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The Best Way to Learn about Modern America

Robert Fulford writes beautifully about Philip Roth’s connection to Newark, New Jersey in the latest issue of Queen’s Quarterly. At one points Fulford quotes a fellow writer as saying that because of Roth’s work he can finally, now, proudly announce the city as his birthplace.

According to Michael Kimmage, American Pastoral, I Married a Communist, and The Human Stain constitute an unofficial “Newark Trilogy”. Newark is where history begins for the novels’ Jewish and African-American protagonists. Each escapes, only to find himself in the grip of history, reduced from a powerful player to history’s plaything. In the search to free themselves from the past, the heroes “fall into history” unprotected by any sense of personal or family identity. The Trilogy, says Kimmage, explores both the will and failure to live outside history and in so doing illustrates the mechanics of history itself.

What begins in Newark has national implications. Roth’s intent, according to Kimmage, is to tell nothing less than the American story. In a 2005 interview Roth is quoted as saying  “the place has come to represent for me, I suppose, modern times in America, and the fate of Newark has been the fate of many other cities … tremendously productive industrial towns, [with]  a hardworking, fully employed working class … the city worked, these cities worked. And the people worked in a different sense. And that’s all been destroyed.”

Roth continues, “the riots of the late sixties in Newark just ended the real life in the city … over the years I began to go back to visit by myself, walk around. When it became too dangerous to walk by myself I’d go with somebody, and I was – as I say, I was mesmerized by the destruction of this place that . . . I’m mesmerized by the change in my own lifetime and trying to depict it; I’m just trying to resurrect it in its different stages. I think that there may be something of some interest there for other Americans.”

Newark honored Roth in October 2005 when the then-mayor Sharpe James presided over the unveiling of an eponymous street sign on the corner of Summit and Keer Avenues (where Roth lived for much of his childhood and), an area prominent in The Plot Against America.  A plaque on the house where the Roths lived was also unveiled.

Want to learn about modern America? Head down to Newark, and bring along Roth’s Trilogy.

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