From Goodbye, Columbus
From the beginning, Philip Roth seemed to court controversy. Whether it was feminists railing against his supposed misogyny, puritans scandalized by his frank depictions of sex and his rampant use of profanity, or intimate partners who felt betrayed when they found themselves and the details of their relationships turned into fiction in one or another of the novels, Roth – who died on Tuesday of congestive heart failure at age 85 – seemed to delight in offending just about everybody. “I was taken to be an inflammatory fellow when I was still in my swaddling clothes,” he told the London Sunday Times in 1984.
Roth’s first book, Goodbye, Columbus and Five Short Stories, was published in 1959, when the author was only 26 years old. It went on to win the National Book Award and establish Roth’s reputation as a leading luminary of American letters. It also contained stories that had roused the ire of the Jewish establishment in America, who castigated the author as a self-hating Jew and an anti-Semite.
Exhibit A among Roth’s putative crimes against Judaism was “Defender of the Faith,” about a sergeant named Nathan Marx, who returns from overseas during the final stages of the Second World War and finds himself seconded to a training camp in Missouri. There, he is subjected to the coercive demands of a recruit named Sheldon Grossbart, who tries to finagle special treatment from the sergeant on the basis of their shared Jewish heritage.
Published in 1959, this story – and in particular, the characterization of Grossbart – so offended one rabbi in New York that he posted a letter of complaint to the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith. The rabbi wrote, in part: “What is being done to silence this man? Medieval Jews would have known what to do with him.” Roth quotes the letter in “Writing about Jews,” an essay included in the 1975 collection Reading Myself and Others. By writing a story about a conniving, lackadaisical soldier who attempts to shirk his duty and win special favours for himself, the rabbi suggested, Roth was giving succour to those who wished to stereotype or otherwise harm the Jewish community. (The rabbi apparently remained silent on the matter of Sergeant Marx, a Jewish soldier who is portrayed as an upright war hero, having battled Nazis in Germany, and who is, after all, the story’s narrator.)
But what was most troublesome, it would seem, was not the content of the story so much as where it first appeared: the pages of The New Yorker, a general interest magazine with an extensive readership. In her biography, Roth Unbound: A Writer and His Books, Claudia Roth Pierpont (no relation) writes:
Roth’s earlier work had appeared in such prestigious but little-read journals as the newly founded Paris Review and the largely Jewish-read Commentary, which had been established by the American Jewish Committee after the war. In fact, “your story – in Hebrew – in an Israeli magazine or newspaper,” the censorious rabbi wrote to Roth, “would have been judged exclusively from a literary point of view.” Here, however, in America, in a magazine widely esteemed in Gentile society, Roth’s best efforts amounted to nothing less than an act of “informing.”
Not that publishing in the more effete pages of the Paris Review saved Roth from similar criticism. When “Epstein,” a story about an aging Jewish man who has an affair with the neighbour woman and develops a strange crotch rash as a result, was published in that journal’s pages, Roth received vitriolic letters complaining once again about his negative treatment of his Jewish characters. “Narrow-mindedness, in fact,” Roth wrote, “was the charge that a New York rabbi, David Seligson, was reported in The New York Times recently as having brought against me and other Jewish writers who, he told his congregation, dedicated themselves ‘to the exclusive creation of a melancholy parade of caricatures.’”
The word “melancholy” is particularly notable here, given that, whatever else one might want to say about “Epstein” as a work of fiction, it is undeniably cast in a comic mode. It is, indeed, an early example of Roth at his most ribald and raucously funny – the tone and approach that would find its apogee in Portnoy’s Complaint (a novel Roth wrote with the conscious intention of giving his Jewish critics precisely the kind of scandalous character they complained about in his earlier writing).
But what, exactly, is the stereotype Roth is supposedly playing with in “Epstein”? That of an adulterous man? As Roth himself points out, the type is certainly not confined to Jewish characters, nor to literary men. Anna Karenina and Emma Bovary are adulterers who have found their way into the Western canon (and, perhaps unsurprisingly, their creators were both heavy influences on Roth). Nor is Epstein the subject of unbridled derision; to the contrary, the author seems to have a strong empathy for the character and treats him with a high degree of compassion and understanding. (Unlike some of the descriptions of the women in the story. Reading “Epstein,” it is easy to identify some of the things Roth’s later feminist critics found fault with in the author’s writing.)
Ultimately, “Epstein” is not the story of Jews as a monolithic unit; it is the story of one, very specific Jewish man – the aging, disappointed owner of a small paper bag manufacturing company who mourns the death of his son and can’t comprehend his daughter’s turn toward socialism (the story also anticipates Roth’s late period masterpiece, the 1997 novel American Pastoral). What Roth’s critics fail to understand, in the author’s own estimation, is that a story like “Epstein” was never intended as a statement about Judaism as a whole or an explication of Jewish traditions or practices. “The story of Lou Epstein stands or falls not on how much I know about tradition but on how much I know or understand about Lou Epstein,” Roth writes. “But I get the feeling that Rabbi Seligson wants to rule Lou Epstein out of Jewish history.”
In much the same way, the criticism levied at “Defender of the Faith” seems to spring from the accusation that Roth had the temerity to present not just a Jewish character, but an unsympathetic Jewish character. This, the irate rabbi imagines, would be fine in the context of an insular community of Jews, but it was irresponsible of Roth to say such things out in the open, for the Goyim to hear (thus the charge of “informing”). And yet, here again, there is an oversimplification at work. Grossbart is indeed manipulative and coercive, but he is also presented as the antagonistic foil for the morally solid Sergeant Marx.
A more interesting line of inquiry involves the ambiguity in the story’s title, which one assumes must be applied to its hero, the sergeant, who admits to making compromises with his faith in order to maintain cohesiveness among the fighting force he is a part of. If the story’s title refers to Marx, what is the “faith” that is being defended: the Jewish faith, or the secular faith in America and its strength at home and abroad? To one extent or another, this is a question that dogged Roth throughout his career: where does one’s allegiance lie? To one’s country? To one’s creed? To oneself? For Roth, the answer was always, to one’s work. “I work all day, morning and afternoon, just about every day,” Roth said. “If I sit there like that for two or three years, at the end I have a book.” It was this furious, slavish devotion to the literary qualities of his writing that made him so consistently fascinating, energizing, infuriating, and inspiring.