Memento Mori — May 23, 2018, 10:15 am

Philip Roth (1933–2018)

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.

Single Page

More from Harper's Magazine:

Weekly Review April 23, 2019, 3:19 pm

Weekly Review

Notre Dame burned; a journalist was killed by the New I.R.A.; “the Crazy Mueller Report” was made public

Weekly Review March 26, 2019, 10:29 am

Weekly Review

The Mueller investigation concluded; two students who survived the mass shooting in Parkland, Florida, and the father of a student who was killed in the mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, died by suicide; Flat Earthers commented on their upcoming cruise

Memento Mori May 15, 2018, 11:35 am

Tom Wolfe (1930–2018)

Remembering Tom Wolfe

Get access to 169 years of
Harper’s for only $23.99

United States Canada



October 2019


Secrets and Lies·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In 1973, when Barry Singer was a fifteen-year-old student at New York’s Yeshiva University High School for Boys, the vice principal, Rabbi George Finkelstein, stopped him in a stairwell. Claiming he wanted to check his tzitzit—the strings attached to Singer’s prayer shawl—Finkelstein, Singer says, pushed the boy over the third-floor banister, in full view of his classmates, and reached down his pants. “If he’s not wearing tzitzit,” Finkelstein told the surrounding children, “he’s going over the stairs!”

“He played it as a joke, but I was completely at his mercy,” Singer recalled. For the rest of his time at Yeshiva, Singer would often wear his tzitzit on the outside of his shirt—though this was regarded as rebellious—for fear that Finkelstein might find an excuse to assault him again.

Good Bad Bad Good·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

About fifteen years ago, my roommate and I developed a classification system for TV and movies. Each title was slotted into one of four categories: Good-Good; Bad-Good; Good-Bad; Bad-Bad. The first qualifier was qualitative, while the second represented a high-low binary, the title’s aspiration toward capital-A Art or lack thereof.

Some taxonomies were inarguable. The O.C., a Fox series about California rich kids and their beautiful swimming pools, was delightfully Good-Bad. Paul Haggis’s heavy-handed morality play, Crash, which won the Oscar for Best Picture, was gallingly Bad-Good. The films of Francois Truffaut, Good-Good; the CBS sitcom Two and a Half Men, Bad-Bad.

Poem for Harm·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Reflections on harm in language and the trouble with Whitman

Constitution in Crisis·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

America’s Constitution was once celebrated as a radical and successful blueprint for democratic governance, a model for fledgling republics across the world. But decades of political gridlock, electoral corruption, and dysfunction in our system of government have forced scholars, activists, and citizens to question the document’s ability to address the thorniest issues of modern ­political life.

Does the path out of our current era of stalemate, minority rule, and executive abuse require amending the Constitution? Do we need a new constitutional convention to rewrite the document and update it for the twenty-­first century? Should we abolish it entirely?

This spring, Harper’s Magazine invited five lawmakers and scholars to New York University’s law school to consider the constitutional crisis of the twenty-­first century. The event was moderated by Rosa Brooks, a law professor at Georgetown and the author of How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything: Tales from the Pentagon.

Life after Life·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

For time ylost, this know ye,
By no way may recovered be.

I spent thirty-eight years in prison and have been a free man for just under two. After killing a man named Thomas Allen Fellowes in a drunken, drugged-up fistfight in 1980, when I was nineteen years old, I was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. Former California governor Jerry Brown commuted my sentence and I was released in 2017, five days before Christmas. The law in California, like in most states, grants the governor the right to alter sentences. After many years of advocating for the reformation of the prison system into one that encourages rehabilitation, I had my life restored to me.

Cost of renting a giant panda from the Chinese government, per day:


A recent earthquake in Chile was found to have shifted the city of Concepción ten feet to the west, shortened Earth’s days by 1.26 microseconds, and shifted the planet’s axis by nearly three inches.

A solid-gold toilet named “America” was stolen from Blenheim Palace, the birthplace of Winston Churchill, in Oxfordshire, England.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!


Happiness Is a Worn Gun


“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

Subscribe Today