I know that because I got to personally ask him about it. I interviewed him as a reporter for my college newspaper 25 years ago. (Yes, I find that as unbelievable to type as you must find it to read). In the course of our almost hour-long interview, he ranged from snarky to petulant, but he was vehement on this point: “I don’t see myself as a Jewish American author. I see myself as a writer.”
To me, that comment is testimony to the wide gulf that can exist between how we perceive ourselves and how others perceive us. Because, let’s face it, Philip Roth’s writing, especially some of his best-known works, was fairly subsumed by Jewish characterizations. In fact, Roth knocked his characterization of American Jewish men out of the park, with his warts-and-all portrayal of family dynamics, priorities, and neuroses. But I would argue that not only did his characterization of Jewish women miss the mark, it was also quite bitter, spiteful, and deliberately mean.
One of his best-known characters, Alexander Portnoy of Portnoy’s Complaint, chafes so much under the domineering heel of his tank-like, shrewish Jewish mother that apparently his only logical outlet is to masturbate into the family’s dinner. Eve, the wife in I Married A Communist — whose biography mirrors that of his ex-wife, Jewish actress and writer Claire Bloom — is so devoted to her daughter that she chooses her over her husband.
In a piece published today in The New York Times, Dwight Garner took note of Roth’s “perceptive feminist critics.” The story quotes Lionel Shriver, who said his female characters “are not nearly as filled out as his male ones; sometimes his women amount to little more than bodies or, when ex-wives, walking mistakes.” More damning was Vivian Gornick, who said, “If in Bellow misogyny was like seeping bile, in Roth it was lava pouring forth from a volcano.”
Another one of these “not filled out characters” managed to figure prominently in my own very real life: Brenda Patimkin, the love interest in Roth’s novella Goodbye, Columbus. Brenda could be read as Roth’s proverbial “first” — the book is considered his breakout work — with all the love and agony and comparative lack of self-awareness that entails. However, as a result, Brenda has had a subtle but enduring effect on how Jewish American women have been stereotyped and portrayed. While she’s written much more lovingly and tenderly than female characters in Roth’s later books — no, really — she’s been read by readers, critics, and scholars alike as the embodiment of the Jewish American Princess.
Goodbye, Columbus is about Neil Klugman, a struggling Jewish guy who lives in Newark, New Jersey and works in the library, and his love/lust for the larger-than-life Brenda Patimkin. Brenda is the full package: a Radcliffe-educated beauty with a nose job who is smart, sexy and Too Good For Him. She lives in the picture-perfect suburb of Short Hills, New Jersey — an upscale suburb literally uphill from Newark— that’s so much the modern Eden that sporting goods lie on the fields like ripe fruit fallen from trees
Roth writes, near the opening of his novella, “It was, in fact, as though the hundred and eighty feet that the suburbs rose in altitude above Newark brought one closer to heaven, for the sun itself became bigger, lower, and rounder, and soon I was driving past long lawns which seemed to be twirling water on themselves, and past houses where no one sat on stoops, where lights were on but no windows open, for those inside, refusing to share the very texture of life with those of us outside, regulated with a dial the amounts of moisture that were allowed access to their skin.”
The story takes place over the summer of their love, which starts at the pool at the country club, continues as young love and lust under the sprinklers — along with a healthy dose of class conflict and virginity loss — and ends in a fight over contraception. (She leaves her diaphragm at the family house — whether accidentally or on purpose is debatable — and her parents find it, and in the face of her parents’ disapproval, she ends the relationship.)
Brenda, alongside Herman Wouk’s Marjorie Morningstar, is a classic archetype of the Jewish American Princess: a Daddy’s Girl who thinks she’s flawless, gets what she wants, and isn’t willing to give that up for anything. And if you read the some scorn and derision in that characterization, you’d be right: Neil Klugman’s love for Brenda is an inextricable mix of compassion and contempt, with some base notes of misogyny thrown in.
Here’s what Brenda Patimkin and I have in common: We are both Jewish girls from Short Hills. And that’s about it. But because of that, I’ve had her (read: Roth’s) particular brand of stereotype thrown into my non-nose-jobbed face my entire life. In high school, teachers asked me, along with the other Jewish girls in the class, to “speak” for all the Jewish girls from Short Hills when reading Goodbye, Columbus. But what exactly was being asked? What did that mean, precisely? What was I supposed to defend — the fact that I was an individual, more than a stereotype?
Later, my freshman year of college at the University of Pennsylvania (no, not Radcliffe), I bounded into the newspaper offices, excited to learn journalism and to work for the paper. But straight away, an older male Jewish editor said, “Oh, you’re from Short Hills! What’s your name? I’ll just call you Brenda Patimkin.” In that way that we women always apologize for others, rather than calling them out on their bullshit, I smiled and laughed. But, hey, there was a bright side: He was literate, at least.
But when these literate men — many of them Jewish, by the way — are so quick to label you as “Brenda Patimkin from Short Hills,” it’s kind of a shorthand way of communicating, “I think Roth is great, and that his portrayal of Jewish women as moneyed, beautiful snobs who love Daddy most and will probably turn into shrews when they get married is dead on.” (Spoiler alert: Brenda’s mom didn’t come off well in Goodbye, Columbus, either.)
Roth told me himself in that interview that Goodbye, Columbus was about a woman not taking responsibility for her contraceptive choices. To me, as a woman — then and now — I read it as a woman discouraged from saying how she actually felt about a situation, because her feelings didn’t dovetail with the male protagonist’s.
The idea that a woman is defined by what she has, how she looks, and how compliant she is with what the (always male) protagonist wants was not invented by Philip Roth. And such stereotypes won’t die with his death. But as he is mourned for his prolific literary accomplishments, I don’t think it’s in bad taste to say that as a Jewish woman, I won’t mourn the death of the JAP and Jewish Mother stereotypes that he helped to enshrine in American culture.
Header Image: Ali McGraw in Goodbye, Columbus via 24 Femmes Per Second.