My rating: 5 of 5 stars
She walked away and around the oak tree. When she appeared again she’d stepped out of her shoes and held one hand on the tree, as though it were a Maypole she were circling.
—Philip Roth, Goodbye, Columbus (1959)
Just then, as if a spell had loosened them, down came a little shower of withering rose leaves from the May-Pole. Alas, for the young lovers! No sooner had their hearts glowed with real passion, than they were sensible of something vague and unsubstantial in their former pleasures, and felt a dreary presentiment of inevitable change. From the moment that they truly loved, they had subjected themselves to earth’s doom of care, and sorrow, and troubled joy, and had no more a home at Merry Mount.
—Nathaniel Hawthorne, “The May-Pole of Merrymount” (1832)
Among the 19th-century New England literati who form of the core of the classic tradition in American literature, Hawthorne is the patron saint of the third-generation writer—any writer whose forebears migrated to this country with one or another stern faith and a ferocious capitalist work ethic, just the combination to make those immigrant ancestors understandably disgusted when they find they have somehow spawned dreamy, perverse sons and daughters who would rather explore the possibilities of human nature and live experimental lives than venerate the household gods or do an honest day’s labor. In “The Custom-House,” the Preface to The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne, forced to get what my relatives call “a real job” by economic need, imagines his Puritan ancestors’ judgment on his true vocation, that of novelist and short story writer:
“What is he?” murmurs one gray shadow of my forefathers to the other. “A writer of story-books! What kind of a business in life,—what mode of glorifying God, or being serviceable to mankind in his day and generation,—may that be? Why, the degenerate fellow might as well have been a fiddler!” Such are the compliments bandied between my great-grandsires and myself, across the gulf of time! And yet, let them scorn me as they will, strong traits of their nature have intertwined themselves with mine.
But as the concluding sentence of the quotation allows, such writers as Hawthorne understand that something in their immigrant ancestors’ grim view of life is true, truer than the meliorism of settled, satisfied classes. That, in a sense, our rebellion against them reprises their flight to America, their quest for some other, better way to be.
Philip Roth was, strange to say, a Hawthorne of the late 20th century. And Roth understood it, as the reference to the maypole in his first book, Goodbye, Columbus, demonstrates, along with the name of the rebel daughter, Merry, in American Pastoral. It’s true that no Hawthorne protagonist ever fucked a liver or jacked off over his mistress’s grave, but in Roth and in Hawthorne the heroes seek—and invariably find—the limits of our American freedom, shadowed all the while by the gloom of their immigrant ancestry.
The final story in Goodbye, Columbus, “Eli, the Fanatic,” even re-writes “The Minister’s Black Veil.” It is set in a prosperous midcentury suburb populated by Jewish and Protestant professionals steeped in modern expertise from psychoanalysis to all the accoutrements of the ’50s home. At the edge of this community, Orthodox Jewish refugees from Europe have set up a Yeshiva school, and Eli, an attorney, is dispatched by the alarmed suburbanites to use zoning laws to run out those whom they consider unsightly fanatics. But Eli is unaccountably transformed by his encounter with the “blackness” of both the refugees’ traditions and their suffering and ends up donning the black Orthodox garb himself, which renders him a madman in the eyes of his bright suburban neighbors.
Roth, whom you might expect to puncture the conservatism of the Orthodox, here defends them against the merciless philistinism of the middle-minded Americans, one of whom protests against giving his daughter a religious education because the story of Abraham (“‘Today a guy like that they’d lock him up'”) gave his daughter nightmares! Such censoriousness from any quarter and with whatever justification is always disgusting, because it evades the “blackness” that has seeped from the exigencies of history into Eli.
With these ideas in mind, we can turn to the collection’s famous title novella. A work of extraordinary economy and precision—a model to the writing student, as Emily Gould notes—it portrays a failed love affair over the course of one summer between Neil Klugman and Brenda Patimkin. Brenda’s family has grown rich and moved out of working-class Newark to a better address, while Neil still lives in the old neighborhood with his aunt Gladys. This class conflict is more a subtext than the story’s explicit source of conflict: the Patimkins seem to tolerate Neil, even if they are occasionally knowing about his lower status; Mr. Patimkin even appreciates Neil’s greater proximity to Jewish life:
“Here you need a little of the gonif in you. You know what that means? Gonif?”
“Thief,” I said.
“You know more than my own kids. They’re goyim, my kids, that’s how much they understand.”
Brenda, a character of lovable complexity, is never more the spoiled rich girl than in her conflicts with her mother, while Neil at times seems to sympathize with Mrs. Patimkin, as her character was forged by struggles he understands but Brenda does not. Meanwhile, Neil’s aunt Gladys is a beautiful loving comic sketch of a certain type—I don’t think you have to be exclusively Jewish to recognize her, to hear the intonation of her voice in your own head, but you do have to have been around the old 20th-century immigrant neighborhoods at some point in your life, as I was in my childhood.
Even as Neil enjoys his entrée into upper-class living, he works in the Newark Public Library where he forms a kind of friendship with a black boy who comes in on his summer vacation to look at book of Gaugin’s paintings. The phrase “goodbye, Columbus” has a double provenance in the text: it is intoned on a commemorative record given to Brenda’s brother upon his graduation from Ohio State, but it also appears in a dream of Neil’s wherein he and the black boy from the library are setting out from Gaugin’s Tahiti while the women on shore shout, “Goodbye, Columbus.” The real discoverers of America are not the upwardly mobile and the assimilated, we may take this to mean, but the outcasts, whether on grounds of race or sensibility, the indigenes of art. Art, as all its serious practitioners are aware, is not the same as doing whatever you please; certainly the monkish Roth—a writer all the way down, per Zadie Smith’s tribute—did not think so.
It is sex, which will become Roth’s great topic, that drives Neil and Brenda apart. Roth was and is often mistaken, by censorious sensibilities both religious/conservative and feminist/liberal, for a mere libertine, but he is not, no more than is Hawthorne. In Hawthorne’s great early story about the maypole, two gangs of extremists face off with a newlywed couple between them: the extremist pleasure-seekers of Merrymount and the extremist Calvinists of Massachusetts Bay. Both are mistaken in their exaggerations. Contra the revelers, life is not and cannot be pure pleasure, pure freedom—once you make any commitment, whether to a discipline or to another person, you are necessarily constrained. Contra the theocrats, however, commitments should not be imposed externally but must be freely chosen. Real freedom is when you are at liberty to choose that to which you will be bound.
Neil and Brenda are, on these grounds, ambiguous figures, and Roth is not obviously on the male’s side: the crisis in their relationship comes when he urges her to get a diaphragm, which her mother discovers. If there is a polemic here against the Patimkins’ punitive or puritanical respectability, there is also a disturbing element in Neil’s possessiveness and control. The couple never earnestly and openly discusses the innate difficulties of their relationship, and Neil’s insistence on the diaphragm is his way of finding a shortcut to a premarital commitment. By the end, we don’t know quite what to think, though we have been given much to think about. It is part of the iron discipline of art that the artist not choose sides.
All well and theoretical, but the pleasures of this novella are as much in description and motif as in theme and thesis. Read it for the fruit, the swimming pool, the sweat; read it for Roth’s first attempt to put all of Newark into language. And then read the rest of this book for its controversial short stories, comic allegories of culture clash and individuation, the first works to put Roth in the eye of the censors, who wanted and want a clear statement of virtue from the books they read. But in Roth, as in Hawthorne, the authorial self-control necessary to refuse resolution, to refuse to choose among America’s divided legacies, is the clearest statement of all. The point is to leave readers free to embrace whatever destiny is theirs. It is an honorable tradition to join—certainly the most honorable I have personally discovered in America—and Roth was and will remain a model practitioner of the art.