A Message To Philip Roth's Biographer: Tell Us Something We Don't Know

This article is more than 9 years old.

The first time I saw Brenda she asked me to hold her glasses. Then she stepped out to the edge of the diving board and looked foggily into the pool; it could’ve been drained, myopic Brenda would never have known it.

Those are the opening sentences of “Goodbye Columbus” (1959), the first book by recently retired literary legend, Philip Roth.

The first time I read those lines I was an 18-year-old virgin, working at a public pool in my hometown. I was eager for the summer to end so I could leave for college, and eager for any girl, let alone a bespectacled Brenda, to ask me anything.

I already knew I wanted to be a novelist when I “grew up,” but I had never read Roth.

So here came blessed confirmation that I could write about the world I knew — and the daydreams it occasioned: A public pool, a wealthy town, a lonely boy, a willing girl.

It was the first time I’d read a novel or short story and really wondered: How autobiographical is this tale?

Nearly 20 years later, with my first novel due out in April, I’m still wondering.

And yet: My excitement was tempered when W.W. Norton & Company announced not long ago that it had green-lighted a Roth bio.

I should be more optimistic. After all, W.W. Norton editor Matt Weiland has gushed to the press about the biographer, Blake Bailey. And who can blame him? In addition to decorated books on Yates (finalist for the 2003 National Book Critics Circle Award) and Cheever (Pulitzer finalist in 2009), Bailey’s articles are always (to my eye, at least) thorough, sharp, and fair. His critique of Kenneth Slawenski’s J.D. Salinger biography is but one example. His review of two recent works about Joseph Heller is another. So it was not without justification that Weiland exclaimed:

Like so many others, I’ve devoured Roth all my reading life – oh the vitality, the electricity! — and I revere Blake Bailey’s biographies of Yates and Cheever. Who could resist the combination? Not me.

Maybe not you, Mr. Weiland. But on behalf of Roth’s fans, I’m here to tell you: Curb your enthusiasm. At least until you’ve seen the first draft.

We, the "Portnoy" faithful, have seen these publicity dances before. The results have been hit (Scott Raab’s revealing profile in Esquire) or miss (the abandoned biography by Ross Miller, initially announced in 2004).

There’s no gainsaying Bailey’s credentials, but if Norton wants me to splurge $29 on the hardcover, then that biography better break new ground.

In other words: Don’t rehash what’s already out there, either in Roth’s recent rant about the Wiki page of “The Human Stain” or in the dozens of interviews collected online by the Philip Roth Society.

Tell me something I don’t know — and can’t find out, simply through online searching.

Three places to start:

1. The Catcher connection.

Quoting from J.D. Salinger’s obituary in the New York Times:

In 1974 Philip Roth wrote: The response of college students to the work of J. D. Salinger indicates that he, more than anyone else, has not turned his back on the times but, instead, has managed to put his finger on whatever struggle of significance is going on today between self and culture.’”

Yet in spite of this quote — and in spite of all the overt similarities between Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye” (1951) and Roth’s “Portnoy’s Complaint” (1969) — I have yet to read Roth himself responding to the suggestion that Salinger was an influence. Mr. Bailey, this is where you need to step up. Ask the question. Force the issue. Spread the answer. Judging by your terrific critique of Slawenski’s Salinger bio, I have faith that you will.

2. Roth’s personal life.

Roth never had children. Why not? Did he feel the responsibilities of parenting would interfere with his artistic ambitions? And if he knew he didn’t want children, why did he get married twice? His second marriage, to Claire Bloom, ended in a 1995 divorce. Bloom’s 1996 memoir, “Leaving a Doll's House,” portrayed Roth as a cruel husband and stepfather. And Roth’s fans simply want to know: How much of what Bloom wrote is true?

3. The role — and fate — of “Letting Go” (1962).

In his 1982 intro to Roth’s second book, James Atlas writes:

“It has none of the verve and elan that animate the later novels, but unfolds with a Jamesian stateliness that belies its author’s youth.”

Here’s the question for Bailey: Did the traditional, Jamesian traits of “Letting Go” and its follow-up, “When She Was Good” (1967), make it easier for critics to acclaim the raucous boundary-smashing of Portnoy? Which is to say: Did critics further appreciate Portnoy’s lack of old-school structure as a conscientious artistic choice because Roth had already proven he could write the formal stuff?

To use an analogy from another genre: Jackson Pollock’s early works — representational paintings, composed under the tutelage of Thomas Hart Benton — receive scant attention compared to his abstract expressionist masterpieces. But the early work allowed Pollock to demonstrate that he could work formally — he simply chose not to.

And the critics ate it up.

Did Roth’s reputation run a parallel path? And is “Letting Go,” stately though it is, destined to be overshadowed by the popularity of the post-“Portnoy” material?

Those are a few of my big Roth questions.

And when Bailey’s biography is published, I hope I’ll have the answers.




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