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[Memento Mori]

Philip Roth (1933–2018)

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Remembering Philip Roth

On Tuesday, longtime Harper’s Magazine contributor Philip Roth died at the age of eighty-five. Roth’s first story for the magazine, “Paul Loves Libby,” was published in 1962 and is free to read online through the end of this week. A complete list of Roth’s work can be found here. Below is an excerpt, from our August 2017 issue, of a speech Roth gave at a celebration of his seventy-fifth birthday at Columbia University in 2008.

Seventy-five. How sudden! It may be a commonplace to note that our time here steals away at a terrifying speed, but it nonetheless remains astonishing that it was just 1943 — it was 1943, the war was on, I was ten, and at the kitchen table, my mother was teaching me to type on her big Underwood typewriter, its four upward-sloping rows of round white keys differentiated by black letters, numerals, and symbols that, taken together, constituted all the apparatus necessary to write in English.

I was at the time reading the sea stories of Howard Pease, the Joseph Conrad of boys’ books, whose titles included Wind in the Rigging, The Black Tanker, Secret Cargo, and Shanghai Passage. As soon as I’d mastered the Underwood’s keyboard and the digital gymnastics of the touch system of typing, I inserted a clean sheet of white paper into the typewriter and tapped out in caps at its exact center a first title of my own: Storm Off Hatteras. Beneath that title I didn’t type my name, however. I was well aware that Philip Roth wasn’t a writer’s name. I typed instead “by Eric Duncan.” That was the name I chose as befitting the seafaring author of Storm Off Hatteras, a tale of wild weather and a tyrannical captain and mutinous intrigue in the treacherous waters of the Atlantic. There’s little that can bestow more confidence and lend more authority than a name with two hard c’s in it.

In January 1946, three years later, I graduated from a public elementary school in Newark, New Jersey — ours was the first postwar class to enter high school. That a brand-new historical moment was upon us was not lost on the brightest students in the class, who had been eight or nine when the war began and were twelve or thirteen when it concluded. As a result of the wartime propaganda to which we’d regularly been exposed for close to five years — and because of our almost all being knowledgeable, as Jewish children, about anti-Semitism — we had come to be precociously alert to the inequalities in American society.

The heady idealistic patriotism with which we were inculcated during the war spilled over in its aftermath into a burgeoning concern with contemporary social injustice. For me, this led to my being teamed up by our eighth-grade teacher with a clever female classmate to write — in part on my mother’s Underwood — the script for a graduation play we called Let Freedom Ring.

Our one-act play, a quasi allegory with a strong admonitory bent, pitted a protagonist named Tolerance (virtuously performed by my coauthor) against an antagonist named Prejudice (sinisterly played by me). It included a supporting cast of classmates who, in a series of vignettes in which they were shown attending to their harmlessly healthy-minded pursuits — and which were intended to advertise how wonderful all these people were — played representatives of ethnic and religious minorities unjustly suffering the injurious inequities of discrimination. Tolerance and Prejudice, invisible to the others onstage, stood just to the side of each uplifting scene, arguing over the human status of these various and sundry non–Anglo-Saxon Americans, Tolerance quoting exemplary passages from the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution of the United States, and the newspaper columns of Eleanor Roosevelt, while Prejudice, appraising her with as much pity as disgust, and in a tone of voice he wouldn’t have dared to use at home, said the nastiest things about the inferiority of these minorities that he could get away with in a school play.

Afterward, in the corridor outside the auditorium, giving me a fervent hug to express her delight in my achievement, my proud, admiring mother told me, while I was still in my costume of head-to-foot black, that, sitting at the edge of her seat in the audience, she who had never struck anyone in all her life had wanted to slap my face. “How ever did you learn to be so contemptible!” she said, laughing. “You were thoroughly despicable!” In truth, I didn’t know — it just seemed to have come to me out of nowhere. Secretly it thrilled me to think I had a natural talent for it.

Let Freedom Ring ended with the full cast of miscellaneous minorities hand in hand at the footlights, joining Tolerance with everything they had as she rousingly sang “The House I Live In,” a 1942 pop oratorio in praise of the American melting pot that had been famously recorded by Frank Sinatra. Meanwhile, exiting stage right, bound alone for his evil abode, loathsome Prejudice stalked off in bitter defeat, shouting angrily at the top of his voice a sentence I’d stolen from somewhere: “This great experiment cannot last!”

That was the beginning, the hometown launching of a literary career leading right up to today. It isn’t entirely far-fetched to suggest that the twelve-year-old who coauthored Let Freedom Ring! was father to the man who wrote The Plot Against America. As for Eric Duncan, that estimable Scotsman, years after crediting him with the authorship of Storm Off Hatteras, I sometimes had reason to wish that I had donned that pseudonym before Portnoy’s Complaint went forth into the world. How different life would have been!

The speech is included in Philip Roth: Why Write, which was published by the Library of America in 2017.

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