Academic journal article Philip Roth Studies

Not Quite Letting Go: Rethinking the "Tragic Sense of Life" in Roth's First Novel

Academic journal article Philip Roth Studies

Not Quite Letting Go: Rethinking the "Tragic Sense of Life" in Roth's First Novel

Article excerpt

It has long been a commonplace of Roth criticism that Portnoy's Com- plaint (1969) is the defining moment of his early career, and the case for its centrality tends to be strengthened by making unfavorable contrast to Roth's earlier fiction-especially to his first novel, Letting Go (1962). This trend was set as early as 1969 by Roth's friend Ted Solotaroff, then editor of the New American Review, which had published two advance excerpts from Portnoy's Complaint. In a long article that draws upon memories of their time as PhD students at the University of Chicago in the late 1950s, Solotaroff associated the themes and the style of Letting Go not only with the stifling "age of conformity" that marked the end of the Eisenhower era, but with the equally stifling graduate school literary ideals they had imbibed together:

It was a time when the deferred gratifications of graduate school and the climb to tenure and the problems of premature adjustment seemed the warranty of 'seriousness' and 'responsibility': those solemn passwords of a generation that practiced a Freudian/Jamesian concern about motives, pondered E.M. Forster's 'only connect,' and subscribed to Lionel Trilling's 'moral realism' and 'tragic sense of life'. In contrast to today, everyone tried to act as though he were thirty. Some of this Roth had caught and placed at the center of Letting Go. (314)

Solotaroff presents Portnoy's Complaint by contrast as nothing less than a "personal triumph" (328) over the self-imprisoning failure of Letting Go, and his reading has been influential. None of the recent studies of Roth choose to explore Letting Go in detail, either because they focus exclusively on the fic- tion after Portnoy's Complaint, or because they share David Gooblar's view that it does little more than "demonstrate Roth's continued allegiance to a difficult, complex, morally-earnest art" (44).1

However in a 2004 article published in Raritan, followed up by his mono- graph Philip Roth's Rude Truth (2006), Ross Posnock challenged this critical consensus. Arguing instead that Letting Go reveals a Roth who has already quite emphatically departed from the Lionel Trilling generation's concern with seriousness and responsibility, Posnock claims that Letting Go embodies essentially the same "assault on maturity" that Roth later made in Portnoy's Complaint, albeit in a "subtler, less frontal" manner. In this account, the seem- ingly unappealing character of Uncle Asher, a "sloppy-ass bohemian" artist who repeatedly advises his nephew Paul to "let it flow, let it go," emerges as the novel's distinctively Emersonian voice of wisdom, and the phrase "letting go" becomes for Posnock nothing less than the watchword of Roth's career as a whole: "the title of his first novel, Letting Go ," he argues, "can be read as a neat summary of what the countermodel [of Roth's fiction] proposes as the goal of dismantling-a relaxing of the constricted psyche" (8).

This striking divergence of views suggests that there might be more to Roth's first novel than meets the eye. In fact Letting Go is neither simply a continuation of an ossified 1950s literary ethos, nor a wholehearted abandon- ment of that legacy, but a fundamentally unresolved text-one that is indeed letting go the intellectual baggage of the previous generation, but which has by no means let go altogether. The way to appreciate the revisionist energies of this novel, as well as its ongoing debts and limitations, is by thinking about how Letting Go self-consciously engages with "Lionel Trilling's 'moral realism' and 'tragic sense of life'"-the literary ideals to which, according to Solotaroff, Roth's first novel unreflectively subscribes.

Before Letting go: Trilling's Henry James and THe "Tragic sense of life"

In The Facts (1988) Roth claimed he used The Portrait of a Lady (1881), James's best-known tragic novel, as "a virtual handbook in the early drafts of Letting Go," and at the outset of the novel we find Gabe Wallach, a character who has just completed a doctoral thesis on James, explaining how James's fiction revolves around heroes and heroines "tempting one another into a complex and often tragic fate" (3). …

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