Philip Roth: The Biography by Blake Bailey

Philip Roth: The Biography
Blake Bailey
Skyhorse Publishing
Paperback 960 pages

Controversy surrounding “The Biography” would make perfect Philip Roth novel

By Jay Wiener
Special to the Mississippi Clarion Ledger

Sir Isaac Newton’s Third Law of Motion (1687) crystallizes contemporary American life: “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” Efforts to create a more open and tolerant society following World War II encourage prudes and Puritans—endemic to American life from colonial times—to engage in culture wars preventing progress.

Virtually everything evinces an us versus them mentality as in Mad magazine’s “Spy vs. Spy” sendup of Cold War Sino-American strife. Satisfying one’s “side” eclipses commonality.

I enter the fray evaluating Blake Bailey’s “Philip Roth: The Biography” (Skyhorse Publishing). I would probably not ponder its merits if I had not purchased the book prior to the controversy erupting over it. It is now available in paperback and spans 960 pages.

First and foremost: I respect accusers leveling charges of misogyny, sexual harassment, and assault. Those making allegations usually pay a steep price for their public proclamations such that there is little reward in sharing them.

Secondly: Blake Bailey deserves his due if he is guilty of claims that he is a rapist.

Thirdly: The presumption of innocence and the right to a trial by an impartial jury is no less fundamental to a civil society than addressing sexual transgressions. Rushing to judgment outside prescribed legal processes is not unlike lynching, which entails pulling people from prison and imposing punishments outside mandated legal processes.

Philip Roth, a master of mining situations and extracting unparalleled plots therefrom, would create a landmark novel if alive to examine the imbroglio.

“Later in his career, Roth liked to quote [Polish-American Nobel Laureate in Literature (1980)] Czeslaw Milosz: ‘When a writer is born into a family, the family is finished.’” Roth never spared himself nor those around him from scrutiny. He used their travails in the service of studying contemporary American life. Possessing instincts so spectacular that he frequently anticipated issues before they emerged “on the radar screen”, “four months before his death… expected to comment on the burgeoning #MeToo movement, [he wrote,]

“I heed the cry of the women insulted and injured. I have nothing but sympathy for their pain and their need for Justice. But I am also made anxious by the nature of the tribunal that is adjudicating these charges. I am made anxious, as a civil libertarian, because there doesn’t seem to be a tribunal. What I see instead is a publicized accusation instantly followed by peremptory punishment. I see the accused denied the right of habeas corpus, the right to face and examine his accuser, and the right to defend himself in anything resembling a genuine judicial setting, where careful distinctions might be able to be drawn as to the severity of the reported crime.”

Cole Porter’s song “Miss Otis Regrets” commented that,

“When the Mob came and got her and dragged her from the jail,

Madam, they strung her upon the willow across the way…”

Extralegal remedies, frequently and egregiously, appear to be more American than apple pie than does the Rule of Law.

Few authors kept their finger on the pulse of American life as precisely as Philip Roth. While validating victims of Blake Bailey’s alleged illegalities and Philip Roth’s misogyny, it might modestly be suggested that having one predator discern the details of another’s predations, as his authorized biographer, elicited information that might have been unobtained otherwise.

“When [novelist and educator] Dick Stern was asked by the Nobel Prize Committee, in 1983, to suggest candidates for its literature prize…. he urged the committee to consider four English-language writers [including, finally,] Philip Roth—the last ‘a true craftsman with a streak of authentic comic genius.’”

Following Philip Roth’s passing on May 22, 2018, “The BBC agreed [that Roth was one of the most renowned American literary masters of his century], hailing Roth as ‘arguably the best writer not to have won the Nobel Prize since Tolstoy.’”

Whatever allows Philip Roth’s oeuvre to be probed prudently will benefit literary scholars in the fullness of time.

Jay Wiener is a Jackson attorney.


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