from American Literature: A History, by Hans Bertens and Theo d'Haen
(from "After the war: 1945-80 - Jewish American novelists") (...)
Still, although Malamud's characters are not invariably Jewish, in his presentation of Jewish milieus in The Assistant and in his early stories he is the most Jewish of all Jewish American writers of the fifties and sixties. Here, mainstream America is a vague presence in the background, just like Poland and its inhabitants only feature in the distance in the ghettos and streets of I.B. Singer's stories (Gimpel the Fool, 1957; The Spinoza of Market Street, 1961) or novels (The Family Moskat, 1950; The Magician of Lublin, 1960). Far more usual in Jewish American fiction is a continuous interaction with mainstream American culture and an unending negotiation of territorial boundaries. Such interaction even takes place when mainstream America is nowhere in sight, as in the title story of Philip Roth's Goodbye, Columbus (1959), a wistful story about class differences within Newark's Jewish community, in which the narrator's lover-for-a-summer has had her nose 'fixed'—'I was pretty. Now I'm prettier"–to conform to mainstream standards of beauty. With this collection of stories, Roth (1933) found himself at the center of controversy, especially because of the stories 'Defender of the Faith', in which a calculating Jeish soldier tries to exploit the loyalty he expects from a Jewish superior, and 'Eli, the Fanatic', in which suburban, assimilated Jews try to prevent orthodox co-religionists from establishin a yeshiva in their mostly gentile neighborhood. Roth's fiercest critics, supset by what seemed a cynical view of middle-class American Jewry, accused him of self-hatred, even of anti-Semitism. What Roth captures in 'Eli' is the self-censorship and the dissembling that in the 1950s were part and parcel of assimilation and the deep sense of alienation—experienced here by the lawyer hired by his fellow Jews—that such a forced way of living may bring with it. This is in fact one of the overriding themes in Jewish-American writing of the first decades after the war. In order to be accepted by mainstream America, Jewish Americans abandon much of what may characterize them as Jews—sometimes, as in 'Goodbye, Columbus', even the shape of their nose—and move out of typically Jewish neighborhoods. But that estranges them from their background while their new environment never fully accepts them, leading to a sort of alienation that differs from that felt by young mainstream Americans but is felt even more profoundly.
After two rather traditional novels featuring a more mainstream cast and dealing with the familiar themes of relationships and personal problems and ambitions (Letting Go, 1962, and When She Was Good, 1967), Roth returned to more specifically Jewish themes with Portnoy's Complaint (1969), a virtuoso rant on a psychiatrist's couch in which the novel's protagonist, Alexander Portnoy, exhaustively lists all his frustrations at having been brought up Jewish, and in between details his insatiable lusting after blonde, all-American girls. Lust would from then on return regularly in Roth's novels, as in The Professor of Desire (1977) or the fairly recent Sabbath's Theater (1995), and has contributed disproportionally to his public image, but in those novels, too, Roth is concerned with Jewishness, even if he sees himself first of all as an American writer. In the last four decades, Roth has brilliantly chronicled Jewish life in the Newark of his younger years and has through an alter ego, the Roth-like writer Nathan Zuckerman who features in for instance Zuckerman Bound (1985) and The Counterlife (1987), offered incisive meditations on what it means to be a Jewish American writer. Early in his career Roth worried that 'the actuality is continually outdoing our talents', that the technical skills of American writers were no longer a match for the outrageous images and events that the culture casually produced. Fortunately, those fears were unfounded.
(From "The End and Return of History: 1980-2010 - Philip Roth")
Philip Roth has remained extremely prolific also after 1980, even to the point of becoming perhaps the iconic American author of the entire period. To begin with, Roth wrote a third novel in the David Kepesh series with The Dying Animal. Then, he has continued the series of novels featuring Nathan Zuckerman, the first instalment of which, The Ghost Writer, appeared in 1979, and the seventh, presumably also the last given its title of Exit Ghost, in 2007, with as other titles Zukerman Unbound (1981), The Anatomy Lesson (1983), The Prague Orgy (1985), The Counterlife (1986), American Pastoral (1997), I Married a Communist (1998) and The Human Stain (2000). Zuckerman has often been interrpeted as an alter ego for Roth himself, but as of 1990 there also started appearing a new series featuring a protagonist called 'Roth', comprising Deception: A Novel (1990), Operation Shylock: A Confession (1993) and The Plot Against America (2004). There is also a free-standing novel, Sabbath's Theatre (1995), and finally a series of short novels, Everyman (2006), Indignation (2008), The Humbling (2009) and Nemesis (2010). We will here briefly treat three exemplary instances from this overwhelming oeuvre.
American Pastoral, winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1998, starts from the premise of the good life in the country as the culmination of the American Dream and a counterweight to the chaos, oppression and misery of the Old World. This is also what the protagonist of the story, whose life Zuckerman records, seems to have been bound for all his life, until everything fell apart. The novel is set in Newark, and the turning point is the 1960s, when Newark's earlier prosperity has melted away under the onslaught of beginning globalization, the city's older population of first and second generation immigrants, many of them Jewish, like the protagonist, have moved away or been minoritized by the large numbers of African Americans that have moved in. Instead of a harmonious community Newark now is the scene of race riots and labor conflicts. On the level of the U.S. as a whole the havoc wrought in Newark repeats itself in the radical youth and political movements rocking the country. Roth returns a hard verdict on what has gone wrong with America during his own lifetime.
A similar feeling speaks from The Plot Against America, winnner of the Sidewise Award for Alternate History in 2005. Roth finds his initial inspiration in a plea Charles Lindbergh, the first man to cross the Atlantic by airplane in 1927 and a national hero, made in 1941 to prevent the U.S. from entering World War II, for which he blamed the Jews, the British, and President Roosevelt. Lindbergh was in good standing with the Nazi regime and especially with Goering, the commander of the German air force. Roth takes the poetic liberty of situating Lindbergh's speech not in 1941 but in 1940, in the run-up to that year's Presidential elections, and casting Lindbergh as the Republican challenger of Roosevelt. When Lindbergh wins the election, life in the U.S. turns bitter for American Jews, and hence also for little Philip Roth. Things look even more somber when Lindbergh disappears on a solo flight with his famous Spirit of St. Louis airplane and Vice-President Wheeler, an extreme rightwing politician, assumes office. In the end, everything returns to normal, Rososevelt triumphs in a special election, Pearl Harbor signals the entry of the U.S. into World War II, and history resumes its familiar course. The Plot Against America asks some hard questions about the nature of American democracy and American politics more generally. For most commentators it was hardly a coincidence that Roth published a novel focusing on these questions, and with such characters, in the run-up to the 2004 elections, with an incumbent who in the wake of 9/11 had institued an authoritarian regime such as the U.S. had hardly ever seen before, and with a Vice-President of known conservative sympathies.
If American Pastoral and The Plot Against America address wider social and political issues, Everyman sticks to the personal level. In all of Roth's later work the consciousness of approaching death is overwhelmingly present, and particularly so in the foru short novels he published towards the end of his career (Roth in 2013 announced that he thought he had written enough and would write no more). In the futher unspecified 'he' protagonist Roth gives us a reincarnation of the medieval 'everyman' from the eponymous morality play. but whereas the medieval Everyman finds that with death all material worries and constraints dissolve and only spiritual virtues remain, because after death comes resurrection, noting of the sort happens in Roth's version. Everyman as the chronicle of a death announced, a merciless march from the cradle to the grave marked by disease, illness, the relentless deterioration of the body, deaths and funerals. Like the medieval play it holds up the mirror of our own fallibility and ephemerality, but without the consolation of faith.