The orgiastic future year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch our arms further.
–F. Scott Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby
There are those writers whose fiction reaches for optimism, then there is Philip Roth. He has a somewhat different “sensibility” concerning America. “In a place so vast, no single geographic center from which the writing originates. Anything but a homogeneous population, no basic national unity, no single national character, social calm utterly unknown, even the general obtuseness about literature, the inability of many citizens to read any of it with even minimal comprehension, confers a certain freedom. And surely the fact that writers really don’t mean a goddam thing to nine-tenths of the population doesn’t hurt. It’s inebriating.” That’s one way of looking at the challenge of writing fiction. But Roth isn’t finished with his description of P-B.
“Very little truthfulness anywhere, antagonism everywhere, so much calculated to disgust, the gigantic hypocrisies, no holding fierce passions at bay, the ordinary viciousness you can see by just pressing the remote, explosive weapons in the hands of creeps, the gloomy tabulation of unspeakable violent events, the unceasing despoliation of the biosphere for profit, surveillance overkill that will come back to haunt us, great concentrations of wealth financing the most undemocratic malevolents around, science illiterates still fighting the Scopes trial 89 years on, economic inequities the size of the Ritz, indebtedness on everyone’s tail, families not knowing how bad things can get, money being squeezed out of every last thing—that frenzy—and (by no means new) government hardly by the people through representative democracy but rather by the great financial interests, the old American plutocracy worse than ever.”
Is what Roth saying true or a disgruntled curmudgeon’s hyperbole? Certainly, he believes it to be true and his books can joust with those of the optimists in the lists of the marketplace. Let the readers make the distinction between which writers represent reality and which escapist illusion. “You have 300 million people on a continent 3000 miles wide doing the best they can with their inexhaustible troubles. We are witnessing a new and benign admixture races on a scale unknown since the malignancy of slavery. I could go on and on. It’s hard not to feel close to existence here. This is not some quiet little corner of the world.”
References and notes are available for this essay.
Find a much more in-depth discussion on this blog and in books by Roy Charles Henry.