I would have given almost anything to spend a day with Philip Roth, literary king of American Jews. He was a storytelling powerhouse, a commander of American letters. Some might argue that he was the finest wordsmith of the 20th and early 21st centuries — a grand statement that’s hard to dispute.
But we lost him on May 22, and we’ll have to make do with everything he left behind. Fortunately for us, it’s quite a spectacular, if provocative, trove of more than 30 novels in addition to various short stories, interviews and essays.
More than 60 of Roth’s 85 years were spent publishing, and during these years, he tackled with precision subjects ranging from the broader issues of immigration and American fascism, racism and terrorism to the more controversial subject of the lecherous male. And, for Roth, this lecherous male was always Jewish and always reaching — reaching toward acceptance and the ability not just to pass in mainstream American culture but to command it. The picture of American Jews painted by Roth was one of a people ensnared by history and hounded by innate and largely inescapable flaws of character.
It’s no wonder that the man who achieved such literary notoriety (despite being repeatedly passed over by the Nobel committee) was also the subject of American-Jewish outrage.
Especially in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Roth’s work was seen as scandalous and transgressive. It was denounced by rabbis and many American Jews. He exposed us for who we are, but it wasn’t what he exposed that most incensed us. It wasn’t the depictions of lascivious men neglecting to tame their carnal desires. It wasn’t the image, famously described in “Portnoy’s Complaint” (1969), of a young man masturbating with a piece of liver that would later be eaten for dinner by the entire family. And it wasn’t the implicit suggestion in “Goodbye, Columbus” (1959) that a Jewish woman wishing to assimilate seamlessly and successfully must have a nose job. Rather, it was the audacity of this young, secular writer who pushed back on all that was most taboo that made us most uncomfortable.
But I’ve always thought that the real scandal was that we needed Roth to paint such a vivid picture of our humanity, that we were incapable of taking stock of our flaws without his impeccable eye to flesh it out for us.
And, speaking of flesh, Roth’s work is full of it. It is often filthy in its depictions of the quintessential American-Jewish male’s quest for dominance over the tall, blond and blue-eyed young woman: the shiksa. In “American Pastoral” (1997), which may very well be the most masterfully written American novel of and about the 20th century, Roth writes of Seymour Levov (“The Swede”): “He’d done it.” He had married Dawn Dwyer, a shiksa and former Miss New Jersey. He, “post-Jewish,” and she, “post-Catholic,” together should have been unstoppable. And yet they were not unstoppable. Their perfection became their demise. The perfectly and wholly assimilated American-Jewish family implodes finally with a bomb detonated by their daughter, Merry, on American soil: a domestic terrorist.
Continuing that thread, in 2004 Roth published “The Plot Against America,” a counter narrative recounting what could have happened if Charles Lindbergh, instead of Franklin D. Roosevelt, was elected president in 1940. It’s an interesting choice, three years after 9/11, to write a novel exploring not the fear of imported terrorism but of what we have always harbored within our borders. In this version of our history, Americans are not liberators of concentration camps. Instead, Jewish boys are sent to live with families in the South or the Midwest in an effort to “Americanize” them.
With the election of Donald Trump to the American presidency, “The Plot Against America” took on deeper significance. After the inauguration, social media posts urgently implored people to read the novel, which some claimed had predicted the rise to power of a demagogic celebrity like Trump. Articles noting this phenomenon began to pop up everywhere. And just a few months ago, David Simon, creator of “The Wire,” announced that he would be adapting Roth’s novel for a six-part miniseries.
For Roth, the violence and ugliness of life is not something imported from peoples and cultures unknown. It is always something we carry recklessly within us, something that necessarily bubbles just underneath the surface of every lovely veneer. He used humor and caricature to point this out, but those who are brazen enough to elucidate such things are often misread and misunderstood. Roth was no exception. He inspired the greatest praise and the harshest condemnation. He was polarizing. You loved him or hated him.
Some called him a misogynist, which never felt quite right to me despite the fact that some of his works depict unapologetic sexism. And in many cases, his depictions of women as objects are offensive and arguably unforgivable. His female characters were often one-dimensional, lacking complexity. Consequently, some have suggested that Roth hated women.
But I think the inescapable misery of his male characters with their impossible sexual and historical entanglements undermines the idea of Roth as misogynist. While it’s true that his female characters are hardly inspiring, his male characters are often repulsive and pathetic. They are dark and unruly, lustful and impotent, fearful not just of women but of the weight of their fathers’ reproach. Their anxiety overflows and rips into everything they create. And it is not just their own anxiety that haunts them. Each of Roth’s male characters shoulders the burden of a whole culture of memory. “To be alive, to him, is to be made of memory — to him if a man’s not made of memory, he’s made of nothing,” we read in the memoir “Patrimony” (1991).
I can’t imagine that an authentic misogynist would paint men in such a fashion. If he was a misogynist, his misogyny was flawed and incomplete. If he was much better at creating fascinating and psychologically complex male characters, it was because he was writing what he knew. He certainly wouldn’t dare to enter the consciousness of a woman.
Roth seemed bent on determining what, in fact, is lost in our quest to belong and in our desire to live fully. Is it dignity? Decency? Authenticity? Something else?
Roth’s work was funny, but it was also dark and “deadly serious.” It was not a darkness comprising ruminations on death or genocide, but of bold revelations of the American underbelly. In the Pulitzer Prize-winning “American Pastoral,” Jerry Levov, the Swede’s brother, tears into his brother’s desperate quest to “belong like everybody else.” He lashes out at his brother, still reeling from the bomb set off by his daughter, and says, “With the help of your daughter you’re as deep in the s— as a man can get, the real American crazy s—.” And then comes the repetition of a phrase that has haunted me since I first read it many years ago: “America amok! America amuck!”
Here Roth gives us the blueprint of America — as it was and as it will be. Assimilation comes with a cost. But so does simply living and breathing. We pay the price consistently and continually. Yet the nature of the price we pay is not always clear. Roth seemed bent on determining what, in fact, is lost in our quest to belong and in our desire to live fully. Is it dignity? Decency? Authenticity? Something else?
I’ve always found it interesting that Roth’s characters insist on getting everything right. Nathan Zuckerman obsesses over getting the Swede’s story right, and yet reveals — albeit only to careful readers — that he himself is creating the Swede’s story, imagining it and projecting it onto the Swede. And so it will never, in theory, be right.
And yet. “The fact remains that getting people right is not what living is all about,” he writes in “American Pastoral.” “It’s getting them wrong that is living, getting them wrong and wrong and wrong and then, on careful reconsideration, getting them wrong again. That’s how we know we’re alive: we’re wrong. Maybe the best thing would be to forget being right or wrong about people and just go along for the ride. But if you can do that — well, lucky you.”
None of us is so lucky. We can’t forget about being right or wrong, especially these days. “Writing turns you into somebody who’s always wrong,” Roth writes. “The illusion that you may get it right someday is the perversity that draws you on.”
Monica Osborne is scholar of Jewish literature and culture. She is the author of “The Midrashic Impulse and the Contemporary Literary Response to Trauma.”