Michael Kimmage: Philip Roth as Phenomenon of the American Spirit

tags: PBS, Michael Kimmage, Philip Roth, American Masters



Michael Kimmage is an associate professor of history at Catholic University. He is the author of  In History’s Grip: Philip Roth’s Newark Trilogy and The Conservative Turn: Lionel Trilling, Whittaker Chambers and the Lessons of Anti-Communismhe is also the translator of Wolfgang Koeppen’s Journey Through America.

n June 1880, Fyodor Dostoevsky spoke before a monument to Alexander Pushkin, newly erected in Moscow, proclaiming Pushkin a “unique phenomenon of the Russian spirit.” To Dostoevsky at least, Pushkin’s monumental meaning was transparent. It was his national genius: “No single Russian writer, before or after him, ever associated himself so intimately and fraternally with his people as Pushkin.”

Unlike Russians, Americans rarely build statues to their writers. American writers are most consistently remembered as local heroes: Edgar Allan Poe obliquely commemorated in Baltimore’s football team or Ernest Hemingway honored as the patron saint of Key West. For all its statues, Washington, D.C. has very few that are literary. One of the limited ways to secure a spot in national memory is for a writer to be featured in American Masters, a PBS series that focuses on great artists. This accolade has just been awarded to Philip Roth, and “Philip Roth: Unmasked,” has all the attributes of a monument, though the question remains: A monument to what?1

It’s easier to answer in the negative. No monument can be built to Roth the Jewish-American writer, since there is no such writer. Roth does not write “in Jewish,” as he comically confesses in the documentary. The Jewish-American label was constructed by others and applied to him artificially, forcing him into a box with Saul Bellow and Bernard Malamud when the literary genealogy is vastly more complicated....



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