a black and white photo of Philip Roth
Philip Roth. (Illustration/JTA-Mollie Suss; Photo/Bernard Gotfryd at the Library of Congress)

Commemorating Philip Roth means confronting his limitations head on

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Next Sunday marks the 90th anniversary of Philip Roth’s birth. In celebration of the famed novelist’s work, a scholarly conference titled “Roth@90,” sponsored by the Philip Roth Society, will be held starting Wednesday at the Newark Public Library. That will be followed by a weekend of high-profile events — staged readings, panel discussions, a bus tour of Roth’s old Newark neighborhood —  co-presented by the library and the New Jersey Performing Arts Center.

Exactly 10 years ago, we commemorated his 80th birthday in a similar fashion. Dozens of Roth scholars made learned presentations about his work, of which Roth attended exactly zero. Later that week, the author read aloud from his novel “Sabbath’s Theater” in front of hundreds of fans, friends and well wishers. The proceedings were televised on C-Span.

Roth was being acclaimed for having just wound down an exemplary career. With the exception of the Nobel Prize, what garland evaded him? Was there a high-culture literary platform where his name wasn’t a virtual watermark? Could he publish any novel without hundreds of reviews being written in newspapers across the world? Was there a serious fiction writer out there with greater renown?

So much has changed in the decade between the two conferences. To begin with, Roth died in 2018. In that same span, the country witnessed the election of Donald Trump and the fissure it exposed in society in general and the Jewish community in particular. America endured one convulsive racial reckoning after another. Finally, in October of 2017, the #MeToo movement gained massive public salience.

Jacques Berlinerblau
Jacques Berlinerblau

Jacques Berlinerblau is a professor of Jewish civilization at Georgetown University, a contributing writer for MSNBC and the author of “The Philip Roth We Don’t Know: Sex, Race and Autobiography.”

JTA

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