Sexual McCarthyism

Philip Roth’s new novel, I Married a Communist, tells the story of a radio actor and party member whose movie-actress-wife publishes a tell-all that destroys him. The question of the month in certain literary circles is: Will it be read high-mindedly, as a cautionary reconsideration of McCarthyism, or pruriently, as Roth’s counterattack on his ex-wife, actress and memoirist Claire Bloom? The reviews haven’t come out yet, but Culturebox bets on Bloom. For confirmation, see this week’s fall preview in New York magazine: “Nathan Zuckerman sits silently as another of Roth’s blue-eyed Jews is built up and destroyed, this time by a self-involved actress with a Jewish past, a demanding daughter, and a British accent. Sound familiar?”

Culturebox would like to suggest a third possibility: I Married a Communist is about both McCarthyism and Bloom (there’s a parody of her memoir in the novel that’s hilarious)–but what it’s really about is Flytrap. Or, if you prefer, sexual McCarthyism: the madness that prevails when private mistakes become daily fodder for public titillation, and are then used as political weapons to club the poor sinning bastards to death. Ira Gingold, our hero, is a passionate Communist, a troubling fact addressed by Roth with all the moral seriousness one could ask for, knowing what we know today. But what proves his undoing is not his proselytizing for the party, wrong-headed though that is. It’s his foolish marriage and adulterous affair, as exploited by an evil gossip columnist who goes on to become a United States senator.

There are many passages in this novel that are hard not to read as commentary on today’s Topic A. Until the book hits bookstores in a week or so, you’ll have to make do with this sample:

Once the human tragedy has been played out, it gets turned over to the journalists to banalize into entertainment. Perhaps it’s because the whole irrational frenzy burst through our door and no newspaper’s half-baked insinuating detail passed me by that I think of the McCarthy era as inaugurating the postwar triumph of gossip, as the beginning not just of serious politics but of serious everything as entertainment to amuse the mass audience: McCarthyism as the first postwar flowering of the American unthinking that is now everywhere.

Frankly, my dear… Culturebox is a little baffled by all the fuss being made about the long-lost pages of Anne Frank’s diary. So it turns out that a teenage Jewish girl hated her mother and sighed over her father being cruelly deprived of true love. Why should that be front-page news?

Judith Shulevitz