In dialogue with a tradition

In December, 1957 Saul Bellow wrote to the young Philip Roth about the manuscript of the long short story, "Expect the Vandals", that Roth had sent him. Bellow's "reaction" "was on the positive side", but "mixed, too". While he liked the story's "straightness" and the "plainness about biology", he was less enthusiastic about what, in one episode, he felt was an " Idea". "I have a thing about Ideas in stories," he wrote, gently pointing to what he felt was the younger writer's problem. And he ended by giving Roth his own agent's address.

By Bhaswati Chakravorty
  • Published 8.06.18
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In December, 1957 Saul Bellow wrote to the young Philip Roth about the manuscript of the long short story, "Expect the Vandals", that Roth had sent him. Bellow's "reaction" "was on the positive side", but "mixed, too". While he liked the story's "straightness" and the "plainness about biology", he was less enthusiastic about what, in one episode, he felt was an " Idea". "I have a thing about Ideas in stories," he wrote, gently pointing to what he felt was the younger writer's problem. And he ended by giving Roth his own agent's address.

"Expect the Vandals", which Esquire published a year later, was awarded the $2,500 Houghton Mifflin award, won the Paris Review short-story contest and received the Aga Khan prize. The awards seemed to herald the numerous others Roth would receive throughout his remarkably long career; yet he never won the Big One. His unique creativity was never in doubt. His satire and black humour, his focus on maleness, his audacious blurring of fact and fiction, his difficult sense of fun, his acutely cerebral approach led to as much aversion as admiration. Critics agree about his stature in 20th-century American fiction, but seem unsure about conferring on him the 'Jewish-American writer' label.

Bellow, Malamud and, less obviously since he wrote in Yiddish, Singer, were considered part of the great Jewish-American writing tradition (not Norman Mailer though), flowering sometime after the Second World War, when the immediate anxieties and deprivations of immigration had begun to abate. Roth was, in the early part of his career at least, the black sheep, attacked by Irving Howe in 1972 in Commentary as one who had "chosen to tear himself away from that tradition". The immediacy of the immigrant experience, ghettos, the Depression and the struggle to emerge had given older writers such as Howe and Malamud the need for a moral structure. But Roth, writing in an America where anti-Semitism had recently become incorrect and where immigrants were partaking of new freedoms and gaining repute as professional people, even academics, found, around the time he was writing Portnoy's Complaint in 1969, Jewish moral inhibitions unbearable, often a source of anger and black comedy.

Yet ten years later, in The Ghost Writer, Roth pays tribute to both Malamud and Bellow, displaying his sense of belonging to the Jewish-American heritage after turbulent encounters with it. Some critics see in this novel the third or 'homecoming' stage in Roth's writing, the sentiments of which are reflected in Roth's detailed discussion of Bellow's novels in "Rereading Saul Bellow" two years after the older author's death. "...Bellow was indeed Columbus for people like me, the grandchildren of immigrants," he wrote, "who set out as American writers after him."