Is Philip Roth an American Jew? The answer seems obvious, except to the novelist himself.
In an essay for The New Yorker titled “I Have Fallen in Love With American Names” and adapted from Roth’s 2002 speech accepting the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, Roth takes a dreamlike look back at the forces that shaped him as an American and the forces that shaped him as a Jew, and found little confluence.
As an American, mentally mapping the country beyond his native Newark, New Jersey through reading, Roth writes he relied on the work of turn-of-the-century Midwestern and Southern writers like Theodore Dreiser, Sherwood Anderson, Sinclair Lewis, and Thomas Wolfe.
Unlike another group of Americans who defined the last decades of the 19th century and first of the 20th, the wave of Eastern European immigrants who included Roth’s Jewish grandparents, he observes, the identities of the writers who enchanted him were crafted by “the overtaking of the farm and the farmer’s indigenous village values by the pervasive business culture and its profit-oriented pursuits.”
“I would volunteer to become the child of those writers as well, and through my immersion in their fiction try to apprehend their American places as a second reality that was, to an American kid in a Jewish neighborhood in industrial Newark, a vivifying expansion of his own,”
So Roth became expansively American, more so as the country grew enamored with the myth of its own cohesive greatness perpetuated during and after the Second World War. Like the poet Stephen Vincent Benét, he writes, who once wrote a poem that opened with the declaration “I have fallen in love with American names,”
Roth’s Americanism was rooted in a sense of how different the country could be from the specific segment of it he knew: It was in “the dialects and the landscapes that were at once so American yet so unlike my own that a youngster with my susceptibilities found the most potent lyrical appeal.”
What did that appreciation for American variety mean for Roth’s Jewishness? Mostly, it caused his understanding of his own identity to progress in two directions. “A Newark Jew? Call me that and I wouldn’t object,” Roth writes. But an American Jew? No. For his generation, “no such self-limiting label could ever seem commensurate with our experience of growing up altogether consciously as Americans, with all that that means, for good and for ill.”
So Roth’s work may occupy, for many, the pinnacle of American Jewish literature. Not in his own eyes.
“I have never conceived of myself for the length of a single sentence as an American Jewish or Jewish American writer,” he writes.
And there we have it.