Commentary Magazine


Novels

To the Editor:

I agree with much of Norman Podhoretz’s “Bellow at 85, Roth at 67” [July-August]. I too think American Pastoral is Roth’s best novel, although I do not share Mr. Podhoretz’s ideological strictures on the two more recent ones, I Married a Communist and The Human Stain. In particular, his notion that there is a “plague of political correctness in the universities” strikes me as hyperbolic. Despite the incident that is used to set The Human Stain in motion, Roth himself knows better, as is suggested by the actual experience on which he drew for it.

Nearly twenty years ago, a professor at Princeton, an old friend of Roth’s who has since died, was teaching a summer course for New Jersey public-school teachers. Two individuals on the class list having never responded when he called the roll, he looked up and asked, “Are these spooks or actual people?” He was promptly accused of “racism” by another student in the class. (Needless to say, he had momentarily forgotten that “spooks” was sometimes used as an epithet for blacks.) This event had no further consequences and was viewed with amusement by the professor himself, who evidently told Rom about it.

In a proper exercise of the novelistic imagination, Roth transposes the incident to the present at a small liberal-arts college in rural New England and has the professor who made the remark denounced as a racist and fired despite having tenure. Roth clearly knew that this did not happen at Princeton and would be unlikely to happen at any major university today or two decades ago. As for whether it could happen at a small college, I am reminded of David Riesman’s conception of an “academic tail” in which lesser institutions after an interval of several years embrace what has ceased to be fashionable at the leading institutions, though I would suppose that in recent years improved communications had at least speeded up this process. I doubt that either Mr. Podhoretz or I can assess accurately the ultimate credibility of Rom’s fictional account.

Dennis Wrong
Princeton, New Jersey

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To the Editor:

Perhaps Norman Podhoretz is right that L.C. Knights’s essay “How Many Children Had Lady Macbeth?” was “once notorious,” but only because those who referred to it had often not read it. In any case, Mr. Podhoretz’s summary is confused. The “silly question” of the title, which he attributes to Knights, was actually a paraphrase of A.C. Bradley’s truly notorious notes in Shakespearean Tragedy. The whole point of Knights’s essay was to undermine Bradley’s approach to Shakespeare and to help establish the proper field of criticism as a disciplined response to the words on the page rather than unhelpful speculations about anything that pops into the critic’s head.

Incidentally, the title of the essay was suggested to Knights by the English critic F. R. Leavis.

Brian Barbour
Providence, Rhode Island

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To the Editor:

In “Bellow at 85, Roth at 67,” Norman Podhoretz quotes from The Adventures of Augie March: “He had rich blood. His father peddled apples.” If this remark appears in Augie (I do not remember it mere), Bellow repeated it in his later novel Herzog. The title character has been reviewing a lengthy and overly pessimistic monograph on human destiny by an old student acquaintance named Shapiro. In an imaginary letter to this Shapiro, Herzog says: “But we mustn’t forget how quickly the visions of genius become the canned goods of the intellectuals. . . . I can’t accept this foolish dreariness. . . . You are too intelligent for this. You inherited rich blood. Your father peddled apples.”

Robert Frenkel
Sydney, New South Wales,
Australia

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Norman Podhoretz writes:

Both Brian Barbour and Robert Frenkel have caught me in error. In both cases, these errors resulted from trusting to a memory no longer as reliable as it once was instead of checking it by looking things up.

I am especially mortified to have done a gross intellectual injustice to L.C. Knights. Like Knights, whose “How Many Children Had Lady Macbeth?” I read nearly 50 years ago (and should have reread before referring to it now), I was a student of F.R. Leavis myself. I should therefore have realized that in posing what I correctly called the “silly question” he used as his title, he was following Leavis in making fun of the A.C. Bradley school of Shakespeare criticism, which treated the plays mainly in terms of character, and that his purpose was to replace it with a conception of them as “dramatic poems.” Mr. Barbour is right: the notoriety to which I referred should have been assigned to Bradley, not to Knights.

As for the quote from Saul Bellow, Mr. Frenkel produces the goods. Obviously he is correct in saying that it comes from Herzog, and though I have not skimmed through The Adventures of Augie March to see whether the same image appears there, I very much doubt that Bellow, having used it once, would have repeated it Again my memory played me false, and again I apologize.

Dennis Wrong’s letter adds a very interesting historical footnote to The Human Stain, but he has not convinced me that speaking of a plague of political correctness in the universities is “hyperbolic.” So where his letter is concerned, I see no reason to apologize, though I do wish to express my gratification at the fact that he agrees with much of what I say in the essay.

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