Philip Roth may have roared onto the American literary scene on the back of the sexual revolution, but all the exuberant carnality of his early novels—like Alexander Portnoy’s copulating with a piece of liver—proceeded from the mind of a man educated on a university setting which is, by today’s standards, monkish in the extreme.
Back in the early 1950s, when Roth was a college student, female students had to return to their dorms not long after sundown. Men were not allowed in their rooms. “That little world was replicated on one campus after another,” says Roth, sitting in the office of his New York literary agent, dressed in khakis and a check shirt, not far off the preppy style of that era.
“This will come as a great shock to young people, but in 1951 you could make it through college unscathed by oral sex.”
These days are on Roth’s mind again because they are the topic of his twenty-ninth book, Indignation, a short novel set in 1951 about a young Jewish man named Marcus Messner who flees the oppressive anxieties of his family in Newark. His bolt-hole from home is a small, conservative liberal arts college in Ohio called Winesburg, a tip of the hat to Sherwood Anderson’s classic novel.
Marcus should feel liberated, but his life becomes even more complicated when he trades the illogic of his parents’ surveillance for that of the college administration. “He goes from one overseer to another,” Roth says. And so Marcus clashes with one roommate after the next, rages at the starchy Christianity of compulsory chapel, and manages to turn his one blessing—a date with a woman who is far more sexually advanced than her times—into a source of towering anxiety.
Roth has famously mined every period of his life for fictional purposes, but this was one that had remained untouched—at least in fiction. “I never set a book in that period of the old norms, the old moral norms,” he says.
Roth watched the norms change overnight as a professor. “It’s still somewhat incredible to me,” he says, “truly, that young men and young women sleep in the same dormitory. When I was teaching at Bard ten years ago I saw them going in and out of the dormitory together and I was shocked.”
“The old system was just discarded: sexual freedom, personal freedom, all the freedoms that have been extended to the generations after mine are extraordinary.”
Talking about these changes, legs crossed, his tone professorial, dipping frequently into laughter, Roth is acting less as a literary Gulliver than a man who has watched his times change far beyond his own wild expectations. “I was talking to a younger generation saying, This is the way it used to be,” he says of the new novel.
It is not as if Roth has completely shut off from the present day, though; in conversation he expresses dismay over the Republican resurgence in the presidential race, and Sarah Palin’s inquiries about banning books from Alaskan libraries.
But the backward-looking, documentary storytelling impulse in Indignation is a continuation of a growing vein of Roth’s work in the past decade, books obsessed and possessed by American history such as American Pastoral, So I Married a Communist, and The Plot Against America.
One of the key freedoms Marcus lacks, which many of America’s college students hardly even consider today, is the freedom from fighting. In 1951, the U.S. was at war with North Korea and the draft was on. Marcus’ fear of being booted out of campus, called up, sent over and dying on the battlefield, provides the book with a taut wind-up—even though Marcus essentially narrates the book from beyond the grave after this very sequence of events occurs.
It is a state of limbo not unlike that of every solider from that era, minus, of course, the permanence. “With the draft, everybody was involved,” Roth says, “Everybody was fodder. When you got to be 21, 22 and graduated from college, for two years your life stopped. If you had been running in the direction of your life, you had to stop and do this other thing which was, if not menacing, just plain boring.”
Roth experienced the boring part first hand. Like Marcus, he spent a year in Newark at a state college before transferring in 1951 to a private liberal arts school, in his case Bucknell, a small university in Western Pennsylvania, where ROTC requirements were an hour and a half a week.
“I opted out,” Roth says. “I was stupid, I should have stayed in. But I was against the military on the campus—a political principle which screwed me up. Then I was drafted into the army as a private. Had I stayed in ROTC I would have been an officer. The war was over, though, so it didn’t make much difference.”
Several stories in Roth’s National Book Award winning first book, Goodbye, Columbus, emerged from this period—a period Roth has returned to in another way. This is his fourth short work in nearly as many years. “I have a feel for this length,” he says. “ ‘Goodbye, Columbus,’” Roth adds, referring to the title novella of his debut, “is this length.”
Roth also had a good teacher: the late Nobel Prize winner, Saul Bellow. “I remember that Saul, at the end of his life, was writing short novels. One was The Actual; another The Bellarosa Connection. I talked to him about that when he was doing it. I remember being fascinated that he who loved the density and complexity of novels, the spinning out of the narrative in all directions, had found this way of condensing.”
Bellow has been dead three years now, and Roth feels the loss personally and artistically in a profound way. “There is no longer anybody to look up to. It’s just us now. There are some very, very gifted writers in my generation: Doctorow, Don DeLillo, all of us within three or four years of each other. Don is a few years younger, Ed a few years older. John Updike and I are about the same age. Joyce Carol Oates is about the same age. So is Reynolds Price.”
All of the writers Roth mentions grew up in an era when the novel, at least in America, was given far more cultural space. “There was never a golden age, mind you,” Roth says. But Updike, Roth, and Oates all appeared on the covers of Time or Newsweek, something only Junot Díaz, the country’s most recent Pulitzer winner, can claim, and this because there was a special issue on the “Browning of America.”
Lacking his elders, all too keenly aware his time is running short, Roth has pulled back on his reading. “I don’t read much contemporary fiction,” he says, “just the fiction of writers I’ve read long ago that I’m trying to come back to one last time.” Roth has also saved up a few last assignments for himself. “I think I’m going to reread Moby Dick,” he said, visibly excited at the thought of it. “It’s absurd that I haven’t read it since college. It’s as though I never read it.”
About his own writing he is jovially evasive. In the last decade Roth has published eight books, a staggering rate of production for a man between the ages of 65 and 75. Perhaps he is ready to rest. “I want to have a big long project that will occupy me until my death,” Roth says, his big eyes shining, his expression so deadpan it may or may not be ironic. It’s hard to tell. “I’m ready for it. I have a 25-year book. And when I’m 100 I will hand it in and then lie down in darkness.”