The Forgotten Political Genius of Philip Roth

American writer in the middle of the 20th century has his hands full in trying to understand, and then describe, and then make credible much of the American reality,” the novelist Philip Roth wrote in an essay called “Writing American Fiction,” published in Commentary magazine in early 1961.

“It stupefies, it sickens, it infuriates, and finally it is even a kind of embarrassment to one’s own meager imagination. The actuality is continually outdoing our talents, and the culture tosses up figures almost daily that are the envy of any novelist.” Name-dropping various 1950s scandal artists, Roth added, “Who, for example, could have invented Charles Van Doren? Roy Cohn and David Schine? Sherman Adams and Bernard Goldfine?”

In the days since his death last week at age 85, Roth has been celebrated (and here and there skewered) for his contributions to American fiction. Dwight Garner called Roth the last in a generation of writers who “helped define American experience in the second half of the 20th century.“

“That Rothian spirit—so full of people and stories and laughter and history and sex and fury—will be a source of energy as long as there is literature,” wrote Zadie Smith. But the outpouring of appreciations largely has skipped past Roth’s political writings—an unfortunate oversight, because Roth wasn’t just a path-breaking novelist; he was also one of the most perceptive political observers of our times.

In his early Commentary essay, he wondered if his estrangement from mainstream culture would doom him to produce “a high proportion of historical novels or contemporary satire—or perhaps just nothing.” Clearly, Roth managed in the next five decades to summon the imaginative powers to write lasting original fiction.

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