Roth Unbound: A Writer and His Booksby Claudia Roth Pierpont
A critical evaluation of Philip Roth—the first of its kind—that takes on the man, the myth, and the work
Philip Roth is one of the most renowned writers of our time. From his debut, Goodbye, Columbus, which won the National Book Award in 1960, and the explosion of Portnoy's Complaint in 1969 to his haunting reimagining of Anne/i>/i>/p>/b>
A critical evaluation of Philip Roth—the first of its kind—that takes on the man, the myth, and the work
Philip Roth is one of the most renowned writers of our time. From his debut, Goodbye, Columbus, which won the National Book Award in 1960, and the explosion of Portnoy's Complaint in 1969 to his haunting reimagining of Anne Frank's story in The Ghost Writer ten years later and the series of masterworks starting in the mid-eighties—The Counterlife, Patrimony, Operation Shylock, Sabbath's Theater, American Pastoral, The Human Stain—Roth has produced some of the great American literature of the modern era. And yet there has been no major critical work about him until now.
Here, at last, is the story of Roth's creative life. Roth Unbound is not a biography—though it contains a wealth of previously undisclosed biographical details and unpublished material—but something ultimately more rewarding: the exploration of a great writer through his art.
Claudia Roth Pierpont, a staff writer for The New Yorker, has known Roth for nearly a decade. Her carefully researched and gracefully written account is filled with remarks from Roth himself, drawn from their ongoing conversations. Here are insights and anecdotes that will change the way many readers perceive this most controversial and galvanizing writer: a young and unhappily married Roth struggling to write; a wildly successful Roth, after the uproar over Portnoy, working to help writers from Eastern Europe and to get their books known in the West; Roth responding to the early, Jewish—and the later, feminist—attacks on his work. Here are Roth's family, his inspirations, his critics, the full range of his fiction, and his friendships with such figures as Saul Bellow and John Updike. Here is Roth at work and at play.
Roth Unbound is a major achievement—a highly readable story that helps us make sense of one of the most vital literary careers of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
In 2012, acclaimed novelist Philip Roth famously declared that he was retiring, sending shudders of disbelief through the literary world. Drawing on conversations with Roth and featuring insightful close readings of his entire oeuvre, longtime New Yorker staff writer Pierpont (Passionate Minds: Women Rewriting the World) offers a dazzling chronicle that traces moments from the author’s life and explores the “life of his art.” Pierpont develops the story of Roth’s writing chronologically, summarizing the plots and critical reception of each of his many novels, from Goodbye, Columbus (1959) to Nemesis (2010). For example, “When She was Good is a book as harsh and plain as the world that Roth depicts.... Roth was no longer standing outside the ‘Americans’ he’d been observing... he was burrowing within them, even if only to discover a resistance to admitting depths.” Pierpont declares Sabbath’s Theater “a masterpiece of twentieth-century American literature: coursing with life, dense with character and wisdom, it gives the deepest experiences we face—dying, remembering, holding on to each other—the startling impact of first knowledge.” Exit Ghost is about the “mystification between young and old,” while Nemesis is about “conscience and duty as much as it is about the randomness of fate.” Her luminous and graceful study achieves what all good criticism should: it drives us to reread Roth’s work anew. Agent: Robert Cornfield, Robert Cornfield Literary Agency. (Oct.)
“Roth Unbound is filled with intelligent readings and smart judgments. Because of the author's sympathy and sharp mind, it offers real insight into the creative process itself, and into Philip Roth's high calling as a great American artist. The book is, in some ways, a radical rereading of Roth's life and his work. It is impossible, by the end, not to feel a tender admiration for Roth as a novelist and indeed for Claudia Roth Pierpont as an empathetic and brilliant critic.” Colm Tóibín
“In this brilliant, sympathetic, and often witty full-length study of our Kafka domesticus, Claudia Roth Pierpont weaves together Philip Roth's life, his extraordinary fictions, and the cultural climate to which he fiercely responded. As Pierpont tracks Roth's perilous journey, a man of many exhilarations and miseries, of outrageous contradictions and infinite variety, emerges intact and triumphant as a complete human being and artist. I can't imagine any study that will give greater pleasure to Roth's many intimate companions, his readers.” David Denby
“A virtuoso in the disappearing art of literary appreciation, Claudia Roth Pierpont practically inhabits Philip Roth's novels. Roth's work demands smart and candid appraisals, so he should count himself a lucky man to have Pierpont as a critic. She's got hold of the goods and she delivers them beautifully.” Sean Wilentz
“Pierpont . . . triumphs in a lucid, tender, illuminating study, beautifully poised between intimacy and detachment . . . Her forte, like that of Zuckerman or Roth, is to be a supremely good ‘listener,' to many voices. This means that she not only reports but actually sees the point of the adverse comments made by other critics, even when she thinks they do not show the full truth . . . Pierpont deftly either links up or, where necessary, unzips the complicated relationship between Roth's personal experiences and his often teasingly self-referential fiction. The prolonged literary fall-out of Roth's first, disastrous marriage is excellently charted, while remaining beautifully aware that ‘the marriage had dimensions that no later judgment or attempt at psychosexual diagnosis can comprehend.' . . . [An] intelligent and highly readable study. Pierpont is excellent on Roth's strengths--above all his ‘uncanny' gift for ‘the first person intimate' . . . But it is just because she sees so clearly how easily these strengths can become weaknesses--the inwardness can become solipsistic, like the trapped thoughts of an insomniac, the conflicting voices can ‘clutter up every discernible argument,' the unstoppably voluble characters become too intrusively button-holing--that her praise is so convincing.” Caroline Moore, The Specatator
“[A] sane and impartial study . . . Her considerations of the great mid-period books such as Sabbath's Theater and American Pastoral . . . are fascinating pieces of literary criticism, mixing acute stylistic observation--Roth's distrust of extended description, his Flaubertian morality of language, the way his writing becomes difficult to characterise when he's not doing voices--with the occasional Rothian apercu . . . Her book manages the immensely difficult feat of remaining both warm-hearted and critically balanced. The result is a useful key to Roth's work and a sequence of incidental portraits that, absent the promised biography, one wouldn't swap for anything.” Tim Martin, The Telegraph
“[Roth Unbound is] a smoothly readable hybrid of biography and criticism.” Ian Thomson, Financial Times
“If you've been tempted to dismiss Philip Roth as a misogynist, a self-hating Jew or simply an old white male dinosaur, Claudia Roth Pierpont's Roth Unbound: A Writer and His Books makes a strong argument for giving the novelist another chance. At a minimum, Pierpont's lucid book, intelligent but not academic, makes the case that The Ghost Writer, Sabbath's Theater and American Pastoral are compelling works of fiction worth reading today. She also finds much of merit in Roth's other novels, even when she calmly notes their weaknesses.” Jim Higgins, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
“In chronicling and examining Roth's fictional oeuvre Pierpont brilliantly captures much of Roth's life in her words . . . Pierpont brings admiration and affection to her assessment, while never relinquishing critical integrity.” Kate Tuttle, The Boston Globe
“Roth Unbound is . . . a very fine book . . . It's not just that [Pierpont's] overview of the high- and low-points in Roth's career is pretty much spot on . . . It's that she manages to combine an almost Leavis-like talent for close reading with a very un-Leavis-like ability to locate works in the wider world of history and culture. She has a good ear, too. Auden said that a good critic is no more than a good quoter, and Pierpont has a faultless eye for quoting what she calls ‘the abracadabra of [Roth's] writing' . . . Pierpont has written a definitive reckoning . . . You need to read it. You don't have to wait for the biography.” Christopher Bray, Spiked
“Readers who love Philip Roth and readers who hate him, readers who have opened practically nothing by him and readers who have practically committed his prose to memory, all have reason to be grateful to Claudia Roth Pierpont for this study of the ‘writer and his books.' . . . The warmth of Roth's breath is on every page . . . Roth Unbound has the virtue of comprehensiveness and the authority of Roth's imprimatur too.” D. G. Myers, The Barnes & Noble Review
“Pierpont is a fine reader of Roth's books, thoughtful and sympathetic but not afraid to make criticisms.” Adam Kirsch, The New Republic
“Pierpont has written a smart and sophisticated book that takes full advantage of her strengths. She's a fan of Roth the writer and Roth the person, as if the two could be separated. But she's not an idolator. Pierpont has in her grasp an appreciation of the whole body of his work, 31 books, and a clear sense of the high and not-as-high marks in the Roth canon. She is also, refreshingly straightforward about her personal preferences . . . On the page, Roth is a pirate and a provocateur. Roth Unbound introduces us to the man off the page, a charming, funny friend who, at 80, has taken an interest in curating his own legacy . . . [A] lovely, personal introduction to a modern maestro.” Catherine Holmes, The Post and Courier
“An insightful portrait of a creative life . . . Pierpont traces Roth's life through two marriages, many affairs, a few awkward dates with Jacqueline Kennedy, assorted medical maladies and near-suicidal depression. She offers judicious overviews of his works and critics' responses, including feminists' accusations of misogyny . . . Pierpont's book offers a candid and sympathetic portrait of an audacious writer.” Kirkus
“[An] informative and insightful study . . . Roth Unbound will delight devotees seeking to deepen their appreciation of the novels and will serve as a gateway into the world of Roth for those who have yet to enter that exhilarating, infectious domain.” Daniel Ross Goodman, The Weekly Standard
“[A] hugely enjoyable and sympathetic study.” Ronan Farren, The Independent (Ireland)
“Anyone interested in contemporary literature, and particularly those interested in Roth's work, will find this book greatly rewarding, even if they don't agree with all that Pierpont says . . . A treasure trove for writers wanting to learn more about what makes good writing . . . Reading Roth Unbound is an enjoyable experience that not only helps me better understand the half-dozen books by Roth I've read but inspires me to read more of his work. He truly is one of our greatest writers.” Gordon Houser, The Wichita Eagle
“Something of a cubist yet seamless portrait--not a standard biography, but a deep immersion in Roth from all angles, even the unexpected ones, using every technique available, in order to know his thoughts, his history, the books, his world, and the times in which he lives. This is a remarkable achievement in literary criticism.” Jimmy So, The Daily Beast
“This . . . is a literary biography that gives sufficient time to the literary . . . Pierpont [focuses] relentlessly on the story of the fiction, the passage of Roth's restless and provocative imagination as it pursues its quarry. She includes just enough biographical material to remind us that Roth did occasionally leave his typewriter, but not so much as to distract us from the central narrative of his life, the narrative of his narratives. Best of all, she has Roth whispering in her ear all the while, providing a sort of running commentary to her insightful readings of his fiction. Roth has always been a terrific interview subject, and an interesting critic of his own work. Here, readers get the benefit of his explanations, anecdotes, and confidences. In certain chapters the experience is like reading his books with him in the room . . . Her readings of the individual works are always perceptive and generous--there's a reason the book is more than three hundred pages long--but it is the long arc of Roth's winding career that Pierpont excels at following . . . Any serious fan of Roth's work will take great pleasure from this book . . . Ultimately, the life sketched in these three hundred pages seems to me an accurate picture of the life that fills Roth's thousands of pages, a life that may be the closest thing to Roth's own as we'll ever know.” David Gooblar, The Quarterly Review
“[Roth Unbound is] a thorough, intensive, elegant reflection on Roth's career.” Carly Cody, The New Republic
“Her book is sprinkled with tantalizing glimpses of the man, whom she describes as ‘a brilliant talker . . . as funny as you might think from his books,' and of his life . . . [But] Roth Unbound is mainly about the books . . . This makes for a dazzling . . . journey . . . Despite her personal tie and obvious admiration, Pierpont doesn't mince words in her literary criticism, and her book is better for it . . . Roth Unbound brings heightened understanding to the extraordinary scope and risk-taking brilliance of Roth's work, and makes a compelling case for its enduring importance.” Heller McAplin, NPR
“In this instructive study of the maestro's life and work, Claudia Roth Pierpont joins the chorus of adoring critics who have acknowledged the indispensability of his voice in chronicling this nation's exceptional bizarreness . . . A boon of the relationship [between Roth and Pierpont] is that he opened up to her; despite his semi-reclusiveness, he gave her access to his papers and answered questions with candor and characteristic wit.” Ariel Gonzlaez, The Miami Herald
“[Pierpont is] fully immersed in Roth's 31 books, even-tempered, extraordinarily readable, large-hearted, untethered to critical fashion and ‘humane' . . . about Roth's work she is generally superb . . . she hits her critical stride just as Roth enters his astonishing middle-late period, the years that give us Operation Shylock, Sabbath's Theater, American Pastoral and The Human Stain, one stunning, surprising classic after another. Her discussions of these books, long meditations that are as illuminating about the rhythms of Roth's prose as they are about his magisterial presentation of postwar American experience as well as narrative form, feel like a grand appreciative celebration of high literary accomplishment.” Cornel Bonca, Salon
“[Pierpont] brings . . . precision to Roth Unbound, always choosing just the right detail, and in some cases, just the right word . . . She's particularly good on describing his technique . . . There will be biographies of Roth, with names and events and objective reporting of facts, but for a portrait of what occupied the majority of his time and thoughts--his fiction--I doubt there will be anything more revealing than this volume.” Hannah Gerson, The Millions
“A superb overview of the highlights of her subject's life, from his wildly controversial early stages, through his repeatedly autobiographical novels, up to and including his more recent works, which were more focused on issues of mortality . . . Pierpont's book is not a traditional biography; it is an affectionate and comprehensive compendium of information about Roth's published works . . . Roth Unbound is an indispensable source of solid information about Roth. While Alexander Portnoy found his sessions with his psychiatrist to be worthless, the real-life Roth finds a trusting soulmate in whom he can confide in Pierpont. She has given her readers unprecedented insights into the mind of an American Jewish author who has deservedly won every major literary prize other than the Nobel Prize in Literature, for which he has been short-listed for years.” Robert A. Cohn, St. Louis Jewish Light
“Claudia Roth Pierpont (no relation) presents a smart anatomy of his rich corpus in Roth Unbound: A Writer and His Books. It mixes literary criticism and biographical details with inside information and comments drawn from Pierpont's conversations with the novelist . . . Her analysis and insights reflect a deep admiration for much of Roth's work, yet she comfortably registers disappointment when the master falls short.” Jeffery Burke, Businessweek
“[Pierpont] provides a sympathetic account of [Roth's] oeuvre, filled with supple, attentive readings: Particularly lovely is her observation that a Henry James volume Zuckerman stands on in an early book becomes a thesaurus he uses to prop himself up during sex in a later one.” Marc Tracy, Women's Wear Daily
“[A] refreshingly searching and interrogative book, one that seems properly unsettled about every question save that of Roth's genius.” Akiva Gottlieb, The New York Observer
“Pierpont is an attentive reader of Roth's work: that she is a fan and an advocate is, at moments, a tremendous asset. And she is downright eloquent about those books she most ardently admires: Her chapter on Sabbath's Theater, which extols Roth's use of language in the creation of Mickey Sabbath and his lover Drenka, is a kind of meta-exegesis, in which her own language rises to the heights she is describing in Roth.” Yevgeniya Traps, Forward.com
“[Pierpont's] great service is to remind devotees of Roth's genius--from the early, irreverent novels to the elegiac final quartet.” Louise Adler, The Sydney Morning Herald
“There are many things that can make a critical biography a must-read. Access and insight are two of them, and in Roth Unbound: A Writer and his Books, Claudia Roth Pierpont provides both in spades . . . The real pleasure in these pages is what the author's friendship with Roth provides: rare insight into his books and all that went into them. While it's impossible for any critic or biographer to enter the mind of her subject or to experience up close the wheels of creativity as they grind away, Pierpont comes as close as one can hope to . . . Roth Unbound is also remarkable for Pierpont's own prose. The New Yorker staffer's writing is powerful and evocative . . . Roth Unbound is a must for fans of Philip Roth or of literary fiction in general. Roth's career is being evaluated for posterity now that he's given up the game, and Pierpont's contribution will stand the test of time for its insightful commentary and highly readable style. The book aptly conveys a true love of fiction and puts a famed American author in context.” John Winters, The Arlington Advocate
An insightful portrait of a creative life. New Yorker writer Pierpont (Passionate Minds: Women Rewriting the World, 2000) admired Philip Roth long before she met him at a party in 2002. That meeting generated nearly a decade of conversations that inform this book: part biography--"used primarily as illumination"--part literary and cultural history, part Roth's own memories, all in the service of examining Roth's long, prolific career. Goodbye, Columbus (1959) catapulted the young author to fame, earning a National Book Award and acclaim from such prominent literary figures as Saul Bellow, Alfred Kazin, Irving Howe and Leslie Fiedler. It also incited accusations of anti-Semitism among readers who objected to Roth's portrayal of his characters. "I'll never write about Jews again," he announced after a particularly grueling attack. But 10 years later--after two critical and commercial failures--Portnoy's Complaint appeared. This novel, about "a wretchedly good Jewish boy's attempts to squirm out of the ethical straitjacket of his childhood...," was, writes Pierpont, "one of the signal subversive acts of a subversive age" and established Roth's literary identity. Pierpont traces Roth's life through two marriages, many affairs, a few awkward dates with Jacqueline Kennedy, assorted medical maladies and near-suicidal depression. She offers judicious overviews of his works and critics' responses, including feminists' accusations of misogyny. Although she draws somewhat on Roth's two partial autobiographies, she calls her subject a master of self-disguise, most overtly revealed in Zuckerman, the protagonist of four novels, including Zuckerman Unbound. "Without Zuckerman--or some other mask," writes Pierpont, "Roth is kind, discreet, and far from exciting. Also, far from truthful." Although the opinionated Roth never avoided a fight, the man Pierpont came to know was reserved, gentle and cautious. "This is a discrepancy that all of Roth's friends observe," she notes: "the literary pirate who carries a bottle of Purell." Although not a substitute for a full biography, Pierpont's book offers a candid and sympathetic portrait of an audacious writer.
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Defenders of the Faith
“What is being done to silence this man?” The question, posed by a prominent New York rabbi in a letter to the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith in 1959, conveyed the tone of a demand and continued with the hint of a solution: “Medieval Jews would have known what to do with him.” The figure condemned to bloody justice was a little-known writer of short stories named Philip Roth, aged twenty-six. In Roth’s retellings of his first public battle, he tends to recall himself as even younger, as though trying to convey the vulnerability he felt when he was invited by his elders at the League to meet and discuss the problem. Back in his high school days, Roth had wanted to become a lawyer for this very organization, protecting American Jews from legal bias and discrimination—as he told two of its officers over lunch at Ratner’s, the Jewish restaurant on Second Avenue, where, he fondly recalls, “the waiter’s thumb was always in the soup.” He was clearly a serious young man, and the lunch turned out to be a friendly affair. There was no way that the League could have controlled what he wrote, of course, even had its members wished to try, which they did not. (“Free country, the U.S.A.,” Roth cheerily noted in an account of the incident decades later.) During the next few years, however, he spoke about his work at meetings sponsored by several Jewish organizations, where he was freely able to defend what the rabbi’s next letter, written directly to him, just as freely denounced as “such conceptions of Jews as ultimately led to the murder of six million in our time.”
One of Roth’s stories was about a thirteen-year-old Hebrew school student who threatens to jump from the roof of a synagogue unless the rabbi, the boy’s mother, and everyone else gathered in the street below kneel down and declare their faith in Jesus Christ. But this story, titled “The Conversion of the Jews,” was not the one that had outraged the rabbi. There was also a story titled “Epstein,” about a sixtyish married Jewish man whose wages of sin for a brief affair are, progressively, a humiliating rash and a heart attack. This one was not mentioned by the rabbi, either, although another rabbi was reported by The New York Times to have complained about Roth’s portrayal of a Jewish adulterer and other “lopsided schizophrenic personalities,” all of whom happened to be Jews. But were there any major characters in Roth’s stories who were not Jews? In the eerie fable “Eli, the Fanatic,” the irate citizens who want to evict a home for Jewish refugee children from an elite suburban town are not the town’s long-established Gentiles but its nouveau suburban Jews, who see the refugees as foreign, embarrassing, and a threat to their new American status—a threat precisely of the sort that the rabbis found in Roth.
The source of rabbinical wrath had appeared in The New Yorker in March 1959 and was titled “Defender of the Faith.” More than Roth’s other stories, it was intensely realistic and psychologically complex. (Roth today calls it “the first good thing I ever wrote.”) Set in an army camp in Missouri during the final months of the Second World War, it follows the moral and emotional progress of a fair-minded Jewish sergeant—a recently returned combat hero, numbed by all the ruin he’s seen—who is repeatedly cajoled by a Jewish draftee into granting favors on the basis of their religious bond. The claims of Jewish clannishness were always disturbing to Roth’s proudly American heroes: the Hebrew student in “The Conversion of the Jews” first gets into trouble by asking the rabbi how he can “call the Jews ‘The Chosen People’ if the Declaration of Independence claimed all men to be created equal.” “Defender of the Faith” deals head-on with this conflict of loyalties: the finagling young soldier, on the point of successfully evading service at the front, is finally punished by the sergeant, who, despite reserves of feeling for the younger man and the memories of family he has stirred, has him reassigned to face the same dangers as the other men. When the pair confront each other at the story’s end (“There’s no limit to your anti-Semitism,” the furious young man cries, “is there?”), the sergeant explains that he is looking out not for a particular people but for “all of us.” This is the faith that he unequivocally defends, without, however, losing sight of the other faith that he has relinquished for it.
It was the depiction of the weaselly, lying, nineteen-year-old Jewish soldier that caused the stir. Neither Roth’s conclusions, nor the controlling intelligence of the sergeant, nor, certainly, the story’s literary qualities had any impact on those who were outraged by the mere suggestion that such a person might exist. The most incendiary aspect of the story, however, was its publication in The New Yorker. Roth’s earlier work had appeared in such prestigious but little-read journals as the newly founded Paris Review and the largely Jewish-read Commentary, which had been established by the American Jewish Committee after the war. In fact, “your story—in Hebrew—in an Israeli magazine or newspaper,” the censorious rabbi wrote to Roth, “would have been judged exclusively from a literary point of view.” Here, however, in America, in a magazine widely esteemed in Gentile society, Roth’s best efforts amounted to nothing less than an act of “informing.”
Roth was genuinely stunned by the reaction: blindsided. On the morning that The New Yorker came out, he recalls, he had walked from his apartment on East Tenth Street to the newsstand on Fourteenth Street “about six times,” until the magazine finally appeared, and then he took it home and “read it over and over, and then I read it backwards and then I read it upside down—I wouldn’t let it out of my hands.” Letters started coming in just a couple of days later and soon turned into such a deluge that the editors developed a form letter to send in reply. The story was a clear departure for The New Yorker, which had previously published Jewish stories on the order of The Education of H*Y*M*A*N K*A*P*L*A*N by Leo Rosten, stories that Roth describes as being about “cute Jews.” (Alfred Kazin began his first review of Roth’s work with the statement “Several weeks ago I was awakened, while reading the New Yorker, by Philip Roth’s ‘Defender of the Faith.’”) But beyond literary circles, the response was evidence of the rawness of Jewish nerves, just fourteen years after the end of the war—with losses still being absorbed and the word “Holocaust” not yet adopted to describe them—and of the inability of many Jews to accept Roth’s revelation of what he called their “secret”: “that the perils of human nature afflict the members of our minority.”
The publication of five of Roth’s stories in book form, together with a novella, Goodbye, Columbus, took place in May 1959, just two months after The New Yorker hit the stands. Roth later reported that the slender volume was considered, in some circles, “my Mein Kampf.” The new novella, which gave the collection its title, fueled heightening charges of Jewish self-hatred and anti-Semitism through the same material that made it irresistibly comic: its broadly vaudevillian treatment of the working-class Jews of Newark (“Shmutz he lives in and I shouldn’t worry,” Aunt Gladys worries) and, especially, its relentless skewering of the country club Jews of nearby but worlds-away Short Hills—a postwar suburban species still new to literature. After a brief drive up from Newark, where Aunt Gladys and Uncle Max spend steamy summer nights sitting in a dingy alley seeking a breeze, Neil Klugman, age twenty-three, arrives among sprinkled lawns, air-cooled rooms, and streets named for the colleges the local progeny attend. Neil, a somewhat defensive graduate of the Newark branch of Rutgers University, and a junior league if wised-up Gatsby, is in pursuit of a girl—a Radcliffe girl named Brenda Patimkin, home for the summer—whose fascination is inextricably bound to the careless self-possession that money breeds.
Roth was not in any conscious way responding to Fitzgerald’s book, and Goodbye, Columbus was a spontaneously written work—“with some of the virtues and all of the defects of spontaneity,” Roth tells me, now that its defects seem all too clear to him. Still, at the time, The Great Gatsby was indeed fresh and important in his mind. During the mid-fifties, in graduate school, he had taken a course on the American Twenties, in which each of the students was assigned a particular year for a cultural report. Roth had drawn 1925: “the most terrific year,” he says. “The Great Gatsby, Manhattan Transfer, the start of The New Yorker.” The impact of Fitzgerald’s book on him was in its “angle of social observation,” he says, but early critics saw more than a bit of Fitzgerald’s feckless Daisy in Brenda Patimkin, ruthlessly competitive yet angelic in tennis whites as she and a friend with a fake Katharine Hepburn accent play on into the soft summer night, while Neil waits impatiently for their first date to begin. The fact that Brenda owes her beauty to a nose job and her family fortune to Patimkin Kitchen and Bathroom Sinks in lowly Newark does not detract from her allure. To Neil, she is every bit as much “the king’s daughter” as Daisy was to Gatsby—Roth simply (if unknowingly) took over Fitzgerald’s chivalric phrase. A king’s daughter is a princess, of course, and Roth has been widely accused of helping to establish the stereotype of the Jewish American Princess. In fact, the term did not arise until more than a decade later, in the early seventies, and probably had more to do with the exaggerations of the entire Patimkin household in the movie version, directed by Larry Peerce, that appeared about that time.
Roth’s book is filled with implications about class and race. Smart as he is, Neil has a dead-end job as a librarian, and the only significant person in his life, aside from Brenda, is a little black boy who shows up regularly to look at art books. Instinctively, Neil protects the boy from both the racism of a colleague and the threat that his favorite book, filled with reproductions of Gauguin’s Tahitian paradise, will be borrowed by an unpleasant old white man. (Roth shamelessly stacks the deck against this second Gauguin lover.) Yet if Roth’s hero feels empathy with a poor black boy staring at pictures of unobtainable beauty—Neil himself sees Gauguin’s Tahitians in terms of the Patimkins—and feels a similar connection with the Patimkins’ black maid, it’s clear that neither the boy nor the maid feels anything toward Neil in return. He is on his own in an uncertain and uncomfortable social space, starry-eyed about Patimkin bounty, yet proud and angry enough to want to heave a rock through the glass wall of the Harvard library after Brenda finally makes the hard choice between him and her family.
The real novelty of Roth’s view of American Jewish life, circa 1959, was its absence of any sense of tragedy or oppression. (“Green lawns, white Jews,” one of Roth’s characters remarks about Goodbye, Columbus some thirty-five years later, in Operation Shylock: “The Jewish success story in its heyday, all new and thrilling and funny and fun.”) True, Aunt Gladys sends off bundles for the “Poor Jews in Palestine,” but this seems already an archaic gesture. The far more up-to-date Mr. Patimkin, surveying his lavatorial empire, comes to the rueful conclusion that his adored children—Ron, Brenda, and Julie—know no more about being Jewish than the goyim. Hurling themselves into the American dream, the Patimkins live a continuous daily round of sports (an extra place is set at dinner not for Elijah but for Mickey Mantle) and of eating—gargantuan meals, served by Carlota, the maid, that smother conversation in active digestion and extra helpings. As a result, Neil, as their guest, concludes that “it would be just as well to record all that was said in one swoop, rather than indicate the sentences lost in the passing of food, the words gurgled into mouthfuls, the syntax chopped and forgotten in heapings, spillings, and gorgings.” And he does so in the form of a little play:
RON: Where’s Carlota? Carlota!
MRS. P.: Carlota, give Ronald more.
CARLOTA (calling): More what?
MR. P.: Me too.
MRS. P.: They’ll have to roll you on the links.
MR. P. (pulling his shirt up and slapping his black, curved belly): What are you talking about? Look at that?
RON (yanking his T-shirt up): Look at this.
BRENDA: (to me) Would you care to bare your middle?
ME (the choir boy again): No.
MRS. P.: That’s right, Neil.
ME: Yes. Thank you.
CARLOTA (over my shoulder, like an unsummoned spirit): Would you like more?
MR. P.: He eats like a bird.
JULIE: Certain birds eat a lot.
BRENDA: Which ones?
MRS. P.: Let’s not talk about animals at the dinner table.
The comedy is not particularly cruel, since most of the individual portraits are rooted in affection: for the unpretentious, belly-slapping Mr. Patimkin, who has sweated his way up from Newark poverty; for lithe and clever Brenda, breaker of rules and reader of Mary McCarthy; even for knuckleheaded Ron, a former college basketball star who keeps his jockstrap suspended from the bathroom shower—a colossal, lumpen, sentimental guy, more like a warmed-up version of Fitzgerald’s Tom Buchanan than any Jew any previous American writer had conceived. The Patimkins harbor no doubts about their right to what they have or about their standing in America. But what did America think of them?
Goodbye, Columbus won the National Book Award in 1960, a remarkable achievement for a first book of short stories by a twenty-seven-year-old writer. It also received substantial praise from the “four tigers of American Jewish literature,” as Roth identifies Saul Bellow, Alfred Kazin, Irving Howe, and Leslie Fiedler, all of whom recognized a strong voice and a fresh perspective—the next development in the saga of Jews in America to which they themselves belonged. Roth’s depiction of the Patimkins, in particular, was considered (in Howe’s words) “ferociously exact,” a real reflection of the spiritual vacuity (in Bellow’s formulation) that had befallen an untold number of American middle-class Jews. Some thirteen to eighteen years older than Roth, these literary tigers were—unlike Roth—the children of immigrants, born into a generation that kept them closer to religious feeling, however fiercely they had rebelled against it. The fact that Bellow saw Roth’s rather cheerful and healthy if dull-witted suburbia as another chapter of the Jewish historical tragedy says more about Bellow than it does about Roth. But Roth was grateful for the critical support, especially for Bellow’s statement that a Jewish writer should not be expected to write “public relations releases” in the hope of reducing anti-Semitic feeling and, indeed, that the loss to “our sense of reality” wasn’t worth the gain, if there was any gain at all. Bellow gave Roth a meaningful go-ahead, when—awards or no awards—more people than ever seemed intent on getting him to stop.
Goodbye, Columbus also won the Daroff Award of the Jewish Book Council of America, just a year after it was given (by a different group of judges) to Leon Uris’s Exodus. Roth’s book was not a widely popular choice. Uris himself spoke out about the new “school” of Jewish American writers, “who spend their time damning their fathers, hating their mothers, wringing their hands and wondering why they were born.” Their work, he added, “makes me sick to my stomach.” Roth read the Uris interview, published in the New York Post, when it was clipped and sent to him by another angrily accusing reader. All these accusations were quoted by Roth himself in two essays of the early sixties: “Some New Jewish Stereotypes” (American Judaism, 1961) and “Writing About Jews” (Commentary, 1963), both republished in Roth’s 1975 collection, Reading Myself and Others. These essays—and Roth did not frequently write essays—show how seriously he took the charges, how wounded he felt by them, and yet how certain he was that he was right. He noted that people read Anna Karenina without concluding that adultery was a Russian trait; Madame Bovary did not lead readers to condemn the morals of French provincial women en masse. He was writing literature, not sociology or—Bellow’s helpful phrase—public relations. He was aspiring to the highest artistic goals, and he expected that if he explained himself, very carefully, people would come to understand.
In 1962, Roth, who was teaching at the University of Iowa, accepted an invitation to speak at Yeshiva University in New York, in a symposium titled “The Crisis of Conscience in Minority Writers of Fiction.” His fellow speakers were Ralph Ellison, whose depiction of Negro family life in Invisible Man had brought charges of defamation from his own community, and Pietro di Donato, the author of a novel about Italian immigrants, Christ in Concrete, that had been a bestseller in the thirties. But it was clear from the start that Roth was the center of interest. As he describes the event in his autobiographical volume, The Facts, the tone was set by the moderator’s opening question: “Mr. Roth, would you write the same stories you’ve written if you were living in Nazi Germany?”
The prolonged attacks that followed left him in something like a state of shock, barely able to reply coherently to the questions and statements that were hurled at the stage and overcome by the realization that “I was not just opposed but hated.” In sympathy, Ellison took up his defense; Roth remembers Ellison stating, in regard to his own work, that he refused to be a cog in the machinery of civil rights. Nevertheless, upon leaving the stage, Roth was surrounded by a still unsated, fist-shaking crowd. He escaped them, at last, with his wife and his editor. And in the safety of the Stage Delicatessen, over a pastrami sandwich, he vowed, “I’ll never write about Jews again.”
Copyright © 2013 by Claudia Roth Pierpont
Meet the Author
Claudia Roth Pierpont is a staff writer for The New Yorker, where she has written about the arts for more than twenty years. The subjects of her articles have ranged from James Baldwin to Katharine Hepburn, from Machiavelli to Mae West. A collection of Pierpont's essays on women writers, Passionate Minds: Women Rewriting the World, was published in 2000 and was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award. Pierpont has been the recipient of a Whiting Writers' Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and a fellowship at the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers of the New York Public Library. She has a PhD in Italian Renaissance art history from New York University. She lives in New York City.
Claudia Roth Pierpont is a staff writer for The New Yorker, where she has written about the arts for more than twenty years. The subjects of her articles have ranged from James Baldwin to Katharine Hepburn, from Machiavelli to Mae West. A collection of Pierpont’s essays on women writers, Passionate Minds: Women Rewriting the World, was published in 2000 and was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award. Pierpont has been the recipient of a Whiting Writers’ Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and a fellowship at the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers of the New York Public Library. She has a PhD in Italian Renaissance art history from New York University. She lives in New York City.
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