To be published by the Library of America officially establishes an author as a classic: it is an honor almost akin to winning the Nobel Prize. Of eighty-seven authors currently published in the Library of America series, all but one is dead. That one is Philip Roth. This fact alone says a great deal about Roth’s place in the American pléiade.
The first two of a projected eight volumes of Roth’s works have just appeared, the first containing Goodbye, Columbus, five short stories, and Letting Go, and the second, When She Was Good, Portnoy’s Complaint, Our Gang, and The Breast. These various pieces of fiction date from 1958, when Roth was twenty-five years old, until 1972, when he was still under forty—not juvenilia, therefore, but still the work of a young man. Major novels like Operation Shylock, Sabbath’s Theater, American Pastoral, and The Plot Against America were still far in the future.
One notices in many Library of America editions that either a certain amount of dross has to be included for the whole to qualify as a real “Collected Works,” or else the editors have to omit the really second-rate stuff, as was done rather ruthlessly in the case of James Baldwin. This has not been necessary with Roth. On the contrary: the general high level of all the work is startling. A lot of us read these books in early youth, especially Portnoy’s Complaint, Roth’s great succès de scandale, and remember them with enormous pleasure, but so many books that once attracted readers with their modernity, their shock power, or their perfect pitch for the telling details of their particular time date all too easily. But looking back at Roth’s books from this very different historical moment one finds that all of them, even those most rooted in the events of their time, work at least as well now as they ever did.
Goodbye, Columbus, a novella of a mere hundred pages, is as perfect in its way as Daisy Miller or The Great Gatsby. In theme it looks directly back to Gatsby and, further, to Great Expectations: Roth, who studied English at the University of Chicago graduate school, has always been very conscious of literary history and form and fictional tradition. The envious, striving outsider is a classic protagonist, but Roth made this stock character memorable by localizing him within a place and social milieu that were still fairly exotic in serious fiction. The grubby Newark where Neil Klugman’s aunt and uncle live and toil in immigrant ignominy, the promised land of Short Hills, where the Patimkins live out a poor man’s fantasy of luxury and bounty: appealing to our senses of taste and smell as well as sight and hearing, Roth made both places perfectly immediate and true.
Once I’d driven out of Newark, past Irvington and the packed-in tangle of railroad cross- ings, switchmen shacks, lumberyards, Dairy Queens, and used-car lots, the night grew cooler. It was, in fact, as though the hundred and eighty feet that the suburbs rose in altitude above Newark brought one closer to heaven, for the sun itself became bigger, lower, and rounder, and soon I was driving past long lawns which seemed to be twirling water on themselves, and past houses where no one sat on stoops, where lights were on but no windows open, for those inside, refusing to share the very texture of life with those of us outside, regulated with a dial the amounts of moisture that were allowed access to their skin… . I thought of my Aunt Gladys and Uncle Max sharing a Mounds bar in the cindery darkness of their alley, on beach chairs, each cool breeze sweet to them as the promise of afterlife, and after a while I rolled onto the gravel roads of the small park where Brenda was playing tennis. Inside my glove compartment it was as though the map of The City Streets of Newark had metamorphosed into crickets, for those mile-long tarry streets did not exist for me any longer, and the night noises sounded loud as the blood whacking at my temples.
What a gift! This is prose as evocative as a Chopin nocturne. Neil doesn’t just see the Patimkins’ wealth; he feels it through every pore. His description of their refrigerator—not the modern kitchen one, but the old one they keep in the basement—conveys a beatific vision of a long-lost but instantly recognized Garden of Eden.
I opened the door of the old refrigerator; it was not empty. No longer did it hold butter, eggs, herring in cream sauce, ginger ale, tuna fish salad, an occasional corsage—rather it was heaped with fruit, shelves swelled with it, every color, every texture, and hidden within, every kind of pit. There were greengage plums, black plums, red plums, apricots, nectarines, peaches, long horns of grapes, black, yellow, red, and cherries, cherries flowing out of boxes and staining everything scarlet. And there were melons—cantaloupes and honeydews—and on the top shelf, half of a huge watermelon, a thin sheet of wax paper clinging to its bare red face like a wet lip. Oh Patimkin! Fruit grew in their refrigerator and sporting goods dropped from their trees!
“Since when do Jewish people live in Short Hills?” asks Neil’s Aunt Gladys. “They couldn’t be real Jews believe me.” Aunt Gladys, the first in a long line of magnificently awful Roth women, her husband Uncle Max, and the Patimkin parents combine to illustrate a wrenching social shift that was taking place at the time. All, presumably, are first-generation American Jews whose parents emigrated from Russia or Eastern Europe around the turn of the twentieth century. The Klugmans, who have not yet left the working class (though one realizes that the ambitious Neil will eventually make that step), maintain their old-country mannerisms, values, and prejudices: the Patimkins, who have made a fortune in bathroom sinks, have unmoored themselves from their origins and are floating a little nervously up into the American social ether. They send their daughter to Radcliffe, while Neil attended the Newark extension of Rutgers University, where the students “worked evenings in Bamberger’s and Kresge’s and … used the commission they’d earned pushing ladies out-of-season shoes to pay their laboratory fees.”
But the Patimkins have never entirely relaxed into their wealth: it turns out that they keep a tucked-away store-room full of the dusty, battered furniture they brought with them from Newark, before they purchased the brand-new décor to go with their brand-new, suburban life. They save these old things superstitiously, as though the good fairy who arbitrarily bestowed their fortune might just as arbitrarily take everything away again and send them back to their grubby ghetto, where they will need the worn-out sofas and tables.
The short story “Eli, the Fanatic” looks at a rather similar situation: the conflict between assimilated and unassimilated Jews in a formerly all-gentile New Jersey suburb. The unobtrusive, Americanized Jews living in Woodenton are comically appalled when a Hasidic Yeshiva opens in one of the town’s decayed old mansions. How is this going to look to the goyim? Might it not ruin the precious, hard-won amity currently existing between the town’s Jews and gentiles? The Jewish community selects Eli Peck, a young Jewish lawyer, to gently pressure the Hasidim into being just a little less Jewish—or at the very least for one particular old man to stop parading around town in an especially offensive Talmudic hat. “Eli, you’re dealing with fanatics. Do they display common sense? Talking a dead language, that makes sense? Making a big thing out of suffering, so you’re going oy-oy-oy all your life, that’s common sense?” Eli is irritated by their meddling but understands it.
The night was soft and starry, and he began to drive the streets of Woodenton. Square cool windows, apricot-colored, were all one could see beyond the long lawns that fronted the homes of the townsmen. The stars polished the permanent baggage carriers atop the station wagons in the driveways. He drove slowly, up, down, around. Only his tires could be heard taking the gentle curves in the road.
What peace. What incredible peace. Have children ever been so safe in their beds? Parents—Eli wondered—so full in their stomachs? Water so warm in its boilers? Never. Never in Rome, never in Greece. Never even did walled cities have it so good! No wonder then they would keep things just as they were. Here, after all, were peace and safety—what civilization had been working toward for centuries. For all his jerkiness, that was all Ted Heller was asking for, peace and safety. It was what his parents had asked for in the Bronx, and his grandparents in Poland, and theirs in Russia and Austria, or wherever else they’d fled to or from… . And now they had it—the world was at last a place for families, even Jewish families.
The schizophrenic condition of being both a Jew and an American (more schizophrenic, clearly, than being Irish and American, or Italian and American) is confronted in the brilliant story “Defender of the Faith,” set at a U.S. Army base in Missouri toward the end of World War II. The narrator, Sergeant Nathan Marx, is victimized over and over again by a too-clever-by-half Private, Sheldon Grossbart, a master of emotional blackmail, who talks the hapless Nathan into giving him any number of unfair special privileges on the grounds of religious solidarity.
When “Defender of the Faith” appeared in The New Yorker in 1958 it created a brou-ha-ha among Jewish organizations and rabbis, who called the story anti-Semitic and condemned the author with that old cliché “self-hating Jew.” Only the understandable sensitivity of Jews during that post-war moment can explain such an obtuse reaction. “Self-hating,” no; “self-critical,” like all good fiction, yes, of course. This would be even more true of Portnoy’s Complaint. Like all really passionate outbursts against an author’s own background and upbringing—Samuel Butler’s The Way of All Flesh and Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street come to mind—it is the unmistakable note of grudging love that rounds it out and makes it real. Without it, the books would be purely horrifying and not, as they are, sublimely funny.
Letting Go, published in 1962, was Roth’s shot at a big, consciously Jamesian novel: looked at retrospectively, together with Roth’s entire body of work, it seems stylistically anomalous. It would be wrong to call it Roth’s most personal book, for many of his fictions are so personal as to verge on the solipsistic, teasing the reader with the thinness of the barriers between life and art. But while later books dance artfully along these barriers, there is a rawness to the material in Letting Go that strikes everyone who tackles it: “painful” is the word that is most frequently uttered when the book is mentioned.
Based to some extent, apparently, on Roth’s youthful marriage and divorce, Letting Go is carefully structured, perhaps too carefully so, along the lines of Henry James’s later novels like The Golden Bowl and The Wings of the Dove. In case any reader is too obtuse to pick up on the Jamesian motif, the author provides a clue at the very beginning, with the narrator secreting a letter from his dead mother between the pages of Portrait of a Lady.
The novel’s central consciousness is divided between two characters, Paul Herz and Gabe Wallach, who meet while at graduate school in the early 1950s. Their personalities are not dissimilar but their circumstances are completely opposed. Paul, in marrying a gentile woman, has been cast adrift. Both his own parents and those of Libby, his wife, have disowned the young couple (“My obligations, Mrs. Herz,” Libby’s father writes her, “are to sons and daughters, family and Church, Christ and country, and not to Jewish housewives in Detroit”), and Libby has proved too physically and emotionally fragile to hold a job. Paul has a bitter struggle to finish his graduate work and support himself and his wife at the same time. Gabe is single and financially well-off, apparently free as the breeze but in fact still trying to escape the iron grip of his widowed father’s love and the memory of his mother’s equally complex affections.
I would argue that if any one subject dominates Roth’s work, it is not the war between the sexes, or even the Jewish-American condition, but the struggle between parents and children; it can be no accident that the most powerful and immediately believable scenes in his work confront this topic. The first section of Letting Go, written when Roth was still under thirty, contains a five-page scene between Gabe and his father that is as good as anything he has ever written. Here is an excerpt (Dr. Wallach, it should be mentioned, is a high-end New York City dentist and has lured his visiting son, twenty-five years old, into the dental chair):
“Dad, this cleaning isn’t necessary. Everything is fine here. I’m not going anywhere. I haven’t any plans. I’ll be here until New Year’s Eve.”
“I thought New Year’s Day.”
“New Year’s Day, right.” I tried to maintain a composed expression even while I remembered how we had tussled over dates driving back from Idlewild with his wallet-sized calendar between us.
“So you can relax. Take it easy. There’s no need to clean my teeth right now. I’m sure they’re fine.”
“Have you had a chance lately to look at your last molar?” He measured off a good size fish with two hands. “Tartar,” he said. “Let me be the dentist and you be the patient.”
“Fine,” I said, smiling. “If I’m the patient, I think I’ve really had enough for today.”
“You don’t care that your teeth are all furry?”
“I have to make a phone call.”
“How long will this take, ten more minutes? You’re going to have it done you might as well have it done right.”
“Oh Christ, can’t they clean teeth in Iowa?”
A hand rose up as though to find its target on my cheek. It swiped at the overhead lamp, which buzzed and died. My father reached behind him to unbutton his white jacket. “You’ve got an important phone call, go make it.” He walked to the window, as his fingers, traveling down his back, broke off a button that rattled to the floor. “Go call Alaska, call Bangkok. Go ask the operator for the furthest place she can get you—then go dial it.” His foot slammed down on the button, producing absolute quiet in the room.
“What do you expect me to do,” I began, softly. “Sit in this chair the rest of my life?”
This is a scene that will play itself out, in one form or another, over and over in Roth’s fiction: the parent’s—particularly the Jewish parent’s—love portrayed as so devouring and destructive that the adult child comes to understand and even define love only in those extreme, and terrible, terms. The dialogue between Gabe and his father, unending and unresolvable, ultimately has a life of its own independent of the rest of Letting Go, melting as it does into the extended parent-child motif that runs through Roth’s fiction. The novel’s core, though, is the four-way relationship between Paul, Libby, Gabe, and Gabe’s girlfriend Martha; Libby, in particular, is one of Roth’s great creations.
Libby has clear links with Isabel Archer, but the high standards and inchoate yearnings and ambitions that give Isabel her moral value appear in the fey Libby in an ugly and distorted form. “Perhaps the truth was,” Gabe muses, “that Libby was a girl with desires nobody could satisfy; perhaps they weren’t even ‘desires’ but the manifestation of some cellular disorder, some physiochemical imbalance that fated her to a life of agonized yearning in our particular world of flora and fauna, amongst our breed of humanity.” A scene in which she and Paul dine in a restaurant says much about her, and about the marriage:
“I wonder if it’s not a theory at all, but a failure of my own mind. That’s always a possibility.”
“You’re too hard on that mind of yours.”
“Oh, darling Paul, I know what I am. Well—truly—you can probably understand what it’s like to be Desdemona, can’t you, as well as Othello?”
“That question has a slightly drunken lilt to it.”
“Are these silly questions?”
But his response had apparently not been quick enough, gentle enough, loving enough, reassuring enough; apparently not, for her brow was instantly furrowed. “I think,” he said, gentle, loving, reassuring, “I missed what you started to say at the beginning …”
“Aren’t you listening?” she asked, directly.
“I said it’s easier to identify with Shakespeare’s—Are you really at all interested in this?”
“Yes.” He had no right to disappoint her tonight. “We used to talk about Shakespeare all the time.”
Libby, a great narcissist, is in love with the idea of intellect but is unable to focus her brain on anything outside of herself; she is in love with the idea of spirituality but incapable of even the modest level of self-abnegation it requires. (“Are we religious or aren’t we?” she asks Paul, who has to gently remind her that “we’re not one person. We’re two.”) Her passionate, blundering attempts to cultivate these qualities accentuate her natural feverishness and frailty until she takes on the persona, as Gabe notes, of “the child saint about to be lifted onto the cross. There was even in her very flat-chestedness something that lent her an ethereal and martyred air.” Her life with the pained and dutiful Paul becomes a mutual torture, to the point where Gabe is unable to discern whether Libby is Paul’s misfortune, or Paul Libby’s.
There is a noticeable cruelty in Roth’s descriptions of Libby that will not surprise long-time readers of his fiction. This cruelty comes, one suspects, from his simply being always the smartest person in every room, able to see through everyone and everything. Whether such an ability is a blessing or a curse in life is debatable; that it gives his work a constant and titillating sense of danger is undeniable, for it is displayed in swift, surprising, often gratuitous asides: “The girl behind the counter smiled her girl-behind-the-counter smile.” Or take, for instance, his description of Faye Silberman, the widow with whom Gabe’s lonely father finally joins forces.
All the desperation I had been witness to during the long afternoon [says Gabe] suddenly centered for me on this hungover, handsome, game, miserable woman, who had been beauty-parlored nearly to death. Her hair floated and glowed like a sky, and her face had been lifted and was too tight; her nails, ten roses, were long enough to sink deep, to hang on, tenaciously. She was heartbreaking, finally, but I wasn’t in the mood.
Needless to say, Roth has often been castigated as a misogynist, with Libby Herz as exhibit A, Lucy Nelson in When She Was Good exhibit B, and Sophie Portnoy exhibit C. Misogyny, or sexism, are greatly overused and oversimplified terms in modern American culture; it would be safer, and surely more correct, to say that Roth sees through women at a slightly more frequent rate than he sees through men—or perhaps that he is slightly less tolerant of their little ruses. Lucy is of course a monster: But is she a monster by nature, or has her father, or her world, made her one?
When She Was Good constituted, at the time, a major imaginative leap for Roth: Not only were all the characters gentile, they were Midwesterners, and his success in portraying them was proof that his ear for language and feeling for social nuance was unerring, and was not confined to his home territory of urban, northeastern Jews. When She Was Good is famous as a portrait of a terrible and destructive woman, but it is even more effective, I think, as the description of a fatally limited culture and world view. Roth’s achievement was to express these limitations through the community’s language, presenting us with the sad conclusion that a people with only a stilted and inadequate dialect at their disposal can only think stilted and inadequate thoughts, and have stilted and inadequate dreams. It was not a new trick—Flaubert’s Charles Bovary is one famous example of the same technique—but Roth did it unusually well. Here, for example, are the meditations of the young Roy Bassart after having discussed life with a Swede he met in the service at the end of World War II:
To be sure, he didn’t swallow everything this Lingelbach said that was critical of America. Sergeant Hickey was perfectly right: anybody could make destructive criticisms, anybody could just go ahead and start knocking things left and right all day long; to Sergeant Hickey’s way of thinking, if you didn’t have something constructive to say, then maybe you shouldn’t say anything at all, especially if you happened to be wearing the uniform and eating the chow and drawing the pay check of the country you thought was so terrible and awful. Roy agreed that Sergeant Hickey was perfectly right: there were some guys in the world who would never be satisfied, even if you fed them all day long with a silver spoon, but still you had to give this guy from Boston (not Lingelbach, who was an outright loner and odd-ball, but Bellwood) a lot of credit for his arguments about the way they did things in Sweden. Roy agreed right down the line with Sergeant Hickey and his Uncle Julian about Communism, but as Bellwood said, Socialism was as different from Communism as day from night. And Sweden wasn’t even that socialistic.
Thus Roy’s brain, a perfectly serviceable one to begin with, is fatally diminished through lack of exercise or exposure to challenging ideas. Conformity, in fact, is one of the most highly-regarded traits in Roy’s world (as indeed it still is in ours), although people then as now paid hypocritical lip-service to nonconformity; reflecting the mores of his culture, Roy considers himself “Not a loner, but an individualist, and there’s a big difference.” Roy has vaguely artistic leanings, but he is discouraged from pursuing them wholeheartedly by his businessman uncle: “It wasn’t the security angle he wanted Roy to think about before going off to some la-dee-da art school; it was the sissy angle.”
The hapless Roy has to marry Lucy in a shotgun ceremony neither of them is too thrilled about, and they set out on their disastrous life together. Lucy’s progress from a high-strung girl to a full-scale paranoiac is narrated with an instinct for the excruciating detail. From an early age, Lucy’s “sense of the presence of those whom she could hardly abide was painfully, horribly acute. Just to hear someone she hated yawn could drive her to distraction if she happened to be in an angry mood.” Out of rage against her alcoholic father and passive mother Lucy has become a master of cutting off her own nose to spite her face. “In order to survive, she had set her will against theirs long ago—it was the battle of her adolescence, but it was over now. And she had won. She could do whatever in the world she wanted—even marry someone she secretly despised.”
Lucy is truly dreadful, but she is, like Libby, also poignant. The juxtaposition of her miserable life—marriage to a man she despises, inclusion in a family she hates, no college education, no life of the mind, to which she had once aspired—with that of her best friend Ellie Sowerby, who moves to Chicago, becomes a fashion model, and tentatively enters the new liberal, intellectual culture that has begun to burgeon in the late 1950s, is surprisingly touching. And while her contempt for Roy is cruel, it is also, as the reader realizes with shame, impossible not to share.
Roth’s early fiction brought him widespread recognition as a young author of great gifts and accomplishments and several important prizes and grants including the Paris Review Aga Khan Prize. But it was only with Portnoy’s Complaint (1969) that he became more than just a very talented writer: it might be said that like James MacNeill Whistler he hurled a pot of paint in the public’s face, or more properly knocked the public over with an earsplitting scream of rage.
Portnoy’s Complaint was so very much a product of the late Sixties that it is important to take a retrospective look at it from our own era and see whether it still works. It was not only a huge bestseller at the time but a cultural phenomenon, quite independently of its literary merits or lack thereof, and most of those who read it back then did so simply because it was the dirtiest book that had ever appeared under the imprint of a respectable publisher. People heard about all the jerking off—the scene with the liver was especially notorious—and bought the book for no other reason. Also, in its guise of a patient’s rant to his analyst, it rode the wave of fashion, in the spirit of Woody Allen’s movies and the comic routines of Nichols and May.
The interesting news is that Portnoy’s Complaint is not merely as good as it seemed at the time: It is much, much better. What looked then like the breakout testament of an angry young man is now revealed as one of the most artful, literarily savvy, stunningly skillful novels in American history. The ranting and the filth grab the reader’s attention, but it is the subversive humor, the withering skepticism, and the bitter self-knowledge that keep us reading.
Portnoy’s Complaint is of course very Jewish—as Portnoy cries, “Doctor Spielvogel, this is my life, my only life, and I’m living it in the middle of a Jewish joke!”—but like all great novels, it also strikes an undeniably universal note. “Good Christ, a Jewish man with parents alive is a fifteen-year-old boy, and will remain a fifteen-year-old boy till they die!” Well, yes—but is this really so specifically Jewish? And isn’t Sophie Portnoy not only the quintessential Jewish mother but also simply the quintessential mother, as she patrols “the six rooms of our apartment the way a guerilla army moves across its own countryside—there’s not a single closet or drawer of mine whose contents she hasn’t a photographic sense of.” (One is reminded of James Thurber—a goy, incidentally—and his famous “Woman and House” cartoon.) And what about Sophie’s habit of rubbing her son’s nose in the manifold virtues and successes of his boyhood friend, Seymour Schmuck?
“Well, I met his mother on the street today, and she told me that Seymour is now the biggest brain surgeon in the entire Western Hemisphere. He owns six different split-level ranch houses made all of fieldstone in Livingston, and belongs to the boards of eleven synagogues, all brand-new and designed by Marc Kugel, and last year with his wife and his two little daughters, who are so beautiful that they are already under contract to Metro, and so brilliant that they should be in college—he took them all to Europe for an eighty-million-dollar tour of seven thousand countries, some of them you never heard of, that they made them just to honor Seymour.”
Gentile mothers might not specify fieldstone in Livingston, but gentile sons and daughters will certainly be familiar with the spiel.
One of the accusations Alex levels at his parents is that they approached life with fear and trepidation, and did their best to infuse him with their own craven attitude.
We all haven’t been lucky enough to have been born Jews, you know [he berates his parents in his imagination]. So a little rachmones on the less fortunate, okay? Because I am sick and tired of goyische this and goyische that! If it’s bad it’s the goyim, if it’s good it’s the Jews! Can’t you see, my dear parents, from whose loins I somehow leaped, that such thinking is a trifle barbaric? That all you are expressing is your fear? The very first distinction I learned from you, I’m sure, was not night and day, or hot and cold, but goyische and Jewish!
Whatever its genesis (and it’s easy enough to understand why Jews in the 1950s might be fearful), this fear manifests itself in the smothering treatment the Portnoys and other parents accord their darling children. The very first sentence of the novel says it all: “She was so deeply imbedded in my consciousness that for the first year of school I seem to have believed that each of my teachers was my mother in disguise.” Her husband also envelops Alex, in his own very different manner: “In that ferocious and self-annihilating way in which so many Jewish men of his generation served their families, my father served my mother, my sister Hannah, but particularly me. Where he had been imprisoned, I would fly: that was his dream. Mine was its corollary: in my liberation would be his—from ignorance, from exploitation, from anonymity. To this day our destinies remain scrambled together in my imagination.”
The way that the pathology of this personal and even physical identification of the parent with the son (particularly the mother’s, with its inevitable sexual undertone) works itself out in Alex Portnoy’s adult life constitutes the arc of the novel. Alex, entranced by a series of alien and glamorous shikses, discovers that the more baroque his sex life becomes, the more mystified he is by just what other people mean when they talk about love. “What love?” he asks. “Is that what binds all these couples we know together—the ones who even bother to let themselves be bound? Isn’t it something more like weakness? Isn’t it rather convenience and apathy and guilt? Isn’t it rather fear and exhaustion and inertia, gutlessness plain and simple, far far more than that ‘love’ that the marriage counselors and the songwriters and the psychotherapists are forever dreaming about?” Fittingly, the novel’s climax (so to speak) comes in Israel, when he finds himself unable to get it up for that acme of Jewish womanhood, a beautiful officer in the Israeli army.
The last two books in this volume are Our Gang (1971) and The Breast (1972). The Breast, a surrealistic novella in the style of Gogol and Kafka, is amusing but much slighter than we feel we have a right to expect from Roth. Our Gang, not a novel but a political pamphlet after the manner of Swift and Defoe, holds up remarkably well considering that thirty-five years have passed and the major players in the drama Roth was mocking are all dead. The inspiration for the piece was the coincidental appearance of two items on the front page of the same newspaper: Richard Nixon’s declaration of his personal support for the rights of the unborn, and his decision to intervene to lighten the punishment of Lieutenant Calley for the murder of more than five hundred Vietnamese civilians.
But Our Gang is more than a satire on specific events and conditions; it a timeless attack on the corruption of language, possibly the best imaginative illustration (along with Orwell’s own novels) of the premises laid out in George Orwell’s famous 1946 essay, “Politics and the English Language.” “In our time,” Orwell wrote, “political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible… . Political language—and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists—is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” This was as true in 1971 as it had been in 1946. It is still true today, but surely one of history’s most memorable practitioners of the inflated style was Nixon, whose utterances when caught in some political bind or other perfectly illustrated Orwell’s contention that “when there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink,” and recalled his ridicule of dead metaphors and of words so overused by people of every ideological shade as to have lost all practical meaning (such as “democracy,” “freedom,” and “patriotism”).
Here, then, is Trick E. Dixon on the diversionary war with Denmark he is trying to sell to the electorate:
“Now, I know there are always those who would prefer that we take a weak, cowardly and dishonorable position in the face of a crisis. They of course are entitled to their opinion. I am certain, however, that the great majority of the American people will agree that the actions I have taken in the confrontation between the United States of America and the sovereign state of Denmark are indispensable to our dignity, our honor, our moral and spiritual idealism, our credibility around the world, the soundness of the economy, our greatness, our dedication to the vision of our forefathers, the human spirit, the divinely inspired dignity of man, our treaty commitments, the principles of the United Nations, and progress and peace for all people.”
And on the rights of the unborn:
“I am no Johnny-come-lately to the problem of the rights of the unborn. The simple fact of the matter, and it is in the record for all to see, is that I myself was once unborn, in the great state of California… . I was an unborn Quaker, as a matter of fact.
“And let me remind you—since it seems necessary to do so, in the face of the vicious and mindless attacks upon him—Vice President What’s-his-name was also unborn once, an unborn Greek-American, and proud to have been one. We were just talking about that this morning, how he was once an unborn Greek-American, and all that has meant to him.”
It’s fascinating to see how little has changed over the years; in the first passage, the only part that might be omitted today is the pious lip-service Tricky pays to the United Nations. Also surprisingly up-to-date is Tricky’s press conference, with its array of predictable reporters (Mr. Asslick, Mr. Daring, Mr. Respectful, Mr. Shrewd, Miss Charmin’, Mr. Practical, Mr. Catch-Me- In-a-Contradiction, Mr. Fascinated, Mr. Reasonable, and Mr. Hardnose); Tricky’s pow-wows with his various advisers (the Spiritual Coach, the Political Coach, the Legal Coach, the Military Coach, and the Highbrow Coach); and the list of scapegoats Tricky and his henchmen habitually trot out whenever there is a crisis: Hanoi, the Berrigans, the Black Panthers, and Jane Fonda. (Indeed Hanoi Jane, amazingly enough, was still being used as tar with which to blacken political opponents as recently as the 2004 presidential election.)
Revisiting these early books reminds us that Roth’s career has been a phenomenon. For close to fifty years, and with no real gaps in industry and productivity, he has been turning out work of consistently high quality. His style has changed over the years, but it has not “developed” in the traditional sense, for with the exception of Letting Go, with its awkward construction and overstuffed emotional agenda, the early books are as intricate and sophisticated as the later ones. The only living American writer who can offer him any competition at all is John Updike. One hopes that Updike will be the next Library of America author and that, like Roth, he will receive this homage while he is still alive.
- Novels and Stories, 1959–1962, by Philip Roth; The Library of America, 913 pages, $35; Novels, 1967–1972, by Philip Roth; The Library of America, 672 pages, $35. Go back to the text.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 24 Number 2, on page 14
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