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Many feminists find Philip Roth’s work off-putting. Elaine Showalter thinks he’s a titan.

Showalter has been reading — and loving — Roth since 1959.

Philip Roth receives a National Medal of Arts and Humanities from President Obama
Philip Roth receives a National Medal of Arts and Humanities from President Obama in 2010.
Brooks Kraft/Contributor

Elaine Showalter has been reading Philip Roth, who died this week at age 85, since his first collection of fiction, Goodbye, Columbus, appeared in 1959. She was in her first year at Bryn Mawr. A longtime professor of English at Princeton, now retired, Showalter considers Roth “a transformative artist” who belongs in the pantheon alongside Henry James, James Joyce, and Joseph Conrad.

Showalter is a feminist critic, and Roth has long been criticized for his portrayals (or non-portrayals) of women, which makes her in some ways a surprising champion of his work. But even though there are pages in his books she skips out of distaste, she says, “I don’t think that puts Roth beyond the pale in any sense at all. There are passages of great tenderness and understanding for women throughout the whole range of his novels.”

“He was a very, very moral, as well as extraordinarily erudite writer,” she says. Showalter continues to teach courses on Roth through a bookstore in Washington, DC, and the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute.

We discussed the literary “explosion” that was Portnoy’s Complaint (with its portrayal of a young Jewish man’s lusts and longings), the “nearly perfect” novel The Ghost Writer, and why feminists shouldn’t turn their backs on Roth. The conversation has been edited for clarity and concision.

Christopher Shea

What were your first thoughts upon hearing of Roth’s death? What did you feel?

Elaine Showalter

It wasn’t shock — he was 85 and in poor health, of course — but it’s a moment for grief. Such a great writer and such a writer of historical importance —an American and Jewish transformative artist. It seemed to me the end of a writer’s life that was complete. The work was complete, the life was complete. There was something about the perfection of that that brings its own satisfaction and joy, in a way. it is just so sad that we now have to write about him in the past tense.

Christopher Shea

When did you start reading Roth?

Elaine Showalter

I have been reading Roth my entire life. I started reading when Goodbye, Columbus came out in 1959. I was a freshman in college. And I read every book as it came out, pretty much.

Christopher Shea

Can you give us a sense of what it was like when Portnoy’s Complaint arrived on the scene? It was a shocking literary event.

Elaine Showalter

It was an explosion. I have to say a couple of things. It’s a book that I love, and I teach it frequently. But it has always meant more to men than to women. It is very much a book for men, and there’s never really been an equivalent written by a woman, except maybe Fear of Flying [by Erica Jong]. But of course, it is just a stunning book. It’s so gutsy and obscene and wild and outrageous in every respect.

As Roth said many times himself, obscenity was not a new thing in 1969. Lenny Bruce had been around. The sexual revolution had happened, or was happening. So it was not that Portnoy was such a shock to the community that read it. But certainly if you were a reader of a certain generation that was very close to his, or had lived through the whole period of repression that he is talking about in that novel —if you’d come from a Jewish background or any kind of a religious background — it was a liberating and outrageous and illicit and funny and hilarious book. And it still is. It has not lost any of its capacity to shock and enlighten and surprise and create indignation. And it’s a very moving book as well.

Christopher Shea

The success and scandal of Portnoy ended up shaping the way Roth wrote. He began to write about the experience of being a famous writer who had written a controversial book. Did you follow him down that path of self-referential fiction — and did you think that was a productive path?

Elaine Showalter

I did. But that [trend in Roth’s writing] wasn’t exactly a result of Portnoy. Portnoy was his fourth novel. It came out in 1969. He was at that point 39 years old, and it was written at the end of a decade that was very turbulent for history and culture. And it was a very turbulent and difficult one for him. I won’t go into all the details of his personal life, but it was a really, really difficult time.

Christopher Shea

Give us some of the details.

Elaine Showalter

The first thing that happened was he had a really terrible marriage. It was a marriage you would not wish on your worst enemy. … They spit up after two years. He was in litigation over the divorce. He was being held up for alimony, and he had a long writing block and he went into psychoanalysis. So Portnoy at the end of the ’60s was a liberating book for him as well as for his readers. He had broken through a lot of restraints. He had found a particular voice through the concept of talking to a psychoanalyst — that was the liberating thing. [The novel is written in the voice of Alexander Portnoy, who is speaking to his therapist.]

In the books that follow, he begins to build on that. But the book that really sets the course for his mature work is The Ghost Writer, which came out 10 years later, in 1979.

In my view, and in the view of many readers, it is his greatest novel, aesthetically his most perfect novel. It marked the end of one whole long phase of his career and launches him on the great long arc of the middle of his career. That’s when he adopts his alter ego Nathan Zuckerman. When he made that discovery, that really launched him as a mature artist.

Christopher Shea

What discovery? Of the Zuckerman alter ego?

Elaine Showalter

Zuckerman. He was looking for a voice. He had the tremendous idea of finding a persona, of creating a character who was him but wasn’t him, you know. He had Portnoy for a while — he had some other doubles and alter egos — but when he came up with the concept of Nathan Zuckerman, that became the medium through which he expressed himself in many of the novels of the middle of his career.

[Zuckerman] shared many of his experiences, and shared his family history, and shared his background, and had all of the memories and history that he had, but was a fictional creation. He was a persona through which Roth could project all of the kind of wild and serious and eloquent elements of his imagination — and his moral imagination. He was a very, very moral as well as extraordinarily erudite writer.

Christopher Shea

To go back to The Ghost Writer: What makes it so perfect?

Elaine Showalter

It’s an extraordinary novel. If there are any readers who are wondering where to start, that might be a good place. It’s irresistible. It’s a novel about a young man — it came out in 1979 but is set back in the 1950s — who is breaking away from his Jewish family, who are concerned that he is betraying his faith, that he is showing Jews in a bad light, that his writing is breaking faith with his community, and so on. He is struggling against that because he has a vocation to be a writer and he attaches himself to an older writer, a spiritual father —although he’s attached lovingly to his real father, just as Roth was.

I don’t want to give the spoiler, but it is wonderful. It’s short, it’s full of surprises, it has some of his most beautiful writing, some of his funniest writing, some of his most outrageous writing. Roth also is declaring his vocation as an artist, and he is committing himself to a very austere life of dedication to art.

Christopher Shea

I recently watched on YouTube an old discussion between the critic Clive James and the novelist Martin Amis about Roth. They shared the view that Roth had kind of been a little stingy with the humor after Portnoy. Did he lose comedic force? Did he trade humor for something more powerful?

Elaine Showalter

There are elements of humor through all the books — pretty much throughout, until the last stretch of books that he called Nemeses, the last shorter books, which are really all about death. There’s nothing to laugh about there. And he is dealing with death for a long part of the end of his career. So there definitely is a loss of humor. But he was getting older. He was 49 when The Ghost Writer was published, pretty far along already.

The Ghost Writer is not precisely a midpoint [in his career], but close. It definitely marked a change in the way he was going to write. But not entirely. Because some of the books that come after the Zuckerman novels — up to Sabbath’s Theater — they are funny, they are very obscene, they are very raucous and rowdy. So I think there’s a lot of that, but there’s not the kind of simpler humor of Portnoy.

Christopher Shea

Many people think that the books Roth called his American trilogy — American Pastoral, I Married a Communist, and The Human Stain — were his greatest accomplishment. The Ghost Writer aside, do you agree?

Elaine Showalter

In part. I love The Human Stain. I think that really is one of his finest books — a remarkable book, a very compassionate book. I am not such a fan of American Pastoral, which I know many people think is his greatest book. That’s because in both, Zuckerman is a kind of narrator, but in American Pastoral, he is an observer. He is outside the story. And in The Human Stain, he becomes a character and he becomes involved in the story.

The richer novels to me are the ones where he allows the narrative self to be changed by the story he is telling. I say “he” deliberately, because these are almost entirely male narrative structure — a man telling a story about another man.

Christopher Shea

So here’s the obvious question. Did you find all of the maleness, all the focus on male sexuality, limiting, or maybe suffocating — or is that a caricature of what Roth is all about?

Elaine Showalter

I wouldn’t call it a caricature. No, not at all. For many of the people who took my Roth classes, this is a strong point of view. There are certainly passages in some of the novels — not so much about sexuality but about the women who are the objects of sexuality — which I find offensive and find hard to teach. I think that Roth is certainly a writer of male experience primarily, but I don’t think that that should stop people from reading the books.

I am a feminist critic by conviction. That has been my whole career, and I have loved Roth since the beginning. He is just a great artist, and he is also a very compassionate writer. So despite the fact that there are these passages that I skip over when I’m reading, I don’t think that puts Roth beyond the pale in any sense at all. And there are passages of great tenderness and understanding for women throughout the whole range of his novels. James Joyce wasn’t perfect either.

Christopher Shea

Roth said he did not want to be thought of as a Jewish-American writer, but he returned to Jewish themes throughout his work.

Elaine Showalter

You could say he was protesting too much. I think he expressed to perfection the experience of the generation of American Jews who were assimilating rapidly. I belong to that generation. I came at the tag end of it, really.

In 1964 or ’65, Fiddler on the Roof was produced on Broadway. And Fiddler on the Roof is really a musical about intermarriage. Coincidentally or not, that was the moment when American Jews began to intermarry in great numbers, and the feeling of a very separate identity of American Jews was totally transformed. I think Roth describes that pre-Fiddler moment of separateness, and is very moving and engaging about it. I think not only people who grew up as Jews and remember that time, but any immigrant population or minority population or religious population that grew up within a separate community and then broke out of it and saw it change, I think will identify with that.

Christopher Shea

Updike, Roth, Bellow — that’s the trio that was always spoken of. Is that still an accurate view of the best American novelists of the second half of the 20th century?

Elaine Showalter

Well, maybe. But I think it’s a bit parochial. Even when that was being said, it was putting him in a fairly narrow context. I would compare him on a grander historical scale. I mean, I’m really seeing him in the lineage of Joyce, of some of the great writers of Eastern Europe whom he championed. I see him in a more global context. I also think he went beyond them both.

Christopher Shea

He was better?

Elaine Showalter

Yes, yes.