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12 Philip Roth and Jewish American Literature at the Millennium BONNIE LYONS The brochure for the American Literature Association conference from which this volume of essays emerged asked the participants to address the future of Jewish American and Holocaust literature within the study of American literature, to envision the future audience for this literature and the scholarship that attends it, and to ponder its place on the maps of ethnic and cultural studies. Large orders. Even this announcement avoided several big questions. The very term "Jewish American"—sometimes hyphenated and with the emphasis on American — points to hotly disputed issues. Is this literature in fact more Jewish than it is American? What happens if we consider it against a background of Kafka and Babel rather than Melville and Faulkner? Moreover , since the parameters of American literature itself are now being radically questioned, even the size and shape of this category "American literature" into which we attempt to place Jewish American literature is fairly problematic. To say nothing of the even larger question of the viability of literary studies as such. if the academy continues to concede authority to cultural studies, the study of Jewish American literature as a subcategory of literary studies may well be marginalized, and possibly totally undermined. Because of recent rapid changes in the academy, including the almost total displacement of deconstruction by gender/race/class analysis, the rise of queer theory, and the increasing dismissal of approaches to literature not overtly political, and a growing contempt for the very idea of art, it is impossible to predict with any confidence what the future of Jewish American literature, Holocaust literature, or indeed literature of any kind will be. so instead of predicting the future from some imagined satellite-high authoritative overview, i look in this essay at a particular author and focus even more narrowly on a single book by that author, and use that analysis to sketch 167 168 BONNIE LYONS out directions Jewish American literature seems likely to follow. I believe Philip Roth is right now our most significant Jewish American writer and that to study his work therefore seems a constructive approach to the field. Moreover, his most recent novel, American Pastoral, is particularly illuminating in connection with the overall questions about the direction of the field, for reasons I hope to show. Instead of thirteen ways of looking at a blackbird, here, based on a reading of American Pastoral, are five ways of looking at the near future of Jewish American literature. First, Jewish American literature will situate itself self-consciously in the context of European texts. In Roth's case, American Pastoral is explicitly engaged in a dialogue with Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Ilych. Second, Jewish American literature will continue to respond distinctively to American myth and reality. In this case, American Pastoral is centrally concerned with just this theme, as the title indicates. Third, Jewish American literature will be a meditation on the distinctively Jewish preoccupations with time, memory, history, and loss—all, however, with a postmodern spin. American Pastoral is sharply focused throughout on the radical problematic of contemporary relativism and nihilism. Fourth, Jewish American literature will explore the extraordinary variety and complexity of Jewish life in an evolving American culture. In this case Roth focuses on a radically assimilated Jew. Finally, I foresee that Jewish American literature will become , in this postmodern age, more involved in the complexities of selfreferential intertextuality. That is, with the author's own internal dialectic within his developing oeuvre. American Pastoral is a novel in overt dialogue with Roth's earlier novels responding thematically in particular to both The Counterlife, through the organizing ideas of the pastoral, and oppositions and counterlives, and to Sabbath's Theater through a protagonist who seems an explicit antithesis to that novel's Mickey Sabbath. Part One Early in American Pastoral, the narrator Zuckerman —who is of course a narrator/protagonist in several earlier Roth novels and is one "take" on Roth's own alter ego—describes meeting his blue-eyed, blond athletic boyhood hero Seymour "the Swede" Levov for dinner. Unable to see beneath the surface of what Zuckerman calls Swede's "simple-seeming soul" exuding sincerity,1 Zuckerman posits the idea that the Swede just might be what he appears to be—a simple, happy man—and he compares his complicated speculations about the Swede to what he calls "the tendentious meaning that Tolstoy assigned to Ivan Ilych" (30), condemning Tolstoy's fiction as a...

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Additional Information

ISBN
9780791484449
Print ISBN
9780791462096
MARC Record
OCLC
62395530
Pages
266
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-01
Language
English
Open Access
N
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