping up with the times. Hugh Hefner founded Playboy magazine in 1953 and opened the first Playboy Club in 1960. Portnoy coincided with 1967’s Summer of Love when a group called the Hombres recorded “Let It All Hang Out.” Students were burning American flags, storming political conventions, and trashing universities. Roth’s obscenity had nothing on Lenny Bruce. It was only because Alex Portnoy was represented as “Assistant Commissioner for The City of New York Commission on Human Opportunity” that his sexual and lexical breakout felt almost as sacrilegious as Hester Prynne’s adultery. The impression of repression made for the comic release.
As I saw it, the real risks Roth took were not orgiastic or onanistic—but lay elsewhere, mainly in his satire of Christians. Alex’s father is speaking:
“They worship a Jew, do you know that, Alex? Their whole big-deal religion is based on worshiping someone who was an established Jew at that time. Now how do you like that for stupidity? How do you like that for pulling the wool over the eyes of the public? Jesus Christ, who they go around telling everybody was a God, was actually a Jew! And this fact, that absolutely kills me when I have to think about it, nobody else pays any attention to. That he was a Jew, like you and me, and that they took a Jew and turned him into some kind of God after he is already dead, and then—and this is what can make you absolutely crazy—then the dirty bastards turn around afterwards, and who is the first one on their list to persecute? Who haven’t they left their hands off of to murder and to hate for two thousand years? The Jews!”
This eruption is accounted for by the parents’ years of kowtowing to bigoted employers, but Alex is even more offensive than his father when he notices a picture of Jesus floating up to Heaven “in a pink nightgown” in the home of a girl he is trying to seduce:
The Jews I despise for their narrow-mindedness, their self-righteousness, the incredibly bizarre sense that these cave men who are my parents and relatives have somehow gotten of their superiority—but when it comes to tawdriness and cheapness, to beliefs that would shame even a gorilla, you simply cannot top the goyim. What kind of base and brainless schmucks are these people to worship somebody who, number one, never existed, and number two, if he did, looking as he does in that picture, was without a doubt The Pansy of Palestine….
Rereading this book (as I have done more than once), I wondered whether the narrator’s assaults on Jews and on himself were not the excuse for attacks on Gentiles and on Christians specifically. In the past, Jews who lived as a minority among Gentiles—and at their mercy—reasonably refrained from aggressing against their hosts. In hostile or potentially hostile societies, Jewish boys were discouraged from fighting back lest it bring on collective retribution. For the same reasons, Jews held back as well from verbal insult, and this prohibition burrowed deep into the culture. Roth violated this taboo, feeling sufficiently at home in America not to have such concerns about offending the goyim and probably realizing that, as with sex, what was once forbidden was now becoming all the rage.
As he anticipated, those truly offended by Portnoy were not Christians but Jews. Criticism came from some of the distinguished Jewish elders of the day, like Marie Syrkin in New York and Gershom Scholem in Jerusalem—intellectuals who had borne the full weight of anti-Semitism a mere two decades earlier and who now feared the consequence of Roth’s Jewish impropriety. Syrkin saw the leering Nazi-style anti-Jewish stereotype behind Roth’s Jewish joking. A little like the chief rabbi of Moscow who is reported to have warned in 1919, “Trotsky makes the revolutions, and the Bronsteins pay the bills,” Scholem thought that by trotting out every negative stereotype of the Jew, this self-styled “American writer” was actually stoking a new anti-Semitism. Trotsky had quit the Jews by changing his name from Bronstein, but just as the Moscow rabbi warned that Jews would be charged for his deeds, so Scholem wondered “what price the world Jewish community is going to pay for this book.” A second tier of criticism from American rabbis and Jewish organizational leaders protested Roth’s negative portrayal of the Jewish way of life, and from reviewers there were objections to the book’s alleged lack of artistic merit.
Against all these charges, I sided with Roth. In the late 1960s, Jews had reason to believe that there was little danger of triggering anti-Semitism in America: Jews were then at the height of their popularity. Liberal sympathy for Holocaust victims was unadulterated by fear of having to absorb Jewish refugees, now that Israel was there to absorb them. Paul Newman had strode the screen like a colossus as Ari Ben Canaan in Otto Preminger’s film Exodus, based on the Leon Uris bestseller, projecting Israel’s new image of masculine competence. Moreover, Judaism was by then enshrined as one of America’s three religions—Protestant, Catholic, Jew—sharing their fate, for better and worse, including as targets of satire. Roth’s debut coincided with the Jewish moment in American culture, and he proved it by eventually surpassing all other Jewish American novelists in popularity. By raising the specter of anti-Semitism, Roth’s anachronistic critics made Roth seem all the more up-to-date.
I was in no greater sympathy with those who expected Roth to be “fair” to the Jewish community. We were by then a small army of college-graduated Jews who had been trained to differentiate advertising from literature, and to reject the notion of any writerly loyalty other than to writing itself. When accused of misrepresenting the Jews, Roth responded in this magazine with an imagined list of similar complaints that might have been leveled at other authors, e.g., to Fyodor Dostoevsky for the portrait of Raskolnikov: “‘All the students in our school, and most of the teachers, feel that you have been unfair to us….’ ‘Dear Mark Twain—None of the slaves on our plantation has ever run away. But what will our owner think when he reads of Nigger Jim?’ ‘Dear Vladimir Nabokov—The girls in our class…’” When it came to defending artistic independence, Roth was clearly able to hold his own.
The more vexing question of Portnoy’s literary merit was raised most cogently by Irving Howe—in this magazine in 1972. As the literary critic who defined the New York intellectuals (also in this magazine), Howe seemed to be speaking for his intellectual cohort when he quotably wrote, “The cruelest thing anyone can do with Portnoy’s Complaint is to read it twice.” He then cruelly tried to substantiate his claim. Nonetheless, Howe managed to inflate the book’s impact while depreciating its value by calling the novel a “cultural document of some importance,” claiming that younger Jews took it as a signal for abandoning their Jewishness while some Gentile readers took it as sign that Jews were no better than anyone else:
[They] could almost be heard breathing a sigh of relief, for it signaled an end to philo-Semitism in American culture, one no longer had to listen to all that talk about Jewish morality, Jewish endurance, Jewish wisdom, Jewish families. Here was Philip Roth himself, a writer who even seemed to know Yiddish, confirming what had always been suspected about those immigrant Jews but had recently not been tactful to say.
Was it not praising with faint damn to credit Roth with having changed the direction of American culture? And why should Howe be more distressed than the rabbis? This panning could only help further stoke the image of Roth as a bold, renegade Jewish writer.
Roth later got his own back in a recognizable caricature of his critic (as Milton Appel in The Anatomy Lesson), but this was more than a personal feud. The book and the controversy it stirred marked a shift in American Jewish culture—a generational one. Howe, like Roth, had once rebelled against Jewish observance and like him, too, had married “outside the faith,” but by the time he wrote this review essay, he had created anthologies of Yiddish literature and had retrieved his heritage in World of Our Fathers, a cultural history of the Jewish immigrant experience.
Howe’s generation was saturated with old-world Jewishness. Delmore Schwartz could evoke the Jewish intonations of a mother’s speech. Isaac Rosenfeld wrote some of his stories in Yiddish. Joseph Dorman’s film Arguing the World, takes Irving Kristol, Daniel Bell, and Nathan Glazer back to their immigrant neighborhoods and probes their attachments to their Jewish upbringing. While Saul Bellow and Bernard Malamud are often linked with Roth in a triumvirate of Jewish writers, there is actually a world of difference between the older writers who drew from a reservoir of Jewishness and Philip Roth, whose mother made jello, not challah, whose dad played baseball rather than read the Forverts. Howe addressed this difference when he charged Roth with running on empty:
Portnoy’s Complaint is not, as enraged critics have charged, an anti-Semitic book, though it contains plenty of contempt for Jewish life. Nor does Roth write out of traditional Jewish self-hatred, for the true agent of such self-hatred is always indissolubly linked with Jewish past and present, quite as closely as those who find in Jewishness moral or transcendent sanctions. What the book speaks for is a yearning to undo the fate of birth; there is no wish to do the Jews any harm (a little nastiness is something else), nor any desire to engage with them as a fevered antagonist; Portnoy is simply crying out to be left alone, to be released from the claims of distinctiveness and the burdens of the past, so that, out of his own nothingness, he may create himself as a “human being.” Who, born a Jew in the 20th century, has been so lofty in spirit never to have shared this fantasy? But who, born a Jew in the 20th century, has been so foolish in mind as to dally with it for more than a moment?
It was impossible for Roth to recover what he never had, but Howe accused him of embracing the hollowness of what American Jewish life had become rather than trying to fill it.
This cultural shift also had a political undercurrent. Some of the New York intellectuals had undergone a political transformation from left-tending liberalism to neoconservatism. Having started out on the left, they understood its dangerous attractions and the corresponding need to protect American freedoms. Once opposed or indifferent to Zionism for its national backsliding from the international ideal, they discovered Israel and accepted responsibility for its defense. They were not all Cold Warriors to the same degree, but they wanted to bring down the Soviet Union. They were shocked by the radical assault on elite universities where some of them were now privileged to teach. Their disquiet intensified as protest against the war in Vietnam morphed into an attack on Western civilization. Though Howe continued to call himself a socialist, he was like the others culturally conservative, and he associated Roth with the radical impulse. He decries Roth for his vulgarity, by which he means not the scatology or descriptions of masturbation but “the impulse to submit the rich substance of human experience, sentiment, value, and aspiration to a radically reductive leveling or simplification.” In Howe’s judgment, Portnoy’s Complaint violated the standards of civilizing refinement that the older Jewish intellectuals were trying to uphold.
My political sympathies were generally with the New York intellectuals—but the book made me laugh. I was learning to trust my own response when it contradicted that of my literary betters, and my artless reaction to Roth’s novel made me ready to defend him from Howe’s critique. I thought Howe had missed the whole point of the comedy: Laughter would explode the clichés of American Jewish culture, including the image of the arrested adolescent who was passing himself off as the typical Jewish male. Laughter was a therapeutic purge, part indictment, part confession, with curative potential. Portnoy’s mock-analysis culminates in the punch line: “So [said the doctor] Now vee may perhaps to begin. Yes?” This was both part of the comedy and its resolution. Alex was about to rise from the couch a somewhat steadied Jewish American male capable of love and happiness, as donor and recipient. I saw this work as a signpost on the road to the cultural and political maturity that the neoconservatives had already reached, and I expected Portnoy’s creator, the original klug man, to move on.
Was I right?
Irving Howe was proved spectacularly wrong in his assessment of Roth’s literary powers. Endlessly inventive, Roth may have bombed with the works that came in the immediate wake of Portnoy, such as Our Gang and The Breast, but the creation of Nathan Zuckerman in the late 1970s as a Roth stand-in served him for eight full novels, ranging in style from postmodern to traditional and in quality from passable to great. Roth proved fully capable of probing the human soul in tight novellas and epic sagas. And in a one-man literary Marshall Plan, he also generously sponsored the work of European authors—Tadeusz Borowski, Bruno Schulz, Danilo Kiš, Milan Kundera—and featured other writers in his fiction, reviving Anne Frank in one of his novels and including (then) living Israeli Aharon Appelfeld in another. We now know that serious heart problems curtailed the range but not necessarily the intensity of his writing. From book to book one never knew what to expect, so I acquired and read almost all of them.
It is harder to confront Roth’s effect on American Jewry. As said, no other American writer was ever so closely associated with Jewish subjects and a Jewish readership, nor can one imagine Roth successful without them. Yet the attachment had not been his idea. When Roth’s designated biographer, Blake Bailey, said recently, “The Jewish thing was really what informed Philip as a writer,” he then noted that the credit really went to George Starbuck, Roth’s first editor, who had been given a longer manuscript and discarded all but the stories with Jewish themes. Starbuck made the shrewd decision that Goodbye, Columbus would be about Jewish life in America at the time when Jews were all the rage. Roth said, “In many ways, George formed my career, because I didn’t know that I was a Jewish writer.” It was a shotgun wedding, not unlike Roth’s unhappy first marriage to Margaret Martinson, from which he was released by her death. He could not quit the Jewish union, however, without giving up the dowry of fame it had brought him, so he stayed to the end in the cheerless marriage.
Roth’s denial of meaningful Jewish attachment remained an essential feature of his writing, complicated by the lack of alternative, for unlike Russian Jewish writers like Boris Pasternak who turned to Christianity, he disliked Christianity even more than being a Jew. In a 1961 Commentary symposium on “Jewishness and the Younger Intellectuals,” the year after he had won the National Book Award for Goodbye, Columbus, Roth wrote that he could not distinguish a Jewish style of life different from the American urban and suburban middle classes, or any values separating Jews from others.
There does not seem to me a complex of values or aspirations or beliefs that continue to connect one Jew to another in our country, but rather an ancient and powerful disbelief, which, if it is not fashionable or wise to assert in public, is no less powerful for being underground: that is, the rejection of the myth of Jesus as Christ….And wherein my fellow Jews reject Jesus as the supernatural envoy of God, I feel a kinship with them.
Needless to say, this form of kinship is not a basis for any true affection. He then goes on to deny any other form of religious or cultural cohesion so that “we are bound together, I to my fellow Jews, my fellow Jews to me, in a relationship that is peculiarly enervating and unviable. Our rejection, our abhorrence finally, of the Christian fantasy leads us to proclaim to the world that we are Jews still—alone, however, what have we to proclaim to one another?”
It is one thing to nurse such a paltry idea of the Jewish people but much more troubling to use it as the basis of a literary career. Roth’s rejection of faith is the kind that many Jews admit to at the start of their cognitive and emotional development. Daniel Bell fondly recalled telling his rabbi that he could not have a bar mitzvah because he did not believe in God and having the rabbi answer, “Do you really think He cares?” But Roth’s starting point remained his endpoint: American Jews were Jewish only by negative definition. The influence of this idea is everywhere manifest among those liberal Jews who, while finding no inspiration in their own religious tradition, reflexively distrust true Christians, especially evangelicals even when (or especially when) they are Israel’s strong supporters. Their rejection of Christians supersedes and displaces their affection for fellow Jews. That this insults Christian honesty and undermines Jewish security is not as troubling as the mean defensiveness of those who actually hold such views. Roth could fall back on the privilege of the satirist. His cultural adherents have no such pretext.
Roth was just like the earlier generation of Jewish writers and intellectuals in remaining attached to his childhood, but its imagined inauthenticity left him stuck in a time warp. The work that shows off this emptiness to greatest disadvantage is the 2004 novel The Plot against America. It reimagines what might have happened to Philip Roth’s actual family—father Herman, mother Bess, and brother Sandy—had Nazi sympathizer Charles A. Lindbergh become the Republican candidate for the presidency and defeated Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the 1940 election. The idea for such a dystopian fiction must have occurred to Roth because by the turn of the century anti-Semitism was once again on the rise in America, but he re-created an obsolete scenario instead of the real one. As had already been obvious for decades, the new aggression against the Jews originated in the Arab war against the Jewish state and had been couched since the 1960s in the slogans of Soviet anti-Zionism. The Zionism-racism accusation, pushed through by the Soviet-Arab axis at the United Nations, penetrated the United States from the left just as German-Nazi propaganda had once done from the right. The aggression had flipped political sides. Casting Palestinians as victims of Israeli imperialism and appropriating for them the role of refugee victim, a coalition of grievance and blame made common cause against Israel and against American Jews who supported their homeland. Rather than deal with this new threat, Roth retreated to his childhood politically, to take on the familiar Nazi bogeyman and refight the war that American troops had already won. He misidentified the target.
Fortunately, there were also times when Roth was able to fashion aspects of his “peculiarly enervating and unviable” relation to the Jews into masterworks. He did this by returning as Nathan Zuckerman to the familiar Newark of his childhood to treat as tragedy the spiritual hollow he had once subjected to satire. American Pastoral (1997) looks at Seymour “Swede” Levov, a fleshed-out version of Ron Patimkin, who innocently pursues and apparently achieves his idea of American success. The handsome Jewish Sports Hero marries the Gentile Beauty Queen, wins his reluctant father’s approval for the union, and settles down with his wife in the suburban paradise of Rimrock. A century earlier, Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote The Possessed to probe the emergence of Russia’s intellectual mercenaries, and Roth uses this unlikely setting to do the same for the American radicals of the late 1960s.
Meredith Levov…the “Rimrock Bomber” was Seymour Levov’s daughter. The high school kid who blew up the post office and killed the doctor. The kid who stopped the war in Vietnam by blowing up somebody out mailing a letter at five a.m. A doctor on his way to the hospital…
The Swede’s younger brother updates Zuckerman, his high-school classmate, who then searches out and brings us the full story: How could a good man like Seymour Levov, living out his version of paradise, breed a monster? But he does. Of course this embrace of violence in the name of salvation was not strictly a Jewish issue, but Roth showed privileged insight into how the escape from Jewishness formed part of it.
Roth attempted something on the same scale three years later in The Human Stain. The main setting is a New England College where Zuckerman has befriended one of the deans, the Jewish professor Coleman Silk, who is spuriously accused of insulting African-American students by using the term “spooks” to describe their ghostly disappearance from his class. In the ensuing purge, Silk is revealed to be a light-skinned African-American who, when he decided to pass, did so as a Jew, until then—at least outwardly—successfully. Roth manages to break out of his constraints as a Jewish writer through the story of an African American who is breaking out of his constraints as a black man, and in the process inevitably damages his family and himself in ways that Seymour Levov unwittingly does in Rimrock. Roth avoided the charge of political incorrectness that he would have incurred as a writer had he written about a Jewish professor by casting accusers and offender as black-on-black rather than black-on-Jew. Roth was careful never to offend the liberal hand that fed him even as he took on hot topics. He was shrewd as well as smart.
Through this entire career studded with prizes and fame, Roth never graciously accepted his designation as a Jewish writer, much less any implicit responsibility or affinity for the Jews or Israel. Whom was he denying? A sad feature of his life as a writer is that in never pretending to feel anything for the Jewish God, the Jewish homeland, or the Jewish people, Roth could not luxuriate in the affection and gratitude that many readers accorded him. At the heart of his fiction, hence of his standing as a writer, is distrust of Jewishness and secondarily of America as home to that Jewishness. Cold kasha. Adverse relation to one’s habitual subjects is not the best recipe for great art, and Roth did as well with it as anyone could, but I wish that after Portnoy if not before, he could have reached the threshold of love.
With the sadness that attended Roth’s retirement from writing in 2012 and his death in 2018 came the realization that his work was never joyful. Funny and witty certainly, vital and intelligent always, and highly entertaining, but never plainly happy in the way a well-matched bride and groom enchant family and guests at their wedding. I was startled to find in the essay quoted above that Irving Howe calls him “an exceedingly joyless writer, even when being very funny.” He saw this before I did
Here is the Russian Jewish short-story master Isaac Babel (1894–1940 ) on Odessa, the “Newark” of his childhood:
If you think about it, [Odessa] is a town in which you can live free and easy. Half the population is made up of Jews, and Jews are a people who have learned a few simple truths along the way. Jews get married so as not to be alone, love so as to live through the centuries, hoard money so they can buy houses and give their wives astrakhan jackets, love children because, let’s face it, it is good and important to love one’s children.
Babel loved the Jews for what they were, the enjoyment of bourgeois pleasures being the best of their qualities. Babel loved being who he was despite the heavy price it exacted. Although he was first silenced and then tortured and killed at Stalin’s command, his work breathes happiness and joy. (With due respect for the difference, one thinks back to the legends of Rabbi Akiva that wrest laughter and joy from the great Destruction.) How is it that the modern Jewish writer who functioned under the most aversive moral and physical conditions should have cast himself as the harbinger of sunshine in Russian literature, whereas the novelist who benefited beyond all others from America’s freedom and opportunity should have put so little of its pleasures into his writing?
It might have been because Roth could never bring himself to say, “Damn right, America—I’m your Jewish writer, and thank you for letting me be proud of it!”