Reflecting on the recent death of Philip Roth, Ruth R. Wisse considers how her attitude toward his work changed from her youth—when she wrote him a “fan letter” praising his novella Goodbye, Columbus—to her more mature assessment of both his fiction’s merits and its flaws. She pays particular attention to his refusal to be considered a “Jewish writer”:
Roth’s denial of meaningful Jewish attachment remained an essential feature of his writing, complicated by the lack of an alternative, for unlike Russian Jewish writers like Boris Pasternak who turned to Christianity, he disliked Christianity even more than being a Jew. In a 1961 Commentary symposium, [he] wrote that . . . “wherein my fellow Jews reject Jesus as the supernatural envoy of God, I feel a kinship with them. Needless to say, this form of kinship is not a basis for any true affection.” . . . He then goes on to deny any other form of religious or cultural cohesion so that “we are bound together, I to my fellow Jews, my fellow Jews to me, in a relationship that is peculiarly enervating and unviable.” . . .
Roth never graciously accepted his designation as a Jewish writer. . . . A sad feature of his life as a writer is that in never pretending to feel anything for the Jewish God, the Jewish homeland, or the Jewish people, Roth could not luxuriate in the affection and gratitude that many readers accorded him. At the heart of his fiction, hence of his standing as a writer, is distrust of Jewishness and secondarily of America as home to that Jewishness. Cold kasha. Adverse relation to one’s habitual subjects is not the best recipe for great art, and Roth did as well with it as anyone could, but I wish that after Portnoy’s Complaint, if not before, he could have reached the threshold of love.
With the sadness that attended Roth’s retirement from writing in 2012 and his death in 2018 came the realization that his work was never joyful. Funny and witty certainly, vital and intelligent always, and highly entertaining, but never plainly happy in the way a well-matched bride and groom enchant family and guests at their wedding. I was startled [when, in a 1972 essay], Irving Howe call[ed] him “an exceedingly joyless writer, even when being very funny.” Howe saw this before I did.
Wisse concludes by contrasting Roth’s Newark Jews to the Soviet Jewish writer Isaac Babel’s description of the Jews of his native Odessa:
Babel loved the Jews for what they were, the enjoyment of bourgeois pleasures being the best of their qualities. Babel loved being who he was despite the heavy price it exacted. Although he was first silenced and then tortured and killed at Stalin’s command, his work [is capable of breathing] happiness and joy. . . . How is it that the modern Jewish writer who functioned under the most aversive moral and physical conditions should have cast himself as the harbinger of sunshine in Russian literature, whereas the novelist who benefited beyond all others from America’s freedom and opportunity should have put so little of its pleasures into his writing? It might have been because Roth could never bring himself to say, “Damn right, America—I’m your Jewish writer, and thank you for letting me be proud of it!”