U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Philip Roth’s Merry Levov as the Return of the Repressed

Philip Roth, aka Nathan Zuckerman

Lately I have been reading Philip Roth novels at night before bed. Although I grew up devouring fiction, I have not been much of a fiction reader since I began graduate school. This shift in my reading habits owes to both utility and taste. As for the former reason, I have come to feel I don’t have enough time to read fiction: there’s simply too much non-fiction—historical, theoretical, political—that must be read in order for me to stay current as a scholar. And to the latter, I have come to almost prefer non-fiction.


But now that I am in the midst of the long march through my manuscript, my brain is simply too tired most nights to read the type of non-fiction I typically consume. Moreover, I have discovered that reading excellent fictional storytelling is inspiration to my own prose. Thus, Philip Roth.

But I must be honest that my turn to Roth novels is not merely escapist. It is rather tinged with scholarly curiosity that was engendered by listening to Michael Kimmage give a fantastic talk at last year’s USIH conference titled, “Philip Roth’s American Tragedy.” The talk was taken from the book Kimmage has coming out this year with Stanford University Press, In History’s Grip: Philip Roth’s Newark Tragedy. If you’d like a preview, I found this article.

Kimmage examines the three books Roth wrote from 1997 to 2000, American Pastoral, I Married a Communist, and The Human Stain. Roth’s alter ego Nathan Zuckerman narrates all three books. And they have much else in common, which is why Kimmage treats them as the “Newark Trilogy” or “Newark Tragedy”:

They constitute a “Newark Trilogy,” because Newark, New Jersey is central to all three novels. Newark is both a place where characters grow up and live a thematic imperative: it is where history begins for the novels’ two Jewish and one African-American protagonists. Each of these protagonists escapes Newark only to find himself in the grip of powerful historical forces. They are thus reduced from powerful men to the playthings of history. In search of emancipation from the past, the heroes of the Newark Trilogy fall into history, and they do so without the protection of a well-defined personal or family history. Looked at together, the Newark Trilogy explores the will to live outside history. By explicating the failure to live outside history, the Newark Trilogy illustrates the mechanics of history itself.

I recently completed American Pastoral. I can see why it won the Pulitzer Prize. I assume most of you have read it so I won’t describe the plot in much detail. It’s about Newark Jewish hometown hero Seymour “the Swede” Levov who translates the athletic prowess of his adolescence into success as a businessman, following in his father’s footsteps as a glove manufacturer. Levov moves his wife, the former Miss New Jersey, and his daughter, Merry, to the upscale, mostly Protestant exurb Rimrock. He is living the American Dream. His Thanksgiving dinners, which bring together his Jewish parents and his Catholic in-laws in mutual celebrations of the civil religion, are the American Pastoral. But all of this is disrupted when his daughter Merry becomes militantly antiwar and, at the young age of 16, blows up the Rimrock post office, killing one innocent man. Merry spends the next five years on the run before turning up living on the streets of Newark, a converted Jain whom the Swede determines is mentally ill.

In the midst of writing the chapters of my book on the sixties, I found Roth’s historical allusions compelling. This, of course, is Kimmage’s point:

The “Newark trilogy” rests on three claims about history. The first is history’s malevolent force. The second is that postwar America is an experiment in the evasion of history. America offers the seductive promise that history can be escaped, and at no time was this promise more widespread and believable (to Americans) than in the years between 1945 and the late 1960’s, between the Second World War and the Vietnam War, the “thirty glorious years,” as they are called in France. If history is destruction, America suggests that it can also be security and stability and, with luck, prosperity. If history is malevolent, postwar America held out the prospect that history could be sweet and rewarding, all that is contained in the simplest meaning of the title, American Pastoral. Where can a poor immigrant family go but up in America? In its promise of good fortune, America is offering a dangerous illusion, and the three protagonists of the “Newark Trilogy” remake themselves in the image of a benign history. They share the illusion that they can live for the future without fitting themselves and their families into the past, the illusion that they can be what they wish to be, whatever new creation they choose out of the bottomless American possibilities. One protagonist is born black and lives as a white man. Another is born to Jewish poverty in Newark and makes a living pretending to be Abraham Lincoln. A third is born Jewish but is known as the Swede. This Nordic hero’s mastery of American success is so complete that his background disappears from his name and his physical appearance. This is the third claim that the “Newark trilogy” makes about history. Those who try to escape it are punished with even greater zeal by the moody gods of history.
I agree entirely with Kimmage’s analysis here. By this, Merry Levov, a caricature of the “bad” sixties, represents the return of the repressed. She is the punishment that the Swede must suffer for seeking to evade history, for seeking shelter from history in the American Pastoral. Roth, through literature, theorizes history. What can literature offer history?
The current issue of the London Review of Books includes one of Perry Anderson’s typically expansive and brilliant essays (is there a better living historical essayist?), this one on the work of Carlo Ginzburg, whom many of you might know as the author of The Cheese and the Worms. Anderson argues that Ginzburg’s hyper-attention to epistemology might be thought strange given his micro-historical approach. But Anderson contends that Ginzburg’s interest in epistemology stems from his wish to bracket off history from literature, even though he finds the latter compelling as historical theory. Anderson writes:
What might explain this? A more compelling answer lies in the sources of Ginzburg’s historical sensibility. His first ambitions, he has told us, were literary. He has also said that once he turned to history, his permanent inspiration became Auerbach’s Mimesis, the reconstruction by a literary scholar of the path to modern realism, from the Odyssey to Virginia Woolf, whose route included Ammianus, Gregory of Tours, Saint-Simon, historians and memorialists along with poets and novelists. Literature thus both preceded history in Ginzburg’s cursus, and has always thereafter lain adjacent to it. There is a long tradition of the practice of history as a branch of literature, but what this has usually meant is either a studied elegance (or unbridled flamboyance) of style – Gibbon or Michelet – closer to works of imagination than of record, or the quasi-reproduction of literary genres in the construction of narratives: for obvious reasons, epic and tragedy – Motley or Deutscher – more frequently than comedy or romance.
The bearing of literature on history, however, is of a different order for Ginzburg, and is original to him. In his work, literature is taken not as a standard of styles, nor a repertoire of genres, but as a tool of knowledge. In one essay after another, he has insisted that what novelists or poets can bring to an objective study of the past are cognitive instruments: techniques of estrangement as social critique in Tolstoy, free direct style as passage to a new interiority in Stendhal, ellipsis as at once suspender and accelerator of time in Flaubert, unmediated visualisation as access to fresh insight in Proust. But, of course, these are instruments to be found within what remain fictions. It is from this standpoint, quite specific to Ginzburg, that the modern scepticism that would erase the boundary between history and fiction altogether – Hayden White, already criticised by Momigliano, is the King Charles’s Head here – becomes such a bugbear. Not so much because it looms large in the discipline, but because it threatens the integrity of one conjugation of literature and history with false proximity to another, deleterious one.
Additional thoughts on the relationship between literature and historical thinking?

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