“If I don’t measure up as an American writer, at least leave me to my delusion.” Happy birthday, Philip Roth!

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Not delusional. (Photo: Nancy Crampton)

Not delusional. (Photo: Nancy Crampton)

“Literature isn’t a moral beauty contest. Its power arises from the authority and audacity with which the impersonation is pulled off; the belief it inspires is what counts.”

That’s just one gem from preeminent author Philip Roth, who turns 82 today. We’ve written about him here and here and here. The Book Haven has an especial reason to wish him a happy happy. Almost a year ago, he gave me an exclusive interview, before we launched a Stanford “Another Look” event for his 1979 classic, The Ghost Writer.

Two excerpts from that interview.

Haven: Many consider you the preeminent Jewish American writer. You told one interviewer, however, “The epithet ‘American Jewish writer’ has no meaning for me. If I’m not an American, I’m nothing.” You seem to be so much both. Can you say a little more about your rejection of that description?

Roth: ”An American-Jewish writer” is an inaccurate if not also a sentimental description, and entirely misses the point. The novelist’s obsession, moment by moment, is with language: finding the right next word. For me, as for Cheever, DeLillo, Erdrich, Oates, Stone, Styron and Updike, the right next word is an American-English word. I flow or I don’t flow in American English. I get it right or I get it wrong in American English. Even if I wrote in Hebrew or Yiddish I would not be a Jewish writer. I would be a Hebrew writer or a Yiddish writer. The American republic is 238 years old. My family has been here 120 years or for just more than half of America’s existence. They arrived during the second term of President Grover Cleveland, only 17 years after the end of Reconstruction. Civil War veterans were in their 50s. Mark Twain was alive. Sarah Orne Jewett was alive. Henry Adams was alive. All were in their prime. Walt Whitman was dead just two years. Babe Ruth hadn’t been born. If I don’t measure up as an American writer, at least leave me to my delusion.

***

Haven: You told Tina Brown in 2009, “I wouldn’t mind writing a long book which is going to occupy me for the rest of my life.” Yet, in 2012, you said emphatically that you were done with fiction. We can’t bring ourselves to believe you’ve completely stopped writing. Do you really think your talent will let you quit?

Roth: Well, you better believe me, because I haven’t written a word of fiction since 2009. I have no desire to write fiction. I did what I did and it’s done. There’s more to life than writing and publishing fiction. There is another way entirely, amazed as I am to discover it at this late date. 

Haven: Each of your books seems to have explored various questions you had about life, about sex, about aging, about writing, about death. What questions preoccupy you now?

Roth: Currently, I am studying 19th-century American history. The questions that preoccupy me at the moment have to do with Bleeding Kansas, Judge Taney and Dred Scott, the Confederacy, the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments, Presidents Johnson and Grant and Reconstruction, the Ku Klux Klan, the Freedman’s Bureau, the rise and fall of the Republicans as a moral force and the resurrection of the Democrats, the overcapitalized railroads and the land swindles, the consequences of the Depression of 1873 and 1893, the final driving out of the Indians, American expansionism, land speculation, white Anglo-Saxon racism, Armour and Swift, the Haymarket riot and the making of Chicago, the no-holds-barred triumph of capital, the burgeoning defiance of labor, the great strikes and the violent strikebreakers, the implementation of Jim Crow, the Tilden-Hayes election and the Compromise of 1877, the immigrations from southern and eastern Europe, 320,000 Chinese entering America through San Francisco, women’s suffrage, the temperance movement, the Populists, the Progressive reformers, figures like Charles Sumner, Thaddeus Stevens, William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, President Lincoln, Jane Addams, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Henry Clay Frick, Andrew Carnegie, J.P. Morgan, John D. Rockefeller, etc. My mind is full of then.

birthday cakeI swim, I follow baseball, look at the scenery, watch a few movies, listen to music, eat well and see friends. In the country I am keen on nature. Barely time left for a continuing preoccupation with aging, writing, sex and death. By the end of the day I am too fatigued.

***

Read the whole thing here. And don’t forget his interview with Milan Kundera here. Meanwhile, we’ve baked him a little cake … well, very little…

 


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