The celebrated American Jewish novelist Philip Roth died Tuesday at the age of eighty-five. Twenty years ago, Norman Podhoretz—who, in 1957, was one of the very first to publish Roth’s fiction—took the occasion of the publication of I Married a Communist to write a lengthy analysis of the man and his work. On the perennial question of Roth’s attitude toward American Jews, Podhoretz commented:
In [the 1957 novella] “Goodbye, Columbus” itself, and the [five] other shorter stories that . . . made up the book [of the same name published the next year], Roth demonstrated that no one, not even Saul Bellow himself, had so perfectly pitched an ear for the speech of the first two generations of Jews who had come to America from Eastern Europe, or so keen an eye for the details of the life they lived, or so alert a perception of the quirks and contours of their psychological makeup. . . .
Yet there were complications and nuances involved here that must be brought in and stressed. On the one hand, I was well aware that Roth could never have achieved so uncanny a degree of accuracy unless he had not only paid close attention to but had taken genuine delight in the world he was evoking. . . .
On the other hand, . . . no such [delight] could be perceived in—to take the most striking instance—his portrait of the Patimkin family in “Goodbye, Columbus.” Consumed by their lust for material goods to the exclusion of all else, shrewd about money and business and vulgar about anything cultural or spiritual, armored by a self-satisfaction that no uncertainty could penetrate, the Patimkins were the very glass of the unfashionable and the very mold of bad form (and looking worse and worse with the ethos of the 60s fast approaching).
Yet the irony was that, in its own way and of its own kind, the self-satisfaction of Philip Roth seemed at least as great as that of the Patimkins. Even at the time, and in spite of my admiration for Roth’s literary powers, I wondered how it was that a simple question had never occurred to his protagonist or to him: how could someone like either one of them have possibly emerged from such a milieu and from such a people? Surely they could not have sprung full-blown from the brow of Henry James. Surely there must have been something in the life into which they were born and the culture in which they grew up that made them into such utterly wonderful people (and that may even have predisposed them to being attracted to the likes of Henry James). But if so, what was it? And why did not the slightest sign of it show up in the stories? And did not its absence constitute a failing—even an aesthetic failing, an offense against the inner artistic requirements of the stories themselves? . . .