Studying literature with the writer—and brilliant teacher—in the shadow of Vietnam.
BY ROBERT BROWN
The writer Philip Roth, who died in May [“Obituaries,” this issue], taught creative writing and comparative literature at Penn in the 1960s and 1970s. An additional reminiscence of Roth in the classroom can be found here.—Ed.
Philip Roth duck-walked into our World Literature class in the troubled spring of 1965, fingering an invisible cigar. Pure Groucho Marx.
I was a junior minoring in English. The brilliant, 30-year-old author of Goodbye Columbus was more than 30 years away from what many consider his literary self-actualization. And, no, the Swedish Nobel Committee continued to say, Maybe not.
Funny man, sure! But with a point. Always a point. We’d read Franz Kafka’s The Castle, a comic masterpiece that would come to be eponymously famous as Kafkaesque. Roth’s duck walk, he would explain, indicated that The Castle was a Marx Brothers script. That’s what it would be were he to make a movie of it—a story about a land surveyor who arrives to accept a job in a chaotic bureaucracy only to discover it has absolutely no record of him whatsoever.
That’s a taste of what it was like to have had Mr. Roth as my teacher at Penn.
In the fall of 1964 I heard he would be teaching a class on world literature. I applied and was accepted.
I have had many superb literature professors but no one taught like him because no one could. Ours was a small, select class. We all knew we had a semi-private audience with a superstar. I read recently that he was called a “priest of literature.” (Rabbi would be more like it—although the Roth of Portnoy and other stunners would not bring rabbinical to mind, though there may well have been something of the Talmudic in the layered complexity of his vision.)
In his class, we were asked about an author, a scene, a character, a line of dialogue that could come only from a writer with such an astonishing gift. You can bet we all tried damn hard to conjure our cleverness.
He was never condescending. Or stuffy. Frequently funny. Not infrequently stunningly insightful. We knew his boundaries. His own work and its critical reception was off limits, as was personal life.
We read the great books which, I believe, formed a great writer’sweltanshauung—his take on the universe in an era before the technorati upended the literati. It was the age of the so-called New York Intellectual, when to be called that meant your interests expanded from literature to culture, politics, the arts, and everything everywhere.
We read Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Gogol, Mann, Genet.
In his class there was an air or celebrity and, as one would expect, there was plenty of sex. Roth decoded Tolstoy’s delicately nuanced literary strategy to handle the sexual consummation scene of Vronsky and Ann Karenina. We read Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice and Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, and Roth asked us whether it made any difference that Von Aschenbach’s lust was for the pretty, young boy, Tadzio, while Humbert Humbert had the hots for the teen “nymphet,” Lolita.
Portnoy’s Complaint would be published four years after that spring semester. I was finishing up my doctorate in English lit and persuaded the American Modernism seminar professor to make that notoriously onanistic novel the one for our final class. I thought it terribly clever of me—I was 24—to offer that that novel did for masturbation what Moby-Dick did for whaling. (Yes. The septuagenarian me cringes.)
Roth had his own lit-crit vocabulary. A line of dialogue or a scene or a character’s small gesture could be felt appropriate. The strip mall soulless highwayville, with its Dairy Queens and used car lots, traversed by Humbert Humbert and his child lover was a portrait of The American Crap.
The Descent of Vietnam
I got an A minus. In those days, that was no small thing. It kept me on the dean’s list. In the Vietnam era, when men were routinely drafted to fight a war many of us opposed, being on the dean’s list and finishing in the top 10 percent of your class could get you a draft deferment. Without it, I would never have been able to go to graduate school on a National Defense Educational Act Fellowship, get a PhD, and become a college professor. Nor have I ever forgotten, in our era of raised consciousness about “white privilege,” that I got to go to grad school while men without my good fortune were conscripted to a jungle war where thousands were wounded or killed.
Looking back more than half a century, I can’t separate my lovely semester with Philip Roth from the tragedy of that war.
With the passing of my brilliant teacher (for, like his hundreds of other students, I feel like a shareholder in Philip Roth), I return to consider how fortunate I was to have had that semester in a small class with a great writer who joked and gestured and ignited literature into my life.
Robert Brown W’66 is professor of media and communication at Salem State University, in Massachusetts.