Philip Roth: Within the American Canon & Among Enemies


Columbus, Ohio:  Schmidt's Sausage Haus 3/12/12
Columbus, Ohio: Schmidt’s Sausage Haus 3/12/12

          When the Church declares a person – always dead – to be a saint, s/he’s canonised.  The books of the Bible the Church long ago established as scripture are called the canon.  By extension, literary works of time-tested worth are said to have joined the canon.

           Either for canonisation or for the inclusion of his works in the American canon, the author of Portnoy’s Complaint and Goodbye, Columbus, Philip Roth is an untimely, unlikely candidate.

           In a wonderfully written – sometimes surprising – review of Roth Unbound by Claudia Roth Pierpont, ‘In the Egosphere’ (London Review of Books, Jan. 23, 2014), Adam Mars-Jones observes:

           Time pardons the renegade….  And in 2005 the Library of America started publishing Roth’s work in a uniform edition.  It wasn’t the first time a living author’s work had been honoured in this way:  Eudora Welty and Saul Bellow went before him.  But being received into the canon is normally a Moses deal.  You may be able to see it in the distance, but you don’t get to go there yourself.  All the more surprising in Roth’s case, since he is known for his rough handling of the tablets of the law.  There’s something very odd about finding Portnoy’s Complaint in a volume of the Library of America….  It’s like learning that a vintage inflatable sex doll has been bought by the British Museum. The problem is not that the institution is debased by acquiring such a thing but rather that the artefact loses its meaning when stripped of disreputability.

           Mars-Jones’s lengthy (and largely favorable) appraisal of Roth is worth a careful read.

           Among Mars-Jones’s many telling points is one that deserves to stand alone, without further comment.  That is, however posterity judges Philip Roth as a writer, it must not forget his books earned him that greatest of contemporary accolades:  the catalysing of enemies in the highest places. 

           One of the high points of Roth Unbound is the extract from the [White House] tapes (recorded on 3 November 1971) in which [President Richard] Nixon considers [with his Chief of Staff, H.R. Haldeman] his anti-Roth strategy:

 NIXON: Roth of course is a Jew.

HALDEMAN: Oh yes … he’s brilliant in a sick way.

NIXON: Oh, I know –

 HALDEMAN: Everything he’s written has been sick …

 NIXON: A lot of this can be turned to our advantage … I think the anti-Semitic thing can be, I hate to say it, but it can be very helpful to us. I mean you hear a singer even as brilliant as [Metropolitan Opera star] Richard Tucker and he’s a Jew.


NIXON: He’s pushy …

HALDEMAN: There are a lot more anti-Semites than there are Jews, and the anti-Semites are with us generally and the Jews sure aren’t.