The Adventures of Philip Roth
I have always had trouble with the work of Philip Roth. Unless my memory is playing tricks on me—and if so, I have no doubt that someone, though not, if I know anything about him, Roth himself, will correct me—it was I who “discovered” him as a writer of fiction. In early 1957, as a recently hired assistant editor of COMMENTARY, I had the job of going through the daily deluge of unsolicited manuscripts known as the “slush pile.” Even at a glance it was easy to see that most of these manuscripts were unworthy of publication anywhere, or unsuitable for COMMENTARY in particular. But once in a while, even if the manuscript that had been submitted was not in itself much good, the writer might show enough sign of real talent to be encouraged or cultivated; and once in a greater while, I would come upon a piece that was in my judgment actually publishable, and I would then circulate it to my superiors for a final decision.
One of the first such manuscripts I singled out in this way was something called “You Can’t Tell a Man by the Song He Sings” by an unknown writer named Philip Roth. I say “something” because it might have been either a memoir or a short story: it was—foreshadowing in this much of the author’s later work—hard to tell. And I say “unknown” because, though I recognized Roth’s name from a few short reviews he had done for the New Republic, I had never before come upon anything else of this nature by him. In any case, I was excited by the literary powers Roth demonstrated here and considered him a real find.
My senior colleagues, though markedly less impressed than I was, still thought well enough of this submission to accept the piece, and it ultimately appeared in the November 1957 issue of COMMENTARY. By placing it in a department that used to run in the magazine under the rubric “From the American Scene,” and that was devoted mainly to nonfictional accounts of immigrant Jewish life in neighborhoods like the Lower East Side of New York, we were treating it as a memoir (the locale in this case being the Weequahick neighborhood of Newark, to which Roth would never cease returning in his work). So far as I can recall, Roth made no objection to this categorization, but by including “You Can’t Tell a Man By the Song He Sings” in his first book, the collection of short stories entitled Goodbye, Columbus that appeared about two years later, he himself chose to represent it as a piece of fiction.
It was and still is rare for a writer of fiction to make his debut with a collection of short stories; usually he is able to get such a collection published only after he has produced a well-received novel or two. Even more unusual was—and is—it for a collection by anyone other than a well-established author to attract a great deal of favorable attention, let alone be awarded important literary prizes. Yet more than one reviewer pronounced Goodbye, Columbus a masterpiece; it won the National Book Award, whose prestige within the serious literary community was already becoming much greater than the more middlebrow Pulitzer Prize that it had been established to challenge; and the book even sold well, going through innumerable printings both in hard and soft-cover editions.
What explained this degree of success was that Roth, from a strictly literary point of view, was so precociously accomplished that in himself he amounted to a phenomenon no less unusual than the circumstances and the reception of his book Reviewing it for COMMENTARY (July 1959), Saul Bellow put the case with his characteristic brilliance:
Goodbye, Columbus is a first book but it is not the book of a beginner. Unlike those of us who came howling into the world, blind and bare, Mr. Roth appears with nails, hair, and teeth, speaking coherently. At twenty-six he is skillful, witty, and energetic and performs like a virtuoso.
Then, too, there was the Jewish side of Goodbye, Columbus. Since the appearance six years earlier of Bellow’s own The Adventures of Augie March (his third novel) there had been much talk of the flowering of a new school of American-Jewish fiction, and Bellow himself had come to be regarded as its major representative. In this capacity he was in effect giving Roth the same kind of imprimatur that had a little earlier been accorded to Bernard Malamud (mostly, as with Roth, on the basis of his short stories, though they had not yet been brought together into a book-length collection). To be sure, all three of these writers, and especially Bellow, would express resentment when they were identified as Jewish writers, as though this diminished them and made their work less American or less universal. Thus, playing on the brand name of a quality men’s-clothing manufacturer of the time, Bellow would quip that he, Malamud, and Roth had been turned into the Hart, Schaffner, and Marx of American literature.
No such anxiety ever seemed to trouble the soul of William Faulkner, or of any of the other prominent Southern novelists whose own flowering had preceded that of the Jews and who by the late 50’s were beginning to be forced to jostle with them for center stage in the upper reaches of the literary culture. Faulkner, for example, believed—and very aggressively so—that it was precisely the particularistic Southernness of his own work that gave it universality.
In theory, Bellow and his younger Jewish colleagues certainly shared Faulkner’s belief that in literature the road to universality was through the particular, as did all sophisticated literary people in that period. Indeed, no critical doctrine was more influential in those days than this one. Nevertheless, some lingering trace of doubt seemed to remain in the hearts of the Jewish novelists. Probably this was left over from an all too recent past in which a writer with a name like Nathan Weinstein felt obliged to change it to Nathanael West if he was to be taken seriously, and in which fiction about Jewish life was almost always relegated to the literary margin, if it was noticed at all. A very striking and poignant illustration was Ludwig Lewisohn. His early work in the 20’s had attracted the admiring attention of giants like Thomas Mann and Sigmund Freud, but he became a virtual nonperson in the literary world after espousing Zionism and writing in his novels both openly and in a “positive” spirit about Jews and the Jewish experience.
Another saliently cautionary example was Call It Sleep by Henry Roth (no relation to Philip). This novel about life among immigrant Jews on the Lower East Side, written in part in an English idiom that managed to mimic the rhythms and locutions of Yiddish, would many years later (and in the wake of the cultural change Bellow and the others helped bring about) be rediscovered and acclaimed as a masterpiece. But Call It Sleep was largely ignored upon its publication in 1934 (inducing in its author one of the longest-lived writer’s blocks in the history of literature). Much the same fate, and at much the same time, befell Daniel Fuchs’s so-called “Williamsburg Trilogy,” though unlike Roth, who went to Maine to raise waterfowl, Fuchs responded to the failure of his novels by going off to Hollywood where he became a screenwriter—and, mercifully, a successful one at that.
It was perhaps in response to so unwelcoming a cultural climate that a playwright like Arthur Miller took to pretending, by giving the characters in his plays Waspy names like Biff or ethnically ambiguous ones like Loman, that these people, whose Jewishness was obvious to anyone with eyes to see, were undifferentiated Americans. (When Miller’s The Death of a Salesman was staged in a Yiddish translation, the review of the production in COMMENTARY was wickedly entitled “Death of a Salesman in the Original.”) Similarly, another famous Jewish playwright, Lillian Hellman (who in The Little Foxes, which was actually based on her own family, had set a model for Miller’s way of washing the ethnic taint out of his characters) thought that the jewishness of The Diary of Anne Frank would limit its appeal on Broadway. Consequently, Hellman advised the playwrights she proposed for the job of dramatizing the diary that they in effect de-Judaize it as much as they possibly could.
But at the same time, and in another part of the cultural forest—the highbrow part—Jewish writers who drew on the Jewish experience for material were becoming all the rage. In this new climate, the poet Delmore Schwartz did not feel the need to change his surname to its Anglo equivalent of Black (in fact, if his parents had changed it to Black, he might well have changed it back to Schwartz). Nor did his great friend and mutual admirer Saul Bellow—however hard he may have found it to erase every single trace of these old pressures from his soul—make any attempt to disguise the Jewishness of his characters. On the contrary, he boldly asserted that they were as American as anyone in the novels of Henry James: “I am an American, Chicago born,” declares Augie March in the highly significant first words of the first-person novel that achieved a breakthrough into the mainstream for Bellow himself and for the Jewish novelists who followed in his footsteps.
Accordingly, in his review of Goodbye, Columbus, Bellow did not hesitate to spend most of his time talking about Roth’s handling of Jewish material. Invidiously, he compared this young colleague with older Jewish writers like Herman Wouk, “who think that ours [i.e., the ones inhabited by Jews] are the best of all possible suburbs in the best of all possible Americas,” and defended him against those within the Jewish community “who feel that the business of a Jewish writer in America is to write public-relations releases, to publicize everything that is nice in the Jewish community and to suppress the rest, loyally.”
Roth’s early success, in short, was based on more than his remarkable talent. Poor Henry Roth had made his debut within a literary culture that had either no interest in Jews or that regarded them as an unfit subject for American literature, whereas Philip Roth exploded into a culture in which there had developed a new receptivity to fiction about Jews. There were, however, implicit conditions attached to this receptivity. Obviously the work in question had to be sufficiently intimate with the still exotic American-Jewish experience to render it convincingly. But the author also had to be sufficiently distanced from this experience to write about it with a critical if not a jaundiced eye. This test Roth passed with flying colors from the word go.
True, the stories of Bernard Malamud, being much more sympathetic to their Jewish characters than Roth’s, did not pass, or even sit for, this test. But Malamud’s Jews were acceptably and reassuringly poor, and he tended to envelop them in a kind of mythological aura that made the “public-relations” question moot or irrelevant. By contrast, the novella from which Goodbye, Columbus took its title was the very contemporary and very realistic story of an affair between the protagonist-narrator, a lower-class boy from Newark named Neil Klugman, and Brenda Patimkin, the daughter of an affluent suburban family whose nouveau-riche way of life he gets to know in all its garish detail almost as intimately as he comes to know Brenda in the physical sense.
It was also true that Wouk’s Marjorie Morningstar, as Bellow went out of his way to emphasize, took a very different—or, if one likes, a more positive—tack from Roth’s and also achieved great success: it was well reviewed and became a big best-seller. But in the highbrow literary world (including COMMENTARY, where I myself had written a savage piece about Marjorie Morningstar upon its publication in 1956), the aggressively anti-assimilationist Wouk, like the equally aggressive assimilationist Miller, were looked down upon as inconsequential middle-brows whose great popularity had nothing to do with genuine literary distinction.
So far as this last issue went, I fully endorsed Bellow’s assessment of Philip Roth. In reading “You Can’t Tell a Man by the Song He Sings” when I had fished it out of the slush pile, I too was amazed by how extraordinarily accomplished this young writer already was—and that story (memoir?), as would soon become apparent, was far from one of his best. In “Goodbye, Columbus” itself, and the four other shorter stories that, along with “You Can’t Tell a Man by the Song He Sings,” made up the book, Roth demonstrated that no one, not even Bellow himself, had so perfectly pitched an ear for the speech of the first two generations of Jews who had come to America from Eastern Europe, or so keen an eye for the details of the life they lived, or so alert a perception of the quirks and contours of their psychological makeup.
In addition to sharing Bellow’s admiration for Roth’s literary abilities, I also felt the same irritation he did with the uncritically celebratory attitude toward America expressed by Herman Wouk. (Uncompromisingly and puristically stern young critic that I was in my early twenties, I had even accused Bellow himself of the same failing when I reviewed The Adventures of Augie March in 1953.) And finally, I was at one with Bellow in his contempt for the philistinism of Jewish readers who regarded it as the duty of Jewish writers to portray their people only, or at least largely, in the most sympathetic and favorable terms.
But, as I say, I have always had trouble with Roth, and here is where it first popped up. It was one thing to hold out, as Bellow did in defending Roth against certain of his readers within the organized Jewish community (and this, remember, was still in the relatively innocent pre-Portnoy’s Complaint days), for the right and the duty of literature to get at reality in its own special way. It was also intellectually shooting fish in a barrel to assert, as Bellow again did, that literature was not a species of public relations. In fact, in the 50’s, the piety toward serious literature—which equaled, and perhaps even exceeded, the standing it had first acquired in the 19th century as a substitute or even a replacement for religion, and from which the contemporary attitude originally derived—was so great that making such an argument seemed entirely unnecessary.
Many years later—though before the rise of politically-correct speech codes—A. Bartlett Giamatti, then a professor of literature at Yale, would privately tell me that the lengthy and tediously-argued demonstrations by his colleague Robert Brustein of the artistic failings of obviously inconsequential Broadway hits seemed to him the critical equivalent of “mugging cripples.” So too with the attacks that Bellow and even more so Roth himself—first in dealing with the angry response to an essay he would do for COMMENTARY in 1963 entitled “Writing About Jews,” and then following the great Jewish storm that would break after publication in 1969 of Portnoy’s Complaint—launched on the rabbis, the Jewish functionaries, and many ordinary Jews of an older generation. I do not mean to insinuate that these Jews were “cripples,” but only that their arguments were so weak and out of touch with contemporary critical dogma that exposing and ridiculing them, as Roth was so easily able to do, bore a certain resemblance to the mugging by the strong of the weak and defenseless.
It went without saying that I was on the side of Bellow and Roth in this “mugging”; otherwise, as the then-editor of COMMENTARY (which I had become in 1960), I would not have accepted “Writing About Jews.” Even so, however, I had an uneasy (if largely hidden, as much from myself as others) sympathy for the Jewish nervousness over Roth’s work; and over the years this feeling of sympathy grew deeper.
Yet there were complications and nuances involved here that must be brought in and stressed. On the one hand, I was well aware that Roth could never have achieved so uncanny a degree of accuracy unless he had not only paid close attention to but had taken genuine delight in the world he was evoking. Moreover, he was being perfectly sincere when he declared:
Not always, but frequently, what readers have taken to be my disapproval of the lives lived by Jews seems to have to do more with their own moral perspective than with the one they would ascribe to me: at times they see wickedness where I myself had seen energy or courage or spontaneity; they are ashamed of what I see no reason to be ashamed of, and defensive where there is no cause for defense.
On the other hand, it was also clear to me that more than a little sophistication in literary matters was required to detect the presence of this delight in Roth’s work. As he himself put it, his Jewish critics, in “looking at fiction as they do—in terms of ‘approval’ and ‘disapproval’ of Jews, ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ attitudes toward Jewish life,” were unable to see what his stories were really about. “It is difficult, if not impossible,” he complained, “to explain to some of the people claiming to have felt my teeth sinking in, that in many instances they haven’t been bitten at all.”
In other words, reinforcing and exacerbating their Jewish defensiveness and sensitivity was an old-fashioned moralistic conception of literature (a conception, by the way, that had been good enough for some very great literary critics like Dr. Johnson and Matthew Arnold, and to which Roth might have paid a bit more respect on that account alone). All they could see was a cruel eye relentlessly being cast on them and theirs, with no other purpose than to sneer and mock and defame; and the better Roth was at this game—the closer he cut to the bone—the worse it was for such readers.
Most of these people, after all, were old enough to have been exposed personally to the kind and degree of anti-Semitism from which Roth’s generation (which was also my own—I am about three years older than he) had blessedly been spared. We had grown up in an America where, because the Holocaust had shown that there was literally no limit to the lengths to which anti-Semitism was capable of going, it had become taboo (for white Gentiles, that is) to say anything hostile about Jews. But our parents and grandparents and the organizations that spoke in their defense had not been so blessed. In the light of what they had seen and heard and gone through, either in their own lives or in those of other Jews, how could they not expect harmful consequences to follow from the reports that this young “informer”1 of genius was broadcasting to the enemy, confirming and reinforcing every hurtful stereotype that they had been struggling so hard to discredit? To them it seemed that with the Gentile anti-Semites finally forced to bite their tongues, a smart Jewish boy with a big dirty mouth had come along to take their place.
In all honesty, I have to add that even if Roth had introduced more “positive” shading or balance into his picture of the first- and second-generation American Jews, it probably would have gone unnoticed within the context of the much richer and more daring fun he was making of them (those “teeth” Bellow said he had been born with, and to which Roth himself alluded, were as large and as sharp as a shark’s). But in any event no such balance could be perceived in—to take the most striking instance—his portrait of the Patimkin family in “Goodbye, Columbus.” Consumed by their lust for material goods to the exclusion of all else, shrewd about money and business and vulgar about anything cultural or spiritual, armored by a self-satisfaction that no uncertainty could penetrate, the Patimkins were the very glass of the unfashionable and the very mold of bad form (and looking worse and worse with the ethos of the 60’s fast approaching).
Yet the irony was that, in its own way and of its own kind, the self-satisfaction of Philip Roth seemed at least as great as that of the Patimkins. Even at the time, and in spite of my admiration for Roth’s literary powers, I wondered how it was that a simple question had never occurred to his protagonist or to him: how could someone like either one of them have possibly emerged from such a milieu and from such a people? Surely they could not have sprung full-blown from the brow of Henry James. Surely there must have been something in the life into which they were born and the culture in which they grew up that made them into such utterly wonderful people (and that may even have predisposed them to being attracted to the likes of Henry James). But if so, what was it? And why did not the slightest sign of it show up in the stories? And did not its absence constitute a failing—even an aesthetic failing, an offense against the inner artistic requirements of the stories themselves?
I was bothered by this set of questions, but truth to tell, I evaded their implications as long as I could allow myself to get away with it. For confronting them head-on might have pushed me uncomfortably closer to a position about the relation of literature to things outside itself than I then had any wish to be. Like Roth, I too had been educated—he at the University of Chicago, I at Columbia and Cambridge—to believe that there was no higher calling than literature, that it needed no justification from any other enterprise, and that its only responsibility was to itself. Art was not, as the Communists and other leftists had recently been proclaiming, a “weapon”—not in the class struggle and not in any other war, either. Still less were its concerns—as Roth, echoing Bellow, would phrase it himself—those of “a public-relations firm.” Art was a good in itself, complete unto itself, responsible only to its own inner imperatives and laws.
In his latest novel, I Married a Communist,2 Roth puts a more extensive and developed version of this conception of literature into the mouth of an instructor at the University of Chicago named Leo Glucksman who is trying to undo the intellectual damage that has been done to Nathan Zuckerman—the character who by now has been not only Roth’s protagonist but his virtual alter ego through many books—at the hands of a Communist mentor Nathan had known as a high-school kid in Newark:
“Art as a weapon?” he said to me, the word “weapon” rich with contempt and itself a weapon. “Art taking the right stand on everything? Art as the advocate of good things? Who taught you all this? Who taught you art is slogans? Who taught you art is in the service of “the people”? Art is in the service of art—otherwise there is no art worthy of anyone’s attention.
But Glucksman’s sermon is far from finished, and with mounting fury he goes on:
What is the motive for writing serious literature, Mr. Zuckerman? To disarm the enemies of price controls? The motive for writing serious literature is to write serious literature. You want to rebel against society? I’ll tell you how to do it—write well. . . . You want a lost cause to fight for? Then fight for the word. Not the high-flown word, not the inspiring word, not the pro-this and anti-that word, not the word that advertises to the respectable that you are a wonderful, admirable, compassionate person on the side of the downtrodden and the oppressed. No, for the word that tells the literate few condemned to live in America that you are on the side of the word!
The young Philip Roth must have taken this aestheticist creed to heart. “I was,” he once said, “one of those students of the 50’s who came to books by way of a fairly good but rather priestly literary education, in which writing poems and novels was assumed to eclipse all else. . . .” I was one of those students, too.
But down deep, both of us had reservations about the aestheticist doctrine, each after his own kind. My own had to do with the growing dissatisfaction I was coming to feel over the hermeticism and Alexandrianism it tended to breed. Under the influence of critics and teachers like Lionel Trilling at Columbia and F.R. Leavis at Cambridge, I was learning that while loyalty to the dictates of its own nature and traditions was certainly the necessary precondition for the creation of a genuine work of art, it was not the only condition, and especially where literature, and more particularly where the novel (as opposed to music and abstract painting or even lyric poetry) was concerned. For the novel could hardly help getting involved in the social, moral, and political milieu out of which it emerged and could hardly evade commenting on the life around it.
I did not for a moment doubt that the political imperialism and the intellectual crudity of the doctrine of “art as a weapon” had to be rejected. And yet I also began to understand that rejecting it did not necessarily mean that the only alternative left standing was aestheticism. By the time I began publishing literary criticism as a very young man in the early 50’s, I had come to accept that while my duty was to arrive at a reasoned and informed judgment of the aesthetic merits of the work, this was not the end of it: other duties then followed. There were—as Leavis so powerfully demonstrated in his own critical writings—moral considerations to be raised. And as Trilling showed in his critical essays, social and even political factors could be brought into the discussion without violating the principle that aesthetic factors remained paramount both in the creation and in the response to a work of art. For me this meant that as a critic my job was to show how the aesthetic successes or failings of the work could themselves tell us important things about its surrounding social, moral, and political context.
Roth’s reservations about aestheticism, I think, were of a somewhat different order: not so much theoretical as practical. I strongly suspect he would have liked to follow through on Glucksman’s concluding adjuration to Nathan Zuckerman to
achieve mastery over your idealism, over your virtue, as well as over your vice, aesthetic mastery over everything that drives you to write in the first place—your outrage, your hatred, your grief, your love! Start preaching and taking positions, start seeing your own perspective as superior, and you’re worthless as an artist, worthless and ludicrous.
But if, in his own words, the young Philip Roth “imagined fiction to be something like a religious calling, and literature a kind of sacrament,” and if he would therefore have wished to work in accordance with Glucksman’s creed, he must soon have discovered that he was simply incapable of achieving mastery over the outrage, hatred, grief, and love that drove him to write. By nature he was too judgmental and too passionately tendentious to transcend such motives and feelings. What he wanted to do as a writer, what he needed to do as a writer, was to take stock of the world in which he lived and give it the business, as only someone with so wicked a pen and so unforgiving a mind as his could do. How then could he submit to what Leo Glucksman demanded of him? Why should he even try?
But Roth’s most serious disability from the perspective of Glucksman’s dictates was that he could never stop himself from seeing his own perspective as superior. Superior to the culture of contemporary middle-class America, superior to what he took in his own untutored mind to be the traditions of Judaism and the Jewish people, and superior to all the characters he himself wrote about—except of course the ones like Neil Klugman in “Goodbye, Columbus” or Nathan Zuckerman in most of his later books, who have served as his protagonists. Yet Irving Howe—a formidable critic to whom Roth could not give the back of his hand and with whom he could not wipe the floor in an argument about literature, as he had done with the rabbis who had earlier expressed such anger and anguish over the harm they thought he was causing the Jewish people—eventually came along to question the ground of this sense of superiority. Quoting with approval another such critic (Baruch Hochman), Howe pointed out that it was “not at all clear how Neil Klugman, who is so offended at the Patimkins, stands for anything substantially different from what they stand for.”3
Howe’s article, “Philip Roth Reconsidered,” was published in COMMENTARY in December 1972, just about ten years after Roth’s own “Writing About Jews.” By then, Roth had followed up Goodbye, Columbus with five novels. The first two of these, Letting Go (1962) and When She Was Good (1967), were very different from his debut volume, and seemed to represent strenuous (and in this sense, I would say, commendable) efforts to broaden his range. Having previously made his mark with short fiction, in Letting Go he produced a very long and dense variant on the academic novel; forsaking the exuberantly satiric and comic touch that marked most of the stories in Goodbye, Columbus, he now turned unrelievedly grim and depressing in focusing on the unmodulated woes of two young academics at the University of Chicago. And having become known as a member of the Hart, Schaffner, and Marx trio, he then went on in When She Was Good to write a book about a Midwestern American family in which no Jews appeared.
In sum, what Roth tried to do in his first two full-length novels involved a kind of repudiation of his most authentic gifts, and the predictable result was failure. From a literary point of view, both Letting Go and When She Was Good had their moments, but neither proved a worthy successor to Goodbye, Columbus, and neither was well received.
My guess is that the failure of these two books was one of the factors that emboldened Roth to write Portnoy’s Complaint, which came out in 1969, about two years after When She Was Good. All the qualities that had made Goodbye, Columbus so impressive and that he had temporarily abandoned in writing his next two books now returned with hurricane force, given even greater velocity by the freedom Roth was now willing and able to indulge. Previously—as I myself had occasion to witness in the pre-Portnoy days—Roth could keep a whole dinner party in stitches when he decided to let loose with a spontaneous comic riff. But it was not until Portnoy’s Complaint that he felt free to do the same thing as a writer on paper.
This freedom was a personal assertion by Roth while—as I also had occasion to know from direct experience—representing a change in his own sense of propriety. For, hard as it may be to believe, there was a decidedly prissy side to Roth when he was young. Shortly after our first meeting, which took place in 1957 when he came to see me in connection with the imminent publication of “You Can’t Tell a Man by the Song He Sings” in COMMENTARY, he told a mutual friend that he disapproved of how foul-mouthed I was. It was true that I tended, as was common in literary circles in those days, to use four-letter words quite frequently in private conversation. Roth did not. Perhaps the reason was that such language was frowned upon at the University of Chicago, where he was teaching at the time, and perhaps it was because he still felt uncomfortable with it. Of course, as things turned out, in this respect I could not have held a candle, or even a matchstick, to the future author of Portnoys Complaint.
But the new freedom that made Portnoys Complaint possible was also a gift of the 60’s. Portnoy’s Complaint, published a decade after Goodbye, Columbus, took full advantage of the dispensation afforded by the culture of the 60’s really to “let go,” to “let it all hang out,” to shed any and all inhibitions in the choice of subject matter, the use of scatological language, the explicit descriptions of sex (Roth’s great contribution was to bring masturbation, up till then one of the dirtiest and most secret of dirty little secrets, into the realm of serious fiction), and in the expression of disreputable social attitudes (disreputable, that is, by the standards that were still prevalent, at least on the surface, when Goodbye, Columbus came out: pretty soon these new standards would become as conventional in liberal circles as the ones they would replace).
Roth’s new book created a sensation in the literary world and was a great success in the commercial realm. And to the Jews who had been so offended by Goodbye, Columbus, it in effect said what Al Jolson had once had a habit of announcing to his audiences: “You ain’t heard nothin’ yet.”
Sophie Portnoy, the mother of Roth’s new protagonist and narrator Alexander, and her beaten-down husband made the Patimkins look positively genteel, while their son’s compulsive denunciations of just about everything and everyone Jewish (except, again, himself and, by extension, his creator) went beyond anything even hinted at in any of the stories of Goodbye, Columbus. Yet either out of sheer exhaustion, or out of the same sense of defeat that the culture of the 60’s inflicted upon almost all other established institutions, or out of an unwillingness to go around the track with Roth yet again in a period when their objections were bound to seem even more hidebound and retrograde than before, the defenders of Jewish honor against the even more horrific defamations he was heaping upon it now made (if memory serves) no greater a fuss, and perhaps even a smaller one, than they had over Goodbye, Columbus or even “Writing About Jews.”
This time, however, they themselves had a few defenders who could present their case in terms that, being at least as grounded as Roth’s in the most sophisticated assumptions and ideas of contemporary literary culture, were far more persuasive. Irving Howe was the main such defender, and in running his “Philip Roth Reconsidered” in COMMENTARY, I added my own two cents in a little piece in the same issue called “Laureate of the New Class.”
Like Howe, I said, I had praised Goodbye, Columbus. Like him, too, I had found little to admire in Roth’s next two books (the first of which, Letting Go, I had in fact written about unfavorably in another magazine). Nor did I find any more to admire than Howe did in the two very short ones that by 1972 had already followed Portnoys Complaint: Our Gang (1971), a satire on Nixon and his administration that managed to be both demagogic and boringly conventional in the orthodoxy of its liberal stance, and The Breast (1972), a novella, obviously inspired by Kafka’s story about the man who turns into a cockroach, but going its model one better, or perhaps worse, by making the hero suffer a metamorphosis into a female breast. And though I freely admitted rating Portnoys Complaint more highly than Howe did, I also said that I agreed in almost every other detail with his literary analysis of Roth’s work in general and of his weaknesses both as a novelist and as a satirist. I agreed, too, that Roth had come to stand very close to the center of the culture as it had developed in the 60’s, and that this had much to do with his steadily increasing reputation among the critics and his growing popularity with the reading public in general.
Here, however, I parted company with Howe in his attribution of this status to a decline in the quality of Roth’s work. Lurking below Howe’s explanation I spotted an atavistic remainder of the old assumption once shared by leftists and modernists alike that when a serious artist achieves popularity, he must have “sold out” by compromising his own standards and accommodating himself to popular taste and fashion. My own view was that the process had worked in exactly the opposite direction. That is, over the years more and more people had come along who were in tune with the disgust for Americans and American life that had been expressed in Roth’s work from the beginning and who hence had in increasing numbers come to recognize him as their own. Because so many of the Americans this Jewish writer dealt with were Jewish, he had been accused of a special animus against his own people or of Jewish self-hatred. But it had become clear from books like Letting Go, When She Was Good, and Our Gang that his loathing for non-Jewish Americans was scarcely less intense than his distaste for his fellow Jews.
But, I went on, not all Americans, whether Jewish or Gentile, were subject to this disgust. Exempted along with himself were the members of his own “gang”—the group of educated people that had come to be known as the “New Class.” Roth was their “laureate” in the sense that everything he wrote served to reinforce their standard ideas and attitudes, to offer documentary evidence for their taken-for-granted view that America was a country dominated by vulgarians, materialists, bores, and criminal political leaders. In doing so, Roth was inviting his readers to join with him in snobbishly and self-righteously celebrating their joint superiority to everyone else around them. They were what one of their member-admirers (the socialist political writer and activist Michael Harrington) extolled as a “conscience constituency,” motivated only by ideas and ideals, whereas the rest of the population was animated only by baser drives. Even the New Class’s own baser drives—Alexander Portnoy’s sexual lusts, to cite the most blatant example—were a sign of superiority, since they represented a healthy yearning for liberation from the constrictions and limitations of a repressed Puritanical society.4
There was, then, I argued, an extraliterary and even a narrowly political dimension to Roth’s work and to his popularity as well. Without going as far as the New Left or the counterculture, he nevertheless, and in his own unique style, experienced and gave voice to a hostility as great as theirs to middle-class America and what later came to be called “family values.” As he had put it in a famous passage from another article he did for COMMENTARY in 1961, “Writing American Fiction”:
[T]he American writer in the middle of the 20th century has his hands full in trying to understand, and then describe, and then make credible much of the American reality. It stupefies, it sickens, it infuriates, and finally it is even a kind of embarrassment to one’s own meager imagination. . . . Who, for example, could have invented Charles Van Doren? Roy Cohn and David Schine? Sherman Adams and Bernard Goldfine? Dwight David Eisenhower?
As the editor of the magazine in which this piece was published, and as a leftist, I thought at the time that it was a wonderful essay, but from the perspective of my present conservative outlook, the passage I have just quoted seems silly. Who now even remembers some of these characters who struck Roth as so vividly outlandish or wicked that they were “the envy of any novelist”? By that standard, Bernard Goldfine should still be a name as familiar as Raskolnikov, but I myself no longer even know who he was, and I venture to guess that most young people today would say the same of Sherman Adams, Charles Van Doren, and David Schine. And to single out Eisenhower for dishonorable mention among political leaders in a century that had spawned Hitler, Stalin, and Mao? This was indeed an embarrassment to Roth’s “meager imagination,” though not in the sense he intended.
Naturally I could and should have raised some of these questions even then, but my own general position was still so close to Roth’s that they never sprang to mind. Besides, even if they had, I might well have dismissed them as overly fastidious and niggling.
Irving Howe, in a remark as hurtful in its own way as anything Roth himself ever wrote, said: “The cruelest thing anyone can do with Portnoy’s Complaint is read it twice.” Well, I once committed that very cruelty and still found the book very funny, at least in certain passages. But though I had already read everything Roth had previously published, and though I would continue keeping up with everything he was subsequently to produce, I confess to having given him only one reading per post-Portnoy volume. Even this took a lot of time, since Roth proved to be a very prolific writer—I Married a Communist is his 23rd book—and not all of it turned out to be well-spent. I was repelled by Our Gang, I was disgusted by The Breast, and I was bored both by The Great American Novel(1973, about baseball) and, many years later, by the return to scatological extremism in the much-praised and belaureled Sabbath’s Theater (1995).
Moreover, I was irritated by the literary games Roth took to playing in some of his later, “postmodern” novels. These games consisted in virtually forcing the reader into seeing something as autobiographical and then implicitly rebuking him for doing so (how could anyone be so stupid as not to understand that art “transmutes” reality?). For example, the recurring protagonist Nathan Zuckerman had so much in common with Roth himself (among a myriad of other details, he was the author of a best-selling novel called Carnovsky, which was a dead ringer for Portnoy’s Complaint) that it would have taken a mind set in postmodernist critical concrete not to see him as a thinly disguised version of his creator. But by various means, both within the novels and in pronouncements Roth made to interviewers (including his favorite one, himself) the reader was ridiculed for being such a dodo. Indeed, we were even forbidden, on pain of proving ourselves incapable of understanding the nature of artistic creation, to read Operation Shylock (1993) as autobiography, though the hero was actually called Philip Roth and other real people also made appearances under their own names.
In Leaving a Doll’s House (1996), her memoir about her eighteen-year-long relationship with Roth that began as an extended affair, culminated in marriage, and ended in divorce, the British actress Claire Bloom tells the following story about reading the manuscript of the novel which was eventually published in 1990 as Deception:
I eagerly opened the folder. Almost immediately I came upon a passage about the self-hating, Anglo-Jewish family with whom he lives in England. Oh well, I thought, he doesn’t like my family. There was a description of his working studio in London, letter-perfect and precise. Then I reached the depictions of all the girls who come over to have sex with him. . . . As Philip always insisted that the critics were unable to distinguish his self-invention from his true self, I mindfully accepted these . . . seductresses as part of his “performance” as a writer; but I was not so certain.
Her uncertainty on this point was not, however, the worst of it. The worst came when she
arrived at the chapter about his remarkably uninteresting, middle-aged wife. . . . She is an actress by profession, and—as if hazarding a guess would spoil the incipient surprise lying in store—her name is Claire.
So insulting did she find this portrait of herself and so “completely unacceptable” was his use of her name that she demanded he change it to another one. At first he refused. “He tried to explain that he had called his protagonist Philip, therefore to name the wife Claire would add to the richness of the texture.” But for once this fancy pulling of artistic rank failed. When Claire Bloom desperately threatened a lawsuit to have her name removed, Roth finally gave in.
For all this, however, at a certain point a new note had already been entering into Roth’s work. Unaided by fresh rereadings, my memory, alas, is no longer good enough to locate precisely when it happened, but I have the impression that the change may have started in earnest with the novels collected into a single volume under the title Zuckerman Bound: A Trilogy and an Epilogue (1985). Here I thought I detected a touch of tenderness toward his characters that had never been much in evidence before, and, what was even more startling, the same feeling extended to the Jews he had so relentlessly and exuberantly ridiculed in the books that had first brought him fame. Once upon a time he had made light of anti-Semitism as a problem in the contemporary world, and he (excuse me, Alexander Portnoy) had even gone so far as to advise the Jews, in a typical example of language “transmuted” by art, “to stick your suffering heritage up your suffering ass.” But as the quotation above from Claire Bloom suggests, and as Deception itself confirms, living in England seems to have led Roth to a change of mind and heart about the persistence of anti-Jewish feeling in the world, and therefore about Jewish security, including the security of Israel.
In Patrimony (1991), a book about the death of his father that he wrote within this new phase and that did not pretend to be fictional, he also expressed open affection and indeed love for his own family and for the Jewish world from which it stemmed. Neal Kozodoy, reviewing that book in COMMENTARY (May 1991), made several brilliantly telling points about the limitations of this affection, seeing in it the ugly remnants of the same old ignorance about his Jewish “patrimony” and the same old patronizing attitude toward the Jews themselves that had always marked Roth’s work. Yet nothing Roth had written before ever came even this close to acknowledging that there might be some virtue other than sheer energy to be found in the history and character of his own people.
Even more unexpected was American Pastoral (1997), the novel that immediately preceded I Married a Communist. I myself, and many other people too,5 detected in this book a born-again Philip Roth whose entire outlook on the world had been inverted. Going far beyond the Zuckerman trilogy or Patrimony in this respect, American Pastoral set up a contrast between, on the hand, the middle-class Jews who had once offered such fat targets for his poisoned arrows and, on the other, the counterculture and its academic apologists with whom in his younger days (admittedly never with a completely full heart) he had once identified and to whom he had directed his authorial winks of complicity. But to the delighted astonishment of some of us, and the puzzlement and disappointment of others, he now changed sides in the distribution of his scorn and his sympathies. Here, for once, it was the ordinary Jews of his childhood who were celebrated—for their decency, their sense of responsibility, their seriousness about their work, their patriotism—and here, for once, those who rejected and despised such virtues were shown to be either pathologically nihilistic or smug, self-righteous, and unimaginative.
From a technical standpoint, American Pastoral was almost as surprising as the attitudes it embodied and dramatized. Saul Bellow had long ago pointed out that Roth was already a virtuoso performer from the very moment he appeared on the scene, and yet this literary natural, after so many years of practicing his craft with the deftness and sureness that had come to be expected of him, suddenly turned awkward in handling the form of a story-within-a-story in which he chose to cast American Pastoral. Because of its problems of construction, the novel was repetitious, and this made it overly insistent and sometimes tiresome. My guess is that the fault lay with Roth’s inner resistance to coming right out with a frank and unambiguous mea culpa; if so, the formal flaws of American Pastoral amounted, so far as I was concerned, to a felix culpa.
Inevitably a question arose and hung in the air, tantalizingly for some and ominously for others: had Philip Roth turned into a neoconservative? A number of liberal critics who had always admired and defended him, and who were unwilling to believe that one of their own most prized novelistic spokesmen might have defected to the enemy, tried desperately to demonstrate that any such interpretation was simplistic and ideologically tendentious (dread words). While not exactly denying what American Pastoral seemed to be saying, they insisted that it was too complex a work to be summed up in political or social terms. So well did they succeed in defending it against itself that American Pastoral won another National Book Award for Roth, which it probably would not have done had the literary establishment taken it for what it really was.
Roth himself, not previously famous for being reticent about his own intentions as a writer, maintained a prudent silence on this occasion, neither affirming nor denying. But his very next and latest book, I Married a Communist, amounts to a reassuring declaration of solidarity with his old comrades within the liberal establishment. Not that this is its only intention, or even its main one. He clearly also wrote it to get even with Claire Bloom for her attack on him in Leaving a Doll’s House (just as he had done to Irving Howe through the character of Milton Appel in The Anatomy Lesson), and to tell his side of the story of their affair and marriage.
Of course (need I even say it?), this aspect of the book has been put through the usual “transmutations” of art. Thus, instead of being a British actress who made her mark on the stage and screen, the Claire Bloom character (called Eve Frame) becomes an American who once starred in silent films and then shifted to radio, and it is not Roth’s alter ego Nathan Zuckerman who suffers at the hands of this impossibly neurotic wife but another radio actor, Iron Rinn (né Ira Ringold).
There are other “transmutations” as well. The daughter to whom Claire Bloom was so attached, and who was apparently one of the main sources of her problems with Philip Roth, is a singer in real life (if I may be forgiven for introducing so crude a concept into so aesthetically lofty a context), whereas Eve Frame’s daughter is a harpist—that kind of thing. Yet so closely does Roth hue to the details of Bloom’s indictment in defending himself against her that it is almost impossible to understand what certain elements of I Married a Communist are doing there without first having read Leaving a Doll’s House.
But the most significant “transmutations” undergone in the Claire Bloom part of the story involve shifting it back from the 80’s and 90’s to the 50’s, making the husband not only into an actor but also into a secret member of the Communist party, and turning the spurned wife’s book from the tepidly feminist memoir Claire Bloom published into a vicious McCarthyite denunciation of her husband entitled, precisely, I Married a Communist (which then ruins his life). It is through this series of devices that Roth signs a loyalty oath (as one might put it) to the old-time liberal religion from which he seemed to have defected in American Pastoral.
And I mean old-time. Every liberal cliché about America at the height of the cold war is resurrected here—that its fear of the Soviet Union and its hostility to Communism were paranoid, that the Communists at home posed no threat worth taking seriously, and that the congressional investigations and the blacklists were cynical ploys aimed not at quashing Communist influence but at discrediting liberals and Democrats.
True, there is some slight awareness shown here and there of what we have learned (or rather what we have had definitively confirmed) from Kremlin archives since the demise of the Soviet Union, as well as from such formerly classified American sources as the Venona Papers, about the slavishness with which the American Communist party submitted to the dictates of Moscow, and the efforts it made to control the entertainment industry and the labor movement (though I cannot recall any allusion by Roth to the extent of espionage practiced by American Communists in this country). It is also important to note that neither of Roth’s two protagonists—the other is Murray Ringold, Ira’s brother and Nathan Zuckerman’s old high-school English teacher, who tells Nathan the story that Nathan tells us—is a Communist. Both Nathan and Murray reject Communism as a form of secularized religious utopianism, and both acknowledge that many Communists, including Ira himself, flat-out lied about being Communists. Both recognize as well that the Communist organizer who had recruited Ira into the party was a nasty piece of work. Nevertheless, the Communists, they suggest, meant well—after all, what harm did they do?—and anyway who could blame them for lying at a time when a McCarthyite lurked under every liberal bed? To put the point another way: with some qualification, the general tenor here is set by the anti-anti-Communism on which the young Roth cut his political teeth.
Like Patrimony and a number of Roth’s recent novels, I Married a Communist is also much preoccupied with the theme of getting old and sick and waiting for death to strike. This preoccupation generates the only genuinely powerful passages the novel contains: passages that are wistful without being sentimental, that are lyrical without becoming soupy, and that are written in the veritably gorgeous prose of which Roth is capable when the mood is upon him. Yet the point these passages convey—that the vastness of the universe makes everything on earth seem unreal and meaningless—sounds rather narcissistic coming from a writer meditating about death (quite as though he were saying: “If I have to die, and sooner rather than later, what difference can anything make?”). And even if we ignore or forgive their narcissism, they still fail to redeem what is in the end one of Roth’s less successful books.
For me this is a double disappointment. After American Pastoral, I looked forward eagerly to the riches that might be unearthed by the changes in Roth’s sense of life—the broadening of his sympathies, the deepening of his perceptions, and the liberation of his mind from the stifling orthodoxies of the politically correct liberal faith of his youth. What has come out instead is a regression to spiritual pettiness and vindictiveness and another act of political flattery directed at the ideas and attitudes of the audience that had made him its laureate on this very account.
After all these years, then, and after a brief interlude in which I thought my troubles with Philip Roth had finally been resolved, I find myself disturbed by them yet again. But Roth, for all his preoccupation with death, is still only about sixty-five, which means that as things are today he is still a relatively young man with—God willing—long years of writing ahead of him. And to judge by his unfailing literary energies, he is also still full of enough creative juice, discipline, and stamina to produce many more books.
All of which is to say that perhaps the best is yet to come from Philip Roth. I myself think there is a chance that it will. But I also think he will only be able to mine the full lode of riches still buried within him if he can finally summon the courage to “let go” altogether of the youthful habits of mind and spirit from which he seemed to be freeing himself for a while but which, on the evidence of I Married a Communist, are still putting up a strong fight to keep him from digging further into the depths that are so dangerous to those very habits and so full of potential reward for him and for the literature of this country.