Philip Roth's Patrimony and Art Spiegelman's Maus: Jewish Sons Remembering Their Fathers

By Gordon, Andrew | Philip Roth Studies, Spring 2005 | Go to article overview

Philip Roth's Patrimony and Art Spiegelman's Maus: Jewish Sons Remembering Their Fathers


Gordon, Andrew, Philip Roth Studies


It's an old joke:

A Jewish boy comes home from school and tells his mother he's been given a role in the school play.

"Wonderful. What part is it?"

The boy says, "I play the Jewish husband."

The mother scowls and says, "Go back and tell the teacher you want a speaking part."

In Jewish American fiction, the father often has been consigned to the role of the nebbish, under the thumb of his assertive, talkative wife; Jake Portnoy in Philip Roths Portnoys Complaint is the archetype of such a character. Mr. Balkan in Daniel Fuchs's Homage to Blenholt and Morris Bober in Bernard Malamud's The Assistant also are shlemiel fathers. But there are other sorts of fathers in Jewish American fiction, such as the tyrant who rejects his offspring, seen, for example, in Albert Schearl in Henry Roth's Call It Sleep, Dr. Adler in Saul Bellow's Seize the Day, Mr. Gold in Joseph Heller's Good as Gold, or Reb Smolinsky in Anzia Yezierska's Bread Givers (although Reb seems to merge the monster father with the ineffectual shlemiel). A third type is the absent father, as in Abraham Cahan's The Rise of David Levinsky-David's father is dead-or Saul Bellow's The Adventures ofAugie March-Augie's father ran off.

Art Spiegelman's Maus ( 1986) and Maus II ( 1991 ) and Philip Roth's Patrimony (1991) are memoirs by Jewish American sons paying homage to their fathers and are the most moving accounts of relations between Jewish fathers and sons in recent literature. These two works of nonfiction depict a different kind of Jewish father: a mensch (although others might term him a kvetch or a nudzh, a complainer or a nag). Michael Rothberg describes Vladek and Herman as "what Paul Breines, in a recent attempt to characterize post-sixties Jewish maleness, has called a 'tough Jew'" (678). Even though Vladek Spiegelman was born in Poland and survived the Holocaust, and Herman Roth lived in New Jersey, they show many of the same attributes-stubbornness and tenacity, a capacity for hard work, and a devotion to family-that defined Jewish men of their generation and enabled them to survive and succeed despite their lack of education and the obstacles of anti-Semitism.

Neither Vladek nor Herman was easy to live with, although they were not cold tyrants like the fictional fathers depicted by Henry Roth, Bellow, Heller, or Yezierska. Instead, they were loving, difficult, and domineering, even maddening, men from whom their sons sometimes fled but to whom they were nevertheless deeply attached. In their memoirs, both sons show mixed motives: on the one hand, to memorialize the father and to record family history; on the other hand, to expose the father and to triumph over him through art. As Adrienne Rich writes in her essay memoir "Split at the Root," "I have to claim my father, for I have my Jewishness from him [and] in order to claim him I have in a sense to expose him" (qtd. in Miller 29). Finally, their accounts of their fathers' lives and of their complicated, conflicted relationships with them enable Art Spiegelman and Philip Roth to mourn and to come to terms with the deceased fathers and with the Jewish patrimony they have left to them.

In talking about their relationships with their Jewish fathers, Spiegelman and Roth are writing ethnic autobiography, a genre that Barbara Frey Waxman sees as a double discourse negotiating between two cultures. Such authors must nourish "both the ethnic hunger of memory and the auctorial appetite for an American (literary) future," and therein lies the tension in their texts (219). Another way to theorize this tension is as the opposition between descent and consent, which Werner Sollors calls "the central drama in American culture": "Descent language emphasizes our position as heirs, our hereditary qualities, liabilities, and entitlements," in other words, our patrimony, while "consent language stresses our abilities as mature free agents and 'architects of our fates' to choose our spouses, our destinies, and our political systems" (6). …

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