The ProsenPeople

Philip Roth: Celebration of a Career

Wednesday, May 08, 2013 | Permalink

by Alan Cooper

With the 2013 publication of its final (eighth and ninth) volumes of Philip Roth’s collected works, The Library of America (LoA) has reprinted every word of Roth’s thirty-one books, twenty-eight of them works of fiction. There will be no more Roth books. These hand-hold­able volumes “printed on light-weight, acid-free paper that will not turn yellow or brittle with age” have preserved Roth for the ages. It remains to be seen what, if anything, can guarantee a Roth readership.

This completion of the LoA project coincides with Roth’s eightieth birthday and with his growing conviction that the fiction-reading public is dwindling in the face of electronic quick fixes, perhaps consigning the traditional novel to a footnote in literary history. Roth has announced his retirement from the writing of fiction, echoing yet again what has been for him a triggering precept, Rilke’s “You must change your life.” Roth’s public and his readership (not always the same thing) have re­sponded with due celebration and wishful disbelief.

Critical revaluations and predictions are popping up in print. Which are the great novels, which the merely good—or wonderfully good—and do the shortened works of his last five productive years match up to his standards? After fifty-four years of pounding it out, is he now tired? lonely? losing it? entitled to a life away from the keyboard? or to some celebration? He has authorized a biography and chosen the biographer. He has attended the naming of a street after him in his native Newark, NJ and the plaquing of his childhood home as a city landmark. Hundreds of people have taken bus tours of his Weequahic neighborhood to see, and hear rehearsed, the places and events of his novels. Two documen­tary films have been made about his life and works. Speculations are abuzz—perhaps there will be another full-length novel, about a man who un-retires; perhaps a Nobel Prize will top the dozen or so major awards already bestowed upon him; perhaps the Swedes will drop their anti-Semitism!

But at an eightieth birthday celebration at the Newark Museum, where an overflow audience heard praises of his astonishing talent by world- renowned authors and scholars and a moving response by Roth on the importance, especially to a writer, of mining life’s small moments and of accepting the finality of death, it became clear that his shutting down owes to the convergences of time. Other speakers stood, Roth sat. He walked with a bit of a shuffle, but his handshake was firm and his eye engaging.

In recent interviews Roth has acknowledged he gets tired, he has a medical history, he has sometimes felt lonely; yet he has a personal life about which he remains silent (it’s none of our business), and an irrepressible sense of humor. During his years as a writer he sometimes felt the panic of being between books, of not knowing what his next subject would be, of awaiting some thought or memory that could raise a question that writing might explore. He let the fiction come from the imagination at work during the writing, concentrating on the passage at hand and trusting that somehow it would suggest itself into plot, setting, character. Sometimes it did not. Any success might have had to await the rewriting. Authorship took time. Other claimants on that time might have been easily resented. His books were his children; his child­hood got relived in his books.

It was a Jewish childhood; it has been a secular Jewish life. Alter-ego Nathan Zuckerman’s statement, “Jews are to history as Eskimos are to snow[.]” or Nathan’s discomfort in a church, where every symbol posited destruction of Jews, or the fictive Roth’s calling his fictive alter-ego “Moshe Pipick” (not to be expected from a John Updike) reflect a sensibility that has chronicled the Jewish experience in America from a humanist point of view. In his Newark Museum response, Roth read a seven-page reminiscence by his Mickey Sabbath: the gravestone mes­sages of Jews—the “beloved” fathers, husbands, sons, friends. “The beloved are comfortably dead,’ he quipped warmly and softly, and then quoted Kafka: “The meaning of life is that it stops.” In an older Jewish context “…man lieth down and rises not;/Till the heavens be no more, they shall not wake,/ or be roused out of their sleep” (Job, 14:12). Good company for a Jewish humanist. Readers owe it to themselves to reread Philip Roth.

Alan Cooper teaches English at York College, CUNY. Notable among his numerous contributions to periodicals, reviews, and books is his Philip Roth and the Jews (SUNY Press, 1996). His latest book is the young-adult novel Prince Paskudnyak and the Giant Bats.

Jews and Anxiety

Friday, July 27, 2012 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Daniel Smith, whose newest book, Monkey Mind: A Memoir of Anxiety, is now available, wrote about hearing voices and coping with anxiety. He has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

This past May I published an essay in The New York Times titled “Do the Jews Own Anxiety?” Not long afterward, I received an email from a reader I will call David C. David C. began his email by quoting my essay — “We, the Jews, have encouraged the world to think of us as anxious” — and proceeded over the course of 240 headlong words to berate me for being one of those “self-absorbed, highly neurotic” American Jews who are “quick to internalize the inferiority cast upon them by the gentiles.” The email ended in a particularly indignant fashion with the following lines: “With Jews like you, who needs anti-Semites? Kol tuv, boychik.”

I attended Hebrew school and was Bar Mitzvahed. I went to Brandeis, which has a prominent and esteemed Hebrew department. I have been to Israel. Yet I have no knowledge of the Hebrew language beyond a smattering of common words. I had no idea what kol tuv meant. I had to Google it.

All the best.

Kol tuv, boychik: All the best, young man.

David C. correspondent was sneering at me.

It wasn’t a pleasant email to receive, but I wasn’t surprised. I’d been expecting a note like this sooner or later. In fact, I was almost glad to receive it. David C.’s resentment was its own sort of Bar Mitzvah, its own coming of age. I had already been initiated, up there on the bimah twenty-one years ago, into the tribe of Jewish men. Now I had been initiated into the tribe of Jewish writers who get in trouble for discussing what is commonly referred to as “Jewish neurosis.”

The main reason I wasn’t surprised is that when I was in my late teens and twenties, I developed a passion for the work of Philip Roth. I had read, in the basement of the Brandeis library, Roth’s precocious 1959 debut, Goodbye, Columbus, and later his memoir The Facts, which he subtitled “A Novelist’s Autobiography.”

Roth was only twenty-six, an austere and brilliant literary novitiate, when he published Goodbye, Columbus. He was happy, no doubt, for the praise and adulation lavished on his book, but he was wholly unprepared for the angry criticism that came in the wake of success. In The Facts he tells the story of the “most bruising public exchange” of his life. He was appearing alongside Ralph Ellison and the novelist Pietro Di Donato on a panel at Yeshiva University when the audience turned antagonistic, then threatening. How, they insisted, could he have written about such unsavory, conniving, unethical Jewish characters? (They were especially upset about his short story “Defender of the Faith.”) Where was his tact? His compassion? His self-love? Where was his loyalty? As Roth tried to leave the hall, the most hostile of the audience members began to surround him and shout. Roth writes:

I listened to the final verdict against me, as harsh a judgment as I ever hope to hear in this or any other world. I only began to shout, 'Clear away, step back - I'm getting out of here,' after somebody, shaking a fist in my face began to holler, 'You were brought up on anti-Semitic literature!' 'Yes,' I hollered back, 'and what is that?' - curiously wanting to know what he meant. 'English literature!' he cried. 'English Literature is anti-Semitic literature.'"

In short, Roth had been trained in self-loathing. His critics deemed him a “self-hating” Jew. Or as my correspondent David C. asked: “With Jews like you, who needs anti-Semites?”

I don’t intend to compare myself to Philip Roth. (Perish the thought, sweet as it is.) I mean only to say that when one is a Jew who writes about his tribesmen in a way that can, in even a small way, be construed as undignified or unsavory, one has to be prepared for anger and insults — and sneering. David C.’s was only the first such response. I don’t expect it will be the last.

Visit Daniel Smith's official website here.

Is Alexander Portnoy Bad for the Jews?

Monday, March 15, 2010 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Is Alexander Portnoy bad for the Jews?

Jason Diamond, editor of, explores the question:

Alex Portnoy: fictional poster child for my people, curious little Yid, anti-Holden Caulfield, insufferable little prick; I wonder if you know how much damage you’ve caused? Read On.

Philip Roth’s The Humbling in The NY Review of Books

Monday, November 16, 2009 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Elaine Blair on Philip Roth’s The Humbling for The New York Review of Books:

One of the rare funny moments in Philip Roth’s recent novel Everyman (2006) takes place when the unnamed hero visits his parents’ graves in Newark. His health has been poor, his colleagues and friends have been dying, and though he has no reason to think that his own death is imminent, he can no longer pretend to himself that he will never die. In this frame of mind, he finds himself talking to the buried bones of his parents. “I’m seventy-one, your boy is seventy-one,” he tells them. In his mind, he hears his mother reply: “Good. You lived.” Read On.

Philip Roth on the future of the novel

Friday, October 23, 2009 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Tina Brown of The Daily Beast asks Philip Roth about the future of the novel:

Check out the video and let us know what you think. Are books really on their way out??

This Week on the National Book Award Blog…

Friday, July 17, 2009 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

In case you missed the earlier post on the National Book Award Blog’s summer project of blogging on each of the Fiction winners from 1950 to 2008, you can read it here.

This week: Philip Roth’s Goodbye, Columbus, the 1960 National Book Award Winner for Fiction.

The post includes reviews from Larry Dark, Patrick Rosal, Liz Rosenberg, David L. Ulin, David Unger, the other Fiction finalists from 1960, the Fiction judges from 1960, other literature news from 1960, and suggested links.

Rather Strange…But We Thought We’d Share

Thursday, June 25, 2009 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Philip Roth laugh sample on a dance track? Yep, it exists. Read more here.

Happy Anniversary Goodbye, Columbus

Wednesday, May 06, 2009 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone

The New York Times Paper Cuts Blog muses on Goodbye, Columbus on the 50th anniversary of its publication, here.

Roth & Heller in The New York Times

Thursday, February 26, 2009 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Zoe Heller’s new book, The Believers, which tells the story of a liberal Jewish family living in Greenwich Village, will be published this week by HarperCollins. The New York Times published a profile of Heller yesterday. To read the profile, visit here.

And, there’s more. The New York Times Art Beat reports on two new Philip Roth novels, The Humbling and Nemesis here.

Cartoon Book Reviews are FINALLY here!

Monday, November 10, 2008 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Have you seen Ward Sutton’s cartoon book review of Philip Roth’s Indignation? If not, be sure to check it out here