Are you the last of the Mohicans?” Miss Rita Cohen asked Seymour (Swede) Lvov as he proudly showed her around his family’s long-established glove factory in Newark, in Philip Roth’s 1997 novel “American Pastoral.” The Swede’s golden life — star athlete, successful businessman, beautiful shiksa wife, big house in the suburbs of Old Rimrock, a seamless assimilation that had carried his family into the deepest vein of the American mainstream — had come spectacularly undone; his daughter, protesting the Vietnam War, had become a terrorist, blowing up the local post office and killing a bystander.
But moving through his factory with Rita Cohen — lecturing on the tanning and the sorting of the animal skins and the intricacies of the cutting room and the stitching (“Kind of work people don’t want to do anymore”) — The Swede was back in the past, before the fall, where the promise of America seemed limitless for a Jewish family not too long off the boat. “As a family they still flew the flight of the immigrant rocket, the upward, unbroken immigrant trajectory from slave-driven great-grandfather to self-driven grandfather to self-confident, accomplished, independent father to the highest flier of them all, the fourth-generation child for whom America was to be heaven itself.”
Philip Roth may have been the highest literary flier of them all, and his death last week at age 85 leaves the feeling that we have seen the last of the Mohicans. Who else could have written a sentence like that — hurtling forward at breakneck speed, born of a big-bang linguistic energy, the generational arc of a self-made people reaching all the way to heaven’s door? Saul Bellow and Bernard Malamud, the master chroniclers of the immigrant Jewish experience in the middle years of the 20th century and about 20 years Roth’s senior, were either gone or at the end of their powers. But Roth was still at work at his standing desk in his Connecticut home; he was 64 when he wrote “American Pastoral,” about the upheavals of the ’60s; 65 when he wrote “I Married a Communist,” about betrayal during the McCarthy era; and 67 in 2000 when he wrote “The Human Stain,” about political correctness during the Clinton years. Those three books, known collectively as the American Trilogy, constitute what critics call one of the most productive second acts in literary history.
But it was his early works that set the tone for his relationship with the Jewish community. The “Goodbye Columbus” collection, from 1959 (Roth was 26), and “Portnoy’s Complaint,” 10 years later, put him on the literary map as a brilliant enfant terrible, and they were reviled in the Jewish community. The eminent literary critic Irving Howe said of “Portnoy’s Complaint” — which raised the masturbatory act to a comic art form — “The cruelest thing anyone can do with ‘Portnoy’s Complaint’ is read it twice.” And the book was said to be worse for the Jews than the anti-Semitic tract “Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” its author a self-loathing Jew.
The portrayal of the materialism of the suburban Patimkin family in the “Goodbye Columbus” novella (it was as if the twin oak trees in the backyard bore country club sporting equipment as fruit) stung to the core of a still somewhat insecure community only 15 years removed from the Holocaust. In his autobiography “The Facts,” Roth looked back at a grilling he received during a 1962 panel at Yeshiva University as “the most bruising public exchange of my life. … the inquisitional pressure … mounting toward a finale that would find me either stoned to death or fast asleep.” He thought American Jews were secure enough in their place here to handle such criticism. Later in his career, the Jewish community, especially the Jewish Theological Seminary, which conferred on him an honorary doctorate, took him back into the fold. Jewish women probably never did, as his portrayal of female characters came under withering criticism.
And yet, in his sustained examination of the Jews’ place in America — of the promise and the peril of assimilation and his depiction of middle-class Jewish Newark as a kind of moral center, a rock upon which to fly from — Roth gave us a blueprint for our lives.
At the end of James Fennimore Cooper’s iconic 1826 novel, a Native American elder tells a crowd gathered to hear him, “I have lived to see the last warrior of the wise race of the Mohicans.” And so have we.