Roth's Complex Relationship to Academe

Several of novelist Philip Roth's books called out academics as misguided, hyper-political or overtly ambitious. But professors say he was happy to be taught at colleges.

May 24, 2018
 

The great American novelist Philip Roth, who died Tuesday at 85, had what might be described as a complicated relationship to academe.

Several of Roth’s 30-plus novels and story collections -- especially the trilogy that comprises American Pastoral, The Human Stain and I Married a Communist, called out academics as misguided, hyper-political or overtly ambitious.

“He certainly had a love-hate relationship -- more of the latter, I guess, less of the former -- with the academy,” said Ezra Cappell, an associate professor of English at the University of Texas at El Paso.

But in real life, said Aimee Pozorski, a professor of English at Central Connecticut State University, “He was really supportive of us.”

Roth, she said, “was happy to know that he was being taught” in English departments nationwide, he once told her. Over the past few decades, she and others said, his work has found a ready audience in immigrant and first-generation college students who reflect his own journey from middle-class Newark to a position as one of America’s most honored writers.

Roth graduated magna cum laude from Bucknell University in 1954, and a year later earned a master’s degree at the University of Chicago. After a stint in the U.S. Army, he worked on a Ph.D. in English at Chicago, but dropped out in 1956, after one term, The New York Times reported.

Three years later, his short story collection Goodbye, Columbus brought him a first taste of critical success, winning a National Book Award. The title story is about a working-class Jewish youth from Newark who falls in love with a wealthy, more assimilated Jewish Radcliffe College student from upscale Short Hills, N.J. The novella takes its name from the lyrics of a song sung at Ohio State University's commencement, played over and over again by the woman's brother, depicted as assimilated because of his connection to Ohio State athletics. "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."

A decade later, in 1969, the raunchy and ground-breaking Portnoy’s Complaint made Roth a household name.

In its obituary, The Times on Tuesday called him "the last of the great white males” who dominated American letters in the second half of the 20th century, along with Saul Bellow and John Updike.

But Pozorski said her students don’t necessarily see him through the lens of race. “They’re not thinking about him as this old white guy who doesn’t have anything to say.”

Actually, she said, her students -- many of them the first in their families to attend college -- find him speaking directly to them. Though Roth often took criticism for his depiction of women, Pozorski said her students admire his portraits of vulnerable women who are abused, ill or even dying.

Cappell, the UTEP professor, agreed, saying his students -- many of them immigrants, "have found his work extremely relevant.” 

Roth’s fiction, he said, often explores conflicts between older and younger generations of immigrants in which the younger generation pulls away from the older one. “My first-generation college students often here at UTEP really embrace Roth and his incredible body of work. I do think he’s extremely relevant to our society. We’ve just lost one of the great voices and one of the great chroniclers of our culture and our society -- perhaps when we need him most, actually.”

Though he taught seminars in comparative literature at the University of Pennsylvania and at New York's Hunter College, among others, much of Roth’s work “stood against these institutions, which tend toward a belief in their infallibility, Cappell said.

Among the most notable examples: Roth’s 2000 novel The Human Stain, in which a classics professor at Massachusetts’ fictional Athena College finds himself in hot water after students accuse him of racial insensitivity, a plot line in political correctness that could play out nearly word-for-word on a U.S. campus today.

Roth began writing the book around the time of Kenneth Starr’s investigation of President Clinton, which led to Clinton’s impeachment. “I felt there was something afoot in the late ‘90s, just a great explosion of righteous moralizing, which Americans are gifted at,” he told The Times in a recent interview.

Roth later said the incident actually happened to a friend who taught at Princeton. Writing in The New Yorker in 2012, he said the book was actually inspired by “an unhappy event” in the life of his late friend Melvin Tumin, a longtime professor of sociology at Princeton, whom he’d met as a writer-in-residence in the early 1960s.

He wrote that more than 20 years later, in the fall of 1985, Tumin was “meticulously taking the roll” in a sociology class in the middle of the semester and realized that two of his students hadn’t attended a single class session. Tumin queried the class about the two mystery students, asking: “Does anyone know these people? Do they exist or are they spooks?”

The two students, it turned out, were both African-American. Though Tumin meant the remark as a joke about ghosts, students understood it as a degrading racial term. Summoned before an administrative tribunal, Tumin defended himself, but a “witch hunt” ensued in which “the powers of the moment sought to take down Professor Tumin from his high academic post for no reason at all.”

The book was made into a 2003 movie starring Anthony Hopkins and Nicole Kidman.

Dean Franco, an English professor at Wake Forest University and director of the university’s Humanities Institute, said he taught The Human Stain this semester, “and boy, was I nervous teaching it in the Me Too moment, because it’s a novel about a lot of surprising sex.”

For one thing, the main character is an older male professor who sleeps with a 30-something janitor at the college. “There are all of these power disparities and imbalances,” Franco said. 

But his students -- including his female students -- “felt that Roth was able to get at the many, many facets of sexual encounter. So we were not offended by it. We were not calling Roth sexist. Rather we were examining the complexities, almost moment-by-moment, of sexual encounter.”

The novel, he said, presented a disarmingly honest depiction of a relationship between two unlikely characters. It also offered a clear-eyed look at “academic pretension and academic politics” in a small New England college.

“Roth got it right,” he said. “He got a lot right.”

Franco and others said Roth was also a quiet booster of young writers -- he noted that while researching Roth, he found letters from the novelist Louise Erdrich, who thanked him for being a mentor, and for offering blurbs for her book jackets. 

Though he was not necessarily a fan of literary criticism, Franco said, Roth made exceptions when it pleased him. In 2013, when Roth turned 80, an academic conference in his honor at the Newark Public Library became a raucous birthday party after Roth "basically hijacked the conference and said, ‘Let’s turn this into my 80th birthday party.’ So there was an academic conference on Day 1, and on Day 2 there was a massive banquet and blowout party for Roth and all of his friends -- and the academics were all invited. He lined up and chatted with us. It was good times.”

The conference included an improbable tour of Newark filled with “all these academics driving around on a bus looking at all these Philip Roth sites,” Franco recalled.

Pozorski, who planned the event alongside Roth and Liz Del Tufo of the Newark Preservation and Landmarks Committee, said it was always intended as a combined party and conference -- an example, she said, of Roth's support of academics who study his work.

But nearly 50 years after his breakout novel appeared, do literature classes still read Portnoy’s Complaint, with its well-known scenes of masturbation? The Washington Post has called it “a provocative hand grenade rolled right into the literary and Jewish establishments,” noting that novelist Irving Howe in 1969 slammed it, saying, “The cruelest thing anyone can do with Portnoy’s Complaint is read it twice.”

Cappell said the novel’s “ruthless intimacy” still holds lessons for aspiring writers.

“That is what his work does,” he said. “It is ruthless in terms of its ability to get into the depths of his characters and try to understand the world through their experiences. And sensuality is a major part of that, just as it is in the lives of all of us.”

Wake Forest’s Franco noted that The Wire creator David Simon is adapting Roth’s 2004 novel The Plot Against America into a six-part TV miniseries, and said he hopes the series will prompt readers to pick up Roth’s novels.

“I think he’ll be around for a very long time,” Franco said.

For his part, Simon on Wednesday tweeted that he’d recently met Roth to discuss the adaptation: “At 85, he was more precise and insightful, more intellectually adept and downright witty than most any person of any age,” Simon wrote. “What a marvelous, rigorous mind.” 

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