Saturday, May 22, 2021

the last book I ever read (Philip Roth: The Biography, excerpt three)

from Philip Roth: The Biography by Blake Bailey:

Every weekday morning Roth rode the number 14 bus for twenty minutes to Raymond Boulevard, whence he walked another ten minutes to one of the two buildings that composed the physical plant of his then four-year-old college; a refurbished brewery on Rector Street, where he had his biology class and lab, and a refurbished bank building about five blocks away, near the Newark Museum, where he took Composition and Literature, Intermediate Spanish, and History of Western Civilization. The only greenery was a wedge of Washington Park (“drunks and all”), so named as the site where George Washington “had trained his scrappy army,” as Neil Klugman points out in Goodbye, Columbus. Roth loved his classes and got straight As, and at one time or another considered majoring in every subject, including biology. His zeal was fed by a number of first-rate professors who’d been purged from more prestigious academies in New York, casualties of the pre-McCarthy blacklist, a fact that naturally resonated with the future “lawyer for the underdog,” as Roth still fancied himself. Also he was now surrounded by book on a daily basis at the Newark Public Library, where he spent hours between classes roaming amid the open stacks—a once novel concept promoted by its legendary librarian, John Cotton Dana, who’d also provided the city’s growing immigrant population with collections of books in French, German, Polish, Lithuanian, and Italian. “What took place here was a robust engagement with all the new society had to offer,” Roth said of the palazzo-style building that embodied, for him, the best of Newark, and served as an abiding reminder of his own intellectual flowering.

Around noon Roth would take his brown-bag lunch out of his briefcase and sit with classmates in the park—sometimes old friends, but also new Italian and Irish acquaintances from high schools (Barringer, South Side) that had once seemed strange and hostile to a sheltered Weequahic boy. For Roth this was perhaps the best part of college, the very meaning of adulthood—“a great emancipation from Jewish xenophobia,” as he put it, from a ghetto-bred paranoia toward goyim that scarcely distinguished between Polish peasantry and Thomas Jefferson. Even at home he couldn’t escape it—as when Herman didactically reminded him of the time Sender had beaten his twenty-three-year-old son Ed “to prevent him from marrying a worldly woman”: “They don’t have that kind of discipline anymore,” Heman concluded, whereupon his sixteen-year-old son bolted from the dinner table in a rage. Not for nothing would Roth, in Portnoy, give the name Hymie to the brutal uncle who manhandles his son Heshie for even considering marriage to a shiksa—the “key moment” of the novel, as far as its author was concerned.

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