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Appreciation: Philip Roth belongs in canon of greatest American authors

Roth was a literary archaeologist who dug deep into his imagination and memory to re-create the American Jewish milieu of his youth.

Novelist Philip Roth poses at his home on Sept. 5, 2005, in Warren, Conn. (AP Photo/Douglas Healey)

(RNS) — Philip Roth’s death at age 85 marks the end of an extraordinary writing career. In my mind, Roth was the greatest American author of the past 60 years.

I’m a fast reader and usually get through most novels quickly. Not so with Roth’s many remarkable writings. His carefully crafted books demand slow reading because of his rich, tightly composed prose. Indeed, I often reread his words again and again simply to admire his magnificent command of the English language.

Newark, N.J.-born Roth always told his sometimes comedic, sometimes tragic stories with exquisite precision and insight.

During his lengthy career, he won a series of major awards, including the Pulitzer Prize for “American Pastoral,” a novel that says it all about the huge upheavals in American society during the tumultuous 1960s.

But, somehow the Nobel Prize for Literature eluded him. That’s a shame and perhaps that august award can yet be made to him, albeit posthumously.

Roth will always be remembered as the creator of the satirical takedown of the vacuous middle-class Jewish life in “Goodbye, Columbus” (1959) and “Portnoy’s Complaint” (1969), a semi-autobiographical exploration of a Jewish young man’s sexual hang-ups, especially his libidinous attraction to white Anglo-Saxon Protestant blond women.

But Roth was much more than the chronicler of American Jewish foibles, follies and foolishness. Read his prescient “The Plot Against America” (2004), also set in Newark. Roth imagines that the famed aviator-hero Charles Lindbergh, a populist American anti-Semite who admires Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler, is elected U.S. president in 1940 instead of Franklin Roosevelt. Once in the White House, Lindbergh unleashes an ugly public anti-Jewish campaign that directly involves the not so fictional Roth family.

The novel is not only “what might have been” historically. It is a brilliant cautionary tale about what can happen when an American president removes the lid of a national garbage can filled with anti-Semitism and racism.

Roth’s novels and short stories are often saturated with Jewish themes and major characters. Like many other great novelists, he mined his childhood experiences and wrote again and again about the people, events and issues he knew so well. Roth was a literary archaeologist who dug deep into his imagination and memory to re-create the American Jewish milieu of his youth.

When first published, both “Goodbye, Columbus” and “Portnoy’s Complaint” sparked a firestorm of vitriolic criticism from many rabbis that included a volley of anti-Roth sermons. Some of my colleagues charged that the novelist’s characters were shallow and “self-loathing” Jews who provided anti-Semites with validation for their hatred of Jews and Judaism. One rabbi even asked the Anti-Defamation League: “What is being done to silence this man? Medieval Jews would have known what to do with him.”

In 1972, Irving Howe, a respected author and social critic, wrote:  “’Portnoy’s Complaint’ is not, as enraged critics have charged, an anti-Semitic book, though it contains plenty of contempt for Jewish life.”

While Roth’s first masterpiece was “Goodbye Columbus,” 50 years later he wrote “Nemesis,” another masterpiece. It is the heartbreaking account of the 1944 polio epidemic in Newark.  Few novelists have exhibited such literary stamina and sustained creative excellence for such a long period of time. Roth ultimately published 27 elegantly written novels, as well as four nonfiction volumes and numerous short stories.

Throughout history, Jews have frequently poked fun at themselves; they employed self-deprecating humor as a means of protective armor and survival in a hostile world. Incredibly, though, when the talented Roth brilliantly followed that centuries-old tradition, there was a fierce blowback from his critics. However, his great writing carried the day and the attacks ebbed.

In 2014, Roth’s steep fall and gradual rise within the American Jewish community culminated when he received an honorary degree from the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City, the flagship seminary of Conservative Judaism. Arnold Eisen, the school’s chancellor, said of Roth: “His questions about Jewish life and identity and their dilemmas have always been the right questions, even if I haven’t always agreed with his answers. The outrage that greeted his early work belongs to another era, and so does his sense of being a pariah.”

Roth said how proud his deceased father, a life insurance agent, would have been to see him receive the honorary degree: “I welcomed the honor. Who takes Jews more seriously than the JTS, and what writer takes Jews more seriously than I do?” He joked: “I have not been embraced by a gathering like this since March of 1946, when my family and friends were assembled to celebrate my bar mitzvah.”

The Newark neighborhood of his youth no longer exists. But fortunately, Philip Roth has achieved literary immortality because his novels will exist forever.

(Rabbi A. James Rudin, the American Jewish Committee’s senior interreligious adviser, is the author of “Pillar of Fire: A Biography of Rabbi Stephen S. Wise.” The views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

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