The novelist Philip Roth has died at 85.
He was a major figure in his generation of Jewish-American
writers that included Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, J.D.
Salinger, Norman Mailer, Cynthia Ozick, Edward Wallant,
E.L. Doctorow, and many others. Only Bellow (born in
Canada) in this group received the Nobel Prize for literature,
but Roth did win many other prizes and awards.
I first read his short stories in the 1960s when I attended the
University of Pennsylvania. I liked his stories very much, but
I had a hard time with his novels, especially his later ones.
They seemed to me too overladen with a certain prolonged
angst that was not my own.
Midway in my time at Penn, I decided to make creative
writing my major. There were no big-name writers on the
Penn English department faculty in those days, but
better-known authors were brought in as short-term guest
instructors, including Archibald MacLeish, May Sarton and
others, For my final semester at Penn, I learned the guest
instructor would be Philip Roth. (Years later, Roth joined
the regular Penn faculty,)
His appearance in class was not at all the image that came
from his earthy and emotional stories. He was impeccably
dressed, thin, scholarly, reserved and preoccupied. There is
a certain tension that often exists when writers of an older
generation speak to writers of a younger generation. When
Roth gave each of us a mimeographed copy (which I still
have) of his recently published story The Psychoanalytic
Special to read and discuss at our next class, this tension
erupted. Many of us were critical of the story. I remember
how surprised and defensive he was when the discussion
did take place. Roth was 31 at the time, and was going
through a painful separation from his first wife. None of us,
of course, had been divorced.
At the end of the term, Roth invited each of his students to
meet with him privately to discuss their work and their future
plans. When I came to his office, he was polite and serious. He
made some nice comments about the writing samples of mine
he had read, and then he asked me about my plans after
I told him that I had taken the law boards, received a high
score, and planned to go to law school. He responded by
suggesting that I instead attend the University of Iowa’s
Writers Workshop, then, as now, a leading graduate writing
program in the country. He said he would call Paul Engle,
the founder and director of the Workshop, to recommend
me. I was very flattered, thought about it for a few days, and
told him at our next and last class that I would apply. He did
make the call, and soon afterward I was accepted.
At the Writers Workshop there were many well-known
authors on the faculty, In addition, nearly every major
American writer, as well as some from other countries,
made their way to Iowa City in those days (and, I believe,
still do) to give a reading or lecture and spend some informal
time with the students, Roth himself had taught at the
Workshop a few years before.
One teacher at Iowa was the Chilean novelist Jose Donoso
who introduced me and my classmates to the then-newest
generation of European and South American writers. Another
was the American author Kurt Vonnegut who, unlike Roth,
was disarmingly casual and unfocused in the classroom. But
we found his storytelling and informality irresistible when we
went barhopping with him after class. We also were charmed
by the style of his off-the-wall novels. He wasn’t then as
well-known then as he became later, but it wasn’t long before
his little cult of devotees grew into a national readership.
After that last class at Penn I did not see Philip Roth again.
In recent years, I thought I would have some occasion to
see him and thank him for what he did, but it did not happen.
Several books of poetry and fiction --- as well as a few about
history and politics --- later, my work has few if any influences
from Philip Roth. Considering, however, the limits of style
and theme from others on a writer’s work, and the greater
importance of the paths we take in our lives, I think that
Philip Roth gave me the larger gift.
Copyright (c) 2018 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.