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Philip Roth, Urban Excavator

books and culture

Philip Roth, Urban Excavator

No American writer chronicled a city the way Roth did Newark. May 24, 2018
Arts and Culture
Cities

In Philip Roth’s first novel, Goodbye, Columbus, librarian Neil Klugman sits in a park across the street from the stately main library building in Newark contemplating the view and feeling his “affection” for the city well up inside him. Today you can sit in that same spot in Washington Park, dominated by a John Massey Rhind statue of General Washington, and stare out at the neo-Renaissance library building (to which Roth donated his 4,000-volume collection before he died) and the Newark Museum next door.

But much else about the heart of Newark has changed since Roth, who died Tuesday, published Goodbye, Columbus in 1959. Many of the factories that were the source of the city’s prosperity, including the massive Westinghouse Plant that employed 3,000 people just a few blocks north of the library, are gone. So are many of the people. A city of some 440,000, including numerous immigrants and their children, when Roth lived there, Newark has shrunk to just 280,000 inhabitants, and swathes of its residential neighborhoods today are dotted with vacant lots and empty homes. One notable home that remains, however, is the small, modest house on Summit Avenue in Newark’s Weequahic section where Roth was born and grew up. A tiny plaque there announces that this was once home to “one of America’s greatest writers of the 20th and 21st centuries.”

Many of the assessments of Roth’s prodigious career fixate on his preoccupation with male lust (rendered in contemporary argot as “toxic masculinity”), on his postmodern fascination with blurring the lines between fiction and reality, and on the controversies his writings sparked—in the Jewish community, among feminists, and with powerful, unfriendly critics like Irving Howe. And, yes, the critical judgments also mention, sometimes in passing, that Roth wrote about growing up in a Jewish family and neighborhood in Newark. But the city was more than just a fleeting backdrop in Roth’s work. Nearly half of his books are set at least in part there and—as I’ve written—it’s hard to think of another writer who has drawn so complete a portrait of a blue-collar American city at its height, and in decline, as Roth did with Newark. Reading him, you get a sense of how the industrial America of the mid-twentieth century accomplished what it did, powered by a relentless optimism and its inhabitants’ determination to keep moving forward. In American Pastoral, Roth described the fathers he knew in Newark as “men for whom the most serious thing in life is to keep going,” and the women who accompanied them in life and took care of every family task while the men worked “fifty, sixty, even seventy hours a week” to ensure that their children wouldn’t have to.

Viewed through the lens of Roth’s early years in Weequahic, his Newark novels are about something else increasingly rare—urban life in a city of neighborhoods peopled by stable extended families. As Joel Kotkin has observed, since the mid-1960s, cities have gradually become the dominion of “the rich, the poor, the non-white as well as the unmarried and childless middle class.” Meantime, Kotkin observes, the “middle-class family has been pushed to the margins, breaking dramatically with urban history.” It has perhaps become as hard to imagine today a city of blue-collar families as it is to remember how cities like Newark, Detroit, Cleveland, and Buffalo once boasted economies powered by non-degreed workers doing things with their hands—the “proprietors of tiny industrial job shops . . . or self-employed plumbers, electricians, housepainters and boilermen” whom Roth described in The Plot Against America. And yet once, in Roth’s day, just as the city’s workforce prospered largely with manual labor, two-thirds of all Newark’s adults were married, and most kids lived with a mother and father. Cities like Newark were “havens” for families, a word Roth uses again and again in writing about Weequahic.

Roth, who left Newark for college and never again lived in the city, rebelled in his early novels, drawing a scathing portrait of his parents’ generation in Portnoy’s Complaint, written in the form of a patient’s rant to his psychiatrist in which Alexander Portnoy attacks the “self-annihilating way so many Jewish men” of his father’s generation served their families, and the suffocating presence of his mother, “so deeply imbedded in my consciousness that for the first year of school I seem to have believed that each of my teachers was my mother in disguise.” The somewhat gentler though still unflattering portrait in Goodbye, Columbus, published a decade earlier, finds the unambitious twentysomething Neil Klugman remaining in Newark after college, toiling for the library, when even his parents have left. He lives with an aunt and uncle—die-hard Newarkers who grumble about other families, who, having made it, decamp to the rich suburbs. “Since when do Jewish people live in Short Hills?” Neil’s aunt says after he tells her that he’s dating a Jewish girl from an exclusive suburban enclave. “They couldn’t be real Jews believe me.” Those books, especially Portnoy’s Complaint, earned Roth such censure in the community that he vowed at one point to stop writing tales of Newark and its Jewish neighborhood.

He couldn’t stay away, though, because as he aged his own view of what family life in Newark had meant changed. In novels like American Pastoral, I Married a Communist, The Plot Against America, and Nemesis, Roth presents two kinds of Newarkers: those who left the city to succeed—or because they had succeeded—and those who stayed behind. The leavers confront a modern world not as comfortable or supportive as the tight-knit neighborhood they grew up in and sometimes find themselves longing for a past that disappears as the city disintegrates. The Swede in American Pastoral lives a charmed life in Weequahic as a neighborhood football star, then inherits his father’s prosperous business and moves to the suburbs, where his life falls apart when his daughter commits a deadly act of rebellion. No longer living in the haven that was Weequahic, “He learned the worst lesson life can teach—that it makes no sense,” Roth’s fictional alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman, observes.

Those who stay in Newark in those later novels differ dramatically from the aimless Neil Klugman in Goodbye, Columbus. Instead, they are small heroes, people like the schoolteacher Murry Ringold in I Married a Communist— who protects his wilder brother Ira after he is accused of being a Communist and goes into hiding—or Bucky the playground supervisor and gym teacher of Nemesis, who is reluctant to abandon the city during a polio crisis in the mid-1940s because he feels that the neighborhood’s kids need him. Those who stay discover the hard truth of what Newark became. Murray reveals that his wife was murdered in Newark, and he admits that “we stayed too long.” Bucky contracts polio, and in a harsh irony may have transmitted it to the children he had sworn to protect; his life is tragically altered. His former student, the novel’s narrator, encounters Bucky 25 years later, still living in Newark, a shell of his former self.

In the final pages of Nemesis—the last pages of fiction that Roth ever published—the narrator eventually pushes that vision of the broken Bucky out of his mind and remembers him back in the 1940s, on the playgrounds of Weequahic, before polio struck. It’s a fine day, and Bucky is teaching the neighborhood kids gathered around him how to throw a javelin. The narrator remembers Bucky showing them the proper technique, “releasing it then as an explosion.” The early Bucky, the one on the playground, the narrator tells us, “seemed to us invincible.”

It’s not accidental, I think, that after 31 books and countless other writings, this was the last image—Bucky surrounded by the Weequahic kids on a lost good day—that Philip Roth wanted to leave us.

Photo: King of Hearts

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