Philip Roth

A long (fictional) trail of tears.

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I have the dubious distinction of writing an early study of Philip Roth's fiction better known for its dedication than for its content: "To my mother, who hoped I would write about somebody else." 

Why, my mother kvetched, couldn't I write about Leon Uris's Exodus (1958), a story that made Jews proud rather than ashamed? "Let's face it," she said, "Roth's a no-goodnik, and if you play with a bum, that's what you'll become."

The Early Stories

Philip Roth was born in Newark, New Jersey on March 19, 1933 to Bess Finkel Roth and Herman Roth, a man Roth once described as "a cross between Captain Ahab and Willy Loman." Roth's Newark childhood is one of his great inspirations, and he depicts it in full in the non-fiction The Facts (1988). In another memoir, Patrimony (1991), Roth describes his relationship with his combative father, then suffering the ravages of cancer.

But Philip Roth is, of course, best known for his fiction. In l959, he published Goodbye, Columbus, and Five Short Stories. Not only did the 26-year-old Roth walk off with the National Book Award for his efforts, he also set in motion debates about tradition, responsibility, and the individual artist that would dog his heels from then on--book after book, decade after decade.

Many American Jews were not pleased to see what Roth's satiric eye and deadly accurate ear could dig up about, well, them. Goodbye, Columbus put their manners and mores on public display, and while they may have denied the accuracy of Roth's observations, they also winced whenever his stories edged too close to the truth.

What Goodbye, Columbus laid bare was the empty triumphs of contemporary Jewish-American life. He wrote, in short, about the Jewish-American suburbs in a way that boosters equated with prophetic scolding and knockers worried would precipitate anti-Semitic riots. Hindsight suggests that both groups were wrong: Roth's collection occasioned neither an abrupt shift in mainstream Jewish-American attitudes nor broken noses suffered from Gentile fists. What did change, however, was a revised--and revitalized--sense of the subjects to which Jewish-Americans writers could lay claim.

Roth's early stories were generally regarded as stunners, but in retrospect, many now seem both formulaic and cold. Why? Because they, like Goodbye, Columbus, were the work of a very young man who enjoyed far more than he should have, reducing his characters to objects of easy derision.

A Jewish Writer?

Roth's characters, like Roth himself, often seem cut off from the wellsprings of Jewish identity. They know just a little Yiddish (almost exclusively vulgarisms) and even less Hebrew; they are, for the most part, thoroughly assimilated Americans who could thoroughly explain baseball's infield fly rule but not a single page of Talmud.

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Sanford Pinsker is an emeritus professor of English at Franklin and Marshall College. He writes widely about Jewish literature and culture, and in recent years has been a judge for the Edward Lewis Wallant Prize, the Reform Judaism Prize, and the National Jewish Book Award.