Leslie Fiedler, a famously ferocious American literary critic in the middle of the twentieth century, wrote that "To be an American is precisely to imagine a destiny rather than to inherit one; since we have always been, insofar as we are Americans at all, inhabitants of myth rather than history." He must have had that in mind when he reviewed Philip Roth's first book, Goodbye, Columbus, published in 1959. Many of the stories are explicitly set in Newark, New Jersey, Roth's hometown and also Fiedler's. In Fiedler's view, Roth was drawing Newark into literature and giving it a sense of reality, a certain mythic density, that it previously lacked.
A city does not truly exist until it appears in the work of an important writer. Newark was Nowhere, USA, and Roth had turned it into Somewhere. Fiedler said he was grateful that he could now name Newark as his birthplace, without embarrassment.
Since then much has happened to Newark, some of it horribly real, some of it on the level of the mythologies Fiedler loved to trace. The 1967 race riot, among the most notorious of that period, wrecked much of the city and left emotional wounds that remain unhealed. Mythologically, the most famous television drama of recent times, The Sopranos, installed its protagonist, Tony Soprano, in a Newark suburb and derived much of Tony's professional biography from the career of Richard ("Richie the Boot") Boiardo, for many years the Genovese family's feudal lord in Newark. Meanwhile, Philip Roth, perhaps the most impressive novelist now writing in English, has reimagined Newark again and again, adding flesh layers to local legend.
I'm one of those people who never entertained a single thought about Newark before the 1960s. I still haven't visited it and may never do so. But as a reader of Roth I believe in some literary corner of my mind that I know the place intimately. That's the kind of surprise that appears spontaneously in the lives of readers, creeping up on us as an author leads us into the contents of his imagination.
In this case it turns out to have been an unexpected event in the life of the writer as well. As he learned his craft Roth never imagined himself as the Bard of Newark. In 1950 he left for university when he was barely 17, and he has not lived there since. As he says, "I, myself am surprised I'm so mesmerized by this place, because I left younger than any of my friends. And I never went back." Many friends returned after college and moved to nearby suburbs when Newark itself became unbearable. Roth has lived in New York, Rome, London, and now Western Massachusetts -- but never stopped writing about Newark. This is only one of the two ways Roth has been surprised by his own writing. The other has to do with Judaism.
In Operation Shylock, published in 1993, he reflects on his ethnic roots. Speaking as the semi-fictional character named Philip Roth, he writes of:
... that topic I could not really remember having chosen to shadow me like this, from birth to death; the topic whose obsessive examination I had always thought I could someday leave behind; ... the pervasive, engulfing, wearying topic that encapsulated the largest problem and most amazing experience of my life and that, despite every honorable attempt to resist its spell, appeared to be the irrational power that had run away with my life -- and, from the sound of things, not mine alone ... that topic called the Jews.
Perhaps he took such a firm grip on this subject because he realized that his fellow Jews provided the richest material given to him by his life. There was another factor, however, more specific to his era. History was leading Roth and everyone else away from the idea of the universal and toward the particular. What we now call multiculturalism (though that was hardly even a word when Roth started out) was becoming a central part of North American thought.
More general historic themes have followed him through his career. He has never written historical novels, but in book after book he has taken pains to work through varieties of historic experiences -- immigration, radicalism in the 1930s and the 1960s, evolving male-female relations, the Middle East, and literature itself.
At times he has toyed with counter-history, speculating on the way things might have worked out if only a few details were changed. In his 1979 novel, The Ghost Writer, he raises the possibility that Anne Frank survived the Holocaust and turned up in the life of an American writer very much like Bernard Malamud. And earlier than that, in 1973, he wrote a piece, part story and part essay, called "'I Always Wanted You to Admire My Fasting'; or, Looking at Kafka."
In Roth's imagining, Franz Kafka has not only lived into the 1940s but has escaped from Europe and found a job teaching Hebrew school at the Schley Street Synagogue in Newark. Roth's narrator, one of Kafka's students, tells us that his aunt Rhoda feels attracted to Kafka's "big, sad eyes." They go to a movie, and the narrator's family offers friendship to the strange man from Prague. But the relationship doesn't take flight. More important, Kafka's stories have not survived, and he dies unknown, his only obituary a brief note in a Newark paper. Roth has also found himself examining history as a force that suddenly overwhelms and destroys individuals who believe they have found a safe harbour for their lives.
Anyone who studies the currents of the last century, especially a Jew, carries around the knowledge of what happened to the German and Austrian Jews who played a large and vigorous part in the lives of their countries until they were told that they were not only unwanted but that their governments were planning to kill them. For those victims, history exploded, in a way that almost no one could have predicted.
Roth refers in Operation Shylock to a famous individual case of someone destroyed in a sudden random sweep of history's sword: Leon Klinghoffer, the American Jewish appliance manufacturer, thrown over the side of the Achille Lauro cruise ship in his wheelchair on October 8, 1985. It was an act of wanton murder, by PLO terrorists, as cruel as it was abrupt. Roth describes it: "An ordinary person who purely by accident gets caught in the historical struggle. A life annotated by history in the last place you expect history to intervene. On a cruise, which is out of history in every way."
Toward the end of the twentieth century Roth developed three characters who are destroyed by a bizarre eruption of history in their midst. At the heart of American Pastoral (1997), I Married a Communist (1998), and The Human Stain (2000), historic changes ambush individuals and leave their lives in ruins. As a result, Roth has attracted the attention of a professional historian, Michael Kimmage of the Catholic University of America. Kimmage has written a shrewd, imaginative, and sympathetic book, In History's Grip: Philip Roth's Newark Trilogy (Stanford University Press).
American Pastoral is the most ambitious of the Roth trilogy and the one most often called a masterpiece, the book in which he expands his original subject, the Newark Jews, until they represent all of immigrant America and then, at certain moments, all of America. It attracted particular attention because it arrived in Roth's sixty-fifth year, at a time when we might have expected him to ease into semi-retirement, having already produced a substantial shelf of remarkable books. Of course we didn't know that there would be two more impressive novels in the next two years and then at least seven more titles in the twenty-first century. As Kimmage says, the books in the trilogy are tied together in several ways. In each of them Roth uses the same narrator, Nathan Zuckerman, who has often played that role in other Roth books: Zuckerman is a framing device, an extra author, providing distance from the story while reminding us, from time to time, that this is a work of fiction, even though at times it's piercingly convincing.
In the grammar of these three novels, as Kimmage writes, "Newark is the subject of the sentence, and the trilogy's protagonists are its direct objects, set in motion by the moving city." It is easy enough to leave Newark physically; but leaving it spiritually and mythologically is far more difficult and in many cases impossible. Each of the protagonists ends up experiencing history as a trauma. It arrives in the form of enraged left-wing radicals or a vindictive congressional committee or a wave of political correctness that has descended, within the universities, into raw meanness.
The three individuals in these novels all leave Newark to recreate themselves and build lives that do not reflect their actual histories. They move to an affluent old community in a New Jersey suburb, or Manhattan, or Western Massachusetts. They marry outside their city and their clan. They are adventurous, but they are blindsided by the history they cannot know, the history through which they are living -- as Roth says, "the present moment, the common lot, the current mood, the mind of one's country, the stranglehold of history that is one's own time." We assume we know our own time because we spend much of our lives examining and discussing it; but it is only in retrospect that we can truly begin to understand it.
American Pastoral represents Roth's revised view of the 1960s. He drew strength from the liberationist ethos of that era; in Portnoy's Complaint, published in 1969, he borrows from the manic spritzing monologues of Lenny Bruce, who gave 1960s radicalism its jagged, intransigent voice. Roth swam in the broth of anarchy that Bruce cooked up. In that era he naturally sympathized with the students opposing the Vietnam war, but in American Pastoral both the jokes and the banal leftist rhetoric have withered. Violent radicalism becomes the eruption that destroys the family of Seymour ("the Swede") Levov when his unhappy, stuttering, sixteen-year-old daughter, Merry, accidentally kills an innocent man while bombing their local post office in the wealthy suburb of Old Rimrock, New Jersey. Reviewers saw this as Roth's American version of The Book of Job: Levov, who had achieved everything an American might desire, is brought low. But God is not the source of his downfall; history is the calamity from which he cannot escape.
In I Married a Communist Ira Ringold is a Newark Jew who becomes a star on national radio and a well-connected cultural communist, even a friend of Paul Robeson. He escapes both poverty and Newark by marrying a wealthy star from the silent movies, Eve Frame. The history that destroys Ringold is represented by McCarthyism's arbitrary, irresponsible denunciations of mostly ineffective leftists; Ira is driven mad by the unexpected vehemence of his new enemies.
The Human Stain focuses on two of the central themes of American culture, the anxiety and fury surrounding ethnicity and what Roth calls "The drama that underlies America's story, the high drama that is upping and leaving -- and the energy and cruelty that rapturous drive demands." Coleman Silk makes an especially radical break from his past: born with whitish skin in a black family, he decides to "pass" for white rather than accept the fate that appears to be prepared for him. This is a truly American idea. He embraces "the passionate struggle for singularity," so that his fate will be determined "not by the ignorant, hate-filled intentions of a hostile world but, to whatever degree humanly possible, by his own resolve." As a white man, calling himself Jewish, he becomes a professor of classics at a small college in Massachusetts. He's escaped. But he's brought down by a force that he could never have seen coming -- the crazy fad of political correctness that came to dominate all talk of race in American university life. In a classroom Silk speaks a few words that are intentionally misinterpreted as anti-black. His fellow teachers fail to support him, and his downfall is swift.
More than half a century ago Lionel Trilling, the great critic, argued that American literature defines itself by its way of transcending the social fact and concentrating upon the individual. Typically, it represents society and ordinary life as problems posed, problems to be dealt with. Huckleberry Finn, An American Tragedy, The Catcher in the Rye are three among many examples. But Roth, in the Newark trilogy, offers three protagonists who see the limitations in their surroundings, make the most strenuous efforts to escape from them, and in the end find themselves defeated by events neither they nor anyone else could have anticipated. They have set out to conquer society rather than letting it conquer them; for a long time each of them seems to have pulled it off. Then they discover that society has reached out, reclaimed and defeated them. In the Newark trilogy we watch the great American comic novelist of our time prove he is also a master of tragedy.