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.

Share
Single Page

More from Harper's Magazine:

Podcast November 13, 2019, 4:14 pm

Impeachment and the Mueller Report

A panel of legal experts, lawmakers, and historians attempt to decode the enigmatic (or just unsatisfying) investigation, and discuss impeachment

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

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

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

December 2019

Gimme Shelter

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Body Language

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Trash, Rock, Destroy

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Make Way for Tomorrow

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Red Dot

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Gimme Shelter·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

I.

That year, the year of the Ghost Ship fire, I lived in a shack. I’d found the place just as September’s Indian summer was giving way to a wet October. There was no plumbing or running water to wash my hands or brush my teeth before sleep. Electricity came from an extension cord that snaked through a yard of coyote mint and monkey flower and up into a hole I’d drilled in my floorboards. The structure was smaller than a cell at San Quentin—a tiny house or a huge coffin, depending on how you looked at it—four by eight and ten feet tall, so cramped it fit little but a mattress, my suit jackets and ties, a space heater, some novels, and the mason jar I peed in.

The exterior of my hermitage was washed the color of runny egg yolk. Two redwood French doors with plexiglass windows hung cockeyed from creaky hinges at the entrance, and a combination lock provided meager security against intruders. White beadboard capped the roof, its brim shading a front porch set on cinder blocks.

After living on the East Coast for eight years, I’d recently left New York City to take a job at an investigative reporting magazine in San Francisco. If it seems odd that I was a fully employed editor who lived in a thirty-two-square-foot shack, that’s precisely the point: my situation was evidence of how distorted the Bay Area housing market had become, the brutality inflicted upon the poor now trickling up to everyone but the super-rich. The problem was nationwide, although, as Californians tend to do, they’d taken this trend to an extreme. Across the state, a quarter of all apartment dwellers spent half of their incomes on rent. Nearly half of the country’s unsheltered homeless population lived in California, even while the state had the highest concentration of billionaires in the nation. In the Bay Area, including West Oakland, where my shack was located, the crisis was most acute. Tent cities had sprung up along the sidewalks, swarming with capitalism’s refugees. Telegraph, Mission, Market, Grant: every bridge and overpass had become someone’s roof.

Article
Body Language·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

I am eight years old, sitting in my childhood kitchen, ready to watch one of the home videos my father has made. The videotape still exists somewhere, so somewhere she still is, that girl on the screen: hair that tangles, freckles across her nose that in time will spread across one side of her forehead. A body that can throw a baseball the way her father has shown her. A body in which bones and hormones lie in wait, ready to bloom into the wide hips her mother has given her. A body that has scars: the scars over her lungs and heart from the scalpel that saved her when she was a baby, the invisible scars left by a man who touched her when she was young. A body is a record or a body is freedom or a body is a battleground. Already, at eight, she knows it to be all three.

But somebody has slipped. The school is putting on the musical South Pacific, and there are not enough roles for the girls, and she is as tall as or taller than the boys, and so they have done what is unthinkable in this striving 1980s town, in this place where the men do the driving and the women make their mouths into perfect Os to apply lipstick in the rearview. For the musical, they have made her a boy.

No, she thinks. They have allowed her to be a boy.

Article
Trash, Rock, Destroy·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The writer and filmmaker Virginie Despentes lives in a nondescript modern building in the Belleville neighborhood of Paris. I know it well: it has a Bricorama—like a French Home Depot—on the ground floor, where we sometimes had cause to shop back when we lived in the neighborhood. The people who work there seemed to hate their jobs more than most; they were often absent from the sales floor. In the elevator to Despentes’s apartment, I marvel that while I was trying to get someone to help me find bathroom grout she was right upstairs, with her partner, Tania, a Spanish tattoo artist who goes by the name La Rata, like someone out of one of Despentes’s novels.

In an email before our meeting, Despentes asked that we not do a photo shoot. “There are so many images available already,” she explained. Much had been written about her, too. A Google search yielded page after page: profiles, interviews, reviews, bits and bobs—she read from Pasolini at a concert with Béatrice Dalle; someone accused her of plagiarizing a translation; a teacher in Switzerland was fired for teaching her work. The week I met her, she appeared in the culture magazine Les Inrockuptibles in conversation with the rapper-turned-actor JoeyStarr. The woman is simply always in the news.

Article
Burning Down the House·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Discussed in this essay:

Plagued by Fire: The Dreams and Furies of Frank Lloyd Wright, by Paul Hendrickson. Knopf. 624 pages. $35.

Frank Lloyd Wright isn’t just the greatest of all American architects. He has so eclipsed the competition that he can sometimes seem the only one. Who are his potential rivals? Henry Hobson Richardson, that Gilded Age starchitect in monumental stone? Louis Sullivan, lyric poet of the office building and Wright’s own Chicago mentor, best known for his dictum that form follows function? “Yes,” Wright corrected him with typical one-upmanship, “but more important now, form and function are one.” For architects with the misfortune to follow him, Wright is seen as having created the standards by which they are judged. If we know the name Frank Gehry, it’s probably because he designed the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, in 1997. And Gehry’s deconstructed ship of titanium and glass would be unimaginable if Wright hadn’t built his own astonishing Guggenheim Museum on Fifth Avenue some forty years earlier.

Article
The Red Dot·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

That night at the window, looking out at the street full of snow, big flakes falling through the streetlight, I listened to what Anna was saying. She was speaking of a man named Karl. We both knew him as a casual acquaintance—thin and lanky like Ichabod Crane, with long hair—operating a restaurant down in the village whimsically called the Gist Mill, with wood paneling, a large painting of an old gristmill on a river on one wall, tin ceilings, and a row of teller cages from its previous life as a bank. Karl used to run along the river, starting at his apartment in town and turning back about two miles down the path. He had been going through the divorce—this was a couple of years ago, of course, Anna said—and was trying to run through his pain.

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

$1,500

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.

Shortly after the Regional Council of Veneto, in Italy, voted against climate-change legislation, its chambers were flooded.

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

HARPER’S FINEST

Jesus Plus Nothing

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

By

At Ivanwald, men learn to be leaders by loving their leaders. “They’re so busy loving us,” a brother once explained to me, “but who’s loving them?” We were. The brothers each paid $400 per month for room and board, but we were also the caretakers of The Cedars, cleaning its gutters, mowing its lawns, whacking weeds and blowing leaves and sanding. And we were called to serve on Tuesday mornings, when The Cedars hosted a regular prayer breakfast typically presided over by Ed Meese, the former attorney general. Each week the breakfast brought together a rotating group of ambassadors, businessmen, and American politicians. Three of Ivanwald’s brothers also attended, wearing crisp shirts starched just for the occasion; one would sit at the table while the other two poured coffee. 

Subscribe Today