Reading Philip Roth: Anxiety and Comedy
381 Hooper St
Brooklyn, NY 11211
What kind of writer was Philip Roth? His fiction deals unquestionably with problems of Jewish cultural difference: parochialism, assimilation, conversion, anxiety, whiteness. Yet, Roth famously disavowed the categorization “Jewish-American.” For others, Roth is a quintessentially all-American literary icon—a novelist who, in dealing forcefully with questions of status, sex, race, and politics, helped craft the “American” fictional idiom. Finally, there’s Roth’s “masculinity”: his “heteronormative” male voice, male view, and male relation to objects of sexual desire. Can Roth be read usefully as Jewish, American, or male? Was Roth a satirist of identity, or a defender of its salience? What, indeed, are the elements of comic writing? To extent do Roth’s innovations in comic form, style, and plot owe themselves to the “identities” with which Roth felt himself inexorably bound up? And, what can his fiction tell us, if anything, about sex, race, and religion today?
In this course, we’ll focus on Roth’s early work, from the eponymous novella and stories in the anthology Goodbye, Columbus (1959) to Roth’s first bestselling novel, Portnoy’s Complaint (1969). Each attracted praise and scorn: prominent literary figures such as Saul Bellow and Alfred Kazin encouraged Roth to write more, while a number of rabbis asked: “What is being done to silence this man?” Reading Roth as well as several of his critics, we’ll ask what Goodbye, Columbus and Portnoy’s Complaint can teach us about idiom, voice, realism, satirical form, American history, and the salience and limits of identity. Is Roth’s a consummately “male” subjectivity, or can the work be read “universally”—as a wider window into basic experiences of anxiety, guilt, ambition, and sexual desire? What connects and differentiates, thematically and stylistically, Goodbye, Columbus and Portnoy’s Complaint? How might both books be read with and against contemporary conceptions of gender and identity? Can Roth still make us laugh?
Course ScheduleWednesday, 6:30-9:30pm
January 29 — February 19, 2020