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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Becoming Visible Philip Roth (b. 1933)

[4764] Anonymous, Current Photo of Philip Roth (n.d.), courtesy of Nancy Crampton and Houghton Mifflin Publishing.

Philip Roth was born in Newark, New Jersey. His father was a struggling businessman for most of Roth’s young life, and financial setbacks were not unusual for the family. Roth attended the Newark branch of Rutgers University for several years, then transferred to Bucknell University, from which he graduated in 1954. After earning an M.A. in English literature from the University of Chicago, he went on to teach there, as well as at the University of Iowa and Princeton University, among other schools. In 1959 he published Goodbye, Columbus, a collection of five stories and a novella that won the National Book Award for Fiction. Roth continued teaching during the 1960s and published two somewhat disappointing novels, Letting Go (1962) and When She Was Good (1967), both of which took him some distance from the topic of Jewish Americans and assimilation, which he had explored so effectively in Goodbye, Columbus.

In 1969, Roth re-emerged as an exciting writer with the publication of Portnoy’s Complaint, an over-the-top exploration of Alexander Portnoy, a neurotic Jewish American male who struggles both to satisfy and be satisfied by the cultural, economic, and sexual demands of American society. After the success of Portnoy’s Complaint, which challenged the generic boundaries of the bildungsroman, Roth composed novels of increasingly fantastical showmanship, among them Our Gang (1970) and The Breast(1971). In the late 1970s, he began publishing work that has brought him steady attention, respect, and awards. One of his most recent novels, The Human Stain (2000), takes up the subject famously found in the novels of Nella Larsen and James Weldon Johnson-that of a light-skinned African American who passes for white.

Roth has been a wanderer-in his upbringing, his various homes, and the subjects he has chosen for his fiction: suburban life, an American Jewish boyhood, the United States Army, baseball, love and marriage, the art and predicament of being an author. He can be funny and poignant about divided loyalties, about growing up and growing away from old neighborhoods and traditions, about friendship, duty, sex, and the mutual exploitation that can characterize a life in which art, business, and show business commingle.

Teaching Tips

  • Mark Twain once said, “The Jew has made a marvelous fight in this world, in all the ages; and has done it with his hands tied behind him.” What role has humor played in this fight? Students might be most familiar with Jewish humor from Seinfeld. Or perhaps they have seen some Woody Allen movies. It might be worthwhile to show clips of either. Then have the class brainstorm about Jewish stereotypes and list elements of this humor and what makes it distinctive from and similar to other types of humor.
  • Have your students discuss the manner in which Jews are sometimes portrayed in canonical literature, especially by non-Jewish writers. Common controversial literary renditions of Jewish characters might include Shakespeare’s Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, Dickens’s Fagin in Oliver Twist, Fitzgerald’s Meyer Wolfsheim in The Great Gatsby, and Hemingway’s Robert Cohn in The Sun Also Rises. Then have your students compare these portrayals to Roth’s characterizations. What similarities and differences do they see? How might Roth be playing off these other characterizations?

Author Questions

  1. Comprehension: “Defender of the Faith” is a story about rules and loyalties-to country, to personal heritage, to friends and pseudo-friends. Is the story a situation comedy; that is, is it a story with a stock setting, stereotypical characters, a recurring motif, running jokes, and catchphrases? How would you describe its tone?
  2. Comprehension: In “Defender of the Faith,” what experiences and ethics separate Grossbart and Marx? What brings them together? Does Grossbart get what he deserves? Which side of Marx makes the decision-the soldier or the American Jew? Or do both sides of Marx participate in what he eventually decides to do?
  3. Context: In “Defender of the Faith,” why might Roth name the narrator and major character Marx? What jokes or ironies are implied by that choice? What Marxes are familiar to Roth’s readers, and how does the story invoke or play with those namesakes?
  4. Context: How does the issue of assimilation play into “Defender of the Faith”? What stance does Roth take on assimilation as opposed to hanging onto one’s roots, customs, and backgrounds? Why is it hard to tell?
  5. Exploration: Some critics have noted that a number of Jewish writers create stories that demonstrate ordinary people attempting to control their fates, even in a world that seems absurd and uncertain. Simply by making this attempt, whether they are successful or unsuccessful, they succeed. Is this a characteristic only of Jewish writers? Can you think of other works in this unit that illustrate this idea? What about other works from any of the units of American Passages?
  6. Exploration: Guilt seems to play a large role in the canon of American literature. What other works focus on guilt? Where does this guilt come from? Are Americans just a guilty people? Of what are they guilty?

Selected Archive Items

[3024] Gottscho-Schleisner, Inc., Levittown House of Mrs. Dorothy Aiskelly, Residence at 44 Sparrow Lane (1958),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-G613-72794].
The postwar generation saw the development of so-called “Levittowns,” homogeneous suburbs that were first conceptualized by William Levitt in response to the postwar housing crunch. These communities were typically middle-class and white. Jews, only recently being considered “white,” also flocked to the suburbs during this era. Philip Roth satirizes Jewish suburban life in Goodbye, Columbus, and Arthur Miller dramatizes the plight of the suburban Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman.

[3048] Anonymous, Free Classes in English! Learn to Speak, Read, & Write the Language of your Children … Special Classes for Educated Foreign Born. N.Y.C. (1936),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZC2-946].
Sign in Hebrew and English advertising free English-language and naturalization classes aimed at European Jewish immigrants. The classes were offered through the Works Progress Administration’s Adult Education Program in New York City. Most Jewish immigrants in New York and other major cities lived in tight-knit communities where Hebrew or Yiddish was spoken.

[4743] Anonymous, Roth National Book Award (1960),
courtesy of the Associated Press (AP), Wide World Photos Office.
The narrator of “Defender of the Faith,” published in Roth’s award-winning Goodbye, Columbus, makes poignant reference to the contradictions of military service and Jewish assimilation in the wake of World War II.

[4764] Anonymous, Current Photo of Philip Roth (n.d.),
courtesy of Nancy Crampton and Houghton Mifflin Publishing.
Philip Roth’s works vary from somber and unresolved questionings of Jewish American life, like his early story “Defender of the Faith” and his later American Pastoral, to more fantastical works like his 1971 novel The Breast.

[8854] Eric Sundquist, Interview: “Becoming Visible” (2003),
courtesy of American Passages and Annenberg Media.
Professor Eric Sundquist discusses Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint.

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American Passages: A Literary Survey


Produced by Oregon Public Broadcasting. 2003.
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  • ISBN: 1-57680-564-6