Reading Philip Roth: Anxiety, Identity, and Obscenity
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 label “Jewish-American.” For others, he’s an “all-American” literary icon—a novelist who, in engaging forcefully with questions of status, sex, race, and politics, helped craft the modern American fictional idiom. Finally, there’s Roth’s alleged misogyny: his masculine voice and male gaze towards the objects of his sexual desire. Is Roth reducible to a single authorial identity? Or, utilizing irony and obscenity, was he a satirist of identity? To what extent do Roth’s innovations in comic form, style, and plot owe themselves to the “identities” with which Roth felt himself 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). Reading Roth as well as several of his critics, we’ll ask what Goodbye, Columbus and Portnoy’s Complaint can teach us about realism, irony, American history, and the salience and limits of identity. Is Roth’s a consummately “male” point of view, 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