Philip Roth's Rude Truth: The Art of Immaturity

Philip Roth's Rude Truth: The Art of Immaturity

by Ross Posnock


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Has anyone ever worked harder and longer at being immature than Philip Roth? The novelist himself pointed out the paradox, saying that after establishing a reputation for maturity with two earnest novels, he "worked hard and long and diligently" to be frivolous—an effort that resulted in the notoriously immature Portnoy's Complaint (1969). Three-and-a-half decades and more than twenty books later, Roth is still at his serious "pursuit of the unserious." But his art of immaturity has itself matured, developing surprising links with two traditions of immaturity—an American one that includes Emerson, Melville, and Henry James, and a late twentieth-century Eastern European one that developed in reaction to totalitarianism. In Philip Roth's Rude Truth—one of the first major studies of Roth's career as a whole—Ross Posnock examines Roth's "mature immaturity" in all its depth and richness.

Philip Roth's Rude Truth will force readers to reconsider the narrow categories into which Roth has often been slotted—laureate of Newark, New Jersey; junior partner in the firm Salinger, Bellow, Mailer, and Malamud; Jewish-American regionalist. In dramatic contrast to these caricatures, the Roth who emerges from Posnock's readable and intellectually vibrant study is a great cosmopolitan in the tradition of Henry James and Milan Kundera.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691138435
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 08/17/2008
Pages: 328
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Ross Posnock is Professor of English at Columbia University, where he also teaches American Studies. His books include The Trial of Curiosity: Henry James, William James, and the Challenge of Modernity; Color and Culture: Black Writers and the Making of the Modern Intellectual; and The Cambridge Companion to Ralph Ellison.

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Philip Roth's Rude Truth

The Art of Immaturity

Chapter One



Decrying the "sanitized" eulogy he has just heard delivered over the coffin of his friend the novelist Nathan Zuckerman, who has suddenly died during heart surgery, an unidentified mourner, bearded and middle-aged, gives an impromptu countereulogy on the sidewalk:

He made it easy for them. Just went in there and died. This is a death we can all feel good about. Not like cancer.... The cancer deaths are horrifying. That's what I would have figured him for. Wouldn't you? Where was the rawness and the mess? Where was the embarrassment and the shame? Shame in this guy operated always. Here is a writer who broke taboos, fucked around, indiscreet, stepped outside that stuff deliberately, and they bury him like Neil Simon-Simonize our filthy, self-afflicted Zuck! Hegel's unhappy consciousness out under the guise of sentiment and love! This unsatisfiable, suspect, quarrelsome novelist, this ego driven to its furthest extremes, ups and presents them with a palatable death-and the feeling police, the grammar police, they give him a palatable funeral with all the horseshit and the mythmaking! ... I can't get over it. He's not even going torot in the ground, this guy who was made for it. This insidious, unregenerate defiler, this irritant in the Jewish bloodstream, making people uncomfortable and angry by looking with a mirror up his own asshole, really despised by a lot of smart people, offensive to every possible lobby, and they put him away, decontaminated, deloused-suddenly he's Abe Lincoln and Chaim Weizmann in one! Could this be what he wanted, this kosherization, this stenchlessness? I really had him down for cancer, the works. (ITLITL 217-19)

Reading this, we know where we are: the outrage, wit, excess, cadence, and above all the voice-the careening, over-the-top verbal intoxication that takes on a lyric life of its own, one of near giddy pleasure in its enraged vulgar onslaught; we are in a Philip Roth novel, in this case The Counterlife. Verbal energy overturns boundaries as Neil Simon consorts with Hegel, Zuckerman invades the collective body-"an irritant in the Jewish bloodstream"-while turning his own inside out-"looking with a mirror up his own asshole"-and words are set in motion: the bland laugh machine Neil Simon morphs into a verb-"Simonize"- that has the impossible task to polish and domesticate "our filthy, self-afflicted Zuck," Nathan's last name now a pungent monosyllable.

If the voice can be torrential and perfervid, it can also, even in its excess, be spare. Here is a vintage moment of the latter mode, a small aria to a man whom Roth calls "my kind of Jew": "Worldly negativity. Seductive verbosity. Intellectual venery. The hatred. The lying. The distrust. The this-worldliness. The truthfulness. The intelligence. The malice. The comedy. The endurance. The acting. The injury. The impairment" (OS 394). The voice is by now unmistakable, as indelible as Hemingway's or Faulkner's.

I have quoted the countereulogy for the pleasure of hearing Roth, but also because it can serve as his miniature self-portrait-albeit an inflamed and burlesqued one-which makes immediately vivid his investment in provoking genteel sensibilities, in embodying the unpalatable. Roth's infamous mocking of bourgeois pieties is crucial to our sense of his literary identity and presence in contemporary culture. In fact, this is to say hardly more than that he is a modern writer; épater le bourgeois is modernism's reflex. Yet who has made it so fertile a subject, a source of literary history, of comedy and pathos, who has made it more his own than American literature's bad boy? Portnoy's Complaint was the first novel to show a Jew "going wild in public"-"the last thing in the world a Jew is supposed to do"-and the sheer gusto of Roth's portrait of a "'cunt crazy' masturbator of the respectable classes" caused a publishing sensation in 1969, and helped define the era's raucous impiety (RMO 258, 256). Thanks to its assault on adulthood and restraint, the novel made the words Roth and immaturity seem a natural pairing. But the immaturity of Portnoy's Complaint-exorbitant, raw, regressive-is only one mode of immaturity, whose subtler incarnations have engaged not only Philip Roth but any number of writers, thinkers, and painters as they all explore less defended ways of being in the world.

As my preface suggests, Milan Kundera is one of Roth's chief interlocutors in this book, one of the figures whom I set in conversation with a novelist whose cosmopolitanism has for too long been hidden under the familiar rubric of Jewish American. Early on, conventional wisdom cast Roth in "the role of the rebellious Jewish son" and junior partner, born in Newark in 1933, of the firm Salinger, Bellow, Mailer, and Malamud (Wisse 317). While this grouping is more than the "journalistic cliché; almost wholly devoid of content" Roth dismissed in 1981 (RMO 104), it has by now outlived its initial usefulness. For one thing, Roth's near half-century career of remarkable, indeed relentless, productivity-since 1959 twenty-two works of fiction and five of nonfiction-has left such early and parochial rubrics in the dustbin of literary history. And he has gone far from home (if only to return in The Plot Against America, which seven-year-old Philip Roth narrates). For thirteen years Roth lived in London half the year; for five years in the seventies he was a regular visitor to Prague, where he "took a little crash course in political repression," became close with several writers, including Kundera, and was pivotal in publishing the English translations of some of the leading works of postwar Eastern European literature (RMO 140). Roth's own books have a large international audience (they have been translated into over thirty languages, and in fall 2004 two were best sellers in France). All of these experiences, including his permanent return to the United States in 1989, which renewed his sense of the country and became a catalyst for his American trilogy (1997-2000), have significantly enlarged and deepened his art.

Roth's cosmopolitanism has created a body of work that is best understood in an international context-American, European, and Eastern European. The main effort of this book is to construct these overlapping frames of reference, using them as a resource for literary criticism of the fiction, and making vivid Roth's creative engagement with a rich lineage of intellectual history. Threading together my multiple contexts is the subject of immaturity. As a fertile homegrown resistance to the renunciations required by adulthood, immaturity began to appear as such in the American renaissance of the mid-nineteenth century as part of romanticism's celebration of the child and of spontaneity. This open, unguarded sensibility, earlier discounted by Enlightenment scientism and rationalism but in touch with Renaissance humanism, would come to inspire one current of international modernism, including the work of a number of European and Eastern European novelists and thinkers. While the separate branches of this romantic and modernist lineage are well known, their convergence upon the subject of immaturity and in the work of a single capacious novelist remains to be explored.

By redescribing this distinct current in modern thought, I hope to enlarge and clarify our understanding of a writer confined for too long to rather befuddled received opinion that sees him (and his narrators) as "uneasily poised between the bourgeois Jewish family that hemmed him in and the Christian cold shoulder that nudged him out ... it was never clear where he thought he belonged or to what he owed allegiance" (Wisse 318). This response, with its trace of exasperation at Roth's elusiveness, is a perennial one to the cosmopolitan evasion of fixed identity.

Roth is actively defying the trajectory of most major twentieth-century American novelists, whether earlier figures such as Faulkner and Hemingway or his original cohort of Bellow, Mailer, Malamud. Critics generally agree that the later work of all these writers marks a falling off from their prime. But the preponderance of major novels in Roth's career, by my estimate, leans toward the later decades: Portnoy's Complaint (1969), The Counterlife (1986), Sabbath's Theater (1995), and The Human Stain (2000) comprise the first rank, closely followed by The Ghost Writer (1979), The Anatomy Lesson (1983), Operation Shylock (1993), American Pastoral (1997), and The Dying Animal (2001). In Roth's surge in the nineties and into the next century, with The Plot Against America (2004) and Everyman (2006), he has published eleven books, nine of which were novels, and five of which were distinguished works. This is unprecedented in American letters of the twentieth century. Late Roth is now beginning to deserve comparison with what is usually regarded as the summit of late turns of novelistic genius- Henry James's major phase at the start of the century.

It is tempting to see the sketch above as charting a triumphal march from Jewish Newark to the WASP throne of literary greatness-a hymn to cultural assimilation by a gradual sacrifice or bleaching out of ethnicity. Indeed, Roth has said of his Jewish cohort, each of us "found his own means of transcending the immediate parochialism of his Jewish background" (RMO 108). In fact, Roth's own means of transcendence was not the familiar route of assimilation hinted at above but rather something closer to its opposite-what I will be calling "appropriation," a word borrowed from Emerson, who borrowed it from Goethe, and a word also crucial to Ralph Ellison, who understood all of culture as an "appropriation game" (Collected 511). A writer Roth much admires, Ellison, in using the term, builds upon the thinking of a mentor, the philosopher Alain Locke, and upon W.E.B. DuBois. Henry James, another Roth favorite, also figures here, for without using the word appropriation he makes vivid the spirit of its practice when he says "to be an American is a great preparation for culture ... we can deal freely with forms of civilization not our own, can pick and choose and ... claim our property wherever we find it" (Letters 1:77). To rewrite assimilation as appropriation banishes the whole melodrama of assimilation whereby the outsider is required to cast off old (ethnic) ways for new and submit to a culture assumed to possess a stable, homogenous identity; this sacrificial process affirms a hierarchy of insider/outsider, native/alien grounded in blood and origin.

By contrast, all that appropriation requires is a good library. It houses what DuBois famously called "the kingdom of culture" where the color line of Jim Crow America does not obtain. "I sit with Shakespeare and he winces not," as DuBois memorably noted in 1903 (365). Aesthetic bliss escapes, however temporarily, the long arm of history. The formulation tentatively floated above-Roth's career as "the triumphal march" to WASP literary greatness-is deflated when we recall the importance of the Newark Public Library for the young Philip Roth. Raised in a lower-middle-class Jewish neighborhood, in a house that contained few books, Roth treasured the library as the arena for claiming his public property. He begins his career in effect by honoring this kingdom and its importance as a haven for ethnic and racial outsiders. Goodbye, Columbus is partly about a lower-middle-class Jewish librarian in Newark's grand public library and a poor black boy who haunts the place and is in love with Gauguin's paintings. The librarian briefly befriends the boy, helps him gain access to the art books, and urges him to get a library card. The story ends with the librarian, after a bitter breakup with a girl from a wealthy Jewish family, staring into another library, observing a wall of books needing to be shelved. The "kingdom of culture," free of racial and class barriers, beckons him back to a life among books.

One of the objects in the public domain Roth appropriated was Henry James. Roth tell us in his memoir The Facts that The Portrait of a Lady "had been a virtual handbook during the early drafts of Letting Go," his first novel (157). Far from concealing this inspiration, Roth builds it into the plot: his Jewish graduate student protagonist is writing a dissertation on James. So perhaps I was too hasty in having discarded my prior formulation; let me amend it: one of the reasons Philip Roth acquires James's mantle is not because of an act of cultural passing in which Roth appears in WASP-face, but rather because Roth's literary sensibility is distinctly cosmopolitan in James's appropriative sense.

Greek for "world citizen," cosmopolitan is rarely a neutral term and often pejorative because it usually involves a refusal to revere local or national authority and a desire to uphold multiple affiliations. In an academic culture obsessed by identity, the cosmopolitan has the distinction of being grounded instead in the practice of appropriation: insouciance regarding claims of ownership and the drawing of boundaries becomes the basis of a cosmopolitan relation to culture. To achieve it liberates culture from the proprietary grip of a single group; possessiveness-of the dismal and familiar "jazz is a black thing, Shakespeare a white" sort-is set aside for sampling, fixity for mobility. Cosmopolites refuse to know their place. And cosmopolitanism, which challenges the sense of entitlement to cultural riches assumed to repose in privileged birth or inheritance, is, in theory at least, what democratic America embodies. Recall that James said "to be an American is a great preparation for culture." Here is Ellison's version, from his famous evocation at the start of Shadow and Act of his freewheeling Oklahoma youth in the 1920s. The state's blacks "were often charged by exasperated white Texans with 'not knowing their place,'" and Ellison and his friends proved them right (Collected 50). As self-styled "renaissance" men, he and his friends sampled literature, art, and music high and low; "we were 'boys,' members of a wild, free, outlaw tribe which transcended the category of race. Rather we were Americans" (52). Here is Roth's version: "I would think that much of the exuberance with which I and others of my generation of Jewish children seized our opportunities after the war-that wonderful feeling that one was entitled to no less than anyone else, that one could do anything and could be excluded from nothing-came from our belief in the boundlessness of the democracy in which we lived and to which we belonged" (F 123).

Belonging, then, does not conflict with this sense of cosmopolitanism as appropriation; indeed Roth is a great regionalist, the laureate of New Jersey who has made his old Newark neighborhoods a living presence in many of his books. He has said that "the great American writers are regionalists. It's in the American grain" (qtd. Alvarez 17). Since the motor of Roth's sensibility is contradiction (Kierkegaard's very Emersonian sentiment "the whole content of my being shrieks in contradiction against itself" is an epigraph to Operation Shylock), the regional and cosmopolitan interact-the one containing the other-in productive ferment.

Ethnicity is also within the American grain. Jewishness for Roth was "wholly secularized" in his words, but remained the source of a distinct cultural style: of satiric wit, contentiousness, and irreverence, all useful attributes for playing the American game of appropriation. Roth speaks of his graduate school days at the University of Chicago in the mid-fifties as a time when he and his friends did not submit to a sacrificial ritual of assimilation but rather brought to their confrontation with high literary culture a "playful confidence" in their Jewishness as an "intellectual resource. It was also a defense against overrefinement, a counterweight to the intimidating power of Henry James and literary good taste generally, whose 'civilizing' function was variously tempting to clever ambitious city boys" at ease with their own casual coarseness. He and his friends would refer to Isabel Archer as a "shiksa," and "much scrupulosity was expended determining if Osmond wasn't really a Jew" (F 123, 115). In Letting Go and later in The Ghost Writer Roth, as we will see in chapter 3, reveals a subtler understanding of James as not simply the paragon of refinement but an interrogator of its limits, not only a target but an ally.


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Table of Contents

Preface xi

Acknowledgments xix

List of Abbreviations xxi

Chapter 1: Introduction: Roth Antagonistes 1

Chapter 2: Immaturity: A Genealogy 39

Chapter 3: Ancestors and Relatives: The Game of Appropriation and the Sacrifice of Assimilation 88

Chapter 4: "A very slippery subject": The Counterlife as Pivot 125

Chapter 5: Letting Go, or How to Lead a Stupid Life: Sabbath's Nakedness 155

Chapter 6: Being Game in The Human Stain 193

Chapter 7: The Two Philips 236

Coda: "The stars are indispensable" 260

Notes 267

Works Cited 287

Index 295

What People are Saying About This

Harold Bloom

Ross Posnock's meditation upon Philip Roth is the best literary criticism yet afforded to our foremost novelist since Faulkner. Roth emerges from this study as a major American novelist in a literary tradition that goes back to Emerson and Henry James. Posnock clearly defines the writer whose heartening motto is: 'We are here to be insulted.' One of Roth's favorite adages is Heine's: 'There is a God and his name is Aristophanes.'
Harold Bloom, literary critic

Michael Gilmore

Philip Roth is arguably one of the two or three most important writers in America today, and Ross Posnock's book is a superlative achievement fully worthy of its subject. It is a masterful work of literary and cultural criticism. I loved reading it, and will return to it frequently for exhilaration and enlightenment. I have not the slightest doubt that many other readers will share my enthusiasm.
Michael Gilmore, Brandeis University

From the Publisher

"Far and away the most astute and nuanced account we have or likely to have for many years to come, of Roth's emergence as an unrivalled master of irony and irreverence—a rhapsodic genius most alive when provoking moralists and liberationists alike. No critic has made a better case for Roth's place among the classic writers of the nation and the world."—Eric J. Sundquist, University of California, Los Angeles


Far and away the most astute and nuanced account we have or likely to have for many years to come, of Roth's emergence as an unrivalled master of irony and irreverence—a rhapsodic genius most alive when provoking moralists and liberationists alike. No critic has made a better case for Roth's place among the classic writers of the nation and the world.
Eric J. Sundquist, University of California, Los Angeles

Morris Dickstein

Ross Posnock takes a familiar figure, on whom rivers of ink have been spilt, and completely reorients the critical context for an understanding of his work. His book gives us a powerful and original perspective on Roth, placing him in the mainstream of American literature from Emerson and Whitman to Ellison. Rightly emphasizing his later books, Posnock sees him as an antinomian writer, ruthless, outrageous, mind-bendingly complex yet deeply consistent.
Morris Dickstein, Graduate Center of the City University of New York

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