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READINGS — From the August 2017 issue of Harper's.
By Philip Roth, from remarks he gave at a celebration of his
seventy-fifth birthday at Columbia University in 2008. They are included
in Philip Roth: Why Write?, which will be published next month by the
Library of America.
Seventy-five. How sudden! It may be a commonplace to note that our time
here steals away at a terrifying speed, but it nonetheless remains
astonishing that it was just 1943 — it was 1943, the war was on, I was
ten, and at the kitchen table, my mother was teaching me to type on her
big Underwood typewriter, its four upward-sloping rows of round white
keys differentiated by black letters, numerals, and symbols that, taken
together, constituted all the apparatus necessary to write in English.
I was at the time reading the sea stories of Howard Pease, the Joseph
Conrad of boys’ books, whose titles included Wind in the Rigging, The
Black Tanker, Secret Cargo, and Shanghai Passage. As soon as I’d
mastered the Underwood’s keyboard and the digital gymnastics of the
touch system of typing, I inserted a clean sheet of white paper into the
typewriter and tapped out in caps at its exact center a first title of
my own: Storm Off Hatteras. Beneath that title I didn’t type my name,
however. I was well aware that Philip Roth wasn’t a writer’s name. I
typed instead “by Eric Duncan.” That was the name I chose as befitting
the seafaring author of Storm Off Hatteras, a tale of wild weather and a
tyrannical captain and mutinous intrigue in the treacherous waters of
the Atlantic. There’s little that can bestow more confidence and lend
more authority than a name with two hard c’s in it.
In January 1946, three years later, I graduated from a public elementary
school in Newark, New Jersey — ours was the first postwar class to enter
high school. That a brand-new historical moment was upon us was not lost
on the brightest students in the class, who had been eight or nine when
the war began and were twelve or thirteen when it concluded. As a result
of the wartime propaganda to which we’d regularly been exposed for close
to five years — and because of our almost all being knowledgeable, as
Jewish children, about anti-Semitism — we had come to be precociously
alert to the inequalities in American society.
The heady idealistic patriotism with which we were inculcated during the
war spilled over in its aftermath into a burgeoning concern with
contemporary social injustice. For me, this led to my being teamed up by
our eighth-grade teacher with a clever female classmate to write — in
part on my mother’s Underwood — the script for a graduation play we
called Let Freedom Ring.
Our one-act play, a quasi allegory with a strong admonitory bent, pitted
a protagonist named Tolerance (virtuously performed by my coauthor)
against an antagonist named Prejudice (sinisterly played by me). It
included a supporting cast of classmates who, in a series of vignettes
in which they were shown attending to their harmlessly healthy-minded
pursuits — and which were intended to advertise how wonderful all these
people were — played representatives of ethnic and religious minorities
unjustly suffering the injurious inequities of discrimination. Tolerance
and Prejudice, invisible to the others onstage, stood just to the side
of each uplifting scene, arguing over the human status of these various
and sundry non–Anglo-Saxon Americans, Tolerance quoting exemplary
passages from the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution of the
United States, and the newspaper columns of Eleanor Roosevelt, while
Prejudice, appraising her with as much pity as disgust, and in a tone of
voice he wouldn’t have dared to use at home, said the nastiest things
about the inferiority of these minorities that he could get away with in
a school play.
Afterward, in the corridor outside the auditorium, giving me a fervent
hug to express her delight in my achievement, my proud, admiring mother
told me, while I was still in my costume of head-to-foot black, that,
sitting at the edge of her seat in the audience, she who had never
struck anyone in all her life had wanted to slap my face. “How ever did
you learn to be so contemptible!” she said, laughing. “You were
thoroughly despicable!” In truth, I didn’t know — it just seemed to have
come to me out of nowhere. Secretly it thrilled me to think I had a
natural talent for it.
Let Freedom Ring ended with the full cast of miscellaneous minorities
hand in hand at the footlights, joining Tolerance with everything they
had as she rousingly sang “The House I Live In,” a 1942 pop oratorio in
praise of the American melting pot that had been famously recorded by
Frank Sinatra. Meanwhile, exiting stage right, bound alone for his evil
abode, loathsome Prejudice stalked off in bitter defeat, shouting
angrily at the top of his voice a sentence I’d stolen from somewhere:
“This great experiment cannot last!”
That was the beginning, the hometown launching of a literary career
leading right up to today. It isn’t entirely far-fetched to suggest that
the twelve-year-old who coauthored Let Freedom Ring! was father to the
man who wrote The Plot Against America. As for Eric Duncan, that
estimable Scotsman, years after crediting him with the authorship of
Storm Off Hatteras, I sometimes had reason to wish that I had donned
that pseudonym before Portnoy’s Complaint went forth into the world. How
different life would have been!
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