Michael Kimmage (Washington, DC)
In History's Grip: Philip Roth's "Newark Trilogy"
In History's Grip: Philip Roth's "Newark Trilogy"
This article is an analysis of three novels by Philip Roth (American Pastoral, I Married a Communist, and The Human Stain), not as individual works but as a trilogy. They constitute a "Newark Trilogy," because Newark, New Jersey is central to all three novels. Newark is both a place where characters grow up and live an a thematic imperative: it is where history begins for the novels' two Jewish and one African-American protagonists. Each of these protagonists escapes Newark only to find himself in the grip of powerful historical forces. They are thus reduced from powerful men to the playthings of history. In search of emancipation from the past, the heroes of the Newark Trilogy fall into history, and they do so without the protection of a well-defined personal or family history. Looked at together, the Newark Trilogy explores the will to live outside history. By explicating the failure to live outside history, the Newark Trilogy illustrates the mechanics of history itself.
Within three short years, Philip Roth published three novels, an unofficial trilogy. The first, American Pastoral appeared in 1997, followed by I Married a Communist in 1998. With The Human Stain, which came out in 2000, the trilogy was complete. The novels are tied together by many things. Each has the same narrator, Nathan Zuckerman, who is also a character in his own right. Zuckerman has appeared in many other Roth novels, though in no way do these three constitute a Zuckerman trilogy. Zuckerman is too reserved a presence in them. The three novels in question follow a similar trajectory in time, from the 1930's to the 1990's, with Zuckerman putting the pieces together in the 1990's, after the dramas are over. The set-piece events of this period – World War II, the Cold War, McCarthyism, the Vietnam War, Watergate, the impeachment of President Clinton – dovetail with the lives of the characters, such that fictional characters seem to inhabit a real historical past. But this is not historical fiction. It is not War and Peace, where one sees the past through the eyes of Napoleon as well as through his foot soldiers. In addition to having the same narrator and to being historical in bent, each of these three novels ends in personal tragedy, the loss of professional position, the loss of security, the loss of family, the loss of whatever it is that the three protagonists struggle to build up in life.
PhiN 32/2005: 16
Tragedy, though, is too generic a novelistic quality to make these three novels a trilogy.
2 Newark, New Jersey
Newark, New Jersey is anything but a generic place in American literature, and it is Newark that binds American Pastoral, I Married a Communist and The Human Stain into a trilogy. The trilogy begins in Newark and is dominated by Newark. In it, Newark is the most solid geographical and cultural point. Newark is the center from which these novels radiate, the signpost of reference in a country enamored of change, though Newark itself is hardly changeless in these books. In the "Newark trilogy," the city of Newark shapes the family that shapes the individual protagonist of each novel. The protagonists are shaped by Newark whether they wish to be or not. The details of Newark illuminate the "Newark Trilogy," Newark lore and Newark cityscapes. Nathan Zuckerman's Newark resembles the streets, pubs and people of Leopold Bloom's Dublin. In a comparison made explicit in American Pastoral, Forties Newark recalls the imagined childhood details of Marcel's Combray, the remembered details which order the mental landscape of Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time.
A conspicuous feature of contemporary Newark – not the city of Roth's imagination but the actual city in New Jersey – is its seeming isolation from history, its improbability as a Proustian locale. One sees Newark on the train from New York to Washington, DC, or from New York to Princeton, or by car on the New Jersey turnpike, and what one sees is its ugliness. It is an urban disaster, ringed by industrial detritus, exuding menace from within. It has none of the stereotypically historical attributes that a city, especially a European city, should have: no ancient buildings or institutions, no network of monuments to its own past, no famous museums or neighborhoods, no symbolic association with any period of history other than its own squalid present. Newark stands within the shadow of New York City, which, despite its status as modern metropolis, overflows with history. From Washington, DC in the South up to Boston in the North, Newark appears to stand on the least historically fertile soil in the entire East Coast. Newark's "lack of history" says more about a notion of history particular to Europe than it does about Newark per se. But even the sharpest, most sympathetic curiosity could not make Newark an obvious candidate for a self-consciously historical literary venture.
3 The "Newark Trilogy" and history's grip
Thus, the "Newark Trilogy" is remarkable for what it is on its surface. Its literary precedent is the Yoknapatawpha cycle of William Faulkner,
PhiN 32/2005: 17
which evokes a rural Mississippi mired in historical conflict and complexity. Faulkner made Mississippi into literary terrain, in part because he was from Mississippi, in part because it hadn't been done before, and in part because it was a good idea. Philip Roth was born in Newark in 1933, and this certainly explains his choice to write about Newark. It is nevertheless extraordinary that Roth is, as he said in an interview this year, "mesmerized" by Newark. "I, myself am surprised I'm so mesmerized by this place, because I left younger than any of my friends. I was sixteen or so when I went off to college, just seventeen. And I never went back. And many of my high school friends went back after college, were professionals, doctors, lawyers in Newark, hung on until they couldn't hang on there any longer and then moved to the suburbs. But close to Newark, when I lived all over." (Roth 2005) Roth now lives in Western Massachusetts, in the Berkshires, not far from where Nathaniel Hawthorne and Hermann Melville used to live. Roth has lived in New York, in Rome and in London. None of these places – fantastically rich in history though they are – exerts the mesmeric function on Roth's imagination that humble Newark does.
As a writer, Roth is in Newark's grip. After finishing the "Newark Trilogy," Roth wrote a novella, The Dying Animal, which is set in Manhattan. He quickly returned to Newark in The Plot against America, published this year. The author's photo on the novel's dust jacket has as its background a map of Newark. The protagonists of Roth's "Newark Trilogy" are not so much in Newark's grip as in history's grip, a phrase that captures the shared feeling of these novels, though it never appears in them or, to my knowledge, in any of Roth's writing. The phrase is my own, and through this phrase I wish to convey an argument about the "Newark Trilogy," another phrase of my own invention. Roth uses each part of the "Newark Trilogy" to develop something like a thesis about history. The thesis begins with history perceived as trauma, history as disruption or assault, history as the force that destabilizes and destroys. The vindictive power of history has many forms. It might be a congressional investigating committee. It might be the violence of left-wing radicals or a distant war that indirectly transforms life in the peaceful homeland; it might be the whim of academic political correctness or a global ideological movement like communism. Sometimes, history's abrasive grip is very subtle: the expectations one generation has for the next, for example, the dreams parents instill in their children – the dream of assimilation that leads to a dangerous adult confusion. History's power resides in its sudden strike, a strike that is entirely democratic. It can touch anyone. The epigraph to American Pastoral is a cryptic line of poetry by William Carlos Williams, "the rare occurrence of the expected." (Williams 1986: 107) The rare occurrence of tragedy is what we should all expect from history.
The "Newark trilogy" rests on three claims about history. The first is history's malevolent force. The second is that postwar America is an experiment in the evasion of history. America offers the seductive promise that history can be escaped, and at no time was this promise more widespread and believable
PhiN 32/2005: 18
(to Americans) than in the years between 1945 and the late 1960's, between the Second World War and the Vietnam War, the "thirty glorious years," as they are called in France. If history is destruction, America suggests that it can also be security and stability and, with luck, prosperity. If history is malevolent, postwar America held out the prospect that history could be sweet and rewarding, all that is contained in the simplest meaning of the title, American Pastoral. Where can a poor immigrant family go but up in America? In its promise of good fortune, America is offering a dangerous illusion, and the three protagonists of the "Newark Trilogy" remake themselves in the image of a benign history. They share the illusion that they can live for the future without fitting themselves and their families into the past, the illusion that they can be what they wish to be, whatever new creation they choose out of the bottomless American possibilities. One protagonist is born black and lives as a white man. Another is born to Jewish poverty in Newark and makes a living pretending to be Abraham Lincoln. A third is born Jewish but is known as the Swede. This Nordic hero's mastery of American success is so complete that his background disappears from his name and his physical appearance.
This is the third claim that the "Newark trilogy" makes about history. Those who try to escape it are punished with even greater zeal by the moody gods of history. My argument as a whole centers around Newark. In these novels, Newark is history. It is personal history for the protagonists who are born and grow up there. It is this history these characters mock when, as each of them does, they leave Newark, leaving behind its poverty, its shabbiness, its lack of magnificent possibility. Leaving Newark is the Leitmotiv of their adult lives, and each protagonist leaves Newark in at least two ways. They use their work to escape the city, moving either to Manhattan, to Western Massachusetts or to the affluent New Jersey suburbs. And they escape the family patterns of Newark by marrying outside of clan and city. Romantic glamour for these male protagonists is the "foreign" woman, a Hollywood star in one case, a white woman in another and a woman who is not Jewish in the third. The father's generation is rooted in Newark; it is a generation that is married to the city. The fathers define themselves as the city defines them. The sons know the contours of a much wider world. Yet the Newark-bound fathers are in some ways better prepared for the storms of history. They benefit from the strength of the familiar and the habitual, from their intimacy with local limits. They are products of the Great Depression rather than of postwar prosperity. They carry the labels of race and ethnicity and are not self-made or self-invented. The sons choose metamorphosis, metamorphosis being the English-language title of the story by "a sit-down comic named Franz Kafka," in Roth's adoring phrase. (Roth 1978: 21) Metamorphosis, for the characters who undergo it, temps history to squeeze them even tighter in its grip.
As a writer, Roth arrived at the "Newark Trilogy" and its vision of history. He had his first literary success with the precocious novella, Goodbye, Columbus, which he published in 1959, at the age of twenty-six.
PhiN 32/2005: 19
In Goodbye, Columbus Roth showed mature talent as a satirist. He excelled as a lyric observer of the Jewish middle class en route to the suburbs. With candor and originality, Roth captured the psychosexual dilemmas, the sociology and the language of this milieu. Goodbye, Columbus provoked the consternation of rabbis and Jewish leaders seeking more positive representations of an assimilating Jewish people, but the satiric flashes in Goodbye, Columbus were only a mild beginning. Roth achieved notoriety and celebrity at once with Portnoy's Complaint, a novel so famous for eroding taboos that it remains a cultural monument of the madcap 1960's. In Portnoy's Complaint, masturbation and oral sex are the novel subjects, the exhilarating new objects of an American writer's literary talent. Or perhaps the main subject of Portnoy's Complaint is the neurotic psyche of Alexander Portnoy, as he unburdens himself to his analyst, Dr. Spielvogel. Portnoy and Spielvogel may well walk out of a Jewish joke and onto the pages of a novel, but they don't walk out of Jewish history. Behind the scandalous surface of Portnoy's Complaint is a rich comic sensibility. And behind this sensibility – for those interested in Roth's later work – there is an abiding interest in the family life of Newark, New Jersey. The middle-class Portnoy family does not live in a nameless suburb. They could only live in Newark, but the Portnoys live in the moment, on the cusp of becoming Americans, far from history's grip.1
4 Patrimony, fathers and sons
In 1988, Roth returned to the actual Newark with his autobiography, The Facts. Roth wrote yet again on Newark in a non-fiction book, Patrimony: A True Story, published in 1991. Patrimony is the story of Hermann Roth, Philip Roth's father. Patrimony is also a skeleton key to the "Newark Trilogy," which belongs to the same decade of creative work. It is about Hermann Roth's death, his growing ill and dying, as seen by his son, Philip. The book also documents Hermann Roth's life in history, which is nothing other than his life in Newark. Hermann Roth's passionate, almost obsessive embrace of history gives him courage in the face of death. This is a casual observation in Patrimony, which is not a book with an argument, a casual observation that will haunt the later novels. History is more Hermann Roth's religion than Judaism. "Being a Jew for him hadn't had much to do with formal worship," Philip Roth explains in Patrimony, "and like most of the first-generation American fathers in our neighborhood, he visited the nearby synagogue only on the High Holidays and, when it was necessary, as a mourner. At home there were really no rituals that he observed." (Roth 1991: 189) Jewish ritual could not compete with "the hypnotic hold that the mundane destiny of an ordinary immigrant family seemed still to have on him in his eighty-seventh year." (Roth 1991: 190) The Newark stories are, as Roth writes, his father's "Deuteronomy. The history of his Israel his sacred text." (Roth 1991: 190) In a phone conversation with a friend, Roth recounts driving with his father "'across poor, poor, poor Newark. He knows every street corner.
PhiN 32/2005: 20
Where buildings are destroyed, he remembers the buildings that were there. You musn't forget anything – that's the inscription on his coat of arms. To be alive, to him, is to be made of memory – to him if a man's not made of memory, he's made of nothing.'" (Roth 1991: 127)
For Hermann Roth, history takes over the function of ritual, offering comfort in moments of grief. Such is the beneficence of a long life in Newark. When Hermann Roth receives news of his brain tumor, he plunges into history for solace: "On and on his mind, in its habitual way, working to detach him from the agonizing isolation of a man at the edge of oblivion and to connect his brain tumor to a larger history, to place his suffering in a context where he was no longer someone alone with an affliction but a member of a clan whose trials he knew and accepted and had no choice but to make." (Roth 1991: 70-71) Here Roth compares himself unfavorably with his father: "I was not so lucky. I couldn't find any context to diminish my forebodings." (Roth 1991: 71) Driving through a devastated Newark, Hermann Roth sees his connection to the past more than he sees the city's devastation (or his own physical devastation): "it was not a scene conducive to alleviating the gloom of three people on their way to consult with a brain surgeon, and yet the rest of the way to the hospital, my father forgot the encounter awaiting him there and, instead, reminisced in his random fashion about who had lived and worked where when he was a boy before the First World War and on these streets immigrant Jews and their families were doing what they could do to survive and flourish." (Roth 1991: 110)
The hero of Patrimony is less the father or the son than the father's voice, the arbiter of family history, the chronicler of Newark history, the enforcer of moral order and rectitude, as learned in the turn-of-the-century ambiance of an immigrant Jewish family. "He taught me the vernacular," Roth writes of his father in Patrimony. "He was the vernacular, unpoetic and expressive and point-blank, with all the vernacular's glaring limitations and all its durable force." (Roth 1991: 181) Could it be the limitations that consecrate the force? Roth writes as he does because of his father's voice. Surely this is an uncommon confession for a famous writer to make. Usually it is other writers who shape a literary voice and not an uneducated parent, who spent his life selling insurance in northern New Jersey.
Roth published Patrimony at the age of fifty-eight. It marks a turning point in his literary work: between Patrimony and the "Newark Trilogy" one sees an important change in Roth's focus. His two most famous books prior to the "Newark Trilogy" were Goodbye, Columbus and Portnoy's Complaint, works in which the consciousness of the sons – often in tension with the fathers – is the only consciousness. By the time Roth arrived at the "Newark Trilogy," the narrative consciousness has split between father and son, or father and daughter, or father and stepdaughter. Or the son is himself a father and must look in two generational directions. In American Pastoral, the father's voice speaks through two generations. There is the father who is Hermann Roth's age.
PhiN 32/2005: 21
Lou Levov's voice is similar to Hermann Roth's in inflection, in moral timber and in its constant reference to Newark. And there is his son, who is of Philip Roth's generation. The Swede's life is inundated with fathership, with the obsessions of the father who has in some way failed. Like Philip Roth, who couldn't "find any context to diminish my forebodings" when his father was ill, the protagonist of American Pastoral, Seymour Levov, can't find any context to diminish his foreboding and brooding over lost family happiness. He lives at too great a distance from his own history – too far from Newark – and he has no other context.
5 Jewish patrinomy
Jewish themes run through Patrimony, without necessarily drawing attention to themselves. Emanating out from Newark, Jewish themes reinforce the historical consciousness of the "Newark Trilogy." The historical relevance of Newark lies in its city streets, its buildings, its socio-economic make-up, its connection to the larger political destiny of the nation. These are the structures, but Newark's abiding relevance is human, a matter of people and groups, which for Hermann Roth – no less than for his son Philip – is a Jewish relevance. Hermann Roth's framework is not especially religious, but it is unequivocally Jewish. Philip Roth writes in Patrimony that his father "had his own particular Jewish style of insisting on his absolutely totalistic notions of what is good and what is right " (Roth 1991: 127) The son chafes against these totalistic notions, and Roth's early fiction is a record of rebellion against rigid moral codes. The Jewish focus of the father is a crucial element of the son's patrimony. Perhaps the Jewish focus is implicit and unavoidable when one adopts the father's vernacular voice. With Philip Roth, the Jewish focus is not tantamount to a focus on Newark; it is more abstract and general; and it is yet another aspect of Roth's immersion in history. Roth is immersed in history in the way that he is because he is a Jew.2
Appropriately, then, history's grip is a notion with a Jewish resonance in Roth's fiction. One might tie it melodramatically to the sinister year of his birth. He was born in 1933, when, with Hitler's rise to power, the greatest catastrophe in Jewish history was set in motion. After 1933, Europe's Jews fell increasingly into Hitler's grip. The Holocaust is the disaster looming behind the notion of history's grip in the "Newark Trilogy."
One can assess the influence of the Holocaust on Philip Roth from his non-fiction writing. In the fiction, the influence can be inferred, though the gift of inference is hardly necessary in Roth's latest novel, The Plot against America, in which America falls prey to anti-Semitic fascism. The novel's seven-year-old protagonist, born in 1933 and suffering from "perpetual fear," is named Philip Roth.3 The real Philip Roth was isolated from the Holocaust by an accident of geography, not by his own imagination. Growing up, he absorbed the fears of the Jewish community in Newark.
PhiN 32/2005: 22
They reappear in fictional form on the first page of American Pastoral. During World War II, he "followed the battle maps and the front-line reports in the evening paper," as he later wrote. (Roth 1978: 10) The disparity between Roth's relative comfort and security in Newark and the plight of the European Jews was cause for reflection. Or, as Roth has written, "the disparity between the tragic dimension of Jewish life in Europe and the actualities of our daily life as Jews in New Jersey was something that I had to puzzle over myself
" (Roth 1978: 125-126) The Holocaust confirmed an age-old definition of the Jew, according to Roth, with which he had "been surrounded from birth," a definition "of such stunning emotional and historical proportions that I couldn't but be enveloped by it, contrary though it was to my own experience. This was the definition of the Jew as sufferer, the Jew as an object of ridicule, disgust, scorn, contempt, derision, of every heinous form of persecution and brutality, including murder." (Roth 1978: 125) This definition is evidence enough of history's malevolent power.
The particularities of Roth's historical moment made him into a certain kind of Jewish writer. His fiction addresses often in very indirect ways "the Jews and the hard facts of history," to borrow a phrase from an essay by Roth titled "Some New Jewish Stereotypes." Much of this essay is concerned with Leon Uris and publication of his Zionist novel, Exodus, which presented history on the grand scale to a mass readership. (Uris 1958) Roth's fiction had often elicited the criticism that its author was a self-hating Jew, because his Jewish characters were not as heroic or not as tragic as they could be. Uris created Jewish characters that had heroically built a state, a nation in the wilderness, and Uris was not at all embarrassed about being celebratory. For Roth, it was exactly the wrong literary response to the Holocaust, "a crime to which there is no adequate human response, no grief, no compassion, no vengeance that is sufficient," and, one might add, no happy ending after 1945. Celebratory fiction inhibits critical thought, for Roth, and "I am inclined to wonder," he wrote about Exodus in "Some New Jewish Stereotypes, "if the burden it is working to remove from the nation's consciousness is nothing less than the memory of the holocaust itself, the murder of six million Jews, in all its raw, senseless, fiendish horror." (Roth 1978: 301-302) Note the connection here between the novel and the nation's consciousness, the assumption that literature serves a civic purpose.
One does better, Roth wrote in a 1974 essay titled "Imagining Jews," to detail the mundane lives of Jews, Jews undistorted by high heroism or low victimhood. Roth rejected the delirious project of Stephen Deadalus in James Joyce's Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, asking for less art and more history from literature: "As I see it, the task of Jewish novelists has not been to go forth to forge in the smithy of his soul the uncreated conscience of his race, but to find inspiration in a conscience that has been created and undone a hundred times over in this century alone." (Roth 1978: 190) Better a historical framework for a people so evidently in history's grip. Better the history of a community than "the writer's loss of community – of what is outside himself – as subject," which Roth considered characteristic of modern fiction.
PhiN 32/2005: 23
"To a writer the community is, properly, both subject and audience," Roth wrote in an essay on American fiction. (Roth 1978: 187) And to Roth the community is, inevitably, Newark, New Jersey
6 American Pastoral
The "Newark Trilogy" begins with American Pastoral. It is the novel in which history's grip is most dramatically articulated, and the patterns of American Pastoral are the patterns that suffuse the next two installments of the "Newark Trilogy."
The narrator of American Pastoral is Nathan Zuckerman. To his own surprise, he discovers the marvelous and unwritten history of his childhood Newark. He will continue discovering Newark (with Roth behind him) for some one thousand pages. American Pastoral is a complicated novel in its chronology: Zuckerman himself has withdrawn from history as much as he can; having grown up in Newark and had a life of adventures (and many romantic misadventures), he now lives in rural isolation. He has recently undergone prostate surgery, which has made him impotent. In 1985, Zuckerman accidentally runs into a high school athletic hero, known in World War II-era Newark as the Swede, at a baseball game in New York. In 1995, Zuckerman receives a letter from the Swede with news of family difficulties, which the Swede wishes to discuss. The two go to dinner, exchange pleasantries, and Zuckerman leaves convinced that the handsome, successful Swede has lived a life of the boring convention. No one could be less in history's grip, from this seasoned novelist's point of view, than the Swede.
A few months later, Zuckerman goes to his forty-fifth high school reunion in Newark, where he meets Jerry Levov, the Swede's brother, and learns the story of the Swede's family. In 1968, the Swede's daughter, Merry explodes a bomb in her hometown of Old Rimrock, New Jersey. This premeditated attack, which kills a man, follows from her membership in the Weatherman, a radical leftist group. Merry lives for some five years underground, until her father finds her destitute and mentally unstable in a Newark slum. She has become a Jain and renounced all worldly ambition. Several years later the Swede and his wife, Dawn, divorce. The family that the Swede had fostered with such consuming passion dissolves. Of the Swede's later life one knows only that he remarries and has three sons. In American Pastoral, history repeats itself not as farce and not as tragedy but as normalcy. American Pastoral is Zuckerman's effort to imagine the awesome convolutions of the Swede's life.
PhiN 32/2005: 24
7 I Married a Communist
I Married a Communist has a similar narrative structure, a similar interplay between Zuckerman and the city of Newark. Again, Zuckerman learns the fate of childhood friends and acquaintances, coming ever closer to the inner life of Newark residents. As a high school student, Zuckerman had studied with Murray Ringold, a charismatic English teacher, whose brother, Ira, was a celebrity of the American Left. Ira was a communist, who began to do Abraham Lincoln impersonations after World War II and enjoyed considerable success as a radio actor in New York. Both Murray and Ira are born to extreme poverty, and through celebrity Ira escapes Newark poverty. He marries into the wealthy Greenwich Village household of Eve Frame, a silent screen star of the 1920's. The young Zuckerman has a chance meeting with Ira, who then takes the boy under his wing. Ira initiates Nathan into the wonders of left-wing politics – Paul Robeson in person, Howard Fast novels, a Detroit-based communist saint named Johnny O'Day. In college, Zuckerman graduates from the adolescent progressivism inspired by Ira, growing away from the Left and away from his boyhood hero.
American Pastoral and I Married a Communist have a neat political symmetry between them. History wears left-wing dress in American Pastoral. In it, the culture of the radical 1960's unfairly assaults the bourgeois Levov family. The novel's pathos inclines towards the father, towards the Swede, and centers on his loss of his family. The villain is a disturbed, irrational daughter (poorly raised by a deceitful, selfish mother). Merry Levov is incited to crime by the irrational extremes of the anti-war Left, to which Roth himself proudly belonged during the Vietnam War. In the verdict of Norman Podhoretz, Commentary magazine's editor-at-large and a neoconservative intellectual who admired American Pastoral, as did many literary critics on the Right, Roth did not have the courage to continue in a neoconservative direction after American Pastoral. The left-leaning literary community would demand retribution. With this in mind, Roth did his own penance by writing I Married a Communist, which "amounts to a reassuring declaration of solidarity with his old comrades within the liberal establishment," according to Podhoretz. (Podhoretz 1998: 42) In I Married a Communist, the irrational, destructive force of history comes from the political Right. I Married a Communist expresses in its title the sensationalist, pseudo-confessional tone of the McCarthyite era that began in 1950 and ended in 1954. McCarthyism wrecks the lives of Ira and Murray Ringold, as Zuckerman learns. Its corruption even leaks into Zuckerman's life. He was denied a scholarship to study in England because of his teenage flirtation with the radical Left.4
Compared to Zuckerman, though, Murray and Ira are in the vice grip of history. Murray, who is in his early nineties at the novel's end, stayed in Newark his whole life.
PhiN 32/2005: 25
He even stays through the disastrous decline of Newark's educational system, which reflects the city's general descent into violence and criminality. Murray could have moved to the suburbs but he stays in the city, a decision that threatens the physical safety of his wife. This is after Murray had lost his job because of his brother's communist party affiliation. Like Alger Hiss, who went to work for a vacuum cleaner company after being jailed for communist espionage, Murray sells vacuum cleaners door-to-door in Newark. Only, unlike Alger Hiss, Murray is innocent. Murray is a close as a character comes to heroism in the "Newark Trilogy." He is a hero in two respects. He preserves his commitment to a high literary culture, studying Shakespeare into the last months of his life – the dedicated teacher who keeps on teaching himself. Murray is a hero as well in his attachment to a beleaguered Newark. Unlike the Swede and unlike Murray's brother, Ira, Murray's refusal to leave a dying city is proof of his strength and perseverance. He tells his family's story in I Married a Communist much like Hermann Roth tells and retells the Roth family story in Patrimony. Ira and the Swede suffer for the refusal to live in Newark.
Ira's self-destruction is spectacular. He is a Marxist who cannot endure the contradictions of his own life. He is married to a Jew pretending to be a WASP. Eve Frame lives for the high culture and high society of Manhattan. Her pretensions are symbolized by her harp-playing daughter Sylphid – daughters being to the "Newark Trilogy" largely what daughters are in King Lear, an incitement to downfall. Ira practices almost the opposite pretension. He is as communist pretending to be a successful New Yorker, a man of disguises, whose professional success begins with the pretense that he is Abraham Lincoln. Eventually, disguise and pretense collide in I Married a Communist. Eve Frame colludes with the McCarthyite authorities, exposing Ira as a communist and publishing a book titled I Married a Communist. It has been likened by some readers of the novel to the unflattering memoir by Roth's own ex-wife, Claire Bloom, Leaving a Doll's House, published in 1996. Ira and Eve are both publicly humiliated in the McCarthyite frenzy of the time, and both are destroyed by their humiliation. Ira loses his sanity, ending his life like King Lear, wandering blind, alone and confused. It is left to Ira's brother, Murray, the teacher and student of Shakespeare, to tell Ira's story. Zuckerman in turn will structure the novel around his own adolescence and the tragedy of Ira Ringold that was unknown to him then.
8 The Human Stain
If Shakespeare is a governing spirit in I Married a Communist, classical Greek drama is a referent for The Human Stain.5 Greek literature is an obvious referent, for the protagonist of The Human Stain, Coleman Silk, is a professor of classics at Athena College, a fictional liberal arts college in Western Massachusetts.
PhiN 32/2005: 26
Coleman is fleet of foot and clever of mind, a kind of late twentieth-century Odysseus. But Coleman doesn't have Odysseus's luck: Coleman can only sail away from his home. Coleman is more like an inverted Oedipus. Oedipus is blind to the family relationships that obtain in his life, blind until the tragic course of his drama opens his eyes to them. Coleman blinds himself to the truth of his life, with consequences that are not high tragedy – no kingdom collapses in The Human Stain – but that are still disastrous. Coleman is born in Newark, but he is not born to a Jewish family, the expected social unit of a Philip Roth novel. His family is African-American, his father a well-educated man who should have been a doctor but, because of racism, must work as a porter on a train. Much like Murray Ringold, Coleman's brother spends his entire life in Newark, as does Coleman's sister. Coleman travels a different path. His escape from Newark is the most radical of the three escapes in the "Newark Trilogy." To escape from racism, Coleman passes as white, pretending in fact to be Jewish. His wife is Jewish, and his family lives under the lie that it is a normal Jewish family.
At the outset of The Human Stain, history's grip could not be lighter or more ridiculous. Professor Silk, former Dean of Faculty at Athena College, is accused of racism by some of his black students, who think of him as a white man. The accusation is absurd. When it is not dismissed as absurd by the college community, however, Coleman takes offense and resigns from the college. It is the summer of 1998 – this is a refrain in the novel – it is the summer of 1998, the summer of the Lewinsky affair, a summer so frivolous (in retrospect) that it genuinely belongs to another century. In its lust for gossip and its pleasure in knocking down enemies, the politically correct academic world is more or less the same – we are made to think – as the Republican congress out to impeach Clinton. History has its national and its local dimensions: the sanctimony of Athena College belongs to the same world – or, rather, to the same country – as the Starr report. Roth spares neither Right nor Left from his critical gaze. What begins with folly grows more serious when Coleman's wife dies. Coleman holds his fall from grace responsible for her death. After his wife's death, Coleman begins a love affair with Fawnia Farley, a cleaning woman at the college. The contrast between Fawnia and Coleman is fundamental to the novel. Fawnia has been in the grip of disaster since childhood; Coleman falls late in life into history's grip. This brings the two of them together.
Coleman is a professional success who is drawn into the orbit of social failures. With Fawnia the deceit, or lack thereof, is unknowable. She is a troubled woman with a terrible past. She tells Coleman a story of childhood sexual abuse, followed by years of vagabondage. Her sad biography culminates in marriage to the psychopathic Lester Farley, a Vietnam veteran bristling with violence. Their children die in a fire. Fawnia is a portrait in devastation, a human Newark deprived of stability, hope and trust. The irony is that she comes from a wealthy New England family, while Coleman, who is above her in the Athena social hierarchy, comes from a middle-class black family in Newark.
PhiN 32/2005: 27
Lester Farley verges on a literary or cinematic cliché, the Vietnam veteran psychologically undone by the war. Questions of originality notwithstanding, Lester's rage drives forward the plot of The Human Stain no less than Achilles's rage drives The Iliad. Fawnia and Coleman enjoy a curious romance. Fawnia is too cynical for romantic enthusiasm and Coleman too old, but against her mistrust and his age a romance springs up nevertheless. Yet Fawnia seems preoccupied by some outside danger. The danger manifests itself in Lester, who forces Coleman and Fawnia into a car accident, in which they both die. Before his death, Coleman is alienated from his family. His romance with Fawnia estranges him from his children, much as he had estranged himself from his own family. Only with Coleman it was the conscious choice to live as a white man that separated him from his mother, brother and sister. Coleman's children never learn the secret of his (and their) origins.
Fawnia is doomed by family history; Lester the veteran is doomed by the military history of his country. And Coleman is doomed by a twist in academic fashion, by a new development in the history of morals. Political correctness sanctions and unleashes all the aggression that a college community naturally has for a powerful, self-assured and – by the 1990's – old-fashioned professor. Education, learning, refinement, family, social position – none of this is any protection against the tidal waves of history, which had been largely invisible to Coleman Silk, a scholar of tragedy, until they washed over him.
9 Falling into history
Looked at together, the three protagonists of the "Newark Trilogy" – the Swede, Ira Ringold and Coleman Silk – suggest an almost mathematical equation of cause and effect. The greater the distance traveled from Newark, and the greater the speed of the journey, the greater the havoc that history wreaks in an individual life. The three protagonists are intelligent, handsome, physically strong, charismatic men. The Swede and Ira are wholly unrelated to the neurotic Woody Allen-esque hero of Portnoy's Complaint or to the soft-spoken anti-hero of Goodbye, Columbus. Nor are they related to the hyper-intellectual Philip Roth of Operation Shylock, an observer more than an actor, or to the libidinous, countercultural Mickey Sabbath of Sabbath's Theater. The "Newark Trilogy" protagonists are the most robust of Philip Roth's creations, anomalies among the sickly heroes of twentieth-century literature. Their vigor allows Roth to dramatize their precipitous fall from success to failure, from self-creation to self-destruction. For before the eventual failure, each is a professional success, one in academia, the other in business and the third in show business. Their success mirrors America's moment of postwar self-celebration, the years after 1945 when each of the protagonists was coming of age.
PhiN 32/2005: 28
Roth's characters are not metaphors of American political and cultural life, not like Settembrini in Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain, a metaphor for nationalism, or Hans Castorp, a metaphor for the ailing European bourgeoisie. Roth's characters to do not stand for anything so particular, but neither are they mere individuals. They are American citizens; each serves as a soldier in World War II: their fate partakes of the civic fate. Newark's urban collapse combines with the personal collapse of these three Newark-born characters.
The appetite for the future, displayed by each protagonist in the "Newark Trilogy," begins as a civic or national agenda. In American Pastoral, Zuckerman writes a speech for his high school reunion that he never delivers. It outlines the civic metamorphosis that will become the personal metamorphosis of the Swede, Coleman and Ira. "Let's remember the energy," Zuckerman begins. "Our class started school six months after the unconditional surrender of the Japanese, during the greatest moment of collective inebriation in American history. And the upsurge of energy was contagious. Nothing around us was lifeless. Sacrifice and constraint were over. The Depression had disappeared. Everything was in motion. The lid was off. Americans were to start over again, en masse, everyone in it together the clock of history reset and a whole people's aims limited no longer by the past – there was the neighborhood, the communal determination that we, the children, should escape poverty, ignorance, disease, social injury and intimidation – escape, above all, insignificance." (Roth 1997: 41) This is only a partial citation. In the full citation, the word escape appears even more insistently. It sets the thematic foundation for the escape from Newark that is at the core of the "Newark Trilogy."
A burst of postwar self-confidence engenders a desire to escape. Parents want their children to escape Newark, to escape immigrant limits and to escape into America. Only, in the end, theirs is an escape into confusion. They do not escape intact. Jewish and black become, in the American alchemy, faceless. Coleman, Ira and the Swede modulate into the figments of their own ambition, detaching themselves joyously from history, as did the country at large after 1945. They reset the clock, preferring to live on energy and the optimistic expectation of future success. When the crises come, as they do in droves in these novels, characters that have separated themselves from history are left without the cunning or the context to understand their dilemmas. Experts at exploiting the future, they have lost a living relationship to the past. They cannot use the past to calm their suffering, as Hermann Roth did when he found out about his brain tumor.
In its civic sense, the "Newark Trilogy" has a cousin in The Great Gatsby. Jay Gatz remakes himself into the great Gatsby, leaving behind any ethnic particularism, any connection to geography or family.
PhiN 32/2005: 29
He marries himself to his future. The novel's iconic image is of Gatsby staring across the Long Island Sound at a green light, intoxicated by some future possibility. At issue is Gatsby's childish belief that the past can be repeated. Fitzgerald's characters don't need history to wreck their lives. They wreck their lives as if self-destruction were their life's work. Here Fitzgerald and Roth part ways, but both are writers of civic narrative and civic memory. In the epic closing pages of The Great Gatsby, Gatsby's misplaced optimism refers back to the bona fide optimism of seventeenth-century Dutch sailors setting their eyes on American soil for the first time. The novel's famous final sentence completes this maritime and retrospective imagery: "And so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past." (Fitzgerald 1945: 191)
Roth offers no such poetic summation in the "Newark Trilogy." He leaves the civic meaning of his novels implicit to the novels themselves. Fitzgerald set The Great Gatsby in Long Island, a distant suburb of New York, and Roth sets his trilogy in Newark, another distant suburb of New York City. In both cases, the modesty, the distance from cosmopolitan Manhattan, is deceptive. What begins in Newark has national implications: in the "Newark Trilogy," Roth's intent is to tell nothing less than a national story. He said as much in a 2004 interview, in which he talked at length about Newark: "the place has come to represent for me, I suppose, modern times in America, and the fate of Newark has been the fate of many other cities tremendously productive industrial towns, had a hardworking, fully employed working class the city worked, these cities worked. And the people worked in a different sense. And that's all been destroyed." (Roth 2005) Roth's interview fuses national history with the history of Newark and both Newark and the nation with the needs of an American readership. The civic sentiment behind this endeavor is anachronistic in a self-proclaimed era of globalization and, indeed, of globalized literature.
As for Newark, Roth continues, "the riots of the late sixties in Newark just ended the real life in the city over the years I began to go back to visit by myself, walk around. When it became too dangerous to walk by myself I'd go with somebody, and I was – as I say, I was mesmerized by the destruction of this place that . . . I'm mesmerized by the change in my own lifetime and trying to depict it; I'm just trying to resurrect it in its different stages. I think that there may be something of some interest there for other Americans." (Roth 2005)
History and literature enjoy a complicated relationship with one another. Of this the "Newark Trilogy" is itself exquisite proof. Never was there a decade in which Americans felt themselves to be less in history's grip than the 1990's.
PhiN 32/2005: 30
The Cold War was finally over. Something of the energy that Nathan Zuckerman attributed to the years after World War II could be felt once again, especially the entrepreneurial energy. Bill Clinton seemed free from the historical pathologies of the Cold War and in congenial touch with the future. With Clinton in the White House, one could believe that the "clock of history" has yet again been reset, and "a whole people's aims [were] limited no longer by the past." Perhaps it was this that made so many young people like Bill Clinton. Yet it was not Clintonian exuberance, irrational or otherwise, that preoccupied Roth in the "Newark Trilogy." It was the devastation that could come in the wake of exuberance. This tendency towards tragedy and loss traced "the rare occurrence of the expected," to repeat the ominous epigraph of American Pastoral. At a time of historical weightlessness, Philip Roth wrote three substantial novels to show the extent of history's grip. The perplexing fact about the "Newark Trilogy," insofar as history and literature are concerned, is that The Human Stain was published in 2000. The trilogy came to an end a year before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. By delving into the past, Roth had anticipated the mood of the future.
Bloom, Claire (1996): Leaving a Doll's House: A Memoir. Boston: Little, Brown.
Fitzgerald, F. Scott (1945): The Great Gatsby. New York: Bantam.
Howe, Irving (1972): "Philip Roth Reconsidered," in Commentary 54 (6): 68–77.
Iannone, Carol (1997): "An American Tragedy," in Commentary 104 (2): 54–58.
Kozodoy, Neal (1991): "His Father's Son," in Commentary 91 (5): 52–55.
Podhoretz, Norman (1998): "The Adventures of Philip Roth," in Commentary 106 (4): 35–43.
Podhoretz, Norman (2000): "Bellow at 85, Roth at 67," in Commentary 110 (1): 25–36.
Roth, Philip (1978): Reading Myself and Others. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux.
Roth, Philip (1991): Patrimony: A True Story. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Roth, Philip (1997): American Pastoral. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Roth, Philip (1998): I Married a Communist. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Roth, Philip (2000): The Human Stain. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Roth, Philip (2004): The Plot against America. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
PhiN 32/2005: 31
Roth, Philip (2005): "I Married a Communist Interview," [http://www.houghtonmifflinbooks.com/authors/roth/conversation.shtml]. Date last visited: March 31, 2005.
Uris, Leon (1958): Exodus. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.
Williams, William Carlos (1986): The Collected Poems, Volume II 1939–1962. New York: New Directions.
1 In 1972, Irving Howe published an extended critique of Philip Roth, accusing him of neglecting larger literary ambitions, such as the serious handling of history and politics. Writing about Portnoy's Complaint, Howe observed that "the Patimkins [a middle-class family in Portnoy's Complaint] are easily placed . . . but the elements of what is new is grossly manipulated. Their history is invoked for the passing of adverse judgment, at least part of which seems to be warranted, but their history is not allowed to emerge so as to make them understandable as human beings. Their vulgarity is put on blazing display but little or nothing that might complicate that vulgarity is shown: little of the weight of their past, whether sustaining or sentimental; nothing of the Jewish mania for culture, whether honorable or foolish; nothing of that fearful self-consciousness which the events of the mid-twentieth-century thrust upon the Patimkins of this world." (Howe 1972: 70) Howe lamented the effect of Portnoy's Complaint on Jewish readers: "younger Jews weary or bored with all the talk about their heritage have taken the book [Portnoy's Complaint] as a signal for 'letting go' of both their past and perhaps themselves, a guide to swinging in good conscience or better yet, without troubling about conscience." (Howe 1972: 76)
2 In a review of Patrimony, Neal Kozodoy describes Roth as "a famous retriever of the past, here summoning with microscopic care both his father's life and his own pervasive role in that life and its final agony." (Kozodoy 1991: 53).
5 The "Newark Trilogy" is rich in references to great books. American Pastoral echoes Milton's Paradise Lost in its section headings – "Paradise Remembered," "The Fall," "Paradise Lost."