Philip Roth on How He Was Shaped by Gentile American Writers
June 12, 2017, 04:00 PM
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From The New Yorker, an interesting self-portrait of growing up Jewish and American in mid-Century America by Philip Roth, author of Portnoy’s Complaint and American Pastoral. Roth is one of the survivors from a generation formed before the Sixties and before the subsequent rise of globalism, along with Woody Allen, Ralph Lauren, and, perhaps, Bob Dylan. (Here’s Dylan’s Nobel lecture.)


Shaping a writer.

By Philip Roth

JUNE 5 & 12, 2017 ISSUE

The writers who shaped my sense of my country were mostly born in America some thirty to sixty years before me, around the time that millions of the impoverished were leaving the Old World for the New and the tenement slums of our cities were filling up with, among others, Yiddish-speaking immigrants from Russia and Eastern Europe. These writers knew little about the families of youngsters like myself, a rather typical American grandchild of four of those poor nineteenth-century Jewish immigrants, whose children, my parents, grew up in a country that they felt entirely a part of and toward which they harbored a deep devotion—a replica of the Declaration of Independence hung framed in our hallway. Born in New Jersey at the start of the twentieth century, my mother and father were happily at home in America, even though they had no delusions and knew themselves to be socially stigmatized and regarded as repellent alien outsiders by any number of their anointed betters, and even though they came to maturity in an America that, until the decades following the Second World War, systematically excluded Jews from much of its institutional and corporate life.

The writers who shaped and expanded my sense of America were mainly small-town Midwesterners and Southerners. None were Jews. What had shaped them was not the mass immigration of 1880-1910, which had severed my family from the Old Country constraints of a ghetto existence and the surveillance of religious orthodoxy and the threat of anti-Semitic violence, but the overtaking of the farm and the farmer’s indigenous village values by the pervasive business culture and its profit-oriented pursuits. These were writers shaped by the industrialization of agrarian America, which caught fire in the eighteen-seventies and which, by providing jobs for that horde of cheap unskilled immigrants, expedited the immigrant absorption into society and the Americanization, largely by way of the public-school system, of the immigrant offspring. They were shaped by the transforming power of the industrialized cities—by the hardships of the urban working poor that were inspiring the union movement—as much as by the acquisitive energy of the omnivorous capitalists and their trusts and monopolies and their union busting. …

What attracted me to these writers when I was a raw reader of sixteen, seventeen, and eighteen—I am thinking of, among others, Theodore Dreiser, born in Indiana in 1871, Sherwood Anderson, born in Ohio in 1876, Ring Lardner, born in Michigan in 1885, Sinclair Lewis, born in Minnesota in 1885, Thomas Wolfe, born in North Carolina in 1900, Erskine Caldwell, born in Georgia in 1903—what drew me to them was my great ignorance of the thousands of miles of America that extended north, south, and west of Newark, New Jersey, where I was raised. Yes, I had been born to these parents, in this time, with their struggles, but I would volunteer to become the child of those writers as well, and through my immersion in their fiction try to apprehend their American places as a second reality that was, to an American kid in a Jewish neighborhood in industrial Newark, a vivifying expansion of his own. Through my reading, the mytho-historical conception of my country that I had developed in grade school, from 1938 to 1946, began to be divested of its grandiosity and to unravel into the individual threads of American reality the wartime tapestry that paid moving homage to the country’s idealized self-image.

BookmarkFascination with the country’s uniqueness was especially strong in the years after the Second World War, when, as a high-school student, I began to turn to the open stacks of the Newark Public Library to enlarge my sense of where I lived. …

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