To confuse a "balanced portrayal" with a novel is to be led into absurdities. "Dear Fyodor Dostoevsky--All the students in our school, and most of the teachers, feel that you have been unfair to us. Do you call Raskolnikov a balanced portrayal of students as we know them? . . . What about those of us who have never murdered anyone, who do our schoolwork every night?" "Dear Mr. Twain--None of the slaves on our plantation have ever run away. But what will our owner think when he reads of Jim?" Dear Vladimir Nabokov--The girls in our class . . ." and so on.
Philip Roth, "Writing About Jews" (1963)
Philip Roth has been a central and controversial figure in American fiction for over fifty years. His comic portrayal of assimilating suburban Jewish Americans in his first book, Goodbye, Columbus, published when he was 26, won him both the National Book Award in 1959 and the lasting enmity of many Jewish readers and institutions. The controversy only increased when Portnoy’s Complaint, a landmark of the sexual revolution that was denounced by some as pornographic, became a bestseller in 1969. Since then, Roth has published over twenty novels in a variety of modes, from the satirical to the experimental to the historical. In his American trilogy (1997-2000) the scope of his fiction expanded to produce a portrait of the post-war America as riven—from the McCarthy era to the Clinton impeachment—by the conflict between the quest for purity (political, sexual, ethnic and racial) and “life in all its shameless impurity.” This course will survey his career from his earliest short fiction to the end of the last century. We will examine Roth’s evolving view of ethnic and racial identity as it relates to national identity (American and Israeli), masculinity, and modern history. We will trace these themes through a range of narrative modes, including realism, meta-fiction, historical fiction and counterfactual fiction.