Academic journal article Shofar

The End of Identity: Philip Roth's American Pastoral

Academic journal article Shofar

The End of Identity: Philip Roth's American Pastoral

Article excerpt

With American Pastoral Roth completes the assimilation story his fiction has previously been telling by rendering judgment upon its naive hopefulness. In rewriting Zuckerman's story through the story of Swede Levov, Roth rewrites his Zuckerman oeuvre to stage a reconciliation with the Jewish past his fiction has struggled to escape. Through his identification with Swede, Zuckerman at last surrenders to the demands of the Jewish father. When Swede dies we understand that Zuckerman in a sense has died too. Zuckerman's performing American self inhabits Swede's corpse to identify the Jew who remains.

When Irving Howe dismissed Portnoy 's Complaint ( 1 969) because it betrayed "the thin personal culture" of its author, it seemed but another inevitable step in Philip Roth's quest to free himself from the aestiietic constraints of being perceived as a Jewish writer.1 In the early 1960s Rodi identified what would become his established position when he told an authence in Israel that "I am not a Jewish writer; I am a writer who is a Jew."2 Against me perception - often abetted by Roth himself - that his fiction has compromised the integrity of Jewish- American cultural identity, Roth has consistently asserted his primacy as an artist by claiming and dramatizing what we might call the selfs essential elusiveness. Near the conclusion of The Counterlife (1986) Roth's alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman, reflects that should such an entity as "an irreducible self exist, it "is rather small, I think, and may even be the root of all impersonation - the natural being may be the skill itself, the innate capacity to impersonate."3 Roth's postmodern definition of self makes it difficult for his reader to assert with any confidence that his books endorse a particular point of view or cultural position, which is precisely why Roth disclaims the identity of "Jewish" writer. Nonetheless, with his work in the 1 990s it has become obvious that Roth - in Cynthia Ozick's words - "is being catapulted along a fascinating trajectory" which is culminating in an expression of Jewish identity that no one - not Irving Howe or Philip Roth - could have imagined thirty years ago.4 In his memoir Patrimony (1991) Roth stages his reconciliation with his father and his Jewish heritage by burying his father in the traditional burial shroud; in his magnum opus, Operation Shylock (\993>) Roth stages the repossession of his identity as a Jewish writer by confronting his "other" in Israel.5 American Pastoral ( 1 997) completes Roth's trajectory in two remarkable ways. First, tiirough Nathan Zuckerman's identification with Swede Levov, "the blue-eyed blonde born into our tribe," Roth explores the possibility of writing a kind of tribal narrative.6 For the first time in his oeuvre Roth employs Zuckerman to imagine the type of story that might be told by a Jewish writer rather than by a writer who is a Jew. By framing the narrative through the perspective of Zuckerman, Roth also invokes the earlier Zuckerman canon to make sense of this story. Like his obvious model, Marcel Proust, who rewrites the life of "Marcel" until he has created Remembrance of Things Past, Rodi rewrites Zuckerman's story as a way of rewriting all of his previous Zuckerman stories. In portraying Zuckerman's perspective on the meaning of the second half of the American twentieth century through his idolatry of Swede Levov, American Pastoral reframes Roth's entire oeuvre.

Zuckerman's reappearance in American Pastoral signals Roth's re-evaluation of the fictional stance toward identity - whether understood as cultural identity or individual subjectivity - codified in The Counterlife. In American Pastoral it is as if Zuckerman is transformed into an earlier version of himself - the one that existed before he discovered die burden - and joy - of subjectivity. No longer his own subject, Zuckerman thus ostensibly removes himself from being the protagonist and displaces that role on to the character of Swede Levov. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.