To the Editor:
In her otherwise excellent essay on Philip Roth’s work, Ruth R. Wisse makes a mistake in her concluding paragraphs. She asserts that “Roth never graciously accepted his designation as a Jewish writer, nor much less any implicit responsibility or empathy for the Jews and Israel.” She asks, “What was he denying?”
In order to reach this conclusion, Mrs. Wisse would have to focus solely on Roth’s early defensiveness, while ignoring the Yiddishkeit running through everything that Roth wrote thereafter, including his several essays on the Jews. Mrs. Wisse has put herself, willingly or not, in the position of Rabbi David Seligson who attacked Roth for his “caricature” of Epstein, a Jewish adulterer who featured in one of Roth’s stories. In “Writing About Jews,” an essay published in the December 1963 issue of Commentary, Roth wrote that Rabbi Seligson was not able to admit “that the character of Epstein happened to have been conceived with considerable affection and empathy.” He added, “As I see it, the rabbi cannot recognize a bear hug when one is being administered right in front of his eyes.” What’s more, Roth didn’t hesitate to refer to himself as “this Jewish writer.”
Perhaps his most explicit statement on the matter is to be found in his essay “On Portnoy’s Complaint.” In it, Roth wrote: “The fact is that I have always been far more pleased by my good fortune in being born a Jew than my critics may imagine. It’s a complicated, interesting, morally demanding singular experience, and I like that I find myself in the historic predicament of being Jewish, with all its implications. Who could ask for more?”
It may not be too much to say that Philip Roth addressed the 20th-century Jewish-American reality more thoughtfully, more realistically, and more sympathetically than any of his contemporaries. Roth loved the Jews, even though he did not pray with them. And as a Jew, I must say that I prefer Roth’s “bear hug” to Malamud’s fabulism and even to Bellow’s tragicomic analyses.
Herbert M. Wyman
New York City
Ruth R. Wisse writes:
I appreciate Herbert M. Wyman’s championship of his favored writer. I never doubted that Roth was pleased to have born Jewish—it was his only good subject. The Torah is famously “a tree of life” for those who cling to it; for Roth, a “predicament.” This necessarily limited what he could do with the subject.