Philip Roth — Welcome to the Canon

Is Philip Roth America’s greatest living writer? Let’s takes a look at Roth’s early work, freshly published by the Library of Congress.

Philip Roth: Novels and Stories 1959-1962
Philip Roth
Library of America
August 2005

How good is Philip Roth? Now that Saul Bellow has passed, is Roth the greatest living American writer? Where does he fit in the canon of American literature?

These questions and others may be answered over the next eight years as the Library of America — that venerable non-profit organization dedicated to preserving the nation’s cultural heritage by publishing America’s best and most significant writing in authoritative editions — releases eight volumes of Roth’s collected works. The first two volumes were released this summer. Publication of the final book in 2013 is scheduled to coincide with Roth’s 80th birthday. Roth joins Saul Bellow and Eudora Welty as the only American writers to have their complete works preserved by the Library of America during their lifetimes — quite a surprising honor for the brash young author of “Goodbye, Columbus” and the scandalous Portnoy’s Complaint.

As for his place in the canon, one could persuasively argue that Roth has written more great novels than Hawthorne, Melville, Twain, Fitzgerald, and Hemingway combined. I’m serious. Count ’em up. Hawthorne has The Scarlet Letter and The House of the Seven Gables; Melville has Moby Dick; Twain has The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn; Fitzgerald has The Great Gatsby and Tender is the Night; and Hemingway has The Sun Also Rises and For Whom the Bell Tolls. (And I’m being generous by including Gables, Tender, and Bell.) That’s eight great novels from those five legends.

Roth, in my view, has written nine great novels: Portnoy’s Complaint, My Life As a Man, The Ghost Writer, The Counterlife, Operation Shylock, Sabbath’s Theater, American Pastoral, The Human Stain, and The Plot Against America.

(I know the word “great” is a vague and extremely subjective term, but how else is one supposed to make comparisons in the arts? I also recognize that each of these other five writers was also a master of the short story, a form Roth abandoned after his first book.)

Regardless, over the past 12 years — with the remarkable late-career burst of energy that produced the novels, Operation Shylock, Sabbath’s Theater, the highly ambitious American Trilogy (American Pastoral, I Married a Communist, and The Human Stain), and last year’s terrific The Plot Against America — Roth has cemented his status as a writer of the first rank. Rather than going quietly into that good night, Roth, now in his 70s, seems to be getting better. Given the depth and quality of his recent books, one wonders if we’re still yet to see Roth at the peak of his powers.

However, the Nobel Prize for Literature was awarded this week and once again Philip Roth did not get a call from Stockholm. This year’s winner is British playwright Harold Pinter, a worthy honoree but not nearly as deserving as Roth. Perhaps the Nobel Committee should take the opportunity afforded by the publication of the Library of America editions to reevaluate Roth’s oeuvre. The first volume, covering the years 1959 to 1962, includes Goodbye, Columbus and Five Short Stories and the massive novel, Letting Go. The novella (“Goodbye, Columbus”) and stories such as “Defender of the Faith” have been justly celebrated since their initial publication. There is little I can add to the acclaim, other than to say that what may have been controversial in the early 1960s (the sexual frankness, the exploration of the foibles of assimilated and unassimilated Jews in America) seems rather tame now.

For me, the surprise of these first two volumes is Letting Go. Weighing in at 660 dense pages, Letting Go is a young Philip Roth’s first attempt at a big, serious novel in the mode of Henry James. While I have read most of Roth’s work, I had never previously tackled Letting Go. I had a vague notion that it was one of his weaker efforts from an early stage in his career when he was still finding his voice. That characterization may still be accurate, but it does not detract from the power of the book.

Letting Go, written in a self-consciously literary and earnest style that Roth was later to discard, follows the lives of three characters: Gabe Wallach (a young, Jewish literary intellectual from the East coast; in other words, a stand-in for Roth), the struggling writer Paul Herz, and Paul’s troubled wife Libby. It is somewhat of an academic novel, as most of the story takes place first at the University of Iowa and later at the University of Chicago (two schools at which Roth, like Gabe, spent time as an instructor). But the university settings are really a minor backdrop for the troubled and rather incestuous relationships that develop amongst these three primary (and a large assortment of secondary) characters.

Although Roth’s style was to change and evolve rather dramatically over the years, in this first novel we see several themes and motifs that ramify throughout his career. These include:

The autobiographical narrator, a precursor of Nathan Zuckerman and David Kepesh, who serves as a prism through which we see the larger events of the novel

A troubled relationship with a parent — in this case his father, who is widowed and lonely back in New York

Romantic difficulties with emotionally unstable women, resulting in horrific and cringe-inducing arguments

Ambivalence about his Jewish heritage marked by a desire to both please his family and establish his own identity

Of Roth’s early work, Saul Bellow wrote, “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 skilful, witty, and energetic and performs like a virtuoso.” Bellow was commenting specifically on Goodbye, Columbus and Five Short Stories, but his words are equally applicable to Letting Go. As much growth as we see in Roth’s work over the past 40-plus years, it is easy to forget that he has retained a remarkably high level of artistic quality right from the start.

These new editions provide the dual joys of discovering previously overlooked books such as Letting Go and rediscovering the energetic, youthful mastery of groundbreaking novels such as Portnoy’s Complaint.

I only have one small complaint. Although the Library of America aims to publish authoritative editions, the first volume of Roth’s work includes several small typographical errors. Worse, in Letting Go a character is identified as Levy on one page and Levi on the next. I don’t expect sloppy editing in an “authoritative” edition that retails for $35.00. Roth deserves better. Quibbles aside, these are handsomely published volumes of some of the finest post-war American fiction.

Meanwhile, as the Library of America is dusting off the past, Philip Roth continues to move forward. His next novel, Everyman, will be published in May by Houghton Mifflin.