Brow Beat

What Made Philip Roth the Great American Postwar Novelist

Honoree author Philip Roth attends the 2013 PEN Literary Gala at American Museum of Natural History on April 30, 2013 in New York City.
Philip Roth in 2013.
Taylor Hill/WireImage

Philip Roth’s books are so slim next to the adjectives one might attach to them. They give off the feeling of having been epic, individually, collectively, though when next to Infinite Jest or a Pynchon, each is so tiny. His sentences were so ordinary they fooled you into thinking you might have written them yourself. Of course, they were extraordinary. (I have just put down American Pastoral, in horror at how good some are.) A pantheon of white men, I know, but we choose our past no more than our parents—which is to say somewhat, but never completely—and along with Whitman and Frost and Hemingway, he did as much as anyone to show us how simple American speech could be the basis for a literary language, one that deserves over time to become ancient.

How astonishing, a career that perfectly accompanied, was enabled by, the great postwar bildungsroman, by which the white American middle class fooled itself into thinking it was the only game in town, a universal class and the end of history, the axis of the globe, only to discover its every last prerogative draining off in the ’80s. (leaving one: race).

It is a single thing, his career (that atavistic middle-class word; kiss it goodbye) but filled, if you think about it, with a series of startling transitions. From the ingratiating and dreamy Goodbye, Columbus—a star-making meditation on young love, but also on assimilation and its limit—to the encyclopedic pornography of Portnoy’s Complaint, which famously put him at odds with American Jewry. Then, strangely, a kind of disappearance—that special kind of American disappearance, into one’s own celebrity. I may be wrong about this, but for perhaps as much as a decade and a half, after the flawless performance of The Ghost Writer, nobody would have called Roth a great, at least not automatically. Again, it’s a question of scale, with scale only ever being relative. Was he liberated by existing alongside, though slightly behind, and, in his own mind, definitively below, the exquisite egosphere (Roth’s coinage) of Saul Bellow? The egomaniac’s egomaniac, disdain sliding down the nose of the exquisitely boned face, behind which an ugly, stupid, rebarbative politics? (And I like Bellow.) He drew the heat off his younger sibling, gave him a little shade, allowing Roth to be Roth—by comparison, an ordinary egomaniac. To emerge, finally, as the—the—great American postwar novelist.

How astonishing was the mid-to-late career resurgence, born as much in the woodshed of literary solitude in Litchfield County, Connecticut, as an urge to write about the whole of the American psychosis. About Roth you could never plausibly sustain the criticism of Tom Wolfe, that American fiction writers had become navel-gazing bores, writing for one another and the coterie. The searching depth of American Pastoral’s social history, the sheer phenomenological-sociological hardness of it, stood as a fuck-you to Wolfe (I’d like to think so), just as the scene near its end, the suburban dinner party, was a smile, a nod, and the ultimate frenemy’s “thank you, fuck you” to Updike.

Could one use a little less anilingus in The Human Stain, a lot less of equating political correctness with totalitarianism in the life? (About the latter, I urge you to read Claudia Roth Pierpont’s Roth Unbound: A Writer and His Books.) Of course. But literature reads us as much as we read it. Like any American, Roth found his hypocrisies already written into the landscape. To read him is to risk being offended; not to read him is to risk being incomplete.