The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Long before the Philip Roth biography was canceled, Jewish leaders tried to cancel him

American novelist Philip Roth in his publisher's offices in New York City in October 2006. (Helayne Seidman for The Washington Post)
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Six months after I wrote about the censored biography of controversial writer Philip Roth, I finally cracked the book itself.

This is the book, you may recall, that W.W. Norton abruptly decided to stop publishing after the biographer, Blake Bailey, faced allegations of sexual assault.

Which turns out to be a shame, if only because the most relevant part of Roth’s story right now has nothing to do with sexual predation — his or his biographer’s — but rather with how we think about identity and artistic freedom.

Let me say, as a public service, that were I reviewing Bailey’s book, I wouldn’t be especially kind. The book is weighed down by arcane literary references, pointless accounts of sex and too many names to keep straight.

Whatever else Bailey may or may not have done, he’s guilty of writing a maddening biography.

There’s something fascinating, though, in Roth’s early career. Even before he won the National Book Award in 1960 for “Goodbye, Columbus,” which was published when he was only 26, Roth was being pilloried by Jewish leaders as “self-hating” and antisemitic — accusations that would follow him for decades.

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In the era after the Holocaust, limited by enduring prejudice in their own country, American Jews were still feeling raw and persecuted. Roth created Jewish characters who were crass, selfish and unfaithful. His prose landed like treachery among Jewish intellectuals who viewed it, to use the contemporary term, as hate speech.

Roth made no apologies. He said he wasn’t writing about Jewish people, per se; his characters were the Americans he knew, who happened to be Jewish. He rejected the suggestion that he ought to be bound by some code of “Jewish patriotism,” which he likened to McCarthyism in its zeal to stamp out dissent.

Responding to the president of the Rabbinical Council of America, Roth wrote, in part: “He who criticizes must be silenced — that is a terrible tenet to have to live by, Rabbi, and I should imagine even more terrible to a spiritual leader.”

In effect, Roth was advancing a time-honored idea of assimilation. He was arguing that to belong in the United States meant pledging fealty to a series of ideals — free expression chief among them — rather than to the faith and identity of any one community.

What would Roth make of this moment, with its hypersensitivity to stereotypes and microaggressions? Newsrooms, campuses, publishing houses, streaming services — whether they admit it or not, they exist in a climate of fear, where using the wrong term or creating the wrong characters can set off a wave of repercussions.

A Yale Law School student (who is a member of the Native American Law Students Association) was recently branded a racist for sending an email with the term “trap house,” which apparently used to be a synonym for “crack house,” which is apparently now a form of hate speech.

When my colleague Ruth Marcus wrote a column in which she archly compared Yale Law School to a Maoist reeducation camp (at least the Maoists were clear about what they were up to), students accused her of anti-Asian speech. And on it goes.

What we have today isn’t Black patriotism or Asian patriotism, but a patriotism of the cultural left that demands an ever-narrowing uniformity of thought.

If you identify with a certain tribe of mostly White, affluent activists, then you pledge your loyalties not to any American concept of free speech, but to a glossary of acceptable terms and a sanctioned version of history.

Roth, I’m guessing, would have recoiled at all this pseudointellectual militancy. He would have said that real equality in society derives not from self-protection and sensitivity, but from embracing the tenets of free expression that make us all Americans in the first place.

He would have argued, as he did to the rabbi, that viewing all speech through the lens of identity is the opposite of progress — that progress comes when we identify ourselves principally as Americans, with the tolerance of dissent that comes with it. (This philosophy had a name; we called it “liberalism.”)

Now, as then, his argument would be dismissed by a lot of academics, who would point out that Roth was a White man — and a renowned womanizer to boot — whose lectures on identity could hardly be taken seriously.

It’s worth noting, though, that by the time he died, in 2018, Roth was no longer considered a Jewish writer, but one of the greatest novelists of his age, a perennial contender for the Nobel Prize.

By then, the American Jews who had branded him a traitor, for fear that his work would further marginalize them, had become so integrated into society’s highest echelons that they were now being admonished to check their privilege.

In this way, at least, Roth’s notion of progress was proved right.

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