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In History’s Grip: Philip Roth’s Newark Trilogy by Michael Kimmage (review)

From: Journal of Jewish Identities
Issue 7, Number 2, July 2014
pp. 82-84 | 10.1353/jji.2014.0022

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“For literary criticism to have any kind of political application today, literature must first have cultural currency,” Michael Kimmage argues in his review of Adam Kirsch’s 2011 book, Why Trilling Matters. Kimmage goes on to say that, “The critic lives the drama, creating heroic readers in the process, and it is these readers who unite author, text and audience in a prospering literary culture.” Kimmage, the author of a previous book on Trilling, The Conservative Turn: Lionel Trilling, Whittaker Chambers, and the Lessons of Anti-Communism, unwittingly seems also to describe himself. In his most recent book, In History’s Grip: Philip Roth’s Newark Trilogy (an excellent new addition to Stanford Studies in Jewish History and Culture), Kimmage presents Newark as a synecdoche for the tumult of America in the post-war years (as Roth has helped us to do) and in so doing, illustrates how good fiction and criticism can be both politically applicable and culturally current.

As Michael Kimmelman recently said of Newark for the New York Times, “Perhaps few places in America represent the urban trauma of the 1960s more than this city. Deindustrialization, corruption, suburban flight and calamitous planning gutted its core, tore up neighborhoods, and helped fuel rebellion in the streets.” (July 20, 2013) The insight could just as well come from reading what Kimmage refers to as “The Newark Trilogy,” the three novels Roth published in the late 1990s that pointed to resurgence in his already productive career: American Pastoral (1997); I Married a Communist (1998); and The Human Stain (2000). Referring to these three novels as “The Newark Trilogy,” Kimmage introduces a slight deviation in how they are usually described in Roth Studies, which is as “The American Trilogy.” This trilogy is a designation to signal our understanding of Newark as at once the birthplace of the most profound Roth novels and the very proof of the downfall of the American city.

When I first read In History’s Grip, I was on a flight out of Paris’s Charles de Gaulle airport after a dazzling week in the City of Light spent at a Philip Roth symposium. On the plane on my way home, on a flight bound for Newark International airport, I found myself immersed in the history of Newark’s decline as seen through the eyes of Philip Roth—a fact made more depressing as I departed one of the greatest European cities, bound for one of the so-called worst American ones.

My view of Newark, of course, changed slightly the following March when Mr. Roth appeared there to celebrate his 80th birthday at a gala hosted by the Newark Museum. Clearly, Mr. Roth still holds strong feelings for Newark as evidenced by a simultaneous commitment to propping up his birthplace and a kind of shrinking from the place he would never revisit for more than an evening. Charles McGrath’s New York Times coverage of the event focused less on Newark as an actual setting than on Newark as a backdrop, a cultural icon, and a fantasy of a previous life. According to McGrath, “Michael Kimmage pointed out in a presentation on Monday, Mr. Roth’s Newark—like Atlantis—isn’t really there. Yet there are still traces of it: the Essex County Courthouse and its statue of Lincoln, which figures in ‘I Married a Communist’; the Riviera Hotel, where Mr. Roth’s parents, Herman and Bess, spent their wedding night.” (March 20, 2013)

Kimmage turns out to have been an excellent resource during the birthday gala of Mr. Roth, as for the past several years he had been at work on this Newark book focused on history—the history of Newark as represented in Roth’s later novels. Here he argues that, “Regardless of our literary taste or our philosophy of history, we are all in history’s grip...a stranglehold that can easily be murderous. History’s grip can also be subtle and brutally generous, bestowing illusions of stability and permanence on those who wish to believe in them.” (6)

The grip of history on what many argue to be the most important novels of Roth’s career has also become, in Kimmage...

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