Academic journal article Philip Roth Studies

A Tale of Two Roths: Philip and Henry

Academic journal article Philip Roth Studies

A Tale of Two Roths: Philip and Henry

Article excerpt

Henry Roth and Philip Roth were not related and never met, except in the pages of the latter's fiction. Each author had a father named Herman Roth, but Henry's Herman Roth was the model for the abusive Albert Schearl of Call It Sleep (1934), who is, like Huck Finn's Pap, one of the great paternal monsters of American literature. The Herman Roth whose dying is recounted in Philip Roth's memoir Patrimony (1991) was, by contrast, "a fiercely loyal and devoted father" (Patrimony 188). Philip's Herman Roth retired after forty years of devoted service to the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, whose institutional anti-Semitism kept him from advancing beyond office manager. Though stubborn and obsessive and, particularly after the death of Philip's mother, a kvetch, he inspired enough loving filial devotion to ensure that, in Patrimony, Philip gets down on his hands and knees to clean the bathroom floor that his incontinent father has soiled with his excrement. Henry's Herman Roth was a disappointed, truculent man who beat his wife and son. "He would go completely berserk," Henry recalled. "Jesus, he would beat the hell out of me" (Rosen 39). Because of his tendency to quarrel with employers and fellow workers, the Henry Roth Herman never stayed long in any of his successive jobs as printer, milkman, or waiter.

An autodidact who read extensively and intensively but idiosyncratically, Henry Roth did not pay much attention to his literary contemporaries. He disdained Saul Bellow, though, as late as 1986, he admitted that he still had not read him. "The reviews themselves give me some guide as to what his novels are about-what they're about hasn't interested me" (Shifting Landscape 232), Henry Roth confided to his journal. About the work of Philip Roth, Henry expressed indifference. He explained in a 1988 letter that: "I dipped into P. Roth's Portnoy's Complaint once upon a time, and found it easy to shrug off-not superciliously, because the man is much cleverer than I could ever hope to be. His world doesn't mesh with mine, which is not his fault; his search isn't mine. So we're out of sync" (Kellman 266).

Henry Roth and Philip Roth were out of sync by two generations. Born in Tysmenitz, Galicia (not far from the birthplace of Sender Roth, Philip's grandfather) in 1906, Henry was the creature of a different world from the one that nourished Philip, who was born in 1933 in New Jersey and took his American identity for granted. In The Facts (1988), Philip Roth reports that at age ten he was substituting the rituals of his country's national pastime for those of his ancestral religion; he slept with a ball, a bat, and a glove and, instead of donning leather phylacteries every morning as his forefathers did in Europe, put on his baseball mitt daily "to work a little on my pocket" (Facts 32). Henry grew up in a working-class Yiddish-speaking family on the clamorous Lower East Side and in Harlem, whereas Philip had a lower-middle-class childhood in tranquil Weequahic-"as safe and peaceful a haven for me as his rural community would have been for an Indiana farm boy" (Facts 30). While the immigrant experience was the older author's distinctive subject, the younger one focused on the ordeal of civility for third-generation secular American Jews. From David Schearl's arrival at Ellis Island in Call It Sleep through Ira Stigman's experiences in high school and college in the tetralogy Mercy of a Rude Stream (1994-1998) to riding the rails through Depressionera America in the posthumously published An American Type (2010), Henry Roth tracks the first four decades of the twentieth century. Beginning with the fictive Lindbergh-Roosevelt election in 1940 in The Plot Against America (2004) through the equally fictive 1944 polio epidemic in Nemesis (2010), the McCarthy trials and the Korean War in I Married a Communist (1998) and Indignation (2008) of the 1950s, the Vietnam War in American Pastoral (1997) (covering the 1960s and 1970s), and the 'Lewinsky-gate' scandal in The Human Stain (2000) (taking in the Clinton years of the 1990s) to novels with contemporary settings, Philip picks up where Henry Roth left off. …

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.