In History's Grip: Philip Roth's Newark Trilogy

In History's Grip: Philip Roth's Newark Trilogy

In History's Grip: Philip Roth's Newark Trilogy

In History's Grip: Philip Roth's Newark Trilogy


In History's Grip concentrates on the literature of Philip Roth, one of America's greatest writers, and in particular on American Pastoral, I Married a Communist, and The Human Stain. Each of these novels from the 1990s uses Newark, New Jersey, to explore American history and character. Each features a protagonist who grows up in and then leaves Newark, after which he is undone by a historically generated crisis. The city's twentieth-century decline from immigrant metropolis to postindustrial disaster completes the motif of history and its terrifying power over individual destiny.

In History's Grip is the first critical study to foreground the city of Newark as the source of Roth's inspiration, and to scrutinize a subject Roth was accused of avoiding as a younger writer-history. In so doing, the book brings together the two halves of Roth's decades-long career: the first featuring characters who live outside of history's grip; the second, characters entrapped in historical patterns beyond their ken and control.


The man who decides to forge a distinct historical identity, who sets
out to spring the historical lock, and who does so, brilliantly suc
ceeds at altering his personal lot, only to be ensnared by the history
he hadn’t quite counted on: the history that isn’t yet history, the
history that the clock is now ticking off, the history proliferating as
I write, accruing a minute at a time and grasped better by the future
than it will ever be by us. The we that is inescapable: the present
moment, the common lot, the current mood, the mind of one’s
country, the stranglehold of history that is one’s own time. Blind
sided by the terrifyingly provisional nature of everything.

Philip Roth, The Human Stain

The East Coast is the deepest repository of American history, and the city of Newark, New Jersey, is embedded in the East Coast, next to New York City, close to Philadelphia, not far from Boston and Washington, DC. Colonial history has left its sediments in New Jersey, one of the original thirteen colonies. The American Revolution and early republic were intimately connected to the New Jersey territory between Philadelphia, city of the Constitutional Convention, and New York, which was briefly the new nation’s capital. Newark worried its way through the War of 1812 and suffered through the Civil War. As the nation underwent the dramas of industrialization, mass immigration, and the black migration from South to North, so did Newark, an industrial city with few traces of its preindustrial past. In the late 1960s, Newark’s name was added to the list of cities devastated by rioting and unrest, a small chapter in the chronicle of national discontent. On September 11, 2001, one of the four hijacked planes left from Newark airport, traveling out from New Jersey to wreak its world-historical havoc. Yet Newark is not an obviously historical place. It is too small to elicit the fascination of a major city. It is too poor to sponsor urban magnificence on par with “the hubbub across the Hudson,” resplendent Manhattan, there to reduce all around it to diminutive and depressing proportions. Even by . . .

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