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The Golden Age of Jewish American Literature
(Released March 2010)

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  by Ethan Goffman  


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Philip Roth Faces the Wrath: The Bad Boy of Jewish Literature


Philip Roth's Goodbye Columbus (1959) shocked the literary world with its critical portrayal of Jews. If previous Jewish American literature had a certain concern for portraying Jews positively, Roth, taking a cue from Jewish comedians, was more than happy to illustrate, exaggerate, and satirize Jewish dysfunction. In Goodbye Columbus this takes its most extreme form in the story "Defender of the Faith," wherein a Jewish soldier takes advantage of his background to avoid his duties. Yet the volume is little concerned with the military, or with World War II, but concentrates on Jews growing comfortable as they settle into the suburbs, and scrambling to assimilate into American society. As Sanford Pinsker argues, "Roth's characters, like Roth himself, often seem cut off from the wellsprings of Jewish identity." What's Jewish about them is a cultural remnant, some yiddishisms, a rabbi here or there, in the later works a concern with Israel. What's Jewish American about them is something stronger-a recurring concern with reconciling identies, with a lingering outsider status, a sense of victimization, amid a rising affluence and acceptance.

Philip Roth
Philip Roth, 1994

Roth's reputation took a self-inflicted hit with the publication of his most notorious novel (and biggest seller) Portnoy's Complaint (1969). The novel takes the form of a long monologue to a psychiatrist from its narrator, Alexander Portnoy, filled with gripes about his parents' idiocy, memories of masturbation, and lust for shiksas;everything Jews fear will appear as stereotypes to the outside world. Even the distinguished critic Irving Howe, who had previously supported Roth, decried the novel. With hindsight, however, Portnoy's Compaint can be reevaluated as not so much an attack on Jews as a satire on those who make such attacks, as well as a portrait of universal truths about human beings hidden behind a veil of secrecy (in a way, we are all of us Portnoys).

Among Roth's various books perhaps his most critically successful is the Zuckerman Unbound tetralogy (later expanded with a fifth, and still later a sixth, volume). The main character, Nathan Zuckerman, is often taken for a version of Roth (as are many of his protagonists). Indeed, different characters in Roth's output seem to be based on variations of the author and the people around him, a metafictional game that Roth has played with great slyness throughout his career. In The Ghost Writer, the first of the Zuckerman books, the protagonist falls in love with Amy Bellette, who turns out to be Ann Frank, escaped from the Nazis and alive after all. Only she isn't, and it turns out that Zuckerman has imagined the whole thing. Later in the series, Zuckerman publishes a book called Carnovsky that parallels Portnoy's Complaint, including the fuss that surrounded it (allowing Roth to satirize Irving Howe as a moralistic prude).

The Counterlife, published after the Zuckerman Unbound tetralogy, continues Roth's metafictional games. When Zuckerman's brother becomes a Zionist and moves to Israel, Zuckerman follows; the novel portrays Israel, supposedly the Jews' salvation, as filled with nervous Jews surrounded and afraid of violent death, exactly as they had been in diaspora, while America appears as the Jews' real salvation. Roth thus surprisingly reinforces the theme of a comfortable American Jewry. The entire novel, however, turns out to be an alternative history to the "real" Zuckerman, himself a fictional counterpart to the real Philip Roth. In his later novels, such as Operation Shylock, an alternative Philip Roth appears, who, however, differs from the actual writer, and who searches for an impersonator also named "Philip Roth" (in a strange turn of events, in actual life a man claiming to be "Philip Roth," but who was not, later appeared in Israel). The Plot Against America (2004) goes back in time, to the Roth family in pre-World War II America, in an alternative history in which Charles Lindbergh becomes president and persecutes America's Jews, a reminder that Jewish status in the U.S. was not preordained.

A very different novel, American Pastoral (1997), has received critical attention as one of Roth's great achievements. The blond, blue-eyed Seymour Levov seems more quintesentially American than Jewish, recalling the assimilating Jews of Goodbye Columbus, in a more epic form. The events of the Vietnam War and student radicalization, however, disrupt Levov's idyllic life-at least for the Jews, Roth seems to be saying, if not for everyone, the idyllic, comfortable America is only a temporary respite from the vicissitudes of history.

Go To Cynthia Ozick and the Struggle for Jewish History

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