Page 93 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 47

Basic HTML Version

LOWIN / PHILLIP ROTH AND THE NOVEL OF REDEMPTION
8 5
not always available in day-to-day conduct.” (WAJ, p. 446) In
response to those who would have preferred that Roth emulate
Leon Uris and Harry Golden, writers who have — each in his
own way — promoted Jewish pride, Roth writes elsewhere: “I
cannot help but believe that there is a higher moral purpose
for the Jewish writer, and the Jewish people, than the improve­
ment of public relations.” (NJS, p. 19)
MORAL PURPOSE
With the primary exception of Harold Bloom then, Roth’s
critics have been unwilling to see the moral dimension that Roth
adopts for himself and espouses for all of literature. Irving
Howe, for example, who had originally saluted the literary
promise of young Philip Roth, subsequently came out with a
reappraisal in which, while admitting that Roth “now stands
at the center of our culture,”4wonders: “What .. . does he really
have against those unhappy creatures of his”5 that he portrays
them so pathetically? Apparently, for reasons known to Howe
alone, the critic has chosen to hold for no account Roth’s own
protestations that, far from hating his characters, he has a great
deal of respect for them. “At times they see wickedness where
I myself had seen energy or courage or spontaneity; they are
ashamed of what I see no reason to be ashamed of, and de­
fensive where there is no cause for defense.” (WAJ, p. 446)6
The problem, perhaps, stems from looking at Roth — and
fiction — from a sociological perspective rather than from a
metaphysical and moral one. Ruth Wisse, in discussing Roth’s
story “Eli, the Fanatic,” seems to divide the world between writ­
ers who, like Cynthia Ozick and Hugh Nissenson, “take Judaism
4. Irving Howe. “Philip Roth Reconsidered.” In his
The Critical Point.
New
York: Horizon Press, 1973, p. 137. (Appeared originally in
Commentary,
1972.)
5. Howe, p. 149.
6. Roth is not the only Jewish writer to have been accused o f betraying his
people in print. For a 1903 analysis o f the way both Abraham Cahan and
Israel Zangwill were vilified by both rabbis and magazine editors see the
fascinating article by Bernard G. Richards, “The Attitude o f the Jews To­
wards Jewish Fiction,”
The Reader
l(1903):43-50.