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Roth, Philip (Milton) 1933-

American short story writer, novelist, essayist, and critic. See also Philip Roth Literary Criticism (Volume 1), and Volumes 3, 4, 6, 9, 15, 22, 86, 119.

One of contemporary literature's most prominent and controversial writers, Roth achieved early critical and popular acclaim with his first book, Goodbye, Columbus, a collection of five short stories and a novella. The book was hailed as the opening volley from a daring and brilliant new voice on the American literary scene, particularly from the Jewish American sector. However, as quickly as critics classified him with Saul Bellow and Bernard Malamud, they also set him apart by virtue of his disaffected and caustic handling of Jewish American culture, his suburban settings, and his third-generation heritage. In terms of Roth's subsequent output, the book proved premonitory of his thematic concerns—the search for self-identity, conflicts between traditional and contemporary moral values, the relationship between fiction and reality—and of the controversy that he would generate. Roth has won numerous literary awards, twice winning the National Book Award—for Goodbye, Columbus (1959) and Sabbath's Theatre (1995). In all, he has published twenty-one books, though only one collection of short stories. Critical discussion of Roth, the short story writer, focusses on the stories, "The Contest for Aaron Gold" (1955), the collection Goodbye, Columbus, and on the essay-story "'I Always Wanted You to Admire My Fasting'; or, Looking at Kafka" (1973).

Biographical Information

Philip Roth grew up in Newark, New Jersey, the son of Beth Finkel and Herman Roth, a salesman for the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company. There he attended Hebrew school and spent one year at Newark College of Rutgers University. From 1951 through 1954, Roth attended Bucknell University, where he majored in English and graduated magna cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa. He edited and helped found the Bucknell literary magazine, Et Cetera, which published his first stories. In the Fall of 1954, the Chicago Review published "The Day It Snowed." In 1955, the year Roth earned his University of Chicago M.A., his story "The Contest for Aaron Gold" was published in Epoch and anthologized in Martha Foley's Best American Short Stories. He taught English at Chicago and later instructed creative writing at Iowa and Princeton. Goodbye, Columbus, which contains several stories previously published in The Paris Review, The New Yorker, and Commentary, appeared when Roth was only twentysix. It was followed by a number of novels, the majority of which feature Jewish Americans and center around such self-reflective themes as identity, alienation, sex, and illness.

Major Works of Short Fiction

In addition to the title novella, Roth's only collection contains five short stories: "The Conversion of the Jews," "The Defender of the Faith," "Epstein," "You Can't Tell a Man by the Song He Sings," and "Eli, the Fanatic." His short fiction most often centers on assimilated Jewish Americans who "are distinguished by their Americanism rather than their Jewishness," according to Joseph C. Landis. Each of Roth's stories features unlikely heroes, who find themselves trapped within the social constraints of their immediate environment, usually the family, religion, or American society in general. While Roth's fiction depends heavily on theme, it is likewise replete with dark humor and keen observation, which is at its best in the acclaimed novella, Goodbye, Columbus. Here, Roth examines a summer romance between Neil Klugman, a poor Jewish intellectual, and Brenda Patimkin, a wealthy Jewish suburbanite. Though initially attracted to Brenda's comfortable lifestyle, Neil quickly becomes repulsed by the vacuous materialism of the Patimkin family. So much emphasis is placed on the Patimkin's materialism that some scholars, most notably Saul Bellow, have suggested that the true subject of the novella is American society's predilection toward the material—houses, cars, sports equipment—rather than the spiritual. Still others have taken both the romance and materialism of Goodbye, Columbus into account, comparing the novella to Fitzergerald's The Great Gatsby. As Alfred Kazin has remarked, "in the midst of the tense romance between poor boy and rich girl, one catches lampoonings of our swollen and unreal American prosperity that are as observant and charming as Fitzgerald's description of a Long Island dinner party in 1925."

The stories of Goodbye, Columbus, along with a handful of other fictions published indepently, constitute Roth's most significant work in the genre. They are frequently anthologized, and they continue to speak meaningfully about what it means to be Jewish American in the contemporary world. In "The Contest for Aaron Gold" a summer camp art instructor wrongfully completes a student's project to keep his job. In "The Conversion of the Jews" a Hebrew school student brings to his knees a rabbi who will not allow him to ask questions about his religion. In "Defender of the Faith" a Jewish American army seargent has to resist the crass manipulations of a self-serving private who couches his requests for special favors in calls to ethnic solidarity. The title character of "Epstein" suddenly feels at age fifty-nine that because he has accepted fully the responsibilities of business, marriage, and parenthood, he has missed out on life. In "Eli, the Fanatic" the assimilated Jews of Woodenton fear that their peaceful coexistence with the Gentiles will be put at risk by the establishment of an Orthodox yeshiva in their community. In the 1973 story '"I Always Wanted You to Admire My Fasting'; or, Looking at Kafka," writer Franz Kafka, a teacher at nine-year-old Roth's Newark, New Jersey school, has a brief affair with Roth's aunt Rhoda, a former puppeteer, before his death. John M. McDaniel considered this story "a continuation of one of the earliest thematic conflicts in Roth's fiction: the conflict between the sensitive man . . . and an insensitive society that constricts, stupefies, and maddens the would-be hero to despair."

Critical Reception

Roth's works, especially his satiric portraits of Jewish life, have inspired a considerable amount of critical debate. The gamut of negative criticism to Roth's work ranges from charges of anti-Semitism, degrading depictions of women, obscenity bordering on pornography, repetitiveness of theme, lack of humanity toward characters other than his alter-ego hero, and the joylessness of his humor. But the positive response to his work is equally strong, maintaining that Roth is a deeply moral writer, that his books are fantastically humorous, even if darkly so, and that his satires, although written from a Jewish perspective, offer insight into the foibles of American life.

Principal Works

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Short Fiction

"Philosophy, Or Something Like That" 1952; published in journal Et Cetera

"The Box of Truths" 1952; published in Et Cetera

"The Fence" 1953; published in Et Cetera

"Armando and the Fraud" 1953; published in Et Cetera

"The Final Delivery of Mr. Thorn" 1954; published in Et Cetera

"The Day It Snowed" 1954; published in journal Chicago Review

"The Contest for Aaron Gold" 1955; published in journal Epoch

"Heard Melodies Are Sweeter" 1958; published in journal Esquire

"Expect the Vandals" 1958; published in Esquire

"The Love Vessel" 1959; published in journal Dial Goodbye, Columbus, and Five Short Stories 1959

"Good Girl" 1960; published in journal Cosmopolitan

"The Mistaken" 1960; published in journal American Judaism

"Novotny's Pain" 1962; published in journal The New Yorker

"Psychoanalytic Special" 1963; published in Esquire

"On the Air" 1970; published in journal New American Review

"'I Always Wanted You to Admire My Fasting'; Or, Looking at Kafka" 1973; published in journal American Review

Other Major Works

Letting Go (novel) 1962

When She Was Good (novel) 1967

Portnoy's Complaint (novel) 1969

Our Gang (Starring Tricky and His Friends) (novel) 1971

The Breast (novel) 1972

The Great American Novel (novel) 1973

My Life as a Man (novel) 1974

Reading Myself and Others (essays and criticism) 1975

The Professor of Desire (novel) 1977

The Ghost Writer (novel) 1979

Zuckerman Unbound (novel) 1981

The Anatomy Lesson (novel) 1983

Zuckerman Bound: A Trilogy and Epilogue (novel) 1985

The Counterlife (novel) 1986

The Facts: A Novelist's Autobiography (fictional autobiography) 1988

Deception: A Novel (fictional autobiography) 1990

Patrimony: A True Story (fictional autobiography) 1991

Operation Shylock: A Confession (fictional autobiography) 1993

Sabbath's Theater (novel) 1995

American Pastoral (novel) 1997

Alfred Kazin (review date 1959)

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Source: "Tough-minded Mr. Roth," in Contemporaries, Little, Brown and Company, 1962, pp. 258-62.

[In the following favorable review of Goodbye, Columbus, which was originally published in Reporter on May 28, 1959, Kazin commends Roth's innovative presentation of the Jew as an individual, particularly in the title novella .]

Several weeks ago I was awakened, while reading the New Yorker, by Philip Roth's "Defender of the Faith," a story with such extraordinary guts to it that I went around for days exhilarated by the change in the literary weather. Mr. Roth's story described the agonizing moment of decision in the life of Sergeant Nathan Marx, a combat veteran sent back to the States in 1945 to train troops. Sergeant Marx found himself being cajoled into obtaining special favors for three Jewish recruits until, lied to once too often, he punished the ringleader with deliberate harshness. The story ended with a picture of troops preparing to go off to the Pacific, "trying as best they could to accept their fate. Behind me, Grossbart swallowed hard, accepting his. And then, resisting with all my will an impulse to turn and seek pardon for my vindictiveness, I accepted my own."

It was this conscious acceptance that particularly interested me in the story, for the narrator, reluctantly exploited by Jewish fellow feeling throughout most of the action, rose to an unusual level of moral complexity in affirming his own deliberate hardening of heart. In punishing the soldier so severely, Sergeant Marx was affirming his own—not altogether admirable but candidly mature—acceptance of his own raw human limitations, and the reader was left with a deepened sense of the necessary and painful decisions on which life rests.

This is a note that Jews, in writing about other Jews, do not often strike; the appeal to raw human nature, to the individual in his human complexity and loneliness as a mere human creature, is less common than the grand collective themes of Jewish life, of Jewish solidarity in the face of oppression. Even the most gifted and profound writers among Jews tend to describe love and hate, misery and savagery, as if they were merely symbols of the depth and range of Jewish experience. The unusual thing, Mr. Roth's achievement, is to locate the bruised and angry and unassimilated self—the Jew as individual, not the individual as Jew—beneath the canopy of Jewishness. I admired Mr. Roth's story because he had caught perfectly the drama of personal integrity in the face of group pressures that is so typical of American literature, and I was not surprised to learn that Mr. Roth's story had aroused the darkest displeasure among some readers of the New Yorker and that he had been called in and worried over by at least one professional Jewish organization.

Yet in turning to this collection of his stories, [Goodbye, Columbus], I can see that Mr. Roth's favorite theme is not the anarchical self struggling with its natural loyalties—which might be the story of George F. Babbitt—but romantic and credulous youth defeated in love by a brutally materialistic society, like Fitzgerald's Gatsby. The long, hilarious, but sharp-edged title story tells of a poor Jewish boy from Newark who fell in love with a rich Jewish girl from Short Hills, and lost her. It is so much the story of the boy's romantic infatuation versus the girl's bourgeois calculatingness that no reader should be fooled by Roth's Jewish material into thinking that he is interested exclusively in its local color. The story is brilliant, and in a culture like ours the symbols are national. Neil Klugman, the poor boy from Newark, works in the public library; his parents are nobodies, and the aunt with whom he lives is a gross Yiddish immigrant. He falls in love, rapturously, with Brenda Patimkin, who goes to Radcliffe, whose father can spend a thousand dollars on each nose operation for his children, and whose brother Ronald, six feet four, once a football hero at Ohio State, is marrying Harriet Ehrlich of Milwaukee. Harriet was

a young lady singularly unconscious of a motive in others or herself. All was surfaces, and she seemed a perfect match for Ron, and too for the Patimkins . . . she nodded her head insistently whenever anyone spoke. Sometimes she would even say the last few words of your sentence with you, though that was infrequent; for the most part she nodded and kept her hands folded. All evening, as the Patimkins planned where the newlyweds should live, what furniture they should buy, how soon they should have a baby—all through this I kept thinking that Harriet was wearing white gloves, but she wasn't.

The tone of voice in which Neil Klugman describes the Patimkin family seems perfect to me. He is rapturous as well as satirical, aloof but envious of their grossness, constantly amazed by their height, their girth, their appetities, their profusion. Ron Patimkin, lying in bed rapturously listening to a record of the football crowd at Ohio State saying good-by to the town and the college years, "goodbye, Columbus," is the thickest, dumbest, solidest, most amiable American football hero yet; Neil, watching him swim, "looked back to see Ron taking the length in sleek, immense strokes. He gave one the feeling that after swimming the length of the pool a half dozen times he would have earned the right to drink its contents."

That tone is Mr. Roth's particular achievement. He is acidulous, unsparing, tender, yet more than anything else he is young, he sees life with a fresh and funny eye; in the midst of the tense romance between poor boy and rich girl, one catches lampoonings of our swollen and unreal American prosperity that are as observant and charming as Fitzgerald's description of a Long Island dinner party in 1925. Boy and girl are physically unrestrained with each other, yet when they talk birth control they express a horror of Mary McCarthy's daring descriptions of fornication in Partisan Review, of old-fashioned moral defiance and Bohemian adventurism, that itself is funny in its wryness. Yet comic as Goodbye, Columbus is, hilarious as the rich, overstuffed, overbearing Patimkins are, it is made increasingly clear that the gap between poor Jewish boys and rich Jewish girls in modern American society can be final. Even before the romance crashes, the theme is pushed home in the protection that Neil Klugman extends to a little Negro boy who visits the Newark Public Library to look at a book of Gauguin reproductions, instead of taking it home, because "I likes to come here. I likes them stairs."

There is a bond between the poor Jew and the little Negro boy that will never be felt between Neil and the Patimkins. When Brenda, perhaps unconsciously, allows her mother to discover that she has been sleeping with Neil so that the family itself can decisively end the romance, the betrayal is felt by Neil as a betrayal not only of his love but of his dignity as a human being who comes from the slums. He has gone up to Cambridge to see Brenda, and bitterly standing outside the beautiful Lamont Library after everything is finished, he feels like throwing a rock through the glass. Like Gatsby, he has not only been betrayed by the girl he loves, he has been made to feel that his origins alone are at fault. His humiliation is complete.

Yet brilliant as this story is, it is not nearly as deep, as many-sided, as moving as The Great Gatsby. It is all a little too sharp-edged, too much in control, indeed all too much in the New Yorker mode. The best of the New Yorker story writers, like John Cheever, always make me feel that, keen as they are, there is a whole side to their observations of American society that is entirely fantastic, imaginative, almost visionary, and so belongs to themselves alone. Roth, though emphatically not tailored to the New Yorker, involuntarily fits it because of a certain excess of intellectual theme over the material. There are too many symbols of present-day society, too many quotable bright sayings; the stories tend too easily to make a point. I don't like "The Conversion of the Jews," the story of an independent little boy who, by threatening suicide, made his rabbi and his mother more tolerant of non-Jewish beliefs. The point—"You shouldn't hit me about God, Mamma. You should never hit anybody about God"—is altogether too clear; there really isn't a story apart from it. Something like this can be said about the last story, "Eli, the Fanatic." A group of prosperous young Jews in a suburb are embarrassed by an old-fashioned Talmudical school in their midst, and particularly by one of the teachers who walks about town in East European rabbinical dress. They commission a young Jewish lawyer to get these unwelcome foreigners out of town, or at least to make the uncouth stranger change to American clothes. But the lawyer, already mentally overdriven by the pressure to conform, is suddenly seized by a vision and, exchanging clothes with the teacher, walks about town in fur hat and caftan until he is locked up as a mental case.

The story, though appreciable social commentary, adds up only to its theme; it is all too easily paraphrasable, and in its own way as shallow as the psychoanalytical clichés that Eli's wife is always throwing at him. I admire the edge and fierceness of Mr. Roth's mind, but his book leaves me worried about his future. For he has put so much of himself into being clear, decisive, straight, his stories are consciously so brave, that I worry whether he hasn't worked himself too neatly into a corner. He shows himself too anxious in each story not only to dramatize a conflict but also to make the issue of the conflict absolutely clear. He has intelligence and courage aplenty; what he needs is more of the creative writer's delight in life for its own sake, in figures that do not immediately signify a design.

Irving Howe (review date 1959)

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Source: "The Suburbs of Babylon," in The New Republic, Vol. 140, No. 24, June 15, 1959, pp. 17-18.

[In the following review of Goodbye, Columbus, Howe supports Roth 's characterization of suburban Jewry but disapproves of his moral pointedness .]

What many writers spend a lifetime searching for—a unique voice, a secure rhythm, a distinctive subject—seem to have come to Philip Roth totally and immediately. At 26 he is a writer of narrow range but intense effects. He composes stories about the life of middle-class American Jews with a ferocity it would be idle to complain about, so thoroughly do they pour out of his own sense of things.

Roth's stories do not yield pleasure as much as produce a squirm of recognition: surely, one feels, not all of American Jewish life is like this, but all too much of it is becoming so. Anyone who might object to these stories insofar as they are "reports" about a style of life cannot do it on the ground that Mr. Roth is hard-spirited—for given his material what else can he be?—or that he is unskilled—for, like so many other young writers these days, he has quickly absorbed the lessons of modern craftsmanship, perhaps a bit too quickly. If one is to object to these stories on nonliterary grounds, out of a concern for the feelings or reputation of middle class American Jews, it can be done only by charging that, in effect. Mr. Roth is a liar. And that, I am convinced, he is not.

Like any lively new writer, Mr. Roth takes his place in a tradition and, because he has something fresh to say, helps extend and transform it. But, for reasons I shall come to, he may be helping to collapse it. There is by now a considerable number of novelists and story writers who take as their dominant concern the moral and psychic consequences of the great transformation in American Jewish life: the transformation from proletarian immigrant poverty to middle class suburban comfort, which has all too often meant, from tragi-comic intensities to a dreary slackness. It is a theme which allows for as full a play of satire and as rich a notation of manners as the contrast between established gentry and ambitious climbers gave 19th Century English novelists. Yet it has seldom been worked with anything like a similar success, mainly because American Jewish writers have been caught up in a crippling problem of involvement. The subject proves to be both terribly close—finally, it's about one's mama and papa—and frustratingly transient—it has all occurred within a few decades and now it's almost over, the conflicts of value and generation resolved badly, the memories curdled, the pain dulled.

In the title story of Goodbye, Columbus—it's really a short novel—Mr. Roth Focuses upon a Jewish young man in Newark. Neil Klugman, who works in a public library to see himself through college, lives with his plain, anxious Aunt Gladys (she, relic, goes to Workmen's Circle picnics) and as his name ("Cleverfellow") suggests, is a budding intellectual. One gathers that in some sense Neil is a version of the author, yet Mr. Roth, to his credit, presents Neil with a matter-of-fact detachment which eliminates chances for self-pity.

Neil meets up with Brenda Patimkin, a sleek and likable Radcliffe girl, the daughter of a Jewish alrightnik, which is to say, a manufacturer of sinks who used to sweat in the Newark slums but having made his pile, now lives in a green suburb. There follows a nervous summer romance between Neil and Brenda, through which Mr. Roth skillfully—I suppose the word had better be, ruthlessly—charts the varieties of amiable vulgarity, arriviste snobbism and sheer mindlessness to be found in the world of the Patimkins. Mr. Roth is more tender, though equally successful, at evoking the eager heavy sexuality of the girl as it registers upon and stirs up the ambitious boy. Brenda's sense of social place enables her, somewhat like Daisy Buchanan in The Great Gatsby, to come through unscathed from the break-up of the affair, for it is this sense of social place—of money, family, security—which permits her to take emotional risks without quite knowing that they are risks.

("The rich are different, " said Fitzgerald. "Yes, they have more money," answered Hemingway, thinking he had scored a knockout when he had merely swung wild. For what in America could so make for a sense of "difference" as having more money?)

The best parts of Goodbye, Columbus, done with a deadpan malicious accuracy, are those in which Mr. Roth sketches the manners and morals of the Patimkins. It is harsh but alas, true, the father barging through life with his rough, mean sentimentality, the mother coolly quizzing Neil as to whether he is Orthodox, Conservative or Reform, and the brother, more gentile than the gentiles, fulfilling the bonehead pattern of the All American boy.

To the uninformed reader all of this might seem to verge on caricature, but I think it is ferociously exact. Indeed, that is the trouble: it is too exact, too close to surface realities, there is not enough imaginative transformation. Mr. Roth is dedicated to a kind of mimetic revenge, with the result that about two-thirds of the way through Goodbye, Columbus one feels a drop of interest. For anyone familiar with the Patimkin world the outcome of the story is as predictable as the life of one's cousin.

In Mr. Roth's other stories, arresting as they are, one finds similar difficulties. The main reason for this repeated drop of interest is that Mr. Roth is a writer concerning whom the much abused adjective "compulsive" seems really to apply. All of his stories use their subjects as targets; all drive openly to moral conclusions, hammered out with aggressive intent; and as Alfred Kazin has remarked in a shrewd review, some of them are too easily absorbed in the "points" they make, leaving little to contemplate except these "points."

Given Mr. Roth's skill and intelligence, why should this be so? I think a possible answer may be that in his stories he cannot find sufficiently energetic and supple forces to resist the spiritual corrosion of Jewish middle-class life. That he personally has discovered some basis for resistance is obvious from the fact that he writes at all; but he does not manage to embody this resistance with enough vigor in the stories themselves.

Perhaps the reason for this is that Mr. Roth, while emotionally involved with his subject, is one of the first American Jewish writers who finds, so far as I can judge, almost no sustenance in the Jewish tradition. Writers like Henry Roth, Daniel Fuchs, Delmore Schwartz and Bernard Malamud have also dealt harshly with the life of middle-class American Jews, but to one or another extent the terms of their attack have been drawn from memories of Jewish childhood and family life, from the values of the Jewish tradition. Mr. Roth, however, finds little here to sustain him; he does not remember or think it significant that Neil's Aunt Gladys may once have been a Yiddishist firebrand or a trade union enthusiast; and for this, I suppose, he can hardly be blamed: the memory is growing dim.

It is possible that this signifies the end of a tradition, the closing of an arc of American Jewish experience. If so, it is a saddening thought, since it is hard to see what new sources of value are likely to replace the Yiddishist tradition and American Jewish milieu at its best, against which many of us rebelled but which, by shaping the nature of our rebellion, helped to give meaning to our lives.

Still, none of this should detract from Mr. Roth's achievement. Nor should it give an inch of encouragement to those in the "Jewish community" who have begun to mutter against his book as an instance of "self-hatred." Even if only a fraction of what Mr. Roth portrays is true, it ought to create the most intense heart-searching among the very people who will soon be hectoring him. For in his own way he is echoing the lines: "By the waters of Babylon we sat down/And wept when we remembered Zion."

Saul Bellow (review date 1959)

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Source: "The Swamp of Prosperity," in Commentary, Vol. 28, No. 1, July 1959, pp. 77-9.

[In the following excerpted review of Goodbye, Columbus, Bellow announces the arrival of a talented writer, accurate in his understanding of contemporary American Jewry, though excessively wry in his handling of the material.]

Goodbye, Columbus is a first book but it is not the book of a beginner. Unlike those of us who came howling into the world, blind and bare, Mr. Roth appears with nails, hair, and teeth, speaking coherently. At twenty-six he is skillful, witty, and energetic and performs like a virtuoso. His one fault, and I don't expect all the brethren to agree that it is a fault, is that he is so very sophisticated. Sometimes he twinkles too much. The New York Times has praised him for being "wry." One such word to the wise ought to be sufficient. Mr. Roth has a superior sense of humor (see his story "Epstein"), and I think he can count on it more safely than on his "wryness."

His subject, to narrow it down for descriptive purposes, is Jewish life in suburban New Jersey and New York, the comfortable, paradoxical life of the Jew in prosperous postwar America. Neil Klugman, the hero of the long title story, twenty-three years of age, is different in many ways from the heroes of Jewish stories of the 30's and 40's. His appetites are more boyish, his thoughts more shrewd. He is strong on observation, a little less strong on affection. His prototypes were far more sentimental. They were more doting, and also more combative. Neil is very little concerned with his parents, who have gone for the summer, or with his aunt who wants to fill him in their absence with pot roast and soda pop. He is something of an outsider; his fictional ancestor was a misfit, a sad sack, pure burlap, weirdly incompetent and extremely unworldly, as incoherent in the face of injustice as Billy Budd himself, a stranger to good manners, but for all of that easily moved, honest, and good-hearted. The burlap hero could never keep a job or hold a girl. He was always sure to be shortchanged on the bus and if he went into the Automat for a cup of coffee he would scald himself. On the Jewish side he was descended from the shlimazl, obviously; on the Russian, from the poor clerk of Gogol's story "The Cloak"; in American literature he takes his descent from the pure youth (relatively pure) of Anderson's "I'm a Fool"—"Gee whiz! How could I pull such a dumb trick!" The burlap has gone out of fashion now, and in the stories of Mr. Roth there are only patches of the grand old fabric. . . .

It is entirely clear that he is not satisfied with what Jewish life in the United States has become and though his criticism is usually made laughingly there are moments when it isn't possible to laugh. A story like "Defender of the Faith" with its portrait of the scheming Private Grossbart dries up the grin on the reader's face, and Goodbye, Columbus, pleasant and witty as it is, reveals something that is far worse than the corruption of an individual—the vacuity and mindlessness of Pig Heaven. There exist Jewish writers who think that ours are the best of all possible suburbs in the best of all possible Americas. In the final pages of Marjorie Morningstar, Mamaroneck is glorified. There we are shown a pious and wiser Marjorie, purified of her earlier follies. But to Mr. Roth all is far from well in Mamaroneck. He seems to doubt that the highest prizes of existence have really been moved from the ascetic foundation on which they have always before rested onto the new foundations of money and "normalcy." I think that we must, on the evidence, doubt along with him.

The condition revealed in Goodbye, Columbus is really too grave for irony, and that is why Mr. Roth's "wryness" appears to me inadequate. There's a lot of mileage to be gotten out of kidding costly Jewish weddings, plastic surgery, and similar nonsense, but Mr. Roth wants to go deeper, farther, and the wryness after some time becomes the expression of his discontent with the inadequacy of his method. For, to put it as simply as I can, Mr. Roth wants to make a contrast of spirit and worldly goods.

Neil Klugman and Brenda Patimkin, who are having a love affair during the summer vacation, come down to New York together, she to shop for clothes and to obtain a diaphragm, he to give her his support on such a difficult occasion. "The doctor's office," he says, "was in the Squibb Building, which is across from Bergdorf Goodman's and so was a perfect place for Brenda to add to her wardrobe." While she is being fitted, Neil wanders into St. Patrick's and there he makes a little speech to himself.

Can I call the self-conscious words I spoke prayer? At any rate, I called my audience God. God, I said, I am twenty-three years old. I want to make the best of things. Now the doctor is about to wed Brenda to me, and I am not entirely certain that this is for the best. What is it I love, Lord? Why have I chosen? Who is Brenda? . . . If we meet you at all, God, it's that we're carnal and acquisitive, and thereby partake of you. I am carnal and I know you approve. I just know it. But how carnal can I get? I am acquisitive. Where do I turn now in my acquisitiveness? Where do we meet? Which prize is you?

It was an ingenious meditation, and suddenly I felt ashamed. I got up and walked out, and the noise of Fifth Avenue met me with an answer:

Which prize do you think, shmuck? Gold dinnerware, sporting-goods-trees, nectarines, garbage disposals, Patimkin Sink, Bonwit Teller—.

Brenda's father is the manufacturer of Patimkin Sinks. A good enough old fellow at home, kindly and hospitable in an empty sort of way, he is formidable at business. He will buy split-level houses and new cars for his children when they marry but he will require Neil, should he become his daughter's suitor, to give up his silly job at the Public Library where he has no prospects and to become capable of giving her garbage disposals and gold dinner-were.

Certainly Neil's meditation is curious. When I had finished the story I went back and read it again. It seems a little too cozy on the third reading. Why should it please God that we are carnal or acquisitive? I don't see that at all. I assume Mr. Roth is saying that it would be a deadly offense to confuse God with Bonwit Teller and garbage disposals, with goods and money. He doesn't say it well; he is confused, nervous, wry, and somewhat too aware that this is a shocking way to address God. And in St. Patrick's, too, perhaps displeasing the Catholics as well as the Jews. Had Mr. Roth plainly said "worldly goods versus the goods of the spirit" he might have avoided all this wry awkwardness. But now we have grasped his meaning: the world is too much with us, and there has never been so much world. For, in the past, what could money buy that can compare with the houses, the sinks, the garbage disposals, the Jags, the minks, the plastic surgery enjoyed by the descendants of those immigrants who passed through Ellis Island? To what can we compare this change? Nothing like it has ever hit the world; nothing in history has so quickly and radically transformed any group of Jews. It is this change which is the real subject of Goodbye, Columbus, and not the love affair. Love, duty, principle, thought, significance, everything is being sucked into a fatty and nerveless state of "wellbeing." My mother used to say of people who had had a lucky break, in the old Yiddish metaphor, "They've fallen into the shmaltz-grub"—a pit of fat. The pit has expanded now into a swamp, and the lucky ones may be those who haven't yet tasted the fruits of prosperity.

The matter becomes even plainer in "Eli, the Fanatic." Into the suburban community of Woodenton comes a school for Orthodox children, refugees; the strange figure of a European Jew in black garments is seen in the supermarket and the Jewish residents are alarmed and angry. Eli Peck, the lawyer, writes to Mr. Tzuref at the school, "Woodenton is a progressive suburban community whose members, both Jewish and Gentile, are anxious that their families live in comfort and beauty and serenity." Eli's friend Teddie says to him about old-fashioned Orthodoxy,

"It's a goddam hideaway for people who can't face life, if you ask me. . . . There's peace in this town, Eli—and a good healthy relationship between its modern Jews and Protestants. . . . Last week, Jimmy Knudson took a group from Kiwanis to the Unitarian Church, and I sat there, Eli, and I was impressed. Nobody wailing or crying or any of that stuff. . . . And the priest, Eli, was dressed like you and me, Eli, and in his sermon he quoted from the Atlantic Monthly magazine, for Christ sake."

So, in rhythms that come straight from the Yiddish, Teddie states his case. Peace. Good healthy relationship. Nullity. Eli sends his own best tweed suit to the European Jew in black, and then, finding the old garments at his door, puts them on and frightens everyone. The little story is touching and funny, and it tells a great deal about the situation of the Jews in the Mamaronecks and Woodentons of this country.

Not all Jewish readers have shown themselves pleased with Mr. Roth's stories. Here and there one meets people who feel that the business of a Jewish writer in America is to write public relations releases, to publicize everything that is nice in the Jewish community and to suppress the rest, loyally. This is not at all the business of Jewish writers or of writers of any kind, and those touchy persons who reproach us with not writing the Jewish Elsie Dinsmore over and over again are very like the Russian authorities who created socialist realism. No quantity of Jewish Elsie Dinsmores from Mamaroneck will decrease anti-Semitic feeling. The loss to our sense of reality is not worth the gain (if there is one) in public relations. This is precisely what Mr. Roth is telling us in "Eli, the Fanatic." What plagues Eli is the false image which fear and a hateful spirit of accommodation have created. The tweed suit is no more his than the black garments. He is false to himself in both, and it is this falsehood that does him the greatest harm.

My advice to Mr. Roth is to ignore all objections and to continue on his present course.

Leslie Fiedler (review date 1959)

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Source: "The Image of Newark and the Indignities of Love: Notes on Philip Roth," in Midstream, Vol. V, No. 3, Summer, 1959, pp. 96-9.

[In the following assessment of Goodbye, Columbus, Fiedler maintains that the title novella's "slovenliness" makes it superior to the book's remaining short fiction.]

There is more room in his single novella than in any of his shorter stories for non-theoretical life, for the painful wonder of what is given rather than the satisfactory aptness of what is (however skillfully) contrived to substantiate a point. Random and inexhaustible, such life is, after all, more the fictionist's business than any theme, even the rewardingly ironic and surely immortal one of how hard it is to be a Jew—quite differently elaborated in "Defender of the Faith," and "Eli the Fanatic." For the first, Philip Roth has already received the young Jewish writer's initial accolade: the accusation of anti-Semitism; and both stories are effective, convincing—the second even terrible in its reflections on how these days the holiest madness is "understood" and cured. But their terror and irony alike remain a little abstract—fading into illustrations of propositions out of Riesman, or pressed hard toward some not-quite committed religious position. I should suppose that if Roth is to be as funny and as terrifying as he has the skill and insight to be, he must move out in the religious direction he has so far only indicated; but at the very least he must learn to risk a certain slovenliness, which in his short stories he evades with the nervousness of a compulsive housecleaner. Other readers, I know, are more capable than I of responding to his pace, vigor and candor without the nagging sense that they are all a little compromised by something uncomfortably close to slickness; but I cannot deny that feeling in myself.

Goodbye, Columbus appeals to me, therefore, precisely because it is untidier than the rest, not so soon or so certainly in control. And in its generous margin of inadvertence, there is room enough for a mythical Newark, truth enough for the real one. In the end, Goodbye, Columbus does not quite work as a novella. Its plot (satisfactorily outrageous, but a little gimmicky and eked out with echoes of Mary McCarthy) and its themes tend to fall apart. Unlike some of the short stories, it evades rather than submits to these themes, perhaps because the author is afraid to submit to the old-fashioned motif of love across class lines which struggles to become its point. But love, desperate and foredoomed, love as a betrayal which takes itself for pleasure, is the only subject adequate to the city Roth has imagined. This he knows really, and incidentally has exploited fully even in Goodbye, Columbus.

It is in its incidents rather than in its total structure that the novella comes alive. Its details are as vivid as its themes are inert, its properties more alive, perhaps, than its chief protagonists: the furniture which symbolizes status, refrigerators crammed absurdly with mountains of fruit, a jockstrap hung from the faucet of a bathtub, the record that gives the story its name. Things writhe, assert themselves, determine lives in a Dickensian frenzy. But some of the people who are possessed by them or subsist in the margins they leave free come alive, too—like Uncle Leo with his memories of the "oral love" which he learned from a girl called Hannah Schreiber at a B'nai Brith dance for servicemen, and which he exacted later from his wife, who was "up to here with Mogen David" after a Seder. "In fact, twice after Seders. Aachh! Everything good in my life I can count on my fingers." Here it seems to me is the profoundly atrocious pathos which is Roth's forte, his essential theme. Love in Newark! Beside it, the reminiscences of childhood, the anecdotes of peacetime army life, even the accounts of the disruption of the Jew's suburban truce with respectability come to seem of secondary importance—preludes to a main theme.

Joseph C. Landis (essay date 1962)

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Source: "The Sadness of Philip Roth: An Interim Report," in The Massachusetts Review, Vol. III, No. 2, Winter, 1962, pp. 259-68.

[In the excerpt below, Landis claims that sadness and a yearning for a more meaningful way of life motivate Roth's acerbic portrait of upper-middle class Jewry in his short fiction.]

The publication of [Goodbye, Columbus] in 1959 confirmed the already widespread impression left earlier by his stories in the New Yorker and Commentary that a young writer of great vigor and promise had appeared on the scene. Among his reviewers were Saul Bellow, Leslie Fiedler, Irving Howe, and Alfred Kazin. His honors included a National Book Award in 1960 as well as the Daroff Memorial Award of the Jewish Book Council of America, also in 1960, for the best "work of Jewish interest" in fiction. And he and Bernard Malamud have since been frequently coupled as artists of large talents who write about Jews.

For this very subject matter Roth became the center of a controversy that has only recently subsided. In Yiddish as well as in English he has been severely attacked for distortion in his portraits of Jews. With equal warmth he has been defended for his honesty. Leslie Fiedler congratulated him on having "already received the young Jewish writer's initial accolade: the accusation of anti-Semitism. . . . " And Saul Bellow encouraged him: "My advice to Mr. Roth is to ignore all objections and to continue on his present course."

Now that the dust of controversy has settled, it is possible to see Philip Roth in a clearer perspective. . . . His talents are large enough to warrant an interim report.

Despite their sharp dispute, Roth's friends and foes found themselves in curious consort: they agreed on the acerbity of his portraits and they saw in that acerbity Roth's essential quality. Like Neil Klugman in the story Goodbye, Columbus, Roth is indeed fiercely satirical, at times even cruel. Klugman, as Irving Howe emphasizes, means "cleverfellow" in Yiddish, and Roth's tone and style are those of a clever fellow, sometimes even of a wise-guy. But if the u in Neil's name is pronounced short instead of long, Klugman in Yiddish comes to "sadfellow," "mourner." If Roth is a clever fellow in his portraits, he is perhaps even more a mourner, a man made deeply sad by the spectacle of what he sees. In the controversy, this sad undertone seems to have escaped the notice it deserves. If Roth is indignant at the values of a prosperous world, he is also saddened by the sheer pathetic emptiness, the comfortable meaninglessness, the petty superficiality of the lives he sees. Under the ferocity of his satire is a terrible sadness that is ultimately the more important quality of his vision, a sadness that life has become merely a comfort station for easing tensions. The world of Roth's fiction is not one damnably dedicated to making money; it is a world dedicated to nothing, desiring nothing except "normalcy." What oppresses Roth above everything is the insignificance of those normal, humdrum, comfort-seeking lives, the pathetic waste of time.

The lives he pictures are wholly unrelated lives—unrelated to any real group or community or indeed to any other human being. Utterly lonely lives, they have not even Carlyle's "cash nexus" as a bond between man and man. They make no real contact with one another. In pursuit of their own ends, they merely brush against one another. Despite all the zipping and unzipping, they are really loveless lives. Those of his characters, like Epstein, that yearn for love, do not find it. Lives are empty and cold, full of food only, like the Patimkin refrigerators. When lives are ruffled, Freud becomes a tranquilizer to soothe them back to insignificance. Even those that dream and hope, like Neil Klugman and the little Negro boy, find that someone else has taken their books out of the library.

What grieves Roth most is the awareness that normalcy has, like a Procrustes' bed, truncated the range of life, excluding on the one hand the embrace of aspiration, the exhilaration of wonder, and on the other the acceptance of suffering. From this sadness grows Roth's ferocity, directed mainly against those who deny life, against the cowards who fear it, against all who would reduce it to safe insignificance, against all who flee from self and suffering. It is beneath the dignity of man not to sacrifice and suffer—to seek repose is a travesty of the realities of life and the potential of man. Roth is committed to his unheroic heroes who yearn and aspire, who want to climb out of the morass "up the long marble stairs that led to Tahiti." Such a hero is "the little colored kid who liked Gauguin" (in Goodbye, Columbus), who dreams of island paradises, and who taunts the library lions and growls at them though they are but stone: "Then he would straighten up, and, shaking his head, he would say to the lion, 'Man, you's a coward. . . . ' Then, once again, he'd growl." Here we perceive the essence of Roth, the source of his sadness and his ferocity: "Man, you's a coward." And he shakes his head sadly. Then, once again, he growls.

In Goodbye, Columbus, Brenda Patimkin's sin is not so much that she has affronted Neil and his dignity as a human being. Her greater sin is her cowardice, her dreamdestroying fear. Hers is not merely a betrayal of Neil or a betrayal of love; it is a betrayal of herself, and of life. Neil's return to his work in the library on the day of the Jewish New Year is not the act of desecration that it seems. It is meant to be an act of dedication to dreams and meanings and values symbolized by the library. The return to work is Neil's own goodbye, Columbus, a goodbye to the sad values and empty lives that are normal in America—a land sometimes referred to in the Yiddish as "Columbus's medineh [country]." That his renewal of himself should take place on the New Year is symbolically appropriate.

Neil is relatively fortunate. He is free to hope again. But not Epstein. It is given to Goldie Epstein, his wife, to pronounce the most terrible sentence in Roth's book: "You hear the doctor, Lou. All you got to do is live a normal life." Underlying the farce and the ferocity of "Epstein" is the grief of Epstein's outcry to his nephew: "You're a boy, you don't understand. When they start taking things away from you, you reach out, you grab—maybe like a pig even, but you grab." And after the outcry there is the sad defeat that seals Epstein's fate. His rash and his yearning are merely an "irritation," which the doctor promises to clear up "So it'll never come back." And underneath the sadness of Epstein's defeat is the sadness of Roth's own sense of man's defeat. The rash in man is only an irritation which the world will all too soon and irrevocably clear up so it'll never come back.

This same awareness is what gives other stories of rash men, like "The Conversion of the Jews" and "Eli the Fanatic," a dimension that some of Roth's critics have missed. One of our most perceptive critics thought "Conversion" little more than a lesson in tolerance: "The point—'You shouldn't hit me about God, Mamma. You should never hit anybody about God'—is altogether too clear; there really isn't a story apart from it." But "Conversion" is far more than (perhaps even far from) a plea for tolerance or "a beautiful treatment of a young boy coping with comparative religion," as another reviewer put it. In "Conversion," as in all Roth's stories, is implicit a plea for dreams, for life's wonders, for aspiration to the meaningful and the miraculous and the bold. It is a plea for the conversion of the Jews—but to Judaism. And now. For like the lover in Andrew Marvell's "Coy Mistress," from which the story's title seems to be taken, we have not "world enough and time," and any coyness is a crime.

In "Conversion," Ozzie Freedman is approaching thirteen, the symbolic age of adulthood in Judaism, the age at which full moral responsibility is assumed. And Ozzie Freedman discovers God.

His mother was a round, tired, gray-haired penguin of a woman whose gray skin had begun to feel the tug of gravity and the weight of her own history. Even when she dressed up she didn't look like a chosen person. But when she lit candles she looked like something better; like a woman who knew momentarily that God could do anything.

Ozzie tries unsuccessfully to reconcile his sense of miraculous Divinity and miraculous life with the domesticated, naturalized, and reasonable local Deity of Rabbi Binder. The contest is reflected in the names. The efforts of the youth aspiring to freedom outrage the Rabbi who binds and is earthbound. Ozzie is unable to understand why a God who could "make all that in six days . . . why couldn't he let a woman have a baby without intercourse." When Ozzie finally blurts out his pent-up protest, "You don't know anything about God!" and Rabbi Binder unintentionally bloodies his nose, Ozzie seeks refuge on the roof of the synagogue. As he looks down at the crowd in the street below, at the Rabbi, "normal" in his faithless faith, at Blotnik the Caretaker, who had "memorized the prayers and forgotten all about God," Ozzie's mother cries up to him with splendidly unconscious irony, "Don't be a martyr, my baby." But to Roth the history of Judaism is the history of a faith so deeply held that it embraced martyrdom and gloried in the miraculous potential of life. Jews have always been martyrs, and it is, ironically, their martyrdom that has kept them alive, that has made their history significant and transformed them as Ozzie's mother was transformed in the glow of the Sabbath candles. To be a Jew is to be a martyr. And Ozzie, not "my baby," but preparing to be a man, is the only one who senses that meaning—Ozzie and to a lesser degree his friends who urge him to "be a Martin" in counterpoint to his mother's pleas for his safety. "He's doing it for them," Rabbi Binder explains, not really aware of the truth that Ozzie's dilemma involves all the young, all who aspire to be men. Neither side quite aware of the implications of their words, they stage a debate whose real meaning concerns the nature of life. In the background of the debate is the bored appeal of the firemen, who were called to catch Ozzie in their net: "Look, Oscar, if you're gonna jump, jump—and if you're not gonna jump, don't jump. But don't waste our time, willya?" Oblivious to meaning, they are eager to return to normalcy.

The debate is resolved by a leap that provides a subtle and complex affirmation of the theme of conversion. As a sexual symbol, Ozzie's ejaculation of himself from on high into the firemen's net below affirms the creative wonders of life. And as an act of martyrdom his leap into the "net that glowed . . . like an overgrown halo" becomes paradoxically a moral symbol of his conversion to Judaism and to life. As a moral symbol this act of "madness" is a jolting reminder that to assert one's faith in a world overwhelmed by everyday, petty reasonableness requires an act of martyrdom and fanaticism.

To think of Roth as a social realist (as some of his critics seem to do) is to miss the outcry of such a story and to find in the mad act of its ending a dissipation of its vision. But Roth is more than a realist. His heroes are, in varying degrees, mad—or seem so to a normal world. It takes an act of "madness" to crack the smooth glaze of its tiled life, an act of "fanaticism" like Eli's in "Eli the Fanatic." Eli asserts his identity and like Ozzie assumes the responsibility of martyrdom. His education begins when, as attorney for the Jews of suburban Woodenton, who wish only to "protect what they value, their property, their wellbeing, their happiness," he tries to reach an accommodation with a newly-established yeshiva of refugees: let the activities of the yeshiva be restricted to its own grounds, and above all let its strangely clad teacher give up his caftan and wide-brimmed hat and adopt American dress in town. The request is reasonable enough in a world striving for normalcy. But the headmaster informs Eli that "The suit the gentleman wears is all he's got," a remark whose meaning Eli slowly comes to realize: the Nazis have taken everything from him except his identity in a tradition of martyrdom for faith. When he is finally forced to wear the tweeds that Eli provides for him, he leaves his own clothes at Eli's door. The "greenie's" unspoken message becomes clear. Eli must himself take up the identity which the normality-seeking Jews of Woodenton have forced the greenie to shed; Eli and the Jews of Woodenton must accept the heritage of faith and martyrdom that is symbolized by the suit. Eli's earlier words acquire an added dimension: "In a life of sacrifice what is one more? But in a life of no sacrifices even one is impossible." There is no doubt as to which of these is life and which is death.

Having donned the greenie's clothes, including the ritual undergarment worn by every orthodox Jew, Eli goes to the greenie as though to seek forgiveness and direction. The greenie points his finger skyward, and Eli has a "revelation." Like Ozzie he is converted. Wearing the strange attire he shows himself in all the streets of Woodenton as the greenie had done wearing Eli's tweeds. And now Eli is ready to show himself to his new-born son in the maternity ward, to pass on to his child the ancient heritage. When his wife begs him, "Please, can't you leave well enough alone? Can't we just have a family?" the answer is obvious. "No." But the penalty for "No" is martyrdom. He is seized on either side by solicitous interns. "But he rose suddenly . . . and flailing his arms, screamed: 'I'm the father!"' before undergoing the martyrdom of modern man—sedation. Not the son this time. The Father himself. El li. My God.

In contrast to the wooden life of Woodenton is the life of the yeshiva with its eighteen students, a number symbolic of life in Jewish tradition. It is perhaps pressing a point to see in the headmaster's name, Tzuref (not a common name, if, indeed, a name at all), an amalgam of the Yiddish and Hebrew words tzureh (trouble) and refueh (remedy). It is perhaps also pushing too far to read in the name of Eckman, the tranquilizing, normalizing analyst of the story, the pun in Yiddish signifying both man's tail and man's end. But whether or not the names were thus chosen, the men themselves represent these conflicting forces in Roth's world. Eckman wins. Normalcy is the opiate of the people.

Even a story like "Defender of the Faith" grows out of the same vision as "Eli" and the others, the same hatred of normalcy and cowardice, the same insistence on the acceptance of suffering which life requires of man. Grossbart, the Jewish rookie who uses his Jewishness in every weasel way to avoid the unpleasantness of army life and, finally, to get himself removed from a shipment to Pacific combat, Grossbart, like Henry VIII, first bearer of the title, is a betrayer, not a defender of the faith. But in the complex ironies that are typical of a Roth ending, he begins the process of conversion, of becoming a defender, by accepting man's fate of suffering. And Sergeant Marx, the Jewish combat veteran who has Grossbart put back on the Pacific shipment, accepts the knowledge and the guilt of his own vindictiveness and the suffering that is the penalty of that knowledge. He discovers another dimension of martyrdom. In fact, from the final paragraphs of the story there begins to emerge a complex sense of crime and punishment, guilt and innocence, a sense of man's moral capacities. But from the final paragraphs only. The story, which has been praised for its construction, is, apart from these paragraphs, nothing but construction. The complex humanity implicit in the final vision, the compassionate sadness that is as characteristic of Roth as his satiric ferocity, is apparent nowhere else in the story. Only a venomous portrait emerges. Of all Roth's stories that require serious consideration, "Defender" is the least successful because less than any other it translates its meanings into human terms; because more than any other it is untrue to the intention and the vision enunciated in its closing lines and characteristic of its author. And also, perhaps more than any other, it reveals the limitations of that vision.

The debate around Roth has unfailingly pointed out that he is a Jewish writer. The designation needs some explanation. Mark Harris implies that Roth is too narrowly Jewish when he charges Roth with writing about "the small memory," not "the national adventure." It is true that danger lurks for the regional writer, whether his regionalism is geographic or ethnic—the danger of provincialism or parochialism. Yet Roth is not guilty of such weakness. The middle class Jews he writes about are distinguished by their Americanism rather than their Jewishness; the problems he discerns, the voids and the failures, are not distinctively Jewish at all. Roth's concern is with the large national misadventure in normalcy. Irving Howe, on the other hand, observes that Roth does not draw upon Jewish tradition at all, that he fails to use the positive values in Jewish life. The remark is especially interesting in the light of Roth's own charge against Bernard Malamud that as a writer he "has not shown specific interest in the anxieties and dilemmas and corruptions of the modern American Jew. . . . " Change "specific interest in" to "much knowledge of and one gets the charge of the Yiddish critics against Roth. And there is much justice to this accusation. He does not write about the problems that American Jewish life is deeply concerned with: its struggles to maintain or transmit or define its moral values, its cultural creativeness, its scholarship, its relation to Jewish life in other lands. Nor does he write about the problems of self-definition that face multitudes of Jews or the dilemmas that arise from the impact of two moral heritages. Roth does not really deal with the complexities of the Jewish experience in America.

And yet it is overstating a point to deny his relation to Jewish tradition. Not only does he make skillful symbolic use of tradition, custom, and language; ultimately, all of Roth's stories are about the conversion of the Jews. But to what? Roth's weakness lies in the vagueness with which he formulates that tradition and in the resulting softness of his outlook. Although faith and martyrdom, affirmation of life and acceptance of suffering are in the Jewish tradition, that tradition embraces far more than these concepts and defines them within a specific moral context. Since Roth uses these concepts symbolically, since his stories convey no real sense that he takes them literally, definition becomes doubly imperative for him. Faith in what? Martyrdom for what? In his assertion of these values he is strangely reminiscent of Sholem Asch, who was also intrigued by faith and martyrdom. But Asch thought he was talking literally about Judaism when he romanticized these aspects of the Jewish past. Roth's stories give every indication that he does not wish to be taken literally. His recent explicit statement confirms these impressions: "For myself, I cannot find a true and honest place in the history of believers that begins with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. . . . " [Roth's untitled contribution to "Jewishness and the Younger Intellectuals—A Symposium," Commentary, April 1961] The result is an element of vagueness and generality in his fiction where there should be hard clarity. What kind of island paradises to dream about? What kind of life to live now, shaped by the dream? The "madness" and martyrdom of an Ozzie Freedman or an Eli Peck are not in themselves values. And "since madness is undesirable and sainthood, for most of us, out of the question, the problem of how to live in this world is by no means answered; unless the answer is that one cannot." These words are Roth's criticism of Salinger. They are equally applicable to Roth. "The only advice we seem to get from Salinger is to be charming on the way to the loony bin." ["Writing American Fiction," Commentary, March 1961] What advice do we get from Roth? We need to know his values, to see his vision of how to live in the world and how to die in it. It is this soft center in Roth, this lack of a hard moral position that, throwing the emphasis of his stories onto the satire, leaves an aftertaste of pessimism and prevents the compassion from fulfilling itself. Neil Sadfellow's longings are never clearly articulated, so that Neil Cleverfellow's satiric tone remains uppermost in our recollections. Roth's weakness is not, as several of his critics have charged, that his stories are too thematic. His real weakness is that ultimately they lack a theme, a vision and a visionary sense of life, a hard center. Steps—even marble ones—must lead somewhere.

Philip Roth (essay date 1963)

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Source: "Writing about Jews," in Commentary, Vol. 36, No. 6, December, 1963, pp. 446-52.

[In the following essay, Roth defends his portrayals of Jewish Americans in his short fiction, specifically in "Epstein" and "Defender of the Faith," arguing that he writes about individual values and vices rather than those of the larger community.]

Ever since some of my first stories were published in 1959 in a volume called Goodbye, Columbus, my work has been attacked from certain pulpits and in certain periodicals as dangerous, dishonest, and irresponsible. I have read editorials and articles in Jewish community newspapers condemning these stories for ignoring the accomplishments of Jewish life, or, as Rabbi Emanuel Rackman recently told a convention of the Rabbinical Council of America, for creating a "distorted image of the basic values of Orthodox Judaism," and even, he went on, for denying the non-Jewish world the opportunity of appreciating "the overwhelming contributions which Orthodox Jews are making in every avenue of modern endeavor. . . . " Among the letters I receive from readers, there have been a number written by Jews accusing me of being anti-Semitic and "self-hating," or, at the least, tasteless; they argue or imply that the sufferings of the Jews throughout history, culminating in the murder of six million by the Nazis, have made certain criticisms of Jewish life insulting and trivial. Furthermore, it is charged that such criticism as I make of Jews—or apparent criticism—is taken by anti-Semites as justification for their attitudes, as "fuel" for their fires, particularly as it is a Jew himself who seemingly admits to habits and behavior that are not exemplary, or even normal and acceptable. When I speak before Jewish audiences, invariably there have been people who have come up to me afterward to ask, "Why don't you leave us alone? Why don't you write about the Gentiles?"—"Why must you be so critical?"—"Why do you disapprove of us so?"—this last question asked as often with incredulity as with anger; and often when asked by people a good deal older than myself, asked as of an erring child by a loving but misunderstood parent.

It is difficult, if not impossible, to explain to some of the people claiming to have felt my teeth sinking in, that in many instances they haven't been bitten at all. Not always, but frequently, what readers have taken to be my disapproval of the lives lived by Jews seems to have to do more with their own moral perspective than with the one they would ascribe to me: at times they see wickedness where I myself had seen energy or courage or spontaneity; they are ashamed of what I see no reason to be ashamed of, and defensive where there is no cause for defense.

Not only do they seem to me often to have cramped and untenable notions of right and wrong, but looking at fiction as they do—in terms of "approval" and "disapproval" of Jews, "positive" and "negative" attitudes toward Jewish life—they are likely not to see what it is that the story is really about.

To give an example. A story I wrote called "Epstein" tells of a sixty-year-old man who has an adulterous affair with the lady across the street. In the end, Epstein, who is the hero, is caught—caught by his family and caught and struck down by exhaustion, decay, and disappointment, against all of which he had set out to make a final struggle. There are Jewish readers, I know, who cannot figure out why I found it necessary to tell this story about a Jewish man: don't other people commit adultery, too? Why is it the Jew who must be shown cheating?

But there is more to adultery than cheating: for one thing, there is the adulterer himself. For all that some people may experience him as a cheat and nothing else, he usually experiences himself as something more. And generally speaking, what draws most readers and writers to literature is this "something more"—all that is beyond simple moral categorizing. It is not my purpose in writing a story of an adulterous man to make it clear how right we all are if we disapprove of the act and are disappointed in the man. Fiction is not written to affirm the principles and beliefs that everybody seems to hold, nor does it seek to guarantee us of the appropriateness of our feelings. The world of fiction, in fact, frees us from the circumscriptions that the society places upon feeling; one of the greatnesses of the art is that it allows both the writer and the reader to respond to experience in ways not always available in day-to-day conduct; or if they are available, they are not possible, or manageable, or legal, or advisable, or even necessary to the business of living. We may not even know that we have such a range of feelings and responses until we have come into contact with the work of fiction. This does not mean that either reader or writer no longer brings any moral judgment to bear upon human action. Rather, we judge at a different level of our being, for not only are we judging with the aid of new feelings, but without the necessity of having to act upon judgment, or even to be judged for our judgment. Ceasing for a while to be upright citizens, we drop into another layer of consciousness. And this dropping, this expansion of moral consciousness, this exploration of moral fantasy, is of considerable value to a man and to society.

I do not care to go at length here into what a good many readers take for granted are the purposes and possibilities of fiction. I do want to make clear, however, to those whose interests may not lead them to speculate much on the subject, a few of the assumptions a writer may hold—assumptions such as lead me to say that I do not write a story to make evident whatever disapproval I may feel for adulterous men. I write a story of a man who is adulterous to reveal the condition of such a man. If the adulterous man is a Jew, then I am revealing the condition of an adulterous man who is a Jew. Why tell that story? Because I seem to be interested in how—and why and when—a man acts counter to what he considers to be his "best self," or what others assume it to be, or would like for it to be. The subject is hardly "mine"; it interested readers and writers for a long time before it became my turn to be engaged by it, too.

One of my readers, a man in Detroit, was himself not too engaged and suggested in a letter to me that he could not figure out why I was. He posed several questions which I believe, in their very brevity, were intended to disarm me. I quote from his letter without his permission.

The first question. "Is it conceivable for a middle-aged man to neglect business and spend all day with a middleaged woman?" The answer is yes.

Next he asks, "Is it a Jewish trait?" I take it he is referring to adultery and not facetiously to the neglecting of business. The answer is, "Who said it was?" Anna Karenina commits adultery with Vronsky, with consequences more disastrous than those that Epstein brings about. Who thinks to ask, "Is it a Russian trait?" It is a decidedly human possibility. Even though the most famous injunction against it is reported as being issued, for God's own reasons, to the Jews, adultery has been one of the ways by which people of all faiths have sought pleassure, or freedom, or vengeance, or power, or love, or humiliation. . . .

The next in the gentleman's series of questions to me is, "Why so much shmutz?" Is he asking, why is there dirt in the world? Why is there disappointment? Why is there hardship, ugliness, evil, death? It would be nice to think these were the questions the gentleman had in mind, when he asks "Why so much shmutz?" But all he is really asking is, "Why so much shmutz in that story?" This, apparently, is what the story adds up to for him. An old man discovers the fires of lust are still burning in him? Shmutz! Disgusting! Who wants to hear that kind of stuff! Struck as he is by nothing but the dirty aspects of Epstein's troubles, the gentleman from Detroit concludes that I am narrow-minded.

So do others. Narrow-mindedness, in fact, was the charge that a New York rabbi, David Seligson, was reported in the New York Times recently as having brought against myself and other Jewish writers who, he told his congregation, dedicated themselves "to the exclusive creation of a melancholy parade of caricatures." Rabbi Seligson also disapproved of Goodbye, Columbus because I described in it "a Jewish adulterer . . . and a host of other lopsided schizophrenic personalities." Of course, adultery is not a characteristic symptom of schizophrenia, but that the rabbi should see it this way, as a sign of a diseased personality, indicates to me that we have different notions as to what health is. After all, it may be that life produces a melancholy middle-aged businessman like Lou Epstein who in Dr. Seligson's eyes looks like another in a parade of caricatures. I myself find Epstein's adultery an unlikely solution to his problems, a pathetic, even a doomed response, and a comic one, too, since it does not even square with the man's own conception of himself and what he wants; but none of this unlikeliness leads me to despair of his sanity, or humanity. I suppose it is tantamount to a confession from me of lopsided schizophrenia to admit that the character of Epstein happened to have been conceived with considerable affection and sympathy. As I see it, one of the rabbi's limitations is that he cannot recognize a bear hug when one is being administered right in front of his eyes.

The Times report continues: "The rabbi said he could only 'wonder about' gifted writers, 'Jewish by birth, who can see so little in the tremendous saga of Jewish history.'" But I don't imagine the rabbi "wonders" anymore about me than I wonder about him: that wondering business is only the voice of wisdom that is supposed to be making itself heard, always willing to be shown the light, if, of course, there is light to be pointed out; but I can't buy it. Pulpit fair-mindedness only hides the issue—as it does here in the rabbi's conclusion, quoted by the Times: "'That they [the Jewish writers in question] must be free to write, we would affirm most vehemently; but that they would know their own people and tradition, we would fervently wish.'"

However, the issue is not knowledge of one's "people." At least, it is not a question of who has more historical data at his fingertips, or is more familiar with Jewish tradition, or which of us observes more customs and rituals. It is even possible, needless to say, to "know" a good deal about tradition, and to misunderstand what it is that tradition signifies. The story of Lou Epstein stands or falls not on how much I "know" about tradition, but on how much I know and understand about Lou Epstein. Where the history of the Jewish people comes down in time and place to become the man whom I called Epstein, that is where my knowledge must be sound. But I get the feeling that Rabbi Seligson wants to rule Lou Epstein out of Jewish history. I find him too valuable to forget or dismiss, even if he is something of a grubber yung and probably more ignorant of history and tradition than the rabbi believes me to be.

Epstein is pictured not as a learned rabbi, after all, but the owner of a small paper-bag company; his wife is not learned either, and neither is his mistress; consequently, a reader should not expect to find in this story knowledge on my part, or the part of the characters, of the Sayings of the Fathers; he has every right to expect that I be close to the truth as to what might conceivably be the attitudes of a Jewish man of Epstein's style and history, toward marriage, family life, divorce, and fornication. The story is called "Epstein" because Epstein, not the Jews, is the subject; where the story is weak I think I know by this time; but the rabbi will never find out until he comes at the thing in terms of what it wants to be about rather than what he would like it to be about.

Obviously, though, his interest is not in the portrayal of character; what he wants in my fiction is, in his words, "a balanced portrayal of Jews as we know them." I even suspect that something called "balance" is what the rabbi would advertise as the most significant characteristic of Jewish life; what Jewish history comes down to is that at long last we have in our ranks one of everything. But his assumptions about the art of fiction are what I should like to draw particular attention to. In his sermon Rabbi Seligson says of Myron Kaufmann's Remember Me to God, that it can "hardly be said to be recognizable as a Jewish sociological study." But Mr. Kaufmann, as a novelist, probably had no intention of writing a sociological study, or—for this seems more like what the rabbi really yearns for in the way of reading—a nice positive sampling. Madame Bovary is hardly recognizable as a sociological study, either, having at its center only a single, dreamy, provincial Frenchwoman, and not one of every other kind of provincial Frenchwoman too; this does not, however, diminish its brilliance as a novel, as an exploration of Madame Bovary herself. Literary works do not take as their subjects characters and events which have impressed a writer primarily by the frequency of their appearance. For example, how many Jewish men, as we know them, have come nearly to the brink of plunging a knife into their only son because they believed God had commanded them to? The story of Abraham and Isaac derives its meaning from something other than its being a familiar, recognizable, everyday occurrence. The test of any literary work is not how broad is its range of representation—for all that breadth may be characteristic of a kind of narrative—but the depth with which the writer reveals whatever it may be that he has chosen to represent.

To confuse a "balanced portrayal" with a novel is finally to be led into absurdities. "Dear Fyodor Dostoevsky—All the students in our school, and most of the teachers feel that you have been unfair to us. Do you call Raskolnikov a balanced portrayal of students as we know them? Of Russian students? Of poor students? What about those of us who have never murdered anyone, who do our school work every night?" "Dear Mark Twain—None of the slaves on our plantation has ever run away. We have a perfect record. But what will our owner think when he reads of Nigger Jim?" "Dear Vladimir Nabokov—The girls in our class," and so on. What fiction does, and what the rabbi would like for it to do are two entirely different things. The concerns of fiction, left it be said, are not those of a statistician—or of a public-relations firm. The novelist asks himself, "What do people think?"; the PR man asks, "What will people think?" But I believe this is what is actually troubling the rabbi, when he calls for his "balanced portrayal of Jews." What will people think?

Or to be exact: what will the goyim think?


This was the question raised—and urgently—when another story of mine, "Defender of the Faith," appeared in the New Yorker in April 1959. The story is told by Nathan Marx, an Army sergeant just rotated back to Missouri from combat duty in Germany, where the war has ended. As soon as he arrives, he is made First Sergeant in a training company, and immediately is latched on to by a young recruit who tries to use his attachment to the sergeant to receive kindnesses and favors. His attachment, as he sees it, is that they are both Jews. As the story progresses, what the recruit, Sheldon Grossbart, comes to demand are not mere considerations, but privileges to which Marx does not think he is entitled. The story is about one man who uses his own religion, and another's uncertain conscience, for selfish ends; but mostly it is about this other man, the narrator, who because of the ambiguities of being a member of his particular religion, is involved in a taxing, if mistaken, conflict of loyalties.

I don't now, however, and didn't while writing, see Marx's problem as nothing more than "Jewish": confronting the limitations of charity and forgiveness in one's nature—having to draw a line between what is merciful and what is just—trying to distinguish between apparent evil and the real thing, in one's self and others—these are problems for most people, regardless of the level at which they are perceived or dealt with. Yet, though the moral complexities are not exclusively characteristic of the experience of being a Jew, I never for a moment considered that the characters in the story should be anything other than Jews. Someone else might have written a story embodying the same themes, and similar events perhaps, and had at its center Negroes or Irishmen; for me there was no choice. Nor was it a matter of making Grossbart a Jew and Marx a Gentile, or vice versa; telling half the truth would have been much the same here as telling a lie. Most of those jokes beginning, "Two Jews were walking down the street," lose a little of their punch if one of the Jews, or both, are disguised as Englishmen or Republicans. Similarly, to have made any serious alteration in the Jewish factuality of "Defender of the Faith" as it began to fill itself out in my imagination, would have so unsprung the tensions I felt in the story that I would no longer have had left a story that I wanted to tell, or one I believed myself able to.

Some of my critics must wish that this had happened, for in going ahead and writing this story about Jews, what else did I do but confirm an anti-Semitic stereotype? But to me the story confirms something different, if no less painful to its readers. To me Grossbart is not something we can dismiss solely as an anti-Semitic stereotype; he is a Jewish fact. If people of bad intention or weak judgment have converted certain facts of Jewish life into a stereotype of The Jew, that does not mean that such facts are no longer important in our lives, or that they are taboo for the writer of fiction. Literary investigation may even be a way to redeem the facts, to give them the weight and value that they should have in the world, rather than the disproportionate significance they probably have for some misguided or vicious people.

Sheldon Grossbart, the character I imagined as Marx's antagonist, has his seed in fact. He is not meant to represent The Jew, or Jewry, nor does the story indicate that it is the writer's intention that he be so understood by the reader. Grossbart is depicted as a single blundering human being, one with force, self-righteousness, cunning, and on occasion, even a little disarming charm; he is depicted as a man whose lapses of integrity seem to him so necessary to his survival as to convince him that such lapses are actually committed in the name of integrity. He has been able to work out a system whereby his own sense of responsibility can suspend operation, what with the collective guilt of the others having become so immense as to have seriously altered the conditions of trust in the world. He is presented not as the stereotype of The Jew, but as a Jew who acts like the stereotype, offering back to his enemies their vision of him, answering the punishment with the crime. Given the particular kinds of denials, humiliations, and persecutions that the nations have practiced on their Jews, it argues for far too much nobility to deny not only that Jews like Grossbart exist, but to deny that the temptations to Grossbartism exist in many who perhaps have more grace, or will, or are perhaps only more cowed, than the simple frightened soul that I imagined weeping with fear and disappointment at the end of the story. Grossbart is not The Jew; but he is a fact of Jewish experience and well within the range of its moral possibilities.

And so is his adversary, Marx, who is, after all, the story's central character, its consciousness and its voice. He is a man who calls himself a Jew more tentatively than does Grossbart; he is not sure what it means, means for him, for he is not unintelligent or without conscience; he is dutiful, almost to a point of obsession, and confronted by what are represented to him as the needs of another Jew, he does not for a while know what to do. He moves back and forth from feelings of righteousness to feelings of betrayal, and only at the end, when he truly does betray the trust that Grossbart tries to place in him, does he commit what he has hoped to all along: an act he can believe to be honorable.

Marx does not strike me, nor any of the readers I heard from, as unlikely, incredible, "made-up"; the verisimilitude of the characters and their situation was not what was called into question. In fact, an air of convincingness that the story was believed to have, caused a number of people to write to me, and the New Yorker, and the Anti-Defamation League, protesting its publication.

Here is one of the letters I received after the story was published:

Mr. Roth:

With your one story, 'Oefender of the Faith," you have done as much harm as all the organized anti-Semitic organizations have done to make people believe that all Jews are cheats, liars, connivers. Your one story makes people—the general public—forget all the great Jews who have lived, all the Jewish boys who served well in the armed services, all the Jews who live honest hard lives the world over. . . .

Here is one received by the New Yorker:

Dear Sir:

. . . We have discussed this story from every possible angle and we cannot escape the conclusion that it will do irreparable damage to the Jewish people. We feel that this story presented a distorted picture of the average Jewish soldier and are at a loss to understand why a magazine of your fine reputation should publish

such a work which lends fuel to anti-Semitism.

Clichés like "this being Art" will not be acceptable. A reply will be appreciated.

Here is a letter received by the Anti-Defamation League, who out of the pressure of the public response, telephoned to ask if I wanted to talk to them. The strange emphasis of the invitation, I thought, indicated the discomfort they felt at having to pass on—or believing they had to pass on—messages such as this:


What is being done to silence this man? Medieval Jews would have known what to do with him. . . .

The first two letters I quoted were written by Jewish laymen, the last by a rabbi and educator in New York City, a man of prominence in the world of Jewish affairs.

The rabbi was later to communicate directly with me. He did not mention that he had already written the Anti-Defamation League to express regret over the decline of medieval justice, though he was careful to point out at the conclusion of his first letter his reticence in another quarter. I believe I was supposed to take it as an act of mercy: "I have not written to the editorial board of the New Yorker" he told me. "I do not want to compound the sin of informing. . . . "

Informing. There was the charge so many of the correspondents had made, even when they did not want to make it openly to me, or to themselves. I had informed on the Jews. I had told the Gentiles what apparently it would otherwise have been possible to keep secret from them: that the perils of human nature afflict the members of our minority. That I had also informed them it was possible for there to be such a Jew as Nathan Marx did not seem to bother anybody; if I said earlier that Marx did not strike my correspondents as unlikely, it is because he didn't strike them at all. He might as well not have been there. Of the letters that I read, only one even mentioned Marx and only to point out that I was no less blameworthy for portraying the Sergeant as "a white Jew" as he was described by my correspondent, a kind of Jewish Uncle Tom.

But even if Marx were that and only that, a white Jew, and Grossbart only a black one, did it in any way follow that because I had examined the relationship between them—another concern central to the story which drew barely a comment from my correspondents—that I had then advocated that Jews be denationalized, deported, persecuted, murdered? Well, no. Whatever the rabbi may believe privately, he did not indicate to me that he thought I was an anti-Semite. There was a suggestion, however, and a grave one, that I had acted like a fool. "You have earned the gratitude," he wrote, "of all who sustain their anti-Semitism on such conceptions of Jews as ultimately led to the murder of six million in our time."

Despite the sweep there at the end of the sentence, the charge made is actually up at the front: I "earned the gratitude. . . . " But of whom? I would put it less dramatically, but maybe more exactly: of those who are predisposed to misread the story—out of bigotry, ignorance, malice, or even innocence. If I did earn their gratitude, it was because they failed to see, even to look for, what I was talking about. . . . Such conceptions of Jews as anti-Semites hold, then, and as they were able to confirm by misunderstanding my story, are the same, the rabbi goes on to say, as those which "ultimately led to the murder of six million in our time."

"Ultimately"? Is that not a gross simplification of the history of the Jews and the history of Hitler's Germany? People hold serious grudges against one another, vilify one another, deliberately misunderstand one another, and tell lies about one another, but they do not always, as a consequence, murder one another, as the Germans murdered the Jews, and as other Europeans allowed the Jews to be murdered, or even helped the slaughter along. Between prejudice and persecution there is usually, in civilized life, a barrier constructed by the individual's convictions and fears, and the community's laws, ideals, and values. What "ultimately" caused this barrier to disappear in Germany cannot be explained only in terms of anti-Semitic misconceptions; surely what must also be understood here is the intolerability of Jewry, on the one hand, and its usefulness, on the other, to the Nazi ideology and dream.

By simplifying the Nazi-Jewish relationship, by making prejudice appear to be the primary cause of annihilation, the rabbi is able to make the consequences of publishing "Defender of the Faith" in the New Yorker seem very grave indeed. He doesn't appear to be made at all anxious, however, by the consequences of his own position. For what he is suggesting is that some subjects must not be written about, or brought to public attention, because it is possible for them to be misunderstood by people with weak minds or malicious instincts. Thus he consents to put the malicious and weak-minded in a position of determining the level at which open communication on these subjects will take place. This is not fighting anti-Semitism, but submitting to it: that is, submitting to a restriction of consciousness as well as communication because being conscious and being candid is too risky.

In his letter the rabbi calls my attention to that famous madman who shouts "Fire!" in "a crowded theater." He leaves me to complete the analogy myself: by publishing "Defender of the Faith" in the New Yorker: (1) I am shouting; (2) I am shouting "Fire!"; (3) there is no fire; (4) all this is happening in the equivalent of "a crowded theater." The crowded theater: there is the risk. I should agree to sacrifice the freedom that is essential to my vocation, and even to the general well-being of the culture, because—because of what? "The crowded theater" has absolutely no relevance to the situation of the Jew in America today. It is a grandiose delusion. It is not a metaphor describing a cultural condition, but a revelation of the nightmarish visions that must plague people as demoralized as the rabbi appears to be: rows endless, seats packed, lights out, doors too few and too small, panic and hysteria just under the skin. . . . No wonder he says to me finally, "Your story—in Hebrew—in an Israeli magazine or newspaper—would have been judged exclusively from a literary point of view." That is, ship it off to Israel. But please don't tell it here, now.

Why? So that "they" will not commence persecuting Jews again? If the barrier between prejudice and persecution collapsed in Germany, this is hardly reason to contend that no such barrier exists in our country. And if it should ever begin to appear to be crumbling, then we must do what is necessary to strengthen it. But not by putting on a good face; not by refusing to admit to the intricacies and impossibilities of Jewish lives; not by pretending that Jews have existences less in need of, less deserving of, honest attention than the lives of their neighbors; not by making Jews invisible. The solution is not to convince people to like Jews so as not to want to kill them; it is to let them know that they cannot kill them even if they despise them. And how to let them know? Surely repeating over and over to oneself, "It can happen here," does little to prevent "it" from happening. Moreover, ending persecution involves more than stamping out persecutors. It is necessary, too, to unlearn certain responses to them. All the tolerance of persecution that has seeped into the Jewish character—the adaptability, the patience, the resignation, the silence, the self-denial—must be squeezed out, until the only response there is to any restriction of liberties is "No, I refuse."

The chances are that there will always be some people who will despise Jews, just so long as they continue to call themselves Jews; and, of course, we must keep an eye on them. But if some Jews are dreaming of a time when they will be accepted by Christians as Christians accept one another—if this is why certain Jewish writers should be silent—it may be that they are dreaming of a time that cannot be, and of a condition that does not exist, this side of one's dreams. Perhaps even the Christians don't accept one another as they are imagined to in that world from which Jews may believe themselves excluded solely because they are Jews. Nor are the Christians going to feel toward Jews what one Jew may feel toward another. The upbringing of the alien does not always alert him to the whole range of human connections which exists between the liaisons that arise out of clannishness, and those that arise—or fail to—out of deliberate exclusion. Like those of most men, the lives of Jews no longer take place in a world that is just landsmen and enemies. The cry "Watch out for the goyim!" at times seems more the expression of an unconscious wish than of a warning: Oh that they were out there, so that we could be together in here! A rumor of persecution, a taste of exile, might even bring with it that old world of feelings and habits—something to replace the new world of social accessibility and moral indifference, the world which tempts all our promiscuous instincts, and where one cannot always figure out what a Jew is that a Christian is not.

Jews are people who are not what anti-Semites say they are. That was once a statement out of which a man might begin to construct an identity for himself; now it does not work so well, for it is difficult to act counter to the ways people expect you to act when fewer and fewer people define you by such expectations. The success of the struggle against the defamation of Jewish character in this country has itself made more pressing the need for a Jewish self-consciousness that is relevant to this time and place, where neither defamation nor persecution are what they were elsewhere in the past. Surely, for those Jews who choose to continue to call themselves Jews, and find reason to do so, there are courses to follow to prevent it from ever being 1933 again that are more direct, reasonable, and dignified than beginning to act as though it already is 1933—or as though it always is. But the death of all those Jews seems to have taught my correspondent, a rabbi and a teacher, little more than to be discreet, to be foxy, to say this but not that. It has taught him nothing other than how to remain a victim in a country where he does not have to live like one if he chooses. How pathetic. And what an insult to the dead. Imagine: sitting in New York in the 1960's and piously summoning up "the six million" to justify one's own timidity.

Timidity—and paranoia. It does not occur to the rabbi that there are Gentiles who will read the story intelligently. The only Gentiles the rabbi can imagine looking into the New Yorker are those who hate Jews and those who don't know how to read very well. If there are others, they can get along without reading about Jews. For to suggest that one translate one's stories into Hebrew and publish them in Israel, is to say, in effect: "There is nothing in our lives we need to tell the Gentiles about, unless it has to do with how well we manage. Beyond that, it's none of their business. We are important to no one but ourselves, which is as it should be (or better be) anyway." But to indicate that moral crisis is something to be hushed up, is not of course, to take the prophetic line; nor is it a rabbinical point of view that Jewish life is of no significance to the rest of mankind.

Even given his own kinds of goals, however, the rabbi is not very far-sighted or imaginative. What he fails to see is that the stereotype as often arises from ignorance as from malice; deliberately keeping Jews out of the imagination of Gentiles, for fear of the bigots and their stereotyping minds, is really to invite the invention of stereotypical ideas. A book like Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, for instance, seems to me to have helped many whites who are not anti-Negro, but who do hold Negro stereotypes, to surrender simple-minded notions about Negro life. I doubt, however, that Ellison, reporting as he does not just the squalid circumstances Negroes must put up with but certain bestial aspects of his Negro characters as well, has converted one Alabama redneck or one United States Senator over to the cause of desegregation; nor could the novels of James Baldwin cause Governor Wallace to conclude anything more than that Negroes were just as hopeless a lot as he'd always known them to be. As novelists, neither Baldwin nor Ellison are (to quote Mr. Ellison on himself) "cogs in the machinery of civil rights legislation." Just as there are Jews who feel that my books do nothing for the Jewish cause, so there are Negroes, I am led to understand, who feel that Mr. Ellison's work has done little for the Negro cause and probably has harmed it. But that seems to place the Negro cause somewhat outside the cause of truth and justice. That many blind people are still blind, does not mean that Mr. Ellison's book gives off no light. Certainly those of us who are willing to be taught, and who needed to be, have been made by Invisible Man less stupid than we were about Negro lives, including those lives that a bigot would point to as affirming his own half-baked, inviolable ideas.


But it is the treachery of the bigot that the rabbi appears to be worried about and that he presents to me, to himself, and probably to his congregation, as the major cause for concern. Frankly, I think those are just the old words coming out, when the right buttons are pushed. Can he actually believe that on the basis of my story anyone is going to start a pogrom, or keep a Jew out of medical school, or even call some Jewish schoolchild a kike? The rabbi is entombed in his nightmares and fears; but that is not the whole of it. He is also hiding something. Much of this disapproval of "Defender of the Faith" because of its effect upon Gentiles, seems to me a cover-up for what is really objected to, what is immediately painful—and that is its direct effect upon certain Jews. "You have hurt a lot of people's feelings because you have revealed something they are ashamed of." That is the letter the rabbi did not write, but should have. I would have argued then that there are things of more importance—even to these Jews—than those feelings that have been hurt, but at any rate he would have confronted me with a genuine fact, with something I was actually responsible for, and which my conscience would have had to deal with, as it does.

For the record, all the letters that came in about "Defender of the Faith," and that I saw, were from Jews. Not one of those people whose gratitude the rabbi believes I earned, wrote to say, "Thank you," nor was I invited to address any anti-Semitic organizations. When I did begin to receive speaking invitations, they were from Jewish ladies' groups, Jewish community centers, and from all sorts of Jewish organizations, large and small.

And I think this bothers the rabbi, too. On the one hand, some Jews are hurt by my work; but on the other, some are interested. At the rabbinical convention I mentioned earlier, Rabbi Emanuel Rackman, a professor of political science at Yeshiva University, reported to his colleagues that certain Jewish writers were "assuming the mantle of self-appointed spokesmen and leaders for Judaism." To support this remark he referred to a symposium held in Israel this last June, at which I was present; as far as I know, Rabbi Rackman was not. If he had been there, he would have heard me make it quite clear that I did not want to, did not intend to, and was not able to, speak for American Jews; I surely did not deny, and no one questioned the fact, that I spoke to them, and hopefully to others as well. The competition that Rabbi Rackman imagines himself to be engaged in hasn't to do with who will presume to lead the Jews; it is really a matter of who, in addressing them, is going to take them more seriously—strange as that may sound—with who is going to see them as something more than part of the mob in a crowded theater, more than helpless and threatened and in need of reassurance that they are as "balanced" as anyone else. The question really is, who is going to address men and women like men and women, and who like children. If there are Jews who have begun to find the stories the novelists tell more provocative and pertinent than the sermons of some of the rabbis, perhaps it is because there are regions of feeling and consciousness in them which cannot be reached by the oratory of self-congratulation and self-pity.

Dan Isaac (essay date 1964)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3817

Source: "In Defense of Philip Roth," in Chicago Review, Vol. 17, Nos. 2 and 3, 1964, pp. 84-96.

[In the following excerpt, Isaac examines Roth's protagonists in Goodbye, Columbus, "Defender of the Faith, " and "Eli the Fanatic," concluding that his characters "are men in the middle, lacking a sure sense of values. "]

Philip Roth is generally concerned with society and its values—the new society that second generation Jews are emerging into and recreating. Goodbye, Columbus, the novella that lends its title to a collection of stories, suggests the complex and irrational position of the rich, semiassimilated Jew in suburban society. The sporting goods tree, the old refrigerator filled with fruit, the active Jewish club lady who has never heard of Martin Buber, are part of a series of signs and indices telling us exactly what has happened to Jewish life. When an extra place is set at the Patimkin table for Mickey Mantle every time the Yankees win a doubleheader, we have not only a sign of the corruption of Jewish tradition but an indication of where modern Jews look for their messiah. Mr. Patimkin, who has made his money manufacturing sinks, is the last member of a dying tribe. Proud of the hard bump in his nose, representing the last vestige of visible Jewishness, he is equally proud that he has the money to have his daughter Brenda's nose fixed.

The whole story is suffused with a sense of reduction. It is a satiric demonstration of how the house of modern Judaism rests on a base of vulgar and mindless materialism. Ron Patimkin's wedding gives us an entire gallery of the nouveaux riches.

There was Mrs. Patimkin's side of the family: her sister Molly, a tiny buxom hen whose ankles swelled and ringed her shoes, and who would remember Ron's wedding if for no other reason than she'd martyred her feet in three-inch heels, and Molly's husband, the butter and egg man, Harry Grossbart, who had earned his fortune with barley and corn in the days of Prohibition. Now he was active in the Temple and whenever he saw Brenda he swatted her on the can; it was a kind of physical bootlegging that passed, I guess, for familial affection. Then there was Mrs. Patimkin's brother, Marty Kreiger, the Kosher Hot-Dog King, an immense man, as many stomachs as he had chins, and already, at fifty-five, with as many heart attacks as chins and stomachs combined. He had just come back from a health cure in the Catskills, where he said he'd eaten nothing but All-Bran and had won $1500 at gin rummy. When the photographer came by to take pictures, Marty put his hand on his wife's pancake breasts and said, "Hey, how about a picture of this!" His wife, Sylvia, was a frail, spindly woman with bones like a bird's. She had cried throughout the ceremony, and sobbed openly, in fact, when the rabbi had pronounced Ron and Harriet "man and wife in the eyes of God and the state of New Jersey."

The long, sad monologue of Leo Patimkin, whose territory is "from here to everywhere," tells of how his wife made "oral love" with him after seders because she got drunk from the wine. Jewish holidays, rather than representing a heightened sense of reverence for Jewish values, turn into opportunities for licentiousness. Rosh Ha-Shonah is merely a chance for Neil to get off work and go up to Boston to continue his sexual romance with Brenda. When he leaves her and returns to work on the Jewish New Year, a skillful irony has been woven into the story. Neil participates in serious self-searching and undergoes a personal rebirth not because he believes in the religious efficacy of Rosh Ha-Shonah, but simply because the holiday has provided him with an opportunity to see his girl.

It is not just Jewish life that suffers bitter satiric and ironic reduction. New Jersey, just the other side of the Hudson, is seen as " . . . the swampy meadows that spread for miles and miles, watery, blotchy, smelly, like an oversight of God." We get this again in a longer passage, revealing a superb sense of social awareness and poetic perception.

The park, bordered by Washington Street on the west and Broad on the east, was empty and shady and smelled of trees, night, and dog leavings; and there was a faint damp smell too, indicating that the huge rhino of a water cleaner had passed by already, soaking and whisking the downtown streets. Down Washington Street, behind me, was the Newark Museum—I could see it without even looking: two oriental vases in front like spitoons for a rahjah, and next to it the little annex to which we had traveled on special buses as schoolchildren. The annex was a brick building, old and vinecovered, and always reminded me of New Jersey's link with the beginning of the country, with George Washington, who had trained his scrappy army—a little bronze tablet informed us children—in the very park where I now sat. At the far end of the park, beyond the Museum, was the bank building where I had gone to college. It had been converted some years before into an extension of Rutgers University; in fact, in what had once been the bank president's waiting room I had taken a course called Contemporary Moral Issues.

This long lyrical passage, this hymn to Newark, New Jersey that sees not only the modern irony that allows a bank to be so easily converted into a school, but can with a sense of pride look back into time and connect George Washington with whatever modern meaning the place might have—all of this immediately brings to mind the writing of Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby with its intermingling of romantic innocence and materialistic corruption. And all of it associated with the ethos of a particular period and the personality of a nation. In short, Philip Roth treats Jews as people, and people—ancient and modern—are corruptable.

Goodbye, Columbus could easily be thought of as F. Scott Fitzgerald looking for Zelda, thirty years later in Jewish New Jersey. I have even seen it suggested that this story represents the Gatsby-meets-Daisy-in-Louisville incident in The Greaty Gatsby. [James Friend, "Nakedness and Night Again: The Influence of The Great Gatsby on Philip Roth's Goodbye, Columbus." Unpublished] Roth has not only a heightened sensitivity to the sweep of the past, but can read the future in the matrix of the present.

Patimkin Kitchen and Bathroom Sinks was in the heart of the Negro section of Newark. Years ago, at the time of the great immigration, it had been the Jewish section, and still one could see the little fish stores, the kosher delicatessens, the Turkish baths, where my grandparents had shopped and bathed at the beginning of the century. Even the smells had lingered: whitefish, corned beef, sour tomatoes—but now, on top of these, was the grander greasier smell of auto wrecking shops, the sour stink of a brewery, the burning odor from a leather factory; and on the streets, instead of Yiddish, one heard the shouts of Negro children playing at Willie Mays with a broom handle and half a rubber ball. The neighborhood had changed: the old Jews like my grandparents had struggled and prospered, and moved further and further west, towards the edge of Newark, then out of it, and up the slope of the Orange Mountains, until they had reached the crest and started down the other side, pouring into Gentile territory as the Scotch-Irish had poured through the Cumberland Gap. Now, in fact, the Negroes were making the same migration, following the steps of the Jews, and those who remained in the Third Ward lived the most squalid of lives and dreamed in their fetid mattresses of the piny smell of Georgia nights.

Roth does what Fitzgerald was never able to do until late in his life—display a sense of sympathy for a social or racial class one rung below, standing just where the narrator might have stood a generation earlier. . . .

Unlike Gatsby, Neil refuses to pay the price. He will not sacrifice his moral integrity for a comfortable position in the Patimkin household, even if it means losing Brenda. Indeed, the final dimensions of the story more readily suggest Nick Carroway's decision to give up the girl who cheats at golf, the slightly immoral sportswoman Jordan Baker, than Gatsby's fatal quest.

Neil is at least half aware of some of the less savory emotions that make up his complex desire for Brenda. At the beginning it clearly partakes of aggressive social climbing, not unmixed with some envy of what he does not have. After making love to Brenda for the first time, it feels just like beating her spoiled younger sister in a game of ping-pong. Twice he tells himself and the reader that he is on the verge of proposing marriage. But each time he substitutes a provocative act for what would have been a very reassuring one. The first time he thinks of marriage, he instead suggests to Brenda that she acquire a diaphragm. The idea completely unnerves her, as it robs the relationship of its romantic spontaneity. In spite of Brenda's reluctance Neil pushes the matter, never giving her the word of assurance she seeks, arguing only his personal pleasure. The second time he considers suggesting marriage occurs at the conclusion of the story when he goes to Boston to visit her. She is upset because her mother has discovered the diaphragm in her drawer. Neil, instead of acting as a source of sympathy, aggressively and accusingly attacks her for, what is at worst, an unconscious slip. When Brenda indicates she will spend her Thanksgiving vacation with her parents rather than with him, Neil leaves her. Had Neil been a little more comforting and loving to a girl who had just registered them in a Boston hotel as man and wife, perhaps her choice would have been different.

Neil knows of the frightened insecurity beneath the beautiful, proud, self-assured facade. He has seen her angry rivalry with her mother, and made love to her in the attic at her command when she could not find the hundred dollar bills her father had hidden for her inside the old sofa. If sex partakes of an aggressive acquisitiveness for Neil, Brenda uses it to console herself for what she imagines to be an unsuccessful struggle with her mother. The discovery of the diaphragm not only hurts her mother, but forces her to pay attention to Brenda and open her arms wide to her. It is not only a struggle with the mother, but for the mother.

A careful reading of this story suggests that neither Neil nor Brenda is in love with the other. Each practices a halfunconscious act of self-deception so that each can more freely enjoy both the psychological and sensual gratifications that their sexual relationship provides.

There is something of love there, too; or at least a good potentiality for it. But any final judgment about how well it might have worked, changing this or postulating that, is impossible. The reason: Neil is an unreliable narrator, and he not only does not give us enough real information, but his own judgment is too clouded by his involvement with the entire Patimkin family. Neil is too worried about himself become a kitchen sink man under Mr. Patimkin's tutelage, or the horse that wins the race under Brenda's. This selfconcern prevents him from ever exploring the depths of Brenda's soul, and leaves the impression with the reader that she has none. With his rich imagination, Salinger-like sensitivity, and intelligent tone, Neil is certainly a sympathetic center of reflection; but his judgment is flawed by an intense reaction to the pleasures and dangers of the only real antagonist of the story—the vulgar materialism of middle class Jewish life.

This is not to say the story is irreparably flawed. The antagonist, modern Jewish suburban life, is real and accurately described. Neil's rejection of Brenda is meant to represent a rejection and condemnation of this way of life. Since this is the obvious and successful purpose of the writer, it might be too much of a scruple to suggest that Brenda, with Neil's help and love, could become something else. Indeed, it would have turned the story into a sentimental romance and shoved the social criticism to the rear, burying it under the triumphant emotion of emerging love.

Whatever the faults, Goodbye, Columbus is a rich and deeply moving story, provocative in many directions. It marks the successful working of a significant theme: the rejection of Jewish life, not because it is too Jewish, but because it is not Jewish enough, because it is so dominated by and infused with the American ethos that it partakes of the same corruption, offering no significant alternative. . . .

The characters created by Philip Roth are men in the middle, lacking a sure sense of values. They are continually concerned with complex alternatives. Placed in problematic situations, they are forced to think their position through and come out with a new formulation. Two value systems clash and a sympathetic character makes a significant choice.

"Defender of the Faith" is a clear demonstration of this technique. Sgt. Marx, a war hero returned to the states to conduct basic training, has no special sense of his Jewish identity. But when a young soldier in his company begins to manipulate his sympathies on the basis of their common Jewish background, this sense is tugged and wakened. The effect of Sheldon Grossbart and his shrewd maneuvers is exactly opposite to what he intends. Repelled by the young boy who seeks special favors, Marx is even more disgusted by his commanding officer who manifests a crude streak of casual prejudice: "Marx, I'd fight side by side wth a nigger if the fellow proved to me he was a man." When this officer falsely quotes Marx to the brass hats in Washington as saying that certain Jews tend to be pushy, Marx finds himself pushed against his will into Grossbart's corner. Trapped between two antipathies, two grotesque distortions of attitudes toward Jewishness, Marx is forced to redefine his identity.

Ironically, Marx's sense of Jewishness is so completely aroused that he becomes hostile to the obnoxious and selfish Grossbart when the screw of manipulation is turned one notch too tight. On discovering that Grossbart has succeeded in having his orders changed so that he will be sent to Ft. Monmouth instead of the Pacific, Marx uses all his influence to change them back again. This action partakes of the vindictive, as Marx hmiself admits. But he has done it, he tells the angry and hurt Grossbart, "for all of us." Sgt. Marx has taken an action that appears callous and even "anti-Semitic," unless understood as arising out of an honest conflict that profoundly wrestles with the problem of how best to serve Jewish interests. The solution is one that sacrifices the interests of one not very likeable member of the tribe to an abstract principle of absolute justice. The concerns of Judaism are consequently translated from simply self-preservation, to a prophetic vision of universal justice. Sgt. Marx's small action recapitulates the most significant transformation of social thought during the biblical period.

All this makes the story sound more rhetorical than it truly is. There is yet one element to be mentioned that permits multiple interpretations of the total plot. The reader is allowed to see the psychological workings of the central character's mind, and is therefore able to second guess some of his avowed motives for acting. The reader is even prompted in this direction by Marx's admission of vindictiveness. Whether or not the action that sends a boy off to combat and possible death is based on lofty principle is left for us to determine. At the end of the story the reader and critic is the man in the middle.

"Eli the Fanatic" is an even more interesting variation of this approach to plot. Here the central character has a history of nervous breakdowns; hence the significance of anything he does can be easily disqualified on psychological grounds. Eli Peck, chosen to be spokesman for the Jewish community because of his legal background, has the unpleasant assignment of asking a group of refugees to move. They have established a Yeshivah and are violating zoning laws that make no allowance for a school in the area. But the legal concerns are merely a ruse and rationalization. The Jewish community, located in a suburb of New York City, is worried what their Christian neighbors will think when they see these Orthodox Jews with their black clothes, beards, and peos.

By making both the rabbis and their homeless charges former inmates of German concentration camps, Philip Roth has set up sign posts for sympathy so that no one could possibly be pulling for the wrong side. The demarcation between good and evil is absolutely clear. Not only does Eli have to contend with the anxiety of representing a bad cause, but his wife is about to give birth for the first time. If this weren't enough, Eli learns that one of the rabbis was castrated by the Nazis. All of these vectors of anxiety impinge upon Eli, forcing this man in the middle to seek a compromise that will permit the Yeshivah to remain, and simultaneously to put to rest the fears of his Jewish neighbors. He convinces the castrated rabbi to take off his black gabardine and dress in a green tweed suit of Eli's. But then the extraordinary and unexpected happens. Eli dons the clothes he has persuaded the rabbi to give up, and walks through the center of town to pay his first visit to his new born son.

The large question of Eli's mental stability causes the validity and courage of the the act to come into question. It can be interpreted in two diametrically opposed ways. It is either a manifestation of an intense neurosis that drives a man to parade his deviation from expected norms, or an act of immense courage that overcomes the pressures toward conformity in order to demonstrate one's true identity. Is Eli a saint or a nut? A prophet or a fool? The story is carefully structured so that you can almost read it either way.

Almost, but not quite. The signs are subtle, but they suggest an answer. It is the sharp and biting depiction of Eli's wife that points the way. Herself in therapy, she is constantly trying to "understand" Eli when he is upset. Playing the therapist with him, she always assumes in a condescending way that whatever Eli is excited about is only a cover for deeper and more chronic turmoil. This becomes an ongoing ad hominem attack that is never willing to face the rightness or wrongness of his opinions. Acts and attitudes are reduced to a psychological necessity, and as such are dismissed. This is a perfect caricature of the psychologically oriented literary critic whose interpretation of this story would end after pointing up the evidence for viewing Eli as a guilt-ridden compulsive. The ridicule Roth heaps on Eli's wife indicates what he thinks of her, and he accomplishes it by just letting her talk. In one instance she claims to be having a kind of Oedipal relationship with her unborn child. A pretty good example of a priori reasoning.

Eli is to be taken very seriously, because within him two competing cultures are struggling for dominance. American's homemade moral system of rational pragmatism does battle with a weaker but more ancient and durable adversary, traditional Judaism. Certainly Judaism has its obtuse absurdities, its tale of a divine request for child sacrifice. But is it any more absurd than Main Street, Suburbia, USA, as we get it from Roth:

The Mayor's wife pushed a grocery cart full of dog food from Stop N'Shop to her station wagon. The President of the Lions Club, a napkin around his neck, was jamming pennies into the meter in front of the Bitin-Teeth Restaurant. Ted Heller caught the sun as it glazed off the new Byzantine mosaic entrance to his shoe shop. In pinkened jeans, Mrs. Knudson was leaving Halloway's Hardware, a paint bucket in each hand. Roger's Beauty Shoppe had its doors open—women's heads in silver bullets far as the eye could see. Over by the barbershop the pole spun, and Artie Berg's youngest sat on a red horse, having his hair cut.

And on it goes, documenting the nightmarish quality of the American quotidian.

In the final scene Roth underlines the myth and ritual of modern medicine. Eli stands talking to his baby, telling him how he will always commemorate this day by walking around once a year in a black suit, when the doctors descend upon him to give him a shot. Roth very carefully contrasts the white of the doctors—white shoes, white gowns, white skull caps—with Eli's black. And we see in the last paragraph of the story that these colors are meant to communicate a complicated metaphoric meaning:

And in a moment they tore off his jacket. The cloth gave in one yank. Then a needle slid under his skin. The drug calmed his soul, but did not touch it where the blackness had reached.

What we have here is medical science, metaphoric for all of modern thought, winning a false and superficial victory over ancient Judaism. A false victory because the black, with its associations of things sour, stale, and old, also represents the strange power of an authentic religion that touches an area of the soul inaccessible to tranquilizing drugs.

Can there be any doubt that Philip Roth means to condemn a society that turns zoning laws into subtle instruments of persecution? If Eli is a fanatic, he is a prophet as well. But the society he seeks to instruct with a dramatic act is too corrupt, too insulated, too hard of heart even to try to understand the meaning of Eli's suffering. Eli is trying to redeem the viciousness, masking itself in a sophisticated modern rationalism, of the American Jew. But none of his neighbors are sensitive enough to see, to feel, to understand. Once again modern society is the real villain; and the American Jew, to the extent to which he has steeped himself in America's peculiar mythos, is a visible sign of this villainy.

No wonder, then, that the rabbis rage at the writing of Philip Roth. He has exposed and ridiculed the very system that has nourished American Judaism to an unparalled position of wealth and power. Goodbye, Columbus continually implies what "Eli the Fanatic" boldly states: American Judaism has become the willing servant of an immoral society, corrupted by the very force it should oppose.

Irving Howe (essay date 1972)

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Source: "Philip Roth Reconsidered," in Commentary, Vol. 54, No. 6, December, 1972, pp. 69-77.

[In his reconsideration of Goodbye, Columbus, Howe maintains that Roth's short fiction is limited by his willful shaping of the text.]

When Philip Roth published his collection of stories, Goodbye, Columbus, in 1959, the book was generously praised and I was among the reviewers who praised it. Whatever modulations of judgment one might want now to propose, it is not hard to see why Roth should have won approval. The work of a newcomer still in his twenties, Goodbye, Columbus bristled with a literary selfconfidence such as few writers two or three decades older than Roth could command. His stories were immediately recognizable as his own, distinctive in voice, attitude, and subject; they possessed the lucidities of definition, though I would now add, lucidities harsh and grimacing in their over-focus. None of the fiction Roth has since published approaches this first collection in literary interest; yet, by no very surprising turn of events, his reputation has steadily grown these past few years, he now stands close to the center of our culture (if that is anything for him to be pleased about), and he is accorded serious attention both by a number of literary critics and those rabbis and Jewish communal leaders who can hardly wait to repay the animus he has lavished upon them. At least for a moment or two, until the next fashion appears, we are in the presence not only of an interesting writer but also a cultural "case."

The stories in Goodbye, Columbus are of a special kind.

They are neither probings through strategic incident to reach the inner folds of character nor affectionate renderings of regional, class, or ethnic behavior. They are not the work of a writer absorbed in human experience as it is, mirroring his time with self-effacing objectivity. Nor is Roth the kind of writer who takes pleasure in discovering the world's body, yielding himself to the richness of its surfaces and the mysteries of its ultimate course. If one recalls some of the motives that have moved our novelists—a hunger to absorb and render varieties of social experience, a respect for the plenitude of the mind, a sense of awe induced by contemplation of the curve of heroic fate, a passion for moral scrutiny—none of these seems crucially to operate in Roth's work. It is, in fact, a little comic to invoke such high motifs in discussing that work, and not because Roth is a minor writer but because he is a writer who has denied himself, programmatically, the vision of major possibilities.

What one senses nevertheless in the stories of Goodbye, Columbus is an enormous thrust of personal and ideological assertiveness. In the clash which, like Jacob with his angel, the writer must undertake with the world around him—and, unlike Jacob, must learn when and how to lose—there can be little doubt that Roth will steadily pin his opponent to the ground. His great need is for a stance of superiority, the pleasure, as Madison Avenue puts it, of always being "on top of it." (Perhaps he should have been a literary critic.) Only rarely do his fictions risk the uncharted regions of imaginative discovery; almost all his work drives a narrative toward cognitive ends fixed in advance. Roth appears indifferent to the Keatsian persuasion that a writer should be "capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts," since that would require a discipline of patience; nor does he pay much heed to the Coleridgean persuasion that "tragedy depends on a sense of the mind's greatness," since that would mean to acknowledge the powers of another mind, to soften his clattering voice, and to ease himself into that receptivity to experience which is one mark of the creative imagination.

For good or bad, both in the stories that succeed and those that fail, Goodbye, Columbus rests in the grip of an imperious will prepared to wrench, twist, and claw at its materials in order to leave upon them the scar of its presence—as if the work of fiction were a package that needed constantly to be stamped with a signature of self. With expectations of being misunderstood I am tempted to add that, despite their severe and even notorious criticisms of Jewish life in America, Roth's stories are marked by a quintessentially "Jewish will," the kind that first makes its historical appearance in the autobiography of Solomon Maimon, where the intellectual aspirant sees himself as a solitary antagonist to the world of culture which, in consequence, he must conquer and reduce to acknowledgment.

The will dominating Goodbye, Columbus clamors to impose itself—in part through an exclusion of inconvenient perceptions—upon whatever portions of imagined life are being presented. And that is one reason these stories become a little tiresome upon rereading: one grows weary of a writer who keeps nagging and prodding and beating us over the head with the poker of his intentions. What is almost always central in Roth's stories is their "point," their hammering of idea, and once that "point," is clear, usually well before a story's end, the portrayal starts to pale, for not enough autonomous life remains and too much of the matter seems a mere reflex of the will's "begetting."

Even in regard to details of milieu and manners, for which Roth has been frequently praised; the will takes over and distorts. In his title novella, Goodbye, Columbus, there are some keen notations—the refrigerator in the basement bulging with fruit, the turgidities of the wedding—which help to characterize the newly-rich Patimkins in their suburban home. And there are moments of tenderness—a quality not abundant in Roth's work—during the romance between Neil Klugman, the poor Newark boy, and Brenda Patimkin, the self-assured Radcliffe girl (though nothing she says or does could persuade one that she would ever have been admitted to Radcliffe). Yet if the novella is read with any care at all, it becomes clear that Roth is not precise and certainly not scrupulous enough in his use of social evidence. The Patimkins are easily placed—what could be easier for a Jewish writer than to elicit disdain for middle-class Jews?—but the elements of what is new in their experience are grossly manipulated. Their history is invoked for the passing of adverse judgment, at least part of which seems to me 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 locate or 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-20th century thrust upon the Patimkins of this world. Ripped out of the historical context that might help to define them, the Patimkins are vivid enough, but as lampoon or caricature in a novella that clearly aims for more than lampoon or caricature. (There is, for example, a placing reference to Mrs. Patimkin's membership in Hadassah, employed as a cue for easy laughs in the way watermelons once were for Southern blacks—it is an instance of how a thrust against vulgarity can itself become vulgar, and by no means the only one in Roth's work.)

On the other side of the social spectrum Roth places Aunt Gladys, still poor, fretting absurdly over her nephew's health and, quite as if she were a stand-in for the Mrs. Portnoy yet to come, rattling off one-liners about the fruit in her icebox. Aunt Gladys, we learn, is preparing for a Workmen's Circle picnic; and for a reader with even a little knowledge of Jewish immigrant life, that raises certain expectations, since the Workmen's Circle signifies a socialist and Yiddishist commitment which time, no doubt, has dimmed but which still has left some impact of sensibility on people like Aunt Gladys. But while named, as if to signal familiarity with her background, this aspect of Aunt Gladys's experience is never allowed to color Roth's portrait, never allowed to affect either the ridicule to which she is subjected nor the simplistic fable—so self-serving in its essential softness—of a poor but honorable Jewish boy withstanding suburban-Jewish vulgarity and thereupon left without any moral option in his world.

The price Roth pays for immobilizing the Patimkins into lampoon and Aunt Gladys into vaudeville is that none of the social or moral forces supposedly acting upon Neil Klugman can be dramatically marshaled. And Neil Klugman himself—poor cipher that he is, neither very klug nor very man—can never engage himself in the risks and temptations that are supposed to constitute his dilemma, if only because Roth is out there running interference, straight-arming all the other characters in behalf of this vapid alter ego. Even so extreme an admirer of Roth's work as Theodore Solotaroff acknowledges the "abstractness that Neil takes on. He . . . is too far along the path he is supposed to be traveling in the story. One could wish that he were more his aunt's nephew, more troubled and attracted by the life of the Patimkins, and more willing to test it and himself."

Now the issue is not, I had better emphasize, whether newly-rich suburban Jews are vulgar—a certain number, perhaps many, surely are—nor whether they are proper targets of satire—everyone is. What I am saying is that in its prefabricated counterpositions Goodbye, Columbus draws not upon a fresh encounter with the postwar experience of suburban Jews but upon literary hand-me-downs of American-Jewish fiction, popularizing styles of rebellion from an earlier moment and thereby draining them of their rebellious content.

I doubt, in any case, that Roth is really interested in a close and scrupulous observance of social life. He came to the literary scene at a moment when the dominant kind of critical talk was to dismiss "mere realism," as if that were a commodity so easily come by, and to praise "the imagination," as if that were a faculty which could operate apart from a bruising involvement with social existence. And this critical ideology served to reinforce Roth's own temperament as a writer, which is inclined to be impatient, snappish, and dismissive, all qualities hardly disposing him to strive for an objective (objective: to see the object as it is) perception of contemporary life.

Defending himself several years ago against the rather feckless attacks of outraged rabbis, some of whom complained that he did not provide a "balanced portrayal" of Jewish life, Roth wrote that "to confuse a 'balanced portrayal' with a novel is . . . to be led into absurdities." ["Writing about Jews," Commentary, December 1963]. Absurdities, he continued, like supposing a group of 19th-century Russian students sending off a complaint to Dostoevsky that Raskolnikov is not a "typical student." Well, that's amusing, though I think it would be quite possible to show that, in some sense, Dostoevsky does present a "balanced portrayal" of Russian life. In any case, Roth in his defense, as in his fiction, makes things a little too easy for himself. For the critical issue is not whether he has given a "balanced portrayal" of the Jews as a whole or even the suburban Jews, but whether his portrayal of the Patimkins as the kind of people they are is characterized by fullness and precision. After all, no fictional portrait is merely idiosyncratic, every novel or story aspires to some element of representativeness or at least reverberation—and indeed, at a crucial point in Goodbye, Columbus, when Neil Klugman is reflecting upon what his fate would be if he were to marry Brenda, he at least takes the Patimkins to be representative of a way of life. It will not do to say that the Patimkins are "unique," for if they were they could have no interest other than as an oddity. What is at stake here is Roth's faithfulness to his own materials, the justice and largesse of his imaginative treatment.

There remains another line of defense against such criticism, which Roth's admirers frequently man: that he writes satire and therefore cannot be expected to hew closely to realistic detail. This is a defense that quite fails to apprehend what the nature of good satire is. To compose a satire is not at all to free oneself from the obligation to social accuracy; it is only to order that accuracy in a particular way. If it can be shown that the targets of the satirist are imprecisely located or that he is shooting wild, the consequences may be more damaging than if the same were shown for a conventional realist. And if it can be shown that the satire is self-serving—poor Neil, poor Alex . . . —then it becomes—well, imagine how absurd Gulliver's Travels would seem if we became persuaded that the satiric barrage against mankind allows for one little exception, a young hero troubled by the burdens of being English and resembling Jonathan Swift.

Roth's stories begin, characteristically, with a spectacular array of details in the representation of milieu, speech, and manners and thereby we are led to expect a kind of fiction strong in verisimilitude. But then, at crucial points in the stories, there follow a series of substitutions, elements of incident or speech inserted not because they follow from the logic of the narrative but because they underscore the point Roth wishes to extract from the narrative. In "The Conversion of the Jews" a bright if obnoxious Jewish boy becomes so enraged with the snffling pieties of his Hebrew-school teacher, Rabbi Bender, that he races out of the classroom and up to the roof, threatening to jump unless the rabbi admits that "God can do anything" and "can make a child without intercourse." The plot may seem a bit fanciful and the story, as Mr. Solotaroff justly remarks, "inflated to get in the message"—but no matter, at least our attention is being held. Then, however, comes the breaking point, when the writer's will crushes his fiction: Ozzie "made them all say they believed in Jesus Christ—first one at a time, then all together." Given the sort of tough-grained Jewish urchin Ozzie is shown to be, this declamation strains our credence; it is Roth who has taken over, shouldering aside his characters and performing on his own, just as it is Roth who ends the story with the maudlin touch of Ozzie crying out, "Mamma. You should never hit anybody about God. . . . " Scratch an Ozzie, and you find a Rabbi Bender.

A richer and more ambitious story, "Eli the Fanatic" suffers from the same kind of flaws. An exotic yeshivah sponsored by a Hasidic sect settles in Woodenton, a comfortable suburb. The local Jews feel hostile, tension follows, and Eli Peck, a vulnerable Woodenton Jew, undergoes a kind of moral conversion in which he identifies or hallucinates himself as a victim in kaftan. It is difficult, if one bears in mind Roth's entire work, to take at face value this solemn espousal of yeshivah Orthodoxy as the positive force in the story; I cannot believe that the yeshivah and all it represents has been brought into play for any reason other than as a stick with which to beat Woodenton. Tzuref, the yeshivah principal, is well-drawn and allowed to speak for his out-look, as Aunt Gladys in Goodbye, Columbus is not: which is one reason this story builds up a certain dramatic tension. But again Roth feels obliged to drop a heavy thumb on the scales by making his suburbanites so benighted, indeed, so merely stupid, that the story finally comes apart. Here is a Woodenton Jew speaking:

Look, I don't even know about this Sunday school business. Sundays I drive my oldest kid all the way to Scarsdale to learn Bible stories . . . and you know what she comes up with? This Abraham in the Bible was going to kill his own kid for a sacrifice. She gets nightmares from it, for God's sake. You call that religion? Today a guy like that they'd lock him up.

Now, even a philistine character has certain rights, if not as a philistine then as a character in whose "reality" we are being asked to believe. To write as if this middle-class Jewish suburbanite were unfamiliar with "this Abraham" or shocked by the story of the near-sacrifice of Isaac, is simply preposterous. Roth is putting into the character's mouth, not what he could plausibly say, but what Roth thinks his "real" sentiments are. He is not revealing the character, but "exposing" him. It is a crucial failure in literary tact, one of several in the story that rouse the suspicion Roth is not behaving with good faith toward the objects of his assault.

This kind of tendentiousness mars a number of Roth's fictions, especially those in which a first-person narrator—Neil Klugman, Alex Portnoy—swarms all over the turf of his imaginary world, blotting out the possibility of multiple perspective. It is a weakness of fictions told in the first person that the limits of the narrator's perception tend to become the limits of the work itself. Through an "unreliable" first-person narrator it is, of course, possible to plant bits of crucial evidence that call his version of things into question, but that requires a good deal of technical sophistication and still more, a portion of self-doubt such as our culture has not greatly encouraged these past two decades. There usually follows in such first-person narratives a spilling-out of the narrator which it becomes hard to suppose is not also the spilling-out of the author. Such literary narcissism is especially notable among minor satirists, with whom it frequently takes the form of self-exemptive attacks on the shamefulness of humanity. In some of Mary McCarthy's novels, for example, all the characters are shown as deceitful and venomous, all but a heroine pure in heart and close to the heart of the author. Neither Klugman nor Portnoy is exactly pure in heart, but as a man at ease with our moment, Portnoy has learned that "sincerity" can pay substantial dividends by soliciting admiration for the candor with which it proclaims impurities. And as for those of Roth's stories that avoid the looseness of the first-person narrative, his own authorial voice quickly takes over, becoming all but indistinguishable from a first-person narrator, raucous, selfaggrandizing, and damned sure that the denouement of his story will not escape the grip of his will.

To these strictures I would offer one exception, the Roth story that, oddly, was most attacked by his rabbinical critics: "Defender of the Faith." This seems to me a distinguished performance, the example of what Roth might have made of his talent had he been stricter in his demands upon himself. Roth's description of the story is acute: "It is about one man who uses his own religion, and another's uncertain conscience, for selfish ends; but mostly it is about this other man, the narrator, who because of the ambiguities of being a member of a particular religion, is involved in a taxing, if mistaken, conflict of loyalties." This conflict is at once urgent for those caught up in it and serious in its larger moral implications. Nathan Marx, back from combat duty in Germany, is made First Sergeant of a training company in Missouri; he is a decent, thoughtful fellow whose sense of being Jewish, important though it is to him, he cannot articulate clearly. A few recruits in his company, led by Sheldon Grossbart, attach themselves to Marx, presumably out of common feeling toward the problem of being Jews in an alien setting, but actually because Grossbart means to exploit this sense of solidarity in behalf of private ends—he looks forward to the crucial favor of not being sent overseas to combat. As Roth comments, Grossbart is "a man whose lapses of integrity seem to him so necessary to his survival as to convince him that such lapses are actually committed in the name of integrity." At the end of the story, Sergeant Marx, incensed at the manipulation to which he has been subjected, makes certain that Grossbart is indeed shipped overseas, while he, Marx, braces himself to face the consequences of an act he admits to be "vindictive."

The power of this story derives from presenting a moral entanglement so as to draw out, yet not easily resolve, its inherent difficulties. Unattractive as Grossbart may be, his cunning use of whatever weapons come to hand in order to protect his skin seems entirely real; one would have to be thoroughly locked into self-righteousness not to be drawn a little, however shamefacedly, to Grossbart's urgency. The willingness of Marx to bend the rules in behalf of the Jewish recruits is plausible, perhaps even admirable; after all, he shares their loneliness and vulnerability. Established thereby as a figure of humaneness, Marx commits an act that seems shocking, even to himself, so that he must then try to resist "with all my will an impulse to turn back and seek pardon for my vindictiveness." If it is right to punish Grossbart, Marx also knows the punishment is cruel, a result, perhaps, of the same Jewish uneasiness that had first made him susceptible to Grossbart's designs.

The story does not allow any blunt distribution of moral sympathies, nor can the reader yield his heart to one character. Before the painfulness of the situation, Roth's usual habit of rapid dismissal must melt away. We are left with the texture of reality as, once in a while, a writer can summon it.

Neither before nor after "Defender of the Faith" has Roth written anything approaching it in compositional rigor and moral seriousness. It may, however, have been the presence of this story in Goodbye, Columbus that led reviewers, including myself, to assume that this gifted new writer was working in the tradition of Jewish self-criticism and satire—a substantial tradition extending in Yiddish from Mendele to Isaac Bashevis Singer and in English from Abraham Cahan to Malamud and Bellow. In these kinds of writing, the assault upon Jewish philistinism and the mockery of Jewish social pretension are both familiar and unrelenting. Beside Mendele, Roth seems soft; beside Cahan, imprecise. But now, from the vantage point of additional years, I think it clear that Roth, despite his concentration on Jewish settings and his acerbity of tone, has not really been involved in this tradition. For he is one of the first American-Jewish writers who finds that it yields him no sustenance, no norms or values from which to launch his attacks on middle-class complacence.

This deficiency, if deficiency it be, need not be a fatal one for a Jewish writer, provided he can find sustenance elsewhere, in other cultures, other traditions. But I do not see that Roth has—his relation to the mainstream of American culture, in its great sweep of democratic idealism and romanticism, is decidedly meager. There is no lack of critical attitude, or attitudinizing, in Roth's stories, but much of it consists of the frayed remnants of cultural modernism, once revolutionary in significance but now reduced to little more than the commonplace "shock" of middlebrow culture. And there is a parasitic relation to the embattled sentiments and postures of older Jewish writers in America—though without any recognition that, by now, simply to launch attacks on middle-class suburbia is to put oneself at the head of the suburban parade, just as to mock the uptightness of immigrant Jews is to become the darling of their "liberated" suburban children.

One reason Roth's stories are unsatisfactory is that they come out of a thin personal culture. That he can quote Yeats and Rilke is hardly to the point. When we speak of a writer's personal culture we have in mind the ways in which a tradition, if absorbed into his work, can both release and control his creative energies. A vital culture can yield a writer those details of manners, customs, and morals which give the illusion of reality to his work. More important, a vital culture talks back, so to say, within the writer's work, holding in check his eccentricities, notions, and egocentrisms, providing a dialectic between what he has received and what he has willed—one can see this in novelists as various as Tolstoy, Hawthorne, Verga, and Sholem Aleichem.

When we say, consequently, that a writer betrays a thin personal culture we mean, among other possibilities, that he comes at the end of a tradition which can no longer nourish his imagination or that he has, through an act of fiat, chosen to tear himself away from that tradition—many American writers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, for example, could no longer continue with firm conviction in the line of transcendental idealism which had been so liberating fifty or sixty years earlier. It is, of course, a severe predicament for a writer to find himself in this situation; it forces him into self-consciousness, improvisation, and false starts; but if he is genuinely serious, he will try, like a farmer determined to get what he can from poor soil, to make a usable theme of his dilemmas.

Perhaps this thinness of culture has some connection with that tone of ressentiment, that freefloating contempt and animus, which begins to appear in Roth's early stories and grows more noticeable in his later work. Unfocused hostility often derives from unexamined depression, and the latter, which I take to be the ground-note of Roth's sensibility, fully emerges only in the two novels he wrote after Goodbye, Columbus. But even in the early stories one begins to heat a grind of exasperation, an assault without precise object, an irritable wish to pull down the creatures of his own imagination which can hardly be explained by anything happening within the stories themselves. If sentimentality is defined as emotion in excess of what a given situation warrants, what are we to say about irritability in excess? As one of Roth's critics, Baruch Hochman, has sharply noticed:

The energy informing [Roth's] stories is scarcely more than the energy of irritation, an irritation so great that it makes the exposure of inanity seem a meaningful moral act. For Roth does not seem really to be concerned with the substance of the values he shows being eroded. It is not at all clear how Neil Klugman, who is so offended at the Patimkins, stands for anything substantially different from what they stand for—setting aside the fact that he is poorer than they, which he cannot help. His differences with them lie elsewhere than in the moral realm. . . .

At times the note of disgust is sounded in full, as in "Epstein," a nasty joke about a middle-aged man's hapless effort to revive his sexuality. Reading the last paragraphs of this story, arranged as a pratfall for the poor slob Epstein (and how pleasurable it is for "us," the cultivated ones, to sneer at those slobs, with their little box houses, their spreading wives, their mucky kids, their uncreative jobs), one is reminded of D. H. Lawrence's jibe about writers who "do dirt" on their characters.

John N. McDaniel (essay date 1974)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3267

Source: "The Fiction of Philip Roth: An Introduction," in The Fiction of Philip Roth, Haddonfield House, 1974, pp. 1-36.

[In the following excerpt, McDaniel compares one of Roth's earlier works, "The Contest for Aaron Gold, " with a more recent piece, "I Always Wanted You to Admire My Fasting': Or, Looking at Kafka, " to demonstrate thematic and artistic consistencies in Roth's short fiction.]

Perhaps the best introduction into Roth's fictional world is to be found in Roth's very early "The Contest for Aaron Gold" and his very recent '"I Always Wanted You to Admire My Fasting'; Or, Looking at Kafka." The former was published when Roth was only twenty-one years old, and the latter appeared in the American Review of May, 1973. The two stories serve as excellent parameters of Roth's artistry, suggesting not only the continuity of Roth's essential themes and hero types but also the subtle changes in Roth's artistic techniques, particularly his movement into the fantastic, his increasing reliance on autobiographical materials for his fiction, and his growing willingness, as he says in "Reading Myself [Partisan Review, 1973], to be both subversive and perverse in his attack on traditional social values. Despite their differences, the two stories illustrate Roth's ongoing attempt to discover, in his own words, "a kind of passageway from the imaginary that seems real to the real that seems imaginary, a continuum between the credible incredible and the incredible credible." ["Reading Myself"]. And, as we shall see, the hero in each story brings with him not only the occupation but also the sensibility of the artist, one who is brought into direct confrontation with society.

"The Contest for Aaron Gold" focuses on the moral dilemma faced by Werner Samuelson, a Jewish artist driven from his studio in Austria by the Germans in 1940, who for the first time in fourteen years has left his Philadelphia ceramics shop for summer employment as a ceramics instructor at a boys' camp. The moral dilemma arises from Werner's growing interest in one of the campers, Aaron Gold, who "was about eight years old, bony, underfed, a little tired-looking." While the other boys take on handicraft projects that are less than distinguished ("snakes were the favorite, turtles a close second"), Aaron embarks on a warrior knight aiming a sword at a dragon. Difficulty arises when the aggressive, popular swimming instructor, Lefty Shulberg, lets it be known that he objects to Aaron's tardiness at swimming sessions—tardiness caused by Aaron's desire to finish his knight.

Werner's plight becomes more serious when the camp owner, Lionel Steinberg, places additional pressure on him:

Look, Werner, let's get squared around. It's good you're taking your job seriously, looking after the kids and all. But if there's one thing we don't want here it's one-sided kids. That's what I tell the parents and that's what they want, an all-round camp, you understand? But if you're going to let one kid play potsy with clay all day, Werner, what the hell are his parents going to say to me?

Lionel cannot understand why Aaron should be allowed extra time, despite the fact that Aaron's knight is much superior to the other boys' artistic efforts. In words that unconsciously parody the first of all creative acts, Lionel complains to Werner,

For christ sake, we asphalted the whole entrance road, the whole thing, and the parking lot besides in seven days. Seven days, and you stand there and ask me why a kid shouldn't take forty hours to make a pair of goddam legs. Don't kid me, Werner.

Werner's initial decision, preceded by four days of a cold, miserable rain that turns the lake into a murky brown (suggestive, perhaps, of Noah's flood), is as practical as the pragmatic Lionel could wish: He will ask the boys to speed up their work. "After all, Steinberg was his employer, paying the check, and he was the employee. This was just no summer to get fired." Aaron, however, upon hearing Werner's directive, cries that he cannot work quicker: "I can't finish by Sunday, Uncle Werner. I just can't!" Werner momentarily relents, but as the Sunday visitor's day approaches, he is faced once again with an irate Lionel. Clutching the unfinished knight in his hand, Lionel confronts Werner: "Wait'll Lefty hears about this goddam thing." Realizing that it is too close to visiting day for Steinberg to fire him, Werner turns his attention to Lefty. What would Lefty think?

What he might think was that as far as the contest for Aaron Gold was concerned—for, apparently, that was what it had become to Lefty—he had lost. Lefty probably didn't like to lose, but Werner had had his way, and if that wasn't a loss, at best it was a tie. Ties probably wouldn't do for Lefty either. Maybe he would come over and punch him in the mouth. No, Lefty wouldn't settle up that way. It was too simple. No, but he would think of something. What? That didn't take too much pondering: probably Lefty would make Aaron Gold the most miserable kid in the world. He seemed capable.

With Aaron's welfare clearly in mind, Werner takes on the task of completing Aaron's unfinished project, but when Aaron sees the result, he shouts angrily, "You ruined him, you did, you did" and runs out of the ceramics shop to the edge of the lake, "like a small wild animal who gets out of a blazing forest just as fast as he can." Werner, exhausted by the chain of events leading to the emotional confrontation with Aaron, flops into a chair to contemplate the knight.

He set it upon the table before him, contemplating it as one might contemplate a rare piece of sculpture. He stared a full minute, and then, like a mace, he pummeled his right fist down upon it. It shattered, but he pounded and pounded at it with his fist. He pounded until it was a mess, and even then he didn't stop. It was a better job than the dragon himself might have done.

With the sound of Lefty Shulberg's jovial greetings to parents and visitors dinning in his ears, Werner washes his hands, packs his bags, and walks "along the hot, squirming road and out of the camp."

Although no critic has made mention of "The Contest for Aaron Gold," the story provides a clear index of Roth's early artistic intents and techniques. Like Neil Klugman of Goodbye, Columbus, Eli Peck of "Eli, the Fanatic," Nathan Marx of "Defender of the Faith," and Gabe Wallach of Letting Go, Werner is the unwilling hero, an essentially passive man who has a difficult moral choice suddenly thrust upon him. The choice—as is the case with other of Roth's early heroes—is not a clear-cut one, and the consequences of the choice are ambiguous. Werner is not merely torn between keeping his job and remaining loyal to Aaron Gold, for his final decision to destroy the knight he has wrongfully completed for Aaron comes after he realizes that his job is secure. The choice, rather, is a partially unwitting, or at least unarticulated, response to the crass middle-class values of Camp Lakeside, values that are embodied in the words and actions of Lefty Shulberg and Lionel Steinberg. As spokesmen for social "normalcy," Werner's two antagonists are the exponents of a suffocating, soul-numbing creed of expediency, against which the hero throws his uncertain power. This contest, I believe, describes the central conflict in Roth's fiction.

Lefty Shulberg, Werner's most immediate antagonist, is, like Ron Patimkin of Goodbye, Columbus a man to be respected because of his athletic prowess. His claims to fame are two: he had been a professional basketball player and he had once, in a Tarzan movie, fought an underwater battle with Johnny Weissmuller. Lefty and the other counselors live by the proposition that, as one of the boys says, "we gotta not play alone" because "it's no good for you." Lefty thinks that Aaron is "peculiar" because he does not like to swim, and as the contest for Aaron Gold continues, Lefty grows in the conviction that the relationship between Werner and Aaron is an abnormal one. It is clear that camp owner Steinberg knows of Lefty's suspicions (Steinberg tells Werner, "I'd hate like hell to tell you what he said about you and that kid") and comes to agree with Lefty ("Werner, I'm just about fed up What kind of game are you and that little queer trying to play anyhow!").

Lionel Steinberg, like Lefty Shulberg, is a subject for Roth's satirical eye. Like Lefty, Lionel is ruled by shallow middle-class values. Lionel believes in having all-around kids in an all-around camp because that is what parents want. Lionel warns Werner early in the story, "Every kid's going to have something finished by visiting day, Werner. Parents want something for their money." Lionel's other obsession is to have all the main arteries of the camp paved by visitor's day, after which, according to the construction supervisor, "we can start paving the goddam lake." The smell of asphalt and the roar of road machines supply an appropriate background for Lionel's notion of creativity—a creativity that is sterile, commercial and ugly in conception and fulfillment.

Over and against this backdrop is the uncertain voice of Werner the craftsman, speaking for the values of the artist. To an unimpressed audience on the first day of camp, Werner gives an explanation of the vessels made in ancient times with the potter's wheel:

"The men"—whoever they were—"always tried to make these vessels more beautiful and shapely"—somebody giggled. 'They painted them red and gold, and blue and green, and they painted their sides with stories and legends. It took hundreds of years until men saw how much happier they could be if they surrounded themselves with beautiful—beautiful objects of art."

Armed with the conviction that "it takes time to learn what to do," Werner makes a reluctant crusade into the modern asphalt wasteland of Camp Lakeside. It is Werner who personifies Aaron's knight ("whose spindly legs wouldn't have done him much service against a good, fast dragon"); the dragon, on the other hand, is clearly symbolic of the Shulberg-Steinberg-Camp Lakeside values. Early in the story, Aaron pleads to be allowed to spend extra time to finish the knight's legs. Werner replies, "Of course—what do you think, I'm on the dragon's side?" Later, when Werner tries to implement Steinberg's speed-up policy, Aaron wants to know where Werner stands: "Whose side—me or the dragon?" At the end of the tale, when Werner realizes that in completing Aaron's unfinished knight he has capitulated to the Camp Lakeside values of Steinberg and Shulberg, he reverses the capitulation by becoming knight and dragon in one: "Like a mace, he pummeled his right fist down upon it," until the knight was shattered. "It was a better job than the dragon himself might have done."

The ironic twist involved in Werner's final decision to destroy the knight, the symbol of his own values, is characteristic of Roth's early fiction. In a world where normative social values hold sway, the actions of the hero sensitive to human values must often seem tinged with madness. To the public, represented by the parents who come on visitor's day, it is Lefty Shulberg, not Werner, who appears as the protective moral agent keeping watch over the children. In the last scene in the story, we see Lefty, who is about to give a special diving exhibition, welcoming visitors and campers with the aid of a megaphone:

"How you doing, Mike. Sit your parents down right there. That a boy . . . Jeff-boy, what do you say, kid." The names snapped out like sparks, and then, a moment after Werner heard them, they were muffled in a wooly heat. "Artie, that a boy . . . Hey, Joe, how's my—Hey, what do you know! Goldy! How are you doing, Goldy—buddy! That your parents? Good, sit them right down front. What do you know!" Lefty waved his megaphone at Aaron Gold's parents. Mr. Gold, in white shirt and gray Bermuda shorts, waved back; Mrs. Gold nodded. Lefty was treating their boy all right.

What do the parents know? They know that "Lefty was treating their boy all right"—a reasonable conclusion, after all, if one's vision is restricted to the smooth and artificial surface offered by Camp Lakeside.

One of Roth's most recent stories, "'I Always Wanted You to Admire My Fasting': Or, Looking At Kafka," is, like "The Contest for Aaron Gold," a story about a Jewish artist who comes to America to confront its social forces; in this case, however, the artist is Franz Kafka and the setting is Newark, New Jersey, and the home of Philip Roth in 1942. The story is a strange blend of fact and fiction, reality and fantasy, which suggests how far Roth has come from the more traditional early techniques evidenced in "The Contest for Aaron Gold." After an introductory quotation from Kafka's "A Hunger Artist," the first part of this two-part story opens with the narrator, Roth, saying, "I am looking, as I write of Kafka, at the photograph taken of him at the age of forty (my age)—it is 1924, as sweet and hopeful a year as he may ever have known as a man, and the year of his death." The first section recounts the history of Kafka's anguished attempts, in his last years, to escape the pressures of home life, the domination of his father, and his own "habit of obedience and renunciation."

As a consequence of discovering some happiness with his mistress, Dora Dymant, Kafka, now in his fortieth year and away from Prague and his father's home, "seems at last to have been delivered from the self-loathing, the self-doubt, and those guilt-ridden impulses to dependence and self-effacement that had nearly driven him mad throughout his twenties and thirties." Roth reports, however, that it is also at this time that Kafka writes the unfinished story "The Burrow," the story of an animal "with a keen sense of peril whose life is organized around the principle of defense, and whose deepest longings are for security and serenity." But what if this Kafka who finally finds a tentative happiness in his women and his work should effect an escape of both literal and figurative death by fulfilling for himself the imagined journey of Karl Rossman, the journey, that is, to America?

It is, then, with this leap into fantasy that part two of the story begins. It is 1942, Roth is nine, and his Hebrew School teacher is Dr. Franz Kafka. Much to Roth's dismay, Dr. Kafka accepts an invitation to dine at the Roth home where Roth's father has arranged a match between Kafka and Aunt Rhoda, a spinster who works as an interior decorator at a large dry goods store ("The Big Bear") and whose aspirations are to appear on the stage. Roth's father is convinced that Kafka would "give his eye teeth to have a nice home and a wife," so he proceeds to "do a job" on Kafka ("Does he make a sales pitch for familial bliss!"). The affair between Kafka and Rhoda ends miserably, however, after Dr. Kafka apparently broaches the subject of sex. Aunt Rhoda returns to the Roth home from a weekend tryst with Kafka in Atlantic City (Kafka had wanted to see the famous boardwalk and the horse that dives from the high board), and pours out her dismay in tearful scenes: "Have you ever?" says Aunt Rhoda, weeping. "Have you ever?" Kafka sends four letters to Rhoda in three days, but Rhoda's moral outrage remains. Everyone agrees with Roth's father when he says of Kafka, "Something is wrong with him all right." Kafka dies at the end of the tale, leaving behind no Trial, no Castle, no "Diaries." All that remains are four "meshugeneh " letters "accumulated in her dresser drawers by my spinster aunt, along with a collection of Broadway 'Playbills,' sales citations from 'The Big Bear,' and transatlantic steamship stickers."

Thus all trace of Dr. Kafka disappears. Destiny being destiny, how could it be otherwise? Does the Land Surveyor reach the Castle? Does K. escape the judgment of the Court, or Georg Bendemann the judgment of his father? "'Well, clear this out now!' said the overseer, and they buried the hunger artist, straw and all." No, it simply is not in the cards for Kafka ever to become the Kafka—way, that would be stranger even than a man turning into an insect. No one would believe it, Kafka least of all.

What is the point of so bizarre a story? First of all, the story is clearly a continuation of one of the earliest thematic conflicts in Roth's fiction: the conflict between the sensitive man (quite often an artist, like Werner Samuelson, or a teacher-writer, like Kafka) and an insensitive society that constricts, stupefies, and maddens the wouldbe hero to despair. If you want to see why the artist becomes a "burrower," Roth seems to say, consider what would happen to Franz Kafka if he had to live in America, in Newark, in my home. "He's too quiet for Rhoda." Roth's mother says of Dr. Kafka, "I think maybe he's a little bit of a wallflower." "Don't worry," says Roth's father, "when the time comes I'll give him a little nudge." The banality, the tastelessness, the manipulative strategies (Aunt Rhoda had, in her younger days, put on puppet shows in which she did all the voices and "manipulated the manikins on their strings") combine to reduce Kafka to a shadow of a man, a "homeless K, but without K.'s willfulness and purpose, a homeless Karl, but without Karl's youthful spirit and resilience." Little wonder then that, after his "homey" experience in America, the homeless Kafka leaves no literary work behind—which is a way of suggesting that the artist in America experiences artistic starvation indeed.

A second point illustrated by the story (and emphasized by Roth's use of "Philip Roth" as narrator) is that Roth, like Kafka, does not hesitate to "burrow" inward and look backward, probing his own past experiences as Jew and writer for tensions that are given oblique and often ironic treatment in his fiction. Although the dangers of drawing parallels between an author's personal experience and his fiction are notorious, it is impossible to avoid observing that at times there is a proximity between Roth and his characters, between Roth's interests and those explored in his fiction (a point that is often made about Kafka's work as well). There is, of course, nothing unique about an author's utilizing his own experience in his fiction; nevertheless, Roth's candid and repeated admissions of his reliance on what is "close to home" underscores both his commitment to social realism and his willingness to explore some of his own responses to American culture through the focusing lens of fiction. . . .

Like the Roth and Kafka in "'I Always Wanted You to Admire My Fasting': Or, Looking At Kafka," Roth's characters struggle to stay afloat in the dark, dangerous, inviting waters of the moral and psychological unknown—an area, Roth says, beyond "that barrier of personal inhibition, ethical restraint, and plain old conformism and fear." ["Reading Myself"]. And their struggle, not surprisingly, is often that of the artist, the sensitive man who is caught between seemingly inimical realms but who attempts to penetrate, to understand the mysteries surrounding his own life as well as those mysterious forces propelling him away from his own, his native land.

Judith Paterson Jones and Guinevera A. Nance (essay date 1981)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6627

Source: "Good Girls and Boys Gone Bad," in Philip Roth, Frederick Ungar Publishing Company, 1981, pp. 9-85.

[In the following excerpt, Jones and Nance examine the themes connecting Goodbye, Columbus, "Epstein, " "Conversion of the Jews, " and "Eli, the Fanatic. "]

Goodbye, Columbus

Of Roth's major characters, Neil Klugman in Goodbye, Columbus most passively accepts the sway of casual circumstance in his life. In this, Roth's first departure from the short story, the surface plot is the familiar theme of the summer romance. Neil Klugman, the poor Jewish boy from Newark, has a summer affair with Brenda Patimkin, the affluent Jewish girl from suburban Short Hills, who is home on vacation from Radcliffe. Neil spends his vacation from his job at the library in Newark with Brenda and the Patimkin family, but the love affair dissipates after she returns to college.

The sense of temporariness and impermanence that characterizes not only the relationship between Brenda and Neil but also Neil's whole approach to life is accentuated by the summer-romance theme and the vacation atmosphere. Admitting that he is "not a planner," Neil drifts through his love affair and his job with the same lack of commitment to permanency. Life for him seems to be a kind of interlude in which nothing in the present has the cast of the future. He constantly reiterates that he does not visualize his job at the library as being forever, and although he considers the possibility of marriage to Brenda as a way to mitigate the transience of their relationship, he lacks the courage to make such a proposal.

Two important and somewhat parallel scenes in the novel illustrate the kind of "Prufrockian" timidity Neil exhibits before the two spheres of love and work in his life. In the first of these, Neil is considering the possibility that after his summer vacation he may be put in charge of the reference room. He is not particularly attracted to the stifling atmosphere of the library; yet in what he describes as his "muscleless devotion" to his work, he finds himself will-lessly "edging towards" the promotion, which he views as entrapment. It is as if he had no choice in the matter—because it is about to happen, it must happen. Visualizing this imprisonment over which he seems not to be able to exert his will, Neil considers that "life from now on would be not a throwing off, as it was for Aunt Gladys, and not a gathering in, as it was for Brenda, but a bouncing off—a numbness." At the age of twenty-three, Neil reacts to circumstance like a person etherized.

In the second scene that places in perspective Neil's passivity, his incapacity for commitment made through choice, he contemplates the prospect of asking Brenda to marry him. Living in the Patimkin house for a while, under the shadow of the preparations for Brenda's brother's wedding, reminds him that "separation need not be a permanent state." Curiously enough, but understandable in terms of his fuzzy view of commitment, Neil thinks of marriage as implying uncertainly and impermanence rather than security and union. As if it were a new realization to him, he suddenly thinks:

People could marry each other, even if they were young! . . . Well, I loved her, and she me, and things didn't seem all right at all. Or was I inventing troubles again? I supposed I should really have thought my lot improved considerably; yet, there on the lawn, the August sky seemed too beautiful and temporary to bear, and I wanted Brenda to marry me. Marriage, though, was not what I proposed to her when she drove the car up the driveway, alone, some fifteen minutes later. That proposal would have taken a kind of courage that I did not think I had.

Neil's thoughts on the subject of marriage are full of "yets" and "thoughs," and what he proposes instead of marriage is that Brenda buy a diaphragm.

In a love affair characterized largely by competition, sterility, and secretiveness, the issue of the diaphragm becomes highly symbolic. It is apparent that, in part, Neil asks Brenda to buy it in order to test her willingness to acquiesce to his demands. He wants her to "just do it. Do it because I asked you to." More important, the buying of the diaphragm comes to represent for Neil a kind of surrogate ritual performed in the absence of the religious ritual of marriage.

For Neil it is the doctor who weds Brenda to him, not the rabbi. Void of any spiritual dimension in his life and critical of the rituals in which others engage, Neil typifies that element in American culture which opts for a semblance of commitment rather than the thing itself. He is disengaged, spiritually and emotionally, and substitutes the profane for the sacramental. In a highly ironic scene that stands out as the thematic climax, Neil's spiritual vacuousness, attraction to the materialistic and acquisitive life of the Patimkins, and passive relinquishment of responsibility for his own actions emerge clearly. Waiting for Brenda to be fitted for the diaphragm, Neil wanders into St. Patrick's and begins to "make a little speech" to himself, which he calls a prayer:

God, I said, I am twenty-three years old. I want to make the best of things. Now the doctor is about to wed Brenda to me, and I am not entirely certain this is all for the best. What is it I love, Lord? Why have I chosen? Who is Brenda? The race is to the swift. Should I have stopped to think?

I was getting no answers, but I went on. If we meet You at all, God, it's that we're carnal, and acquisitive, and thereby partake of You. I am carnal, and I know You approve, I just know it. But how carnal can I get? I am acquisitive. Where do I turn now in my acquisitiveness? Where do we meet? Which prize is You?

This "little speech" under the guise of prayer shows that Roth has an ear attuned to the voices of banality and hypocrisy; when he allows a character's damnation to issue from that person's own mouth, he is at his satirical best. Neil's speech is full of clichés such as "All for the best" and "The race is to the swift" intermixed with quotations from the Bible and good old American optimism. It is also filled with emphasis on all-American materialism, the god that seems most important in the novel. In a logic that is contrived to justify his lack of true religious principle, Neil equates encountering God with some kind of ultimate expression of the appetites—both for sex and for "things." This connection between love ("carnality") and materialism ("acquisitiveness") pervades the novel. Although Neil is often critical of the acquisitiveness of the Patimkin family, he is closer to them than he would like to believe. He is not far different from Brenda's uncle, Leo, a pathetic sort of Willy Loman character, who tells a story about one of the two best things that ever happened to him, in which money and sex are linked closely. He is also not radically different from Brenda's parents, who, instead of merely connecting sex and money, make the provision of "things" the measure of parental love. For example, in a letter full of recriminations for Brenda's having betrayed the family by having sex with Neil, Brenda's mother reminds her: "But you drifted away from your family, even though we sent you to the best schools and gave you the best money could buy."

What does finally set Neil apart from the Patimkins in this scene is his inability to accept his own ingenious equation of materialism with the "prize" that is God. Ashamed of his clever but certainly profane prayer, he hears the answer to his question, "Which prize is You?" in the noise of Fifth Avenue: "Which prize do you think, schmuck? Gold dinnerware, sporting-goods trees, nectarines, garbage disposals, bumpless noses, Patimkin Sink, Bonwit Teller—"

Once again, Neil is in a kind of limbo that characterizes his condition throughout the novel. If he is reminiscent of Eliot's Prufrock in his timidity before commitment to love and work, he also recalls that character in not being truly at home in either of the two worlds he inhabits—Newark or Short Hills. Attracted to, but repulsed by, the overt acquisitiveness of the Patimkin family, with its "sportinggoods trees" and refrigerators bulging with fruit, he finally cannot commit himself fully to that world of the American Dream of success come true. Yet, at the same time, he is uncomfortable with the world represented in Newark by his Aunt Gladys, where life is a process of "throwing off." Only three choices ever seem very apparent to Neil: throwing off, taking in, and bouncing off.

The disengagement that "throwing off implies largely becomes Neil's way of encountering experience. He exemplifies what Stanley Trachtenberg sees in modern fiction as "the hero in stasis." These recent heroes, Trachtenberg suggests, are "reluctant either to confirm their own values or to accept those of society" ["The Hero in Stasis," Critique, Winter 1964-65]. We might, in fact, go one step further than Trachtenberg and say of Neil Klugman that not only is he reluctant to confirm personal or societal values, he seems to shy away from forging any values whatsoever. In his temporary migration from New Jersey and his own family to the suburbs and the Patimkin family, Neil wonders if he might not "learn to become a Patimkin with ease." Yet, finally, he finds the competitiveness of the newly upper-middle-class Patimkins as offensive as the humble acceptance of his own family. All he can manage is skepticism and an ironic view of each of these sets of values, but he can find nothing with which to replace them.

Neil's one unambivalent relationship is with a young black boy who comes to the library to look at pictures of Gauguin's paintings. Like Neil, the child is a fugitive from home, and his euphoric "that's the fuckin life" when he sees Gauguin's representations of Tahiti mirrors Neil's astonishment when he drives into the suburbs and realizes that it seemed "as though the hundred and eighty feet that the suburbs rose in altitude above Newark brought one closer to heaven." That he and the boy are somehow linked becomes clear to Neil when he dreams that they are on a ship anchored at an island paradise. Against their will, however, the ship begins to move out of the harbor, and the natives bid them farewell with "Goodbye, Columbus . . . goodbye, Columbus . . . goodbye. . . . " It is important to realize that Roth makes this dream seem improbably probable by connecting the "Goodbye, Columbus" to the sound of the record Neil had heard coming from Brenda's brother's room before he feel asleep. The record Ron plays is a nostalgic reminiscence about the homecoming game at Ohio State University in 1956 and other such memorable occasions, culminating in a melodramatic farewell to the university: "We offer ourselves to you then, world, and come to you in search of Life. . . . We will miss you, in the fall, in the winter, in the spring, but some day we shall return. Till then, goodbye, Ohio State, goodbye, red and white, goodbye, Columbus . . . goodbye, Columbus . . . goodbye. . . . "

Out of these two sequences, of course, Roth draws the title for his novel. Both episodes revolve around a reluctant leave-taking and a voyage into the unknown. In Neil's dream, he is a reluctant version of the explorer Columbus, and his destination is unknown to him. In Ron's record, he and the other seniors at Ohio State are to venture out from Columbus, Ohio, into the world, in search of "Life." The implications are that neither Neil nor Ron has before him a clear sense of where the voyage will culminate, but certainly for Ron there is a clearer sense of moorings to which he can return. Ron is being forced to let go of something he has actually had; Neil is cut adrift from something he knows only in a dream. Finally, Neil becomes an ironic representation of the explorer who prefers to stay within the safety of a fantasy paradise rather than chart his own mysterious future.

Through the dream sequence Neil's unconscious reflects a mode of existence that is also evident in his life. Both dreaming and waking, he is unable to will himself to any action other than drifting with the tide of circumstance. In the dream he sees himself and the little black boy on the boat, and "the boat was moving and there was nothing he could do about it." The image recalls his seemingly powerless "edging towards" what he envisions as a life of numbness in the library. It also characterizes the drift of his relationship with Brenda. Partially "wooed and won on Patimkin fruit"—on the abundance of possessions in the Patimkin way of life—Neil still seems incapable of any permanent attachment to Brenda. After her mother finds the diaphragm and it is clear that Brenda faces the crucial choice between loyalty to her parents, who equate love with material provisions, and devotion to Neil, who offers her little more than occasional sex under the name of love, the affair simply dissipates.

Neil leaves the hotel and walks to Harvard Yard, where he stands before the Lamont Library and becomes as introspective as he is ever shown to be in the novel. He looks at the image of himself in the library window, but that external image offers him no clue about what is inside him. Finally, he wonders: "What was it inside me that had turned pursuit and clutching into love, and then turned it inside out again? What was it that had turned winning into losing, and losing—who knows—into winning? I was sure I had loved Brenda, though standing there, I knew I couldn't any longer." As in his dream, the boat is moving, and Neil thinks there is nothing he can do about it. One moment he thought he loved Brenda, and now he is sure that it is no longer possible. Ironically, he does not even know whether in losing Brenda he has won or lost. He uses here the same kind of language of competition he had used earlier in his little speech to God, when he had affirmed that the "race is to the swift" and had questioned "which prize" was God.

But if this is a vocabulary that Neil has acquired during his brief exchange with the Patimkin family, it is apparent that he does not use it with the same force or conviction as that family does. He lacks the energy that Ron, the athlete, has for competition, and he lacks the gusto with which Mr. Patimkin attempts to beat out the competition in his quest for the everlasting dollar. The irony is that while Neil's inability to force himself into the Patimkin mold is certainly to his credit, he is unable to come up with any viable alternative to the values that the Patimkins represent.

Only in the last two sentences of the novel does Roth suggest the prospect that Neil may be beginning a journey away from aimless noninvolvement and toward commitment to something he has chosen; and, even there, the cryptic nature of the passage leaves its significance open to interpretation. As the sun rises on the first day of the Jewish New Year, Neil arrives back in Newark in "plenty of time for work." If, for a moment, Neil recognizes an image of his disordered life as he looks through the windows of the library and sees a "broken wall of books, imperfectly shelved," the deliberateness with which he returns to Newark and his work may mark the beginning of an attempt to arrange his life in a more meaningful pattern. John N. McDaniel suggests that at the end of the book Neil is Roth's version of the activist hero who is "still in the process of 'becoming' a fully-realized self [The Fiction of Philip Roth, 1974]. While there is little evidence of any activism on Neil's part, the ending does suggest that the reluctant "Columbus" of this book may be on the brink of becoming a somewhat more deliberate voyager.

Although it deals principally with the passivity with which its protagonist faces the risks of commitment, in tracing Neil Klugman's exodus from Newark to Short Hills and his return to Newark, Goodbye, Columbus introduces several other themes, most of which recur in Roth's fiction. Among these are the difficulties of love and communication, the confusion between generous and acquisitive instincts, the duality inherent in the necessity and yet impossibility of the family, and the tendencies toward moral and spiritual degeneration of modern American life, with the latter two ideas carrying the fullest weight of Roth's satire. Yet, ironically, the satire is realized largely through Neil's perspective. Lacking in much else, Neil is, nevertheless, clearsighted enough to recognize in the manipulations of his and Brenda's families and in the shallowness of the Patimkin affluence values that he cannot, ultimately, accept as his own. This is one of the few Roth novels in which the protagonist's parents are not a significant presence; and perhaps, in part, because Neil's parents are removed from the action of the novel by having been dispatched to the neutral territory of Arizona, Mr. and Mrs. Patimkin take center stage as the "prototypie" parents. That there is some connection between Neil's family and the Patimkin family, however, despite their differences in social status, becomes apparent when Neil meets the Patimkins at the dinner table:

Mr. Patimkin reminded me of my father. . . . He was tall, strong, ungrammatical, and a ferocious eater. When he attacked his salad—after drenching it in bottled French dressing—the veins swelled under the heavy skin of his forearm.

Described by Neil as "Brobdingnags" because of their mealtime gusto, the Patimkins are associated throughout the novel with a bounteous plenty of food and with consumption that substitutes for communication. As the observer in the novel, Neil comments:

There was not much dinner conversation; eating was heavy and methodical and serious, and it would be just as well to record all that was said in one swoop, rather than indicate the sentences lost in the passing of food, the words gurgled into mouthfuls, the syntax chopped and forgotten in heapings, Spillings, and gorgings.

The Patimkins are the exemplars of the American Dream come true. They have a table, a refrigerator, a house stuffed with material goods; they have a storeroom full of old furniture to serve as a reminder of their roots in Newark. In the language of American idealism, they have "made it"; yet despite the Patimkins' poshly educated children, nose jobs, and suburban country-club life, the relationships within the family are not particularly satisfying. Brenda fights with her mother and manipulates her father to get what she wants. She tells Neil that her father is "not too smart but he's sweet at least." For her mother, Brenda forgoes even that much kindness. She responds to her parents in terms of the goods they provide for her, and they, in turn, equate their goodness toward her with material possessions.

Hurt at the discovery that Brenda has been having an affair with Neil, both Mr. and Mrs. Patimkin write to her, and their letters show the extent to which each characteristically relates to her in terms of money. Mr. Patimkin, always protective of Brenda against her mother, urges: "Don't pay any Attention to your Mother's Letter when you get it. I love you honey if you want a coat I'll buy You a coat." There is no pause, no punctuation, between "I love you" and "I'll buy you a coat." It is as if, in the father's mind, love and buying were synonymous. Mrs. Patimkin's letter also reveals the link between love and what money provides, and makes the connection in a way that implies manipulation. Reminding Brenda that they sent her to the best schools and gave her "the best money could buy," Mrs. Patimkin concludes her letter with, "You have broken your parents' hearts and you should know that. This is some thank you for all we gave you."

The implications here are that love is a kind of commercial deal: the parents gave the daughter "things" (a measure of love), and in exchange she owes them a certain kind of behavior. Mrs. Patimkin feels betrayed because Brenda has not lived up to her end of the bargain—she has not returned the "right" behavior for what she has received. After a final argument with Neil over whether her obligation is to him or her parents, Brenda reveals the extent to which she has been bought and to which she has accepted the materialistic, impersonal, nonspiritual value system of her family: "They're still my parents. They did send me to the best schools, didn't they? They have given me everything I've wanted, haven't they?" In the end, Brenda too opts for the Patimkin version of the Great American Dream of love and money.

In defending himself against a charge of being "grimly deterministic," Roth maintains that the "business of choosing is the primary occupation of any number of my characters. I am thinking of souls even so mildly troubled as Neil Klugman and Brenda Patimkin, the protagonists of the novella Goodbye, Columbus." In Goodbye, Columbus the most obvious set of values to be chosen or rejected are those which the Patimkins represent. Brenda chooses the prize that comes with being the good little Patimkin daughter. Neil ultimately rejects that prize, not so much because he has consciously chosen to do so but because Brenda's rejection of him in favor of her parents makes that choice no longer accessible to him. Both attracted to and repulsed by the Patimkin acquisitiveness, Neil exists in a limbo of indecisiveness until he is forced to "look hard at the image" of himself. He then begins his journey back to Newark, which has positive implications for his finally beginning to make some order of his life.

Goodbye, Columbus: The Short Stories

Goodbye, Columbus contains not only the title piece but also five of Roth's short stories. Among these, "Epstein," "The Conversion of the Jews," and "Eli, the Fanatic" are thematically consonant with the novella in their concern with the conflicts associated with love, the family, and the difficulties of communication in a world in which materialism has replaced spirituality. These stories also introduce another theme that will pervade Roth's later books and which exists, submerged, in Goodbye, Columbus. This theme emanates from Roth's representation of the individual in a society that values "normality" and conformity more than the development of the individual. In the essay in which he maintains that choosing is the "primary occupation" of protagonists like Neil Klugman and Brenda Patimkin, Roth goes on to make choosing the principal activity of the characters in his short stories as well. He says:

Then there are the central characters in the stories published along with Goodbye, Columbus, "Defender of the Faith," "The Conversion of the Jews," "Epstein," "Eli, the Fanatic," and "You Can't Tell a Man by the Song He Sings," each of whom is seen making a conscious, deliberate, even willful choice beyond the boundary lines of his life, and just so as to give expression to what in his spirit will not be grimly determined, by others, or even by what he had himself taken to be his own nature.

All the major characters in these short stories, in the process of resisting the dominion of others over their lives, must also resist their own previous acceptance of the roles that the family, society, and the people they love have said they should play. As always, the struggle for the Roth protagonist is complicated by the duality of an enemy that is at the same time internal and external.

Of the three stories, "Epstein" connects most closely to the dual themes of family restraint and the conflict of the individual identity with the social expectations he and those around him have imbibed. . . .

Like many of the fathers in Roth's fiction, Epstein has accepted fully the responsibilities of citizenship, marriage, and parenthood but has missed out on pleasure. He has lived a sensible, structured life of conformity to the images his culture has taught him. Pleading his case to his nephew, Michael, after he has been banished from his own bedroom, Epstein offers the rationale that has governed his life: "All my life I tried. I swear it, I should drop dead on the spot, if all my life I didn't try to do right, to give my family what I didn't have. . . . " The irony of this statement is fully realized in the double meaning of Epstein's attempting to give what he "didn't have." The surface meaning is, of course, that Epstein has tried to provide for his family those material possessions which he had not had. But the submerged implication is that Epstein tried to give his family what he did not have to give. He has tried to give them a self duty-bound to accept the loss of his dreams—to be a "good" father and a "good" husband despite the little he receives in return. The affair with Ida, however, causes him to confront an uncharacteristic side of himself—a side that is passionate and, more significant, adulterous. As Roth points out in one of his essays, Epstein's adultery does not "square with the man's own conception of himself." Having acted in a way contrary to what he had perceived to be his own nature, Epstein sounds like so many of Roth's characters when they exceed the limits of the image that they and others have of them: "I don't even feel any more like Lou Epstein."

If Lou sees his actions as uncharacteristic, his wife regards them as positively aberrant. Ordered, meticulous, and resolute, Goldie is associated repeatedly in the story with cleanliness, restriction, and normality. When she is told by the doctor in the ambulance that Lou can recover if he will forgo trying to act like a boy and live a life normal for sixty, Goldie repeats his message as if it were an incantation: "You hear the doctor, Lou. All you got to do is live a normal life." Much of the pathos of this story turns on the meaning of the normal life. Experiencing it as attrition and restriction, Lou has, for a time, attempted to free himself; but, as Roth says in synopsizing the story, "in the end, Epstein . . . is caught—caught by his family, and caught and struck down by exhaustion, decay, and disappointment, against all of which he had set out to make a final struggle." The extent to which Epstein is caught is evident in the last lines of the story. The doctor assures Goldie that he can cure Epstein's rash "so it'll never come back," and Epstein's grim future is forecast in his words. . . .

In "The Conversion of the Jews," written when Roth was twenty-three, moral fantasy and moral fable are intertwined. As in "Epstein," Roth explores the dilemma of the individual caught by his family and in conflict with the constraints of his immediate environment, but this story is less realistically rooted than "Epstein." Elsewhere, Roth calls it a "daydream" and describes it in a way that suggests its fabulous qualities: "A good boy named Freedman brings to his knees a bad rabbi named Binder (and various other overlords) and then takes wing from the synagogue into the vastness of space." On a less mythical level, the story deals with religious myopia, cultural limitation, and power. . . .

On the level at which "The Conversion of the Jews" reads like a fable, with Ozzie Freedman's personifying the urge for individualistic freedom and Rabbi Binder the social and religious constrictions which seek to bind that freedom, the story suggests that defiance is heroic when one's soul is in jeopardy. It also illustrates in a general way, through its focus on the particular constraints imposed by the Jewish community, that the sustaining influences of family and culture are also often the most powerful forces working to inhibit the spiritual and psychological development of the individual. The soul-battered Ozzie is literally driven to defiance out of frustration when he is forced either to deny his own perceptions and be "good" or to deny the teachings of religion and family and be "bad." Such a double bind leaves him with no clear-cut options.

Bernard F. Rodgers, Jr., has suggested that a parallel exists between Ozzie's position and that of the young Roth during and after the writing of Goodbye, Columbus. He sees "The Conversion of the Jews" functioning as

an effective metaphor for the pressures of the Jewish community which combine with the self-righteousness of its young author to prompt the satiric thrust of Goodbye, Columbus itself. Rabbi Binder, Mrs. Freedman, and Yakov Blotnik personify all that Roth was determined to reject in the attitudes of the Jewish environment which had surrounded him for the first eighteen years of his life; and Ozzie Freedman's adolescent revolt against their xenophobia and closedmindedness, their constant concern for "what-is-goodfor-the-Jews," reflects Roth's own artistic revolt [Philip Roth, 1978].

Although in approaching the story metaphorically Rodgers makes some questionable assumptions about Roth's intention—that he was "determined" to reject portions of his early Jewish environment, for example—he appropriately suggests that the piece is grounded in personal experience. Roth's comments on the story indicate that he wrote from what he knew. He says that it "reveals at its most innocent stage of development a budding concern with the oppressiveness of family feeling and with the binding ideas of religious exclusiveness which I had experienced firsthand in ordinary American-Jewish life." Out of this early personal knowledge of constraint, Roth has proceeded to construct a diversity of fictional worlds in which the characters attempt to work through a dispute over control between themselves and some outside authority; thus "The Conversion of the Jews" occupies an important place in Roth's career—as the first indication of a concern that becomes pervasive.

"Eli, the Fanatic" bridges the predominant themes of "Epstein" and "The Conversion of the Jews" on the one hand and Goodbye, Columbus on the other. It recalls "Epstein" in its presentation of an uncertain and somewhat pathetic man in conflict with what he and others around him regard as normal, and it extends the "what-is-good-for-the-Jews" attitude of "The Conversion of the Jews" in a way that becomes ironic in light of the previous story. It also anticipates Roth's emphasis in Goodbye, Columbus on the moral and spiritual vacuousness of the assimilated, suburban Jew whose pursuit of the materialistic American Dream has cut him off from the sustaining aspects of Jewish culture and tradition. . . .

The story begins with Eli in conflict with Jewish orthodoxy and ends with him in conflict with modern, assimilated Jewishness. Initially, in speaking for the progressive upper-middle-class Jews of Woodenton, Eli urges Leo Tzuref and his companions to conform to the customs of the community, pointing out that the amity which Jews and Gentiles have established has necessitated that each relinquish "some of their more extreme practices in order not to threaten or offend the other." Ironically, he builds his case for conformity to these remnants of Hitlerian Germany on the notion that if Jews in prewar Europe had been less obviously Jewish—had not given offense to those in power by differentiating themselves from the "norm"—the persecution of the Jews might not have occurred. On the continuum from the "normal" to the "abnormal," the progressive Jews of Woodenton obviously stand in relation to the Orthodox Jews as the Gentiles in restrictive communities have generally stood in relation to assimilated Jews. The Gentiles have required of the Jews that they conform to traditional, normal American practices in order to live peacefully in the community, and these Americanized Jews, in their turn, require of the yeshivah members that they conform to the standards of their segment of the society in order to live satisfactorily with the Jewish community.

Seen from this perspective, the "what-is-good-for-the-Jews" motif of "The Conversion of the Jews" takes on ironic overtones in this story. In both instances, that which is good for the Jews is whatever protects the Jew from the disapproval of the "goyim"—usually inconspicuousness. In "The Conversion of the Jews," Yakov Blotnik is concerned with Ozzie Freedman's making a spectacle of himself on the roof of the synagogue, and in "Eli, the Fanatic," the assimilated Jews are concerned with the traditional Jews' making a spectacle of their religious distinctiveness.

There are significant differences, however, in the way the two stories deal with what may be called "Jewishness." In "The Conversion of the Jews," Ozzie's intellectual progressiveness is at odds with religious exclusiveness, and Roth treats his resistance to the restrictions of Jewish dogma sympathetically. His unwillingness to conform to what others want him to believe, although perhaps not good for the Jews, is represented as being good for him. In "Eli, the Fanatic," Eli's progressive acculturation is initially at odds with religious orthodoxy, and Roth treats his and the Jewish community's antipathy for Jewish exclusiveness, or distinctiveness, unsympathetically. His and his neighbors' insistence that the refugees from the yeshivah conform to their secular way of life, although perhaps good for the Jews, is represented as being insupportably restrictive and ultimately not good for the very sensitive Eli. In his own way, the unstable Eli Peck is as much an identity in flux, seeking to ground itself in an individuality of its own choosing, as the adolescent Ozzie Freedman; and when his compromised modern Jewishness comes up against uncompromising traditional Jewishness, he seems to lose his balance.

Whether Eli actually loses his balance or gains it at last depends entirely upon the perspective one chooses; and Roth has constructed the story deftly so that it supports either conclusion. What the Jewish community and Eli's family regard as insanity, Eli experiences as revelation. And because the story is clearly about identity and the standards that define it as normal or abnormal, the question of how Eli Peck is finally to be regarded is ironically consistent with the principal issue of the story. To call him insane because his behavior is inconsistent with social expectations, or to call him whole because he embraces a severed portion of his past and comes to know who he is, implies something about the perspective of the judge. At the beginning of the story, speaking for legalism and compromise in his initial encounter with Leo Tzuref, Eli is clearly associated with the Americanized Jewish community, which desires to rid itself of an obtrusive reminder of its nonmaterialistic, non-American, immoderate past. Asked by Tzuref to distinguish his position from that of the community, Eli responds, "I am them, they are me, Mr. Tzuref." He is, then, by the standards of his neighbors, sane—normal. But what Eli comes slowly to realize is that he must say of his relationship to the yeshivah the same as he has said of his relationship to the Jewish-American community: "I am them, they are me." As he begins to acknowledge his kinship with the "fanatical" Jews, his neighbors determine that he is insane.

Both the literal and the symbolic indications of Eli's identification with the Orthodox Jews and with Jewish orthodoxy revolve around clothes. Clothing, in fact, is a central metaphor in the two predominant conflicts in the story—the Jewish community's conflict with the yeshivah and Eli's internal conflict between secular and religious Jewishness. The relation of clothing and identity emerges when Tzuref responds to Eli's insistence that the greenie wear modern attire by saying, "The suit the gentleman wears is all he's got." It becomes clear that Tzuref is referring to the rabbi's identity, his connection with his past, and not to his clothes. The clothes are all that he has of what he was. Later, the connection between appearance and identity reaches its culmination when Eli and the greenie exchange clothing. Putting on the discarded clothing that the greenie has left on his doorstep, Eli feels himself transformed into a Jew. When his suburban neighbor, busy with the meaningful task of painting the rocks in her yard pink, tells him that there is a Jew at his door, Eli responds, "That's me." And when he goes up the hill to the yeshivah dressed in the greenie's garb and encounters the greenie clothed in his own best green suit, Eli at first has the notion that he is two people and then that "he was one person wearing two suits." To Eli, the intermingling of the two identities is so complete that for a moment "his hands went out to button down the collar of his shirt that somebody else was wearing." The "Doppelgänger" motif here indicates that in facing the "fanatic," the rabbinist who stands for the unassimilated Jewish tradition, Eli also confronts a part of himself—that part of his identity represented in his religious and cultural heritage.

When the rabbi, without uttering a word, points down the hill to the town of Woodenton, Eli has a revelation. It is the awareness toward which he has been moving throughout the story—the recognition that he is connected with the Jews of the yeshivah in a way that his fellow American Jews deny. His earlier words, "I am them, they are me," now refer to Old-World Jews rather than modern Jews. Like Moses descending from the mountain with a holy commission, Eli walks down the hill into Woodenton and among those who were his people. For the first time Eli seems to know who he is and to feel that he has the ability to choose. He worries for a moment that he has chosen to be crazy but then decides that it is when a person fails to choose that he is actually crazy. Therefore, he makes a conscious decision to remain in his rabbinical garb as he goes to the hospital to see his newborn son, whose birth happens to coincide with Eli's spiritual rebirth.

The story ends with the hospital attendants humoring Eli long enough to tear off his jacket and give him a sedating shot that "calmed his soul, but did not touch it down where the blackness had reached." Since Eli has associated blackness with the clothes of the rabbi, and Roth has constructed the story so that clothing stands symbolically for identity, the conclusion implies that the spiritual assimilation Eli has achieved remains untouched by sedation. In the sense that normality in this story means moderation, compromise, and alienation from the religious and cultural past, Eli will never be normal again.

In this story, as in "Epstein" and "The Conversion of the Jews," Roth explores the conflicts between conformity and identity, between the individual and his social environment, and the conflict within the individual as he makes a choice that challenges not only what others would like him to be but also his own sense of his "best self." In the introduction of these themes, the stories in the Goodbye, Columbus volume are auguries of the predominant issues to emerge in Roth's novels. Throughout his fiction, Roth is preoccupied with the moral imperatives that a person imposes on himself and their relationship to the dictates of family, culture, and religion. In the absence of heroes of epic proportion, he draws protagonists characteristically modern in the sense that their battleground is the self and their struggles are with the forces that shape, and attempt to impose limitations upon, that identity.

Helge Norman Nilsen (essay date 1987)

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Source: "Love and Identity: Neil Klugman's Quest in Goodbye, Columbus," in English Studies, Vol. 68, No. 1, February, 1987, pp. 79-88.

[In the following excerpted essay, Nilsen argues that protagonist Neil Klugman in Roth 's Goodbye, Columbus, separates from his lover to affirm his own identity.]

In Goodbye, Columbus the protagonist, Neil Klugman, is involved in a struggle to develop and preserve an identity of his own amid different environments and conflicting impulses within himself. Throughout the story he makes love to Brenda Patimkin and tries to find a role in society that corresponds to what he regards as his own, unique self. In the process he loses Brenda, but he refuses to compromise and surrender what he regards as his integrity. As a result of this he remains mainly a detached observer in relation to the various settings and role models that make up the social universe of the story. Brenda is the only one that he seeks an intimate relationship with. However, Neil does not choose this outsider role solely for its own sake, as an expression of wilfulness. As a modern, liberal intellectual living in the conservative and repressive American society of the nineteen fifties, he identifies with a set of secular and rationalistic values that are bound to bring him into conflict with the world around him.

Neil's struggle to establish his own identity is highly understandable in view of his circumstances. He represents the third generation of a Jewish immigrant group that has experienced great changes and transitions. His milieu is basically working class or lower middle class and strongly colored by traditional Jewish ethnic attitudes and customs, but he himself is a librarian with a bachelor's degree in philosophy and a modern, assimilationist approach to American society. Neil finds it impossible to accept the narrow-minded concept of life of his relatives, especially his aunt Gladys. He is ready to break away from the lifestyle of the parental generation, and when he meets Brenda, he is attracted both to her beauty and her manners. A resident of the wealthy suburb of Short Hills, she seems to represent a different and better world. Newark and Short Hills constitute two sharply constrasted regions in the symbolic geography of the story, and Neil tries to define his own self mainly in relation to these two extremes, though the library where he works seems to represent a third alternative.

In the Patimkin household Neil is regarded as an outsider and he responds with acerbic inner comments to the various absurdities of this family. They are affluent, but crudely materialistic and snobbish, devoted to appearances, material wealth, social position and athletic prowess. Neil does not hesitate to characterize the whole clan as 'Brobdingnags' who make him feel small and insignificant at their overfilled dinner table. Everything about them and the class that they represent reinforces his conviction that this lifestyle does not correspond to the identity that he seeks for himself.

The library is disappointing to Neil because he cannot identify with the others there and worries that he may end up like one of them, a dusty librarian with a pale skin whose life becomes a bloodless devotion to his duties. Always alert and aware of the imperfections of his surroundings, Neil creates a distance between himself and his colleagues and wants to define himself in terms of his opposition to them, just as he does in relation to his own family and that of Brenda. In the library he achieves such a separation by sympathizing with a black boy who spends hours in the art book section looking at pictures of Gauguin's Tahiti paintings. Another librarian, John McKee, is worried about this little black intruder and what he may be up to in the stacks looking at pictures of nudes. But this racism and sexual anxiety and prudery are repellent to Neil, who has experienced and rejected such attitudes already in his own environment.

Neil appreciates the longings of the black boy for a better world, a freer and more sensuous life, which is so powerfully expressed in Gauguin's colorful scenes and figures. In the story, these pictures are part of a chain of images of an exotic setting which includes Neil's vision of Brenda as a Polynesian maiden and his later dream of a South Sea island. This imagery symbolizes an alternative lifestyle and a happiness which Neil also longs for. Though he is frustrated by the Patimkins, he is not yet ready to give up his dream of a different and more satisfying life which may lie in store for Brenda and himself. Short Hills is the same kind of dream for him that Tahiti is for the black boy, and he envisages the suburb 'at dusk, rose-colored, like a Gauguin stream'.

Neil tries to fulfil his dream by creating a separate realm of love between himself and Brenda which assumes a subversive function in relation to the respectable Puritanism of the Patimkin family. The young couple's erotic activities in the television room are a kind of conspiracy and a parallel to the black boy's hiding in the library to look at pictures. Gauguin himself lived in Tahiti, in voluntary exile from his native French bourgeoisie. Neil's conquest of Brenda and their surreptitious lovemaking are the means by which he not only bolsters his sense of masculinity, but also supports a part of his identity which he feels is threatened by his new situation. His efforts to help the black boy are also an element of this self-protective mechanism.

However, Brenda soon begins to reveal her insecurity and dependence on her parents' approval. They want to know more about Neil and his prospects and she starts to question him in order to determine his social acceptability or lack of it. She also asks him if he loves her and tells him that she intends to go on sleeping with him whether he does or not. This declaration suggests that she regards her affair with Neil, up to this point, mainly as a sexual fling. She also reveals that she attributes the same motives to himself, something which he finds 'crude' because he has greater hopes for their relationship than that. Thus he is pained by her inability to understand the real nature of his feelings. From the start, it seems that the two of them have different concepts of love. Unable to appreciate Neil's motives for approaching her, Brenda believes that he does not love her yet, telling him that she wants him to do so and that when he does, 'there'll be nothing to worry about'. She has a superficial concept of love which has little relation to the actual process which is going on between them. He does love her, and that is the problem, since he wants to aid her in her tentative efforts to liberate herself from her parents' influence.

Brenda is a willing partner for Neil in the physical sense, but in reality she is much less independent than he. She attempts to cover up the whole issue by asserting that everything will be all right once he loves her, but this turns out to be an illusion. However, Neil is not in a position to foresee that this will be the case, and he commits himself to her and declares his love for her. . . .

The approaching marriage of Ron Patimkin and his fiancée Harriet is an indication of the kind of life that is expected of a member of the clan, and Neil has a hard time hiding his dislike of the completely unimaginative sort of marriage and life that Ron seems to contemplate quite happily. Neil is aware that Ron is quite nice to him, but the fact remains that the latter's mental horizon does not extend to anything beyond sports and the music of Mantovani or Kostelanetz. As for Brenda, she quarrels with her mother and reveals that she is jealous of Harriet. She complains that Mrs. Patimkin will forget that she exists once Harriet arrives, and Neil suggests that this ought not to be a problem, but rather an advantage. He would like for both himself and Brenda to be as free of parental influence as possible, but Brenda is more hesitant about this. She is very upset about her mother and tells Neil that she would have torn up some of her own hundred dollar bills if she had found them and then put the pieces in her mother's purse. She is crying as she says this, and the whole idea seems to be an expression of her childish need to revenge herself upon her mother for not giving her the love and attention that will now bestowed upon Harriet, the bride to be. Brenda then throws herself at Neil, demanding that he make love to her on the old sofa in the storage room where she had hidden her money. But this, like some of her later actions, is an immature rather than a truly selfassertive rebellion against her parents.

When Brenda asks Neil to take up running with her, he realizes that this is a way in which she tries to make him more acceptable to her by changing his identity so that it becomes less threatening to her and the family. She tells him that he looks like her, and they are wearing similar clothes for the occasion, but Neil feels that 'She meant, I was sure, that I was somehow beginning to look the way she wanted me to. Like herself. Neil enjoys the running and feels happy afterwards, but this is because both he and Brenda are having a fine time together as young and healthy people in love, not because he has decided to change his attitudes to suit her needs. This, however, is probably what she believes while they are exercising, and hence she gives him the love and attention that contribute to his happiness. In fact, it is only after they have been running for a while on a regular basis that she feels free to tell him that she loves him. Thus their relationship is fraught with misunderstandings and conflicts that come to a head at the end of the story.

The content of Neil's dream about a Pacific island suggests that he is beginning to fear that the affair with Brenda cannot last, that the realities of their situation, the power of the Patimkin environment, may destroy his goal of love and freedom. In the dream, he and the black boy, his fellow conspirator, as it were, are on a boat in the harbor of the island, but soon they drift away from the naked Negro women on the shore and have to watch their island paradise disappear. The natives sing 'Goodbye, Columbus', the refrain of Ron's college record, as the two of them go, suggesting that they will not possess their dream, their America. The historical parallel is fitting, inasmuch as the real Columbus also became disillusioned in his quest for a better world. Thus Neil is spurred on by his fear that the affair will be over once Brenda returns to Radcliffe, and he begins to contemplate a marriage proposal as a way of securing her for himself. He is, however, afraid to propose since he is not sure of Brenda's reaction and suspects that there are still unresolved issues between them. Instead he decides to ask her to wear a diaphragm both to increase his sexual pleasure and as a symbol of their defiantly intimate relationship out of wedlock.

This diaphragm hardly represents what has been called Neil's dream of a 'classless, creedless hedonism' [Allen Guttman, The Jewish Writer in America: Assimilation and the Crisis of Identity, 1971]. It is true that he aims to break down the barriers of class and religious conventions, but hedonism is not a purpose in itself for him, but rather a means by which he affirms his dissenting values and identity. Brenda does not feel mature enough to commit herself to such a deliberate action, but for Neil it is imperative that they are both conscious of what they are doing and that they use the opportunity of their love to define themselves in opposition to the outside pressures that bear upon them. By sustaining their conspiracy, so to speak, they will be changed together and in a direction which Neil finds is right and stimulating. But Brenda rejects the suggestion, making him feel that she also rejects him and what he stands for. The core of the problem is his actual self, which she cannot accommodate herself to.

Neil is offered a new identity, in a manner of speaking, as an employee in Mr. Patimkin's firm, where Ron already works. Mr. Patimkin suggests to Neil that he, too, would be able to learn the business, but the latter recognizes that he is unsuited for such a life. He is not robust enough for the work, but, on the other hand, he is attracted to the neighborhood where the company is located, the black section of Newark that once was peopled by immigrant Jews of his grandparents' generation. This and other parts of Newark are the only locations that Neil feels continuously drawn to throughout the novella. There is an authenticity and vitality in life as it was and as it is lived in these neighborhoods, and the colorful scenes and pungent smells suggest this. The ways of the old Jews as well as those of the blacks of the present are chaotic and poverty-ridden yet more suited to real human needs than the middle-class life-style that is replacing them. The old blacks, for example, are not segregated from the community, but are placed in 'screenless windows' where they can watch the throbbing life in the streets. Here, in spite of many problems, there is a freedom and zest for life that Neil appreciates and will not entirely surrender in his own existence either.

Brenda is sufficiently influenced by Neil to finally accede to his request that she obtain a diaphragm. She seems to do this because she wants to act like an adult, but also because she is affected by Ron's marriage and begins to want the same thing for herself. For example, she acquires a new dress which makes her look as attractive as the bride, or even more so. Deep down, it seems, Brenda sees herself in the role that Harriet plays, as a lovely bride with a successful husband, being led to the altar on her father's arm and being protected and cared for by her mother. But for the time being she carries on with Neil Klugman and goes to New York with him to get the diaphragm. For Neil, however, this development is very serious and fraught with consequences. He is both enthusiastic about what he sees as Brenda's affirmation of their rebellious bond and anxious about the responsibilities that lie ahead of him now that their union is about to assume a more permanent aspect.

Neil's uncertainly emerges in his reflection in St. Patrick's Cathedral, where he seeks refuge while Brenda is in the doctor's office: 'Now the doctor is about to wed Brenda to me, and I am not entirely certain that this is all for the best. What is it I love, Lord? Why have I chosen? Who is Brenda?' One crucial question is the first one, concerning the nature of his love. The answer that suggests itself is that Neil loves the possibilities he sees in Brenda, apart from her physical attractiveness, and that he is haunted by a sense that he may be mistaken, that he does not really know her.

Continuing his meditation in the church, Neil adresses God, but his 'prayer' is hardly meant to be serious. In fact, the God he talks to seems to be a pantheistic one who is present in everything: 'If we meet You at all, God, it's that we're carnal, and acquisitive, and thereby partake of You. I am carnal, and I know You approve. I just know it. But how carnal can I get? I am acquisitive. Where do I turn now in my acquisitiveness? Where do we meet? Which prize is You?

Neil is hardly a philosophic pantheist, but he makes some good points in this strange inner monologue. If God is identical with a universal process of creation and life, our sexual urges must be manifestations of the divine will. Moreover, if God made us acquisitive, he himself must share that trait in some sense. Neil has no problems with his carnal nature and welcomes it, and he also admits to being acquisitive. He is, however, less certain of the strength of this particular trait in himself and is overwhelmed by the power of the answer that Fifth Avenue gives to his question about the importance of the desire for possessions: 'Which prize do you think, Schmuck! Gold dinnerware, sportinggoods trees, nectarines, garbage disposals, bumpless noses, Patimkin Sink, Bonwit Teller'.

Neil's concept of God is jocular, but it also embodies his satirical view of religion as an integrated part of the whole bourgeois value system of an acquisitive middle class. To join this class and its gods means joining in the race for wealth and position, and it is here that Neil draws the line as far as he himself is concerned and insists on another self-definition. But he knows that it is difficult to preserve one's identity in the face of society's demands and that it will not be any easier together with Brenda Patimkin. Accordingly, he is momentarily relieved when he sees her coming from the doctor without carrying anything. He thinks that she has broken their agreement, which means that their relationship will be less binding, as he sees it, thus letting him off the hook. However, this relief is only a passing 'levity', as Neil calls it. He is still committed to Brenda, with or without the diaphragm. But when she tells him that she is actually wearing the device, he is overjoyed and takes it as a sign that she is joining forces with him in their defiance of traditional norms.

But back in the Patimkin house there is no relief for Neil. The wedding of Ron and Harriet offers an array of middleaged couples that can only serve to confirm Neil's worst expectations of what the Jewish bourgeois lifestyle amounts to. Many of these people are affluent, but they have paid dearly for their success with emotional frustration, physical decay and spiritual emptiness. They are locked into their tradition of hard work, materialism and puritanism coupled with a narrow-minded outlook on everything outside their own circles, and they also suffer from rigid sex roles where the male is the provider and the female the excessively proper housewife. There is no room in their lives for joy, passion or any individualism except mere eccentricity.

Brenda's uncle Leo is the only one who seems to have an inkling of what has happened to him and is aware that only two good things have occurred in his life: finding an apartment in New York and having oral sex with a certain Hannah Schreiber. Otherwise, he has sacrificed all joy and spontaneity as a result of his struggle to survive as a bulb salesman, and his many frustrations have turned into a settled melancholy that is the only emotional content that is left in his life. Neil is touched by the older man's confessions and regards his story as further confirmation that he, Neil, is on the right track in refusing to let his life be controlled by such misery and renunciation. The older generation may have been victims of circumstances, of economic and social necessity, but for modern Jews the situation is different and offers more options.

The end of the novella is ripe with imagery suggesting loss of love as well as of illusions. Leo and his wife leave the wedding, looking like people 'fleeing a captured city', and to Neil, driving on the New Jersey Turnpike, the desolate landscape looks like 'an oversight of God', a phrase that echoes the image of the valley of ashes in The Great Gatsby. When Brenda leaves for Boston, 'the wind was blowing the fall in and the branches of the weeping willow were fingering at the Patimkin front lawn.' At the library things are also changing, the black boy disappears and Neil is charged with discourtesy by an old gentleman who had wanted to borrow the Gauguin book which Neil had put on reserve, against the regulations, for the boy.

However, by now Neil has also changed his attitude towards his job and his colleagues. He becomes more assertive and sure of himself and invents a story to cover up his manipulations with the book. He is beginning to feel that he belongs in the library as much as the others, but on his own terms and according to his own definition, and he even has Mr. Scapello, the boss, apologizing to him as he is led to his new post and actually receives a promotion. He is aware of the change in himself and halfironically attributes his newfound strength to the lesson he has learnt in the Patimkin family, where there is a premium on aggressive behavior in the workplace. However, Neil's renewed attachment to the library does not bode well for his relationship with Brenda, who has never shown any appreciation of the job he has chosen for himself and the meaning it may have for him.

The last meeting between Brenda and Neil takes place in a Cambridge hotel where she has reserved a room, pretending that they are married and wearing a fake wedding ring. At this point, Neil, with his strengthened sense of identity as a result of his experiences in the Patimkin family and the library, realizes that he has come to visit her because he wants to ask her to marry him: ' . . . it had been long enough. It was time to stop kidding about marriage.' Her registering in the hotel also encourages him, since he sees it as a sign that she is getting more liberated and ready to subvert social conventions. However, she tells him that her parents have discovered her diaphragm at home and that she has received two letters from them, an angry one from her mother and a more conciliatory one from her father, who is all too willing to forgive and forget if she will only stop seeing Neil any more. The letters themselves are marvelous examples of the crippling conventionalism in the sexual area on the part of the parents.

Brenda's revelation comes as a shock to Neil, and he feels that her carelessness in leaving the diaphragm indicates her half-conscious wish to prevent their relationship from becoming serious and permanent. She is scared by the prospect, which would force her to take a stand against her parents and risk their enmity. Her decision to take a hotel room with Neil does not suggest any liberation, but rather that she wants him as a casual lover. Again, she indulges in what can be called a pseudo-rebellious act. But Neil is acutely aware of the significance of her forgetting the diaphragm and suspects that this means that they are incompatible. She denies having left it on purpose, and there is no way to prove that this has been the case. However, the fact that she has done it is enough. It clearly reveals her insecurity and insincerity to Neil and makes him desperate, since it suggests that she has never really freed herself from the moral viewpoint of her parents. When he asks her if she thinks that their sleeping together was wrong, she does not answer for herself but refers to her parents' opinion. In other words, she accepts their verdict by refusing to declare herself against it.

Brenda tells Neil that she cannot bring him home for Thanksgiving, once more indicating her compliance with her parents' decisions and attitudes. Without saying so, she seems to agree with them, which is suggested by the 'solid and decisive' look on her face. Her expression reveals the internalized norms that Neil will not stop fighting against, and he tries hard to make Brenda see what she is doing to herself and their relationship. Their dialogue demonstrates the conflict: "Who can I bring home, Neil?" "I don't know, who can you?" "Can I bring you home?" "I don't know," I said, "can you?" "Stop repeating the question!" "I sure as hell can't give you the answer."

Brenda continues to evade responsibility for herself by referring to her family's standards instead of her own opinions, and Neil tries vainly to make her realize that she alone is responsible for what she does with her life, whether she chooses to ally herself with him or not. Neil also suggests that she can stay away from home if she likes, but her only answer is that she has to go home and that 'Families are different'. He is forced to conclude that she prefers her family to him and the challenge he represents, and that they have more or less misunderstood each other all along. She complains about his criticism of her, failing to perceive that he was critical because he wanted her to be true to herself instead of to her family. As he sees it, he had offered his opinions because he cared for her.

During this final confrontation the issues between them become clear. Neil declares his willingness to continue the relationship and defy her family, but Brenda chooses the security of the known instead of the uncertainties that she feels that he represents. There is no doubt that Neil is ready to go with Brenda to the Patimkin house for the Thanksgiving feast and defy her parents along with her. It is only Brenda who shies away from this confrontation. Considering that the story takes place during the fifties, Brenda's choice is understandable, but the fact remains that she puts a stop to a relationship that has a basis in love and that contains the promise of increasing depth and development.

It is likely that Neil would have been accepted by the Patimkins, including Brenda, if he had recanted and followed a path similar to that of Ron, but this is never an option for him. The whole point of the story is to render a protagonist who is determined to retain his own identity and not surrender to outside pressures. It is misleading to interpret Neil mainly as a confused and 'uncoordinated soul' who cannot maintain any sense of selfhood at all and whose life is 'aimless'. Such a view leads to the statement that 'Neil does not know how to be true to himself, which is the opposite of what the story demonstrates [Charles M. Israel, "The Fractured Hero of Roth's Goodbye, Columbus," Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction, 1974]. It is exactly Neil's feeling that he has an inner self that is different and oppositional that makes him act in accordance with his convictions. Both he and Brenda finally realize that there is an unbridgeable gap between them, and he leaves the hotel room, walking into the yard of Harvard University. He stops before the Lamont Library, where he can see himself in a window as if it was a mirror. Frustrated and disappointed as he is, he has an impulse to pick up a rock and throw it through the glass, but instead he gives way to a profound meditation: 'I looked, but the outside of me gave up little information about the inside of me . . . What was it inside me that had turned pursuit and clutching into love, and then turned it inside out again? What was it that had turned winning into losing, and losing—who knows—into winning? I was sure I had loved Brenda, though standing there, I knew I couldn't any longer'.

To become aware of one's real identity, or that of others, is difficult. Ultimately, personal identity is a mystery that can only be partly unveiled, and Neil had felt this also when looking at the sleeping Brenda at the end of the wedding party, wondering if he knew 'no more of her than what I could see in a photograph.' But though he admits to a sense of confusion regarding the enigma of his own self, certain answers to his questions do suggest themselves. He has lost Brenda by winning her, since she did not turn out to be what he thought, but by relinquishing, or losing, her, he was won in the only real sense that exists for him, that is, by remaining true to himself.

The final paragraph of the story has a promising ring: 'I did not look very much longer, but took a train that got me into Newark just as the sun was rising on the first day of the Jewish New Year. I was back in plenty of time for work.' The image of the rising sun suggests that Neil is going to make a new start in life, and that Newark, as indicated earlier, is his real home after all. It is not the region associated with the parental generation of Jews, but his own Newark, as it were, a place where he can maintain the self that he has struggled toward during his hectic summer of lovemaking and measuring himself against various temptations and illusions. He returns to the library with a new and greater awareness of its attractions and limitations. It is, after all, an institution where culture, art and dreams are allowed a kind of existence which is impossible in the other environments that he has known, and it is located in a neighborhood that has preserved a certain room for individuality and a measure of freedom. In the library, one must assume that Neil will steer a course of his own, between the pedantry of his colleagues and the anti-social attitudes of the black boy that had spent so much time among the book stacks. If Roth's later novels are anything to go by, it may well be the role of the artist or writer that lies in store for Neil Klugman and which he is preparing for by remaining faithful to his outsider status and to his talent for observing and analysing people and places with such unerring critical accuracy.

Jay L. Halio (essay date 1992)

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Source: "Nice Jewish Boys: The Comedy of Goodbye, Columbus and the Early Stories," in Philip Roth Revisited, Twayne Publishers, 1992, pp. 13-36.

[In the following excerpt, Halio explores the dark humor present in each of Goodbye, Columbus 's five short stories.]

None of the five short stories collected along with Goodbye, Columbus in Roth's first published volume has quite the same range of wit and humor as the novella. But if "The Conversion of the Jews" is in part a ludicrous melodrama and "Epstein" borders on the tragic, they also reveal not only Roth's own moral earnestness but his witty perception into the contradictions and inconsistencies of human lives—elements that can make men and women simultaneously comic and pathetic, funny and sad. In "The Defender of the Faith" Roth opened himself to accusations of anti-Semitism, or Jewish self-hate, accusations he has rejected, arguing vigorously in defense of the artist's freedom to pursue and present truth as he sees it and of the universal, not peculiarly Jewish, nature of his theme ["Writing about Jews," Commentary, December 1963]. Yet the story is essentially comic, its humor underlying and occasionally covering over the darker elements of its characters and situations. "You Can't Tell a Man by the Songs He Sings" has nothing particularly Jewish in it, but "Eli the Fanatic" contains much of the dark humor found in "The Defender of the Faith."

"The Conversion of the Jews"

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"The Conversion of the Jews"

Little Ozzie Freedman is the kind of boy who, because of his independent spirit and relentlessly inquiring intellect, is constantly getting into trouble with his elders. The framework for "The Conversion of the Jews" is the heder, or Hebrew school, Ozzie attends and where he comes into conflict with his teacher, Rabbi Binder. What gets Ozzie into trouble is his insistence on following the logic of scripture even to the point of recognizing the possibility of a Virgin Birth. For a Jewish rabbi teaching a class of would-be bar mitzvah boys, this is surely asking too much. That Jesus was "historical. . . a person that lived like you and me" is as far as Rabbi Binder is willing to go. He insists that Jesus's birth, like anyone else's, had to come through human intercourse, not divine intervention. But Ozzie cannot resist the force of logic: if God could "create heaven and earth in six days, and make all the animals and the fish and the light in six days—the light especially," then he asks Rabbi Binder "why couldn't He let a woman have a baby without intercourse." For a third time Ozzie's mother is summoned to school to see the rabbi.

Roth plays Ozzie's stubborn inquisitiveness off against his friend Itzie's more practical, wise-guy attitudes and coarser diction: "Itzie preferred to keep his mother in the kitchen"; '"Sure it's impossible. That stuffs all bull. To have a baby you gotta get laid,' Itzie theologized." The contrast is comic, underscored by Itzie's amazement, which he expresses in humorous gestures and exclamations of disbelief at his friend's temerity. But worse—or better—is yet to come.

That Friday night Ozzie resolves to tell his widowed mother about the summons to see Rabbi Binder, but not before she lights the Sabbath candles. A "round, tired, grayhaired penguin of a woman," in the act of lighting the candles she is transformed for Ozzie into a radiant being "who knew momentarily that God could do anything." He is therefore all the more astonished when, after he tells her about what has happened at heder, for the first time in their life together she hits him across the face with her hand.

The comic contrast of earlier episodes between Ozzie and Itzie now turns somber. Tension mounts on the following Wednesday at heder when, during "free-discussion" time, Rabbi Binder calls on Ozzie to give the class "the advantage of his thought." Ozzie at first resists but, on repeated provocation from the rabbi, demands, "Why can't He make anything He wants to make!" The question causes a commotion in the class, and Ozzie cries out repeatedly, "You don't know, you don't know," until, probably by accident, Rabbi Binder's hand catches Ozzie squarely on the nose, making it bleed.

In the ensuing uproar Ozzie runs onto the roof and locks the door behind him. He has no thoughts of suicide, but the image of him several stories up on top of the building strikes fear in the hearts of all who behold him. Arriving for her appointment, Ozzie's mother is instead greeted by her son on the roof, a crowd gathered below, fire trucks clanging, and a net spread out to catch the boy if he jumps. What a surprise! All pleas for Ozzie to come down fail, and Rabbi Binder's threats—"I'll give you three to come down"—are ludicrous. Mrs. Freedman's cry that her boy not be a martyr is taken over by Ozzie's classmates, who, led by Itzie and not understanding the term, egg him on with "Be a Martin, be a Martin."

The farcical situation evokes increasing humor but seriousness too, as in the growing darkness of the autumn evening Ozzie makes first Rabbi Binder and then everyone else, including his mother, get on their knees. In this posture of gentile prayer Ozzie makes the rabbi, his mother, and even the poor old sexton, Yakov Blotnik, confess that "God can do Anything"—even make a child without intercourse. By now everyone is kneeling, and Ozzie finally extracts their promise never to "hit anybody about God." Only then does he jump "right into the center of the yellow net that glowed in the evening's edge like an overgrown halo."

Some critics, while generally admiring Roth's stories, find them a little too neat, too pat. Alfred Kazin, for example, believes that in "The Conversion of the Jews" Roth is too anxious not only to dramatize the conflict but to make the issue "absolutely clear"; he needs to find the creative writer's delight in "life for its own sake" and become less concerned with the design of his fable ["Tough-Minded Mr. Roth," Contemporaries, 1962]. But Kazin seems to miss the point here: in the world of the child, simplicity rules, as it does for Ozzie Freedman. Therein also lies the humor of the story and its import: adult sophistications and their consequences are finally no match for the singlemindedness and courage of a little boy, for whom the logic of God's omnipotence and mercy overwhelms all other considerations. That recognition, literally and figuratively, brings the others to their knees.

"The Defender of the Faith"

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"The Defender of the Faith"

"The Conversion of the Jews," with its beatific ending, brought ample criticism to Roth from many in the Jewish community, who overlooked its comedy and concentrated instead on what they regarded as anti-Semitism in the story. "The Defender of the Faith" contains fewer funny moments but, if anything, a sharper wit and a toughmindedness that insist, both in the story and its telling, that Jews are in most respects like other human beings. If Malamud's recurrent theme is that "All men are Jews," then Roth's is that "All Jews are men," as illustrated in the fictional portrayal of Sergeant Nathan Marx and the three Jewish recruits whose basic training he supervises [Sanford Pinsker, The Comedy That "Hoits": An Essay on the Fiction of Philip Roth, 1975].

Rotated back to the United States shortly after the fighting ends in Europe in 1945, Sergeant Marx is a veteran and a war hero, with ribbons to prove it. He wins the admiration and respect of his commanding officer and others he associates with at Camp Crowder, Missouri, but Sheldon Grossbart is something else. Swiftly ascertaining that Marx, like himself, is Jewish, Grossbart begins requesting special treatment, at first in relatively minor matters but eventually in some of much greater importance. Playing on Marx's sense of guilt more than on any sense of solidarity he might have with his landsmen (that is, fellow Jews), Grossbart finagles special passes and exemptions from onerous duty for himself and two of his friends. When nothing else works, he writes letters—signing his father's name—to his parents' congressman. These prompt the commanding officer and higher authorities to inquire into such matters as the food that men brought up in kosher homes must eat.

Grossbart's cleverness—for example, his wishing Marx a "Good shabbus, sir!" as, exempted from a "G.I. party" (Friday-night barracks cleaning), he runs off to "Jewish Mass"—eventually backfires. Too smart by half, he manipulates not only Marx but others to the point of getting his orders changed from being shipped out to the Pacific (where the war is still raging) to being sent to Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, closer to his parents' home and certainly much safer. But this time Grossbart goes too far. Marx, furious, arranges to have someone else sent to New Jersey and Grossbart to the Pacific with the rest of the company.

The comedy in this story derives partly from the competition that develops between Grossbart and Marx, their contest of wit, a game that finally becomes deadly earnest. In this respect it resembles the games Neil and Brenda play in Goodbye, Columbus. Grossbart is usually smart enough to know when to attack and when to retreat, when to show guts and when to act meekly, as in the Passover seder incident. But Marx is no dummy. Even his sense of guilt (at not being much of a Jew) has its limits. He realizes full well who and what Grossbart is and finally confronts him in a towering rage: "Grossbart, you're a liar! . . . You're a schemer and a crook. You've got no respect for anything. Nothing at all. Not for me, for the truth—not even for poor Halpern! You use us all—." Discovering and then shifting Grossbart's orders are the final victory, however vindictive, that Roth awards Marx, who has certainly earned it.

If "The Conversion ofthe Jews" appeared too simple or too clear to Alfred Kazin, the "moral complexity" of this story exhilarated him, for in it Roth shows "the Jew as individual, not the individual as Jew." Moreover, Roth "caught perfectly the drama of personal integrity in the face of group pressures that is so typical of American literature." He does indeed. But the issue of Jewish identity, which Grossbart forces Sergeant Marx to face, and the conflicts that develop from it are Roth's own. Though they resemble situations in stories like Malamud's "Last of the Mohicans" and "The Lady of the Lake," the humor is more sharply satiric and less fanciful. Furthermore, the ending puts the entire story in an utterly different perspective, when Marx hears Grossbart weeping behind him after their confrontation. As the private swallows hard, accepting his fate, Marx resists with all his will the impulse to turn and ask Grossbart's pardon. Struggling, Marx accepts his fate too. Thus, Roth deftly mingles comedy, satire, and pathos in an amalgam fully justified by the "moral complexity" of his tale.


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Mixed comedy and pathos, melodrama and farce characterize "Epstein" also, though in different doses and for different purposes. So do moral earnestness and what appears to be, on the surface anyway, a kind of poetic justice not unlike that meted out at the end to Private Grossbart. Old, hardworking Lou Epstein's life is suddenly transformed after his nephew Michael comes to spend a weekend at his home. Epstein is at an extremely vulnerable point in a middle-aged man's life. His wife of many years, Goldie, is no longer as attractive as she once was. His son, Herbie, dead of polio early in life, is kept alive only in memory, and in the bedroom where his baseball pictures still hang on the wall. His daughter, Sheila, once a pretty child, at 23 is coarse and unlovely. Engaged to a folksinger, she is active politically and socially, her leftist values hardly reflecting those of her middle-class family.

Into this milieu Epstein's nephew enters, slipping inside the house at night with his date from across the street. At first Epstein thinks it is Sheila and her boyfriend, Marvin, and braces himself for the inevitable zippings and unzippings of their lovemaking in the living room. An unhandsome couple, they fill him with disgust, not lust. Usually he ignores their vigorous pantings and carryings on, but this night he goes downstairs to give them a piece of his mind. He is astonished to find not Sheila and Marvin but Michael and Linda, the girl from across the street, who make quite a different sight from the one he expected, one far more erotic and exciting.

Watching unseen and tingling all the while, Epstein at last tiptoes back upstairs. Until the couple leaves, however, he is unable to sleep, and no sooner have they gone than Sheila and her boyfriend arrive and the zippings begin all over again. Epstein ponders to himself: "The whole world . . . the whole young world, the ugly ones and the pretty ones, the fat and the skinny ones, zipping and unzipping!" He grabs his great shock of gray hair and yanks it until his scalp hurts, while beside him Goldie shuffles, mumbles, and pulls the blankets over her. "Butter! She's dreaming about butter," Epstein muses. "Recipes she dreams while the world zips." He finally closes his eyes and pounds himself "down down into an old man's sleep."

Later Epstein wonders whether that evening or some other event was the beginning of his "big trouble." But he decides that it all began when it appeared to begin, when he saw Linda's mother, Ida Kaufman, waiting for a bus and offered her a lift. Only recently a neighbor, Ida was unlikely to remain in her house long, now that her husband had died and she had the house in Barnegat to go to. Epstein drives her there, attracted by her voluptuousness, and they carry on an affair for several weeks—until one night Epstein discovers a rash near his genitals.

The rash precipitates a crisis that nearly wrecks Epstein's family and his life. Trying to pass off the affliction as prickly heat, a sand rash, or something he picked up from a toilet seat in his paper bag factory, Epstein fails to convince Goldie, who is sure he has venereal disease. Turmoil ensues; Epstein is ordered out of the conjugal bedroom and into the spare bed in Herbie's room where, unable to sleep, he talks to Michael, reminiscing about the past. It is all both funny and sad: Epstein's arrival with his parents at Ellis Island; the early years with Goldie; Herbie; his estrangement from his brother, Michael's father, years ago. When the young man becomes judgmental, Epstein makes this apologia: "You're a boy, you don't understand. When they start taking things away from you, you reach out, you grab—maybe like a pig even, but you grab. And right, wrong, who knows! With tears in your eyes, who can even see the difference!"

The next morning, Sunday, the family has quieted down, but the weekend routine has changed. Instead of Epstein, Marvin the folksinger goes out for lox and a newspaper. As coffee percolates and family members sit around the table, Lou enters and the turmoil resumes. So Epstein has his breakfast at the corner luncheonette. Afterward, wondering where he should go, he sees Ida in her backyard in shorts and a halter, hanging underwear on a clothesline. She smiles at him, and that determines his decision.

Catastrophe follows. At noon a siren goes off. When Goldie, Sheila, and the others see an ambulance across the street, they suddenly realize its import but do not fully grasp it until a stretcher emerges from Ida Kaufman's house with Epstein on it. Sex and stress have taken their toll: he has had a heart attack.

However melodramatic and contrived, the ending of the story is, again, not without its humor. At the sight of her stricken husband Goldie explodes into grief and concern characteristic of a matronly Jewish housewife. In the ambulance on the way to the hospital, the doctor tries to reassure her. When he comments, "A grown man can't act like a boy," Goldie puts her hands over her eyes and Lou opens his. Everything will be all right, the doctor says. "All he's got to do is live a normal life, normal for sixty." Now Goldie reassures Lou, who cannot or will not talk; though he opens his mouth, his tongue—an image of enforced impotence—"hung over his teeth like a dead snake." He'll live, but it is the end. As for the rash—not a symptom of venereal disease after all—the doctor reassures Goldie that he can fix that up, too, "So it'll never come back."

Epstein's world, like Mr. Patimkin's in Goodbye, Columbus, is "one taken up entirely by the economics of making it in America, and of demonstrating that you have achieved something to those around you," as Sol Gittleman says [From Shtetl to Suburbia: The Family in Jewish Literary Imagination, 1978]. Therein lies the tragedy. The pathetic part is how little Epstein has achieved, really, and the comedy derives from what he tries to grab for himself once he realizes how little the little that he has is. Ironically, even the little that he reaches for turns out to be too much. What happens to Epstein is partly the result of the disintegration of "kinship values," which have been the essence of Jewish survival through the centuries [Gittleman], and Roth knows it. Far from attacking Jewish values, then, Roth through his satire is crying out for their realization and, presumably, their restoration in contemporary American life.

Roth's instrument of attack, here as in Goodbye, Columbus and in much of his later fiction, is satire, which after we stop laughing helps us better understand the incongruities that have set us laughing in the first place. On the one hand, it is incongruous that a 60-year-old man, Lou Epstein, should try to behave like his young nephew, for Lou is well past the age of "zippings." On the other hand, he has enough life left in him both to envy the young and to think he can emulate them. But the world knows better, he discovers, not so much to his chagrin as to his sorrow. Being carried out of his paramour's home across the street on a stretcher on a Sunday morning is comical, as Roth presents it. What is not so funny (though it has its humorous side) is the image of the future that Goldie holds out for Lou in the ambulance. Marvin and Sheila will marry and run the business, and he can retire. She'll take care of him and they can go someplace together. "Don't try to talk," she says. "I'll take care. You'll be better soon and we can go someplace. We can go to Saratoga, to the mineral baths, if you want. We'll just go, you and me—." No wonder that, as she talks, Lou's eyes roll in his head.

"You Can't Tell a Man by the Songs He Sings"

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"You Can't Tell a Man by the Songs He Sings"

According to critical consensus, the penultimate story in Goodbye, Columbus is the weakest. It is also the earliest of Roth's stories in the collection. Nevertheless, it has its humor too and its moral irony, though here the two are not as tightly interwoven as in the other stories. Jokes abound, as when the ex-con Albie Pelagutti, recently returned to high school, asks the boy sitting next to him for "the answer" while they are filling out an occupations questionnaire. Or when Albie turns up for a baseball game in an outlandish costume. Though he has bragged about his skill as a ballplayer, when a fly ball comes his way he lets it land on his chest instead of in his glove and he doesn't know the first thing about holding a bat at the plate.

The unnamed narrator (the boy who gives Albie "the answer" and the one who is duped into picking him for his ball team) learns a lot from Albie and from another ex-con, "Duke" Scarpa. Streetwise, they know when to assert themselves and when to run—for instance, when the cafeteria window accidentally gets broken while the three are horsing around. The ex-cons never make it through high school, but years later, when the Kefauver Committee investigates crime in the area, neither Pelagutti's nor Scarpa's name turns up in the papers. Instead, the wellmeaning, decent occupations teacher, Mr. Russo, is victimized when another Senate committee swoops through the state. Refusing to answer some of the committee's questions, he is fired by the board of education for having been a Marxist during his college years. The point of the story becomes clear at the end, as the narrator contrasts Russo's fate with his own experience in the high school principal's office, where he was sent for breaking the cafeteria window. The principal had warned that the file card on which the disciplinary breach was recorded would follow the boy all through his life. Albie and Duke knew that; that is why they ran when the window was broken. The narrator had not run and was punished. Ironically, poor Russo was just discovering a fact of life that his pupils had learned much earlier, while still boys.

"EU, the Fanatic"

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"EU, the Fanatic"

Like "The Defender of the Faith," "Eli, the Fanatic" is suffused with dark humor. The comedy derives from the contrasts and juxtapositions of an assimilated Jewish community in predominantly WASPish Woodenton suddenly confronted by an Orthodox Jewish yeshiva in its midst. The yeshiva consists of some 18 refugee children presided over by Leo Tzuref and cared for by a nameless survivor of concentration camps. The affluent Jews who have moved to Woodenton in suburban New York—merchants as well as professionals and their families—are disturbed by the presence of this outlandish settlement and want it removed. Not only does the yeshiva violate the town's zoning ordinances, but, more significantly, it is acutely embarrassing for the town's assimilated Jewish residents. The harmony established between themselves and their Protestant neighbors is, they feel, endangered by the yeshiva and particularly by the strange greenhorn, a Hasid who marches around the town in his fantastic black garb shopping for the children. They therefore call on one of their own, Eli Peck, an attorney, to get the yeshiva to move.

Eli does his best under the most trying circumstances. Tzuref is stubborn and refuses to budge, making Eli feel as though he were persecuting the already-too-muchpersecuted refugees from Hitler's Europe. Eli's sense of this oppression is repeatedly exacerbated by knowing that these are mainly children he is trying to remove, children who flee from the very sight of him as he walks over the grounds to negotiate with Tzuref. Nor does Eli's home life provide more than scant consolation for him (though it provides much humor for the reader), as the efforts of his very pregnant wife to "understand" Eli invariably have the opposite effect. Having suffered two nervous breakdowns earlier, Eli is by no means heartless or insensitive. He feels for Tzuref and the children, and he feels for his community, whose members increasingly pressure him to resolve the predicament they see themselves in.

Eli tries to compromise by offering Tzuref conditions: first, that the religious, educational, and social activities of the yeshiva of Woodenton be confined to the yeshiva grounds and, second, that yeshiva personnel who appear in public be attired in clothing usually associated with American life in the twentieth century. The reply Eli gets from Tzuref is typically succinct:

Mr. Peck:

The suit the gentleman wears is all he's got.


Leo Tzuref, Headmaster

Eli therefore once more visits Tzuref at the yeshiva, again frightening the children, to discuss the situation. As usual, the room is dim, unlit by electricity (Tzuref eventually lights a candle). They argue at cross-purposes. Eli, rational, insists that the greenhorn could get another suit; they—he and his clients—will even pay for it, he suggests, smacking his hand to his billfold. Tzuref, otherwise motivated, also smacks his hand to his breast, at "not what lay under his coat, but deeper, under the ribs." Eli's appeal is to the laws of the community; Tzuref s is to the heart, to God's law, not mortals.' He insists that since everything but the man's black suit has been taken away from him, the least the Woodenton Jews can do is suffer a little too.

At an impasse, the two end their discussion, and Eli, guilt-ridden, sneaks off into the night trying not to frighten the little children once more. He finally breaks the impasse in an unusual manner as his wife gives birth to their son in the hospital. He takes one of his best suits, wraps it up, and delivers it to the yeshiva. But the issue is not yet entirely resolved. Although the "greenie" wears Eli's clothes—good suit, hat, shoes, everything—and parades around the streets of Woodenton in them, to the astonished satisfaction of Eli's friends, that is not the end of the affair. Soon afterward, while Miriam is still in the hospital with the baby, Eli hears a noise outside his back door. There he finds the B on wit Teller box he had used to pack his things deposited on his doorstep. In the box are the black clothes of the "greenie," complete with broken shoes, black hat, and tsitsit, the fringed garment worn by Orthodox Jewish men.

Slowly, as he dons the strange clothing, Eli begins to realize why it has been left there. This time when he leaves his house to go to the yeshiva, he scares not the children, who scarcely notice him, but his next-door neighbor, Harriet Knudson, who is busy painting the stones on her lawn pink. At the yeshiva he confronts the greenie, busy painting the porch columns white. Until Eli says "Shalom" he does not turn around, and when he does, recognition takes some time. As they gaze at each other, Eli has "the strange notion that he [Eli] was two people. Or that he was one person wearing two suits. The greenie looked to be suffering from a similar confusion."

In his "mixed-up condition" Eli reaches out to the greenie to fasten the button-down collar of his shirt, but the gesture frightens the poor man, who backs away in terror. Chasing after him, Eli finally corners him and yanks the man's hands away from his face, pleading with him to tell him what else it is he must do. The greenie, raising one hand to his chest and jamming it there, then points off to the horizon, toward the center of Woodenton. Not until the greenie repeats the gesture does Eli understand its significance, and he heads toward the town.

What happens then is both funny and poignant. Roth adeptly portrays the town in its everyday activity and dress, into which the figure of Eli Peck, now dressed as a Hasid, strides. The impact is stunning: "Horns blew, traffic jerked, as Eli made his way up Coach House Road." But Eli perseveres, knowing that everyone thinks he is having another nervous breakdown. He knows he is not insane. If you chose to act crazy, he thinks, then you weren't crazy. "It's when you didn't choose. No, he wasn't flipping." Soon afterward he remembers his wife in the hospital and, rejecting the idea of changing back into his own clothes, makes his way to her bedside.

Seeing him, Miriam is nearly beside herself:

"Eli, why are you doing this to me! . . . He's not your fault," she explained. "Oh, Eli, sweetheart, why do you feel guilty about everything. Eli, change your clothes. I forgive you."

"Stop forgiving me. Stop understanding me."

"But I love you."

"That's something else."

Love is something else, Eli has learned, and it passes understanding. He insists on seeing his newborn son, and as he contemplates the "reddened ball—his reddened ball" the interns come and tear off his coat, injecting him with a sedative. "The drug calmed his soul," the story ends, "but did not touch it down where the blackness had reached."

"Eli, the Fanatic," the most powerful story in the collection, brings the volume full circle. Whereas Goodbye, Columbus ended with Neil Klugman rejecting love, rejecting religion, ready to start work on Rosh Hashanah, Eli Peck ends with a resolve not to let his wife, his neighbors, or his psychiatrist persuade him to renounce his actions. Through Tzuref and the greenie and the children at the yeshiva, he has learned what none of the others appreciate: the meaning of sacrifice, sacrifice through love, which for Philip Roth appears to be the essence of Judaism. It has cost the greenie everything to end up in Woodenton dressed in a nice tweed suit and decent hat. It has cost Eli just as much to recognize the sacrifice, reciprocate it, and allow comedy to triumph.

Some commentators have criticized Roth for this story as they have done for the others, claiming his ignorance of Jewish tradition or, worse, his innate anti-Semitism and self-hatred. Sol Liptzin, for example, argues that no Hasid would surrender his traditional garb to appease the residents of a New York suburb: Rather, he would devoutly pray for them. This aspect, Liptzin maintains, shows Roth's "ignorance of the inner motivation and behavior of Jews" [The Jew in American Literature, 1966]. Although perhaps technically correct, Liptzin's argument may be beside the point, which is partly to show the chasm between traditional and assimilationist Jews and the difficulty of any rapprochement. Whereas Liptzin claims that Roth is being "theatrical and not genuine," "genuine" seems to signify merely the literal, and, of course, Roth in writing imaginative literature is not being literal-minded. If he is "theatrical," then that is partly what makes the story succeed. It is good theater, make-believe, although make-believe dressed up in the trappings of reality.

The Jews of Woodenton, for example, are real enough. Though they speak English, they talk like Jews; Saul Bellow, for one, picked up the Yiddish rhythms that characterize their speech ["The Swamp of Prosperity," Commentary, July 1959]. The streets of Woodenton look like real streets too; as Gittleman remarks, Coach House Road is "the ultimate suburban street, with a Colonial-styled supermarket" where the president of the Lions Club, "the epitome of proper, Gentile Woodenton," encounters Eli in his Hasidic dress. The theatrics undoubtedly constitute much of the comedy; in fact, the story opens like the first scene of a play or film, as Eli approaches the yeshiva for his first meeting with Tzuref. Much of the story is in dialogue too, emphasizing the theatrics but also dramatizing the issues. In addition, it lets Roth display the kinds of wit that characterize both Tzuref and Eli, as they talk at cross-purposes during their initial conference and thereafter:

"The law is the law," Tzuref said.

"Exactly!" Eli had the urge to rise and walk about the room.

"And then of course"—Tzuref made a pair of scales in the air with his hands—"The law is not the law. When is the law that is the law not the law?" He jiggled the scales. "And vice versa."

Roth's resolution of the conflict in "Eli, the Fanatic" may be factually or theologically inauthentic, but Eli's insight as well as his courage cannot be dismissed on those grounds. However unlikely, if not impossible, it might be for a Hasid to exchange clothes with a modern Jew in suburban New York, the exchange does provoke comedy on all sides. And underlying the comedy is the essential truth concerning the loss of values, of tradition and identity, that Eli Peck finally comes to recognize and, in his bizarre but necessary way, tries to restore.

Eli is without question a modern assimilationist Jew. But he is also a sensitive, caring person who knows only too well that an argument has two sides, that while defending one side you often wish you were on the other. In this story Roth shows both sides vividly and powerfully. If Eli changes sides at the end, he does so in full knowledge of what he is doing and why. If he is carried off finally with a hypodermic needle in his arm, Roth shows that changing sides may not be so easy after all; that the mores of a community cannot be violated with impunity; that society will have its revenges. "Okay, rabbi," one of the men in white coats calls out to Eli in the hospital. "Okay okay okay okay okay okay. . . . Okay okay everything's going to be okay." But everything is not "okay"; the drug soothes Eli's soul, but insofar as it does not touch it "down where the blackness had reached," nothing is ultimately resolved. In this way Roth's comedy reveals both its depths and its complexity and shows him at the very beginning of his career, despite his years, to be a surprisingly mature writer.

Further Reading

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Baumgarten, Murray, and Barbara Gottfried. "The Suburbs of Forgetfiilness: Goodbye, Columbus" In Understanding Philip Roth, pp. 21-59. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1990.

Interpretative analysis of the novella and five short stories, focusing on Roth's representation of suburban Jewry.

Bloom, Harold, ed. Modern Critical Views: Philip Roth. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1986, 188 p.

Collection of critical essays addressing Roth's corpus.

Deer, Irving, and Harriet Deer. "Philip Roth and the Crisis in American Fiction." The Minnesota Review VI, No. 4 (1966): 353-60.

Proposes that Roth's short stories feature characters who find themselves caught between European Jewish tradition and modern American individualism.

Gross, Barry. "American Fiction, Jewish Writers, and Black Characters: The Return of The Human Negro' in Philip Roth." MEWS 11, No. 2 (Summer 1984): 5-22.

Examines Roth's portrayal of African Americans in the novella Goodbye, Columbus, arguing that Roth is singular among Jewish American writers of the twentieth century in that he does not use black characters to personify unorganized, irrational forces.

Israel, Charles M. "The Fractured Hero of Roth's Goodbye, Columbus." Critique XVI, No. 2 (1974): 5-11.

Purports that the principal theme of Roth's novella is the hero's inability to arrive at an understanding of himself.

Lee, Hermoine. "The Art of Fiction LXXXIV: Philip Roth." Paris Review 26, No. 93 (Fall 1984): 215-47.

Interview with Roth in which the author discusses his life and fiction.

MacLeod, Norman. "A Note on Philip Roth's 'Goodbye, Columbus' and Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby." The International Fiction Review 12, No. 2 (Summer 1985): 104-7.

Delineates thematic similarities between Roth's novella and Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, asserting that Roth's work is "a conscious part of the artistic design of the later story."

McDaniel, John N. The Fiction of Philip Roth. Haddonfield, NJ: Haddonfield House, 1974, 243 p.

Attempts to position Roth in contemporary American fiction by examining his artistry, heroes, and critical reception.

Milbauer, Asher Z., and Donald G. Watson, eds. Reading Philip Roth. London: Macmillan Press, 1988, 205 p.

Contains twelve original essays enveloping Roth's entire body of fiction, in addition to an interview with Roth by the editors.

Pinsker, Sanford. The Comedy that "Hoits": An Essay on the Fiction of Philip Roth. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1975, 121 p.

Examines Roth's techniques for transcending suffering in his fiction.

Pinsker, Sanford, ed. Critical Essays on Philip Roth. Boston: G. K. Hall and Co., 1982, 278 p.

Includes reprinted criticism encompassing all of Roth's works prior to 1982, as well as four original essays.

Rodgers, Bernard F., Jr. Philip Roth. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1978, 192 p.

Offers several essays addressing predominant themes in Roth's collection, Goodbye, Columbus.

——. Philip Roth: A Bibliography, 2nd ed. Metuchen, NJ: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1984, 386 p.

Features annotated bibliographical listings of primary and secondary materials prior to 1984.

Roth, Philip. "Writing American Fiction." Commentary 31, No. 3 (March 1961): 223-33.

Comments on the shocking nature of contemporary American society and its impact on literature, including his own fiction.

Searles, George J . "Philip Roth's 'Kafka': A 'Jeu-ish American' Fiction of the First Order." Yiddish 4, No. 4 (Winter 1982): 5-11.

Provides a laudatory critical overview of Roth's "'I Always Wanted You to Admire My Fasting'; or, Looking at Kafka."

——. The Fiction of Philip Roth and John Updike. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1985, 197 p.

Surveys the social realism, literary method, and predominant themes of Roth's and Updike's fiction, drawing comparisons between the two authors.

——. "The Mouths of Babes: Childhood Epiphany in Roth's 'Conversion of the Jews' and Updike's 'Pigeon Feathers.'" Studies in Short Fiction 24, No. 1 (Winter 1987): 59-62.

Uncovers thematic similarities in "Conversion of the Jews" and Updike's "Pigeon Feathers," focusing especially on the role of religion in these works.

Simon, Elliot M. "Philip Roth's 'Eli the Fanatic': The Color of Blackness." Yiddish 7, No. 4 (1990): 39-48.

Asserts that the protagonist's donning of black clothing is a métonymie expression of his connection to the sacred.

Waxman, Barbara Frey. "Jewish American Princesses, Their Mothers, and Feminist Psychology: A Rereading of Roth's 'Goodbye, Columbus.'" Studies in American Jewish Literature 1 (Spring 1988): 90-104.

Addresses the stereotype of the Jewish American princess in the novella Goodbye, Columbus.

Additional coverage of Roth's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Gale Research: Bestsellers 90: 3; Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography: 1968-1988; Contemporary Authors, Vol. 1-4; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 1, 22, 36, 55; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 9, 15, 22, 31, 47, 66, 86; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 2, 28, 173; Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook, Vol 82; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors: British; DISCovering Authors: Canadian; DISCovering Authors: Most-Studied Authors Module; DISCovering Authors: Novelists Module; DISCovering Authors: Popular Fiction and Genre Authors Module; Major 20th-century Writers; and World Literature Criticism.


Roth, Philip (Milton) (Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Roth, Philip (Vol. 1)