The American Left and the Problems of History in Philip Roth’s “American Trilogy”

I wrote this essay in 2004—for an academic conference, if I recall correctly. The plan was to revise and expand it for that dissertation I never managed to finish.

A Death in the Family (1957)

I just found this intro to an essay I never wrote and thought the quotes were worth posting.

Book Meme

This year I’m going to reread a few of the books that inspired me to become an English major way back when. I’m curious to see, fifteen years later, how my sense of the novels has evolved. So far, Nabokov is more impressive and Humbert is more disturbing than I remembered. Case in point:

Ron Austin’s In a New Light: Spirituality and the Media Arts

This essay was originally published at Sojourners.

The Friday Five: DeLillo

In celebration of the release of Falling Man, which I plan to begin reading tonight, and inspired by James Tata’s post, I’m bringing back the long lost “Friday Five”: My Favorite Don DeLillo Novels

What Are You Reading?

A few words on a few of the books I’ve been enjoying lately.

So Awfully, Irreducibly Real

Tony Kushner is taken to task from time to time for his harsh treatment of Joe Pitts, the closeted, Republican, Mormon lawyer whose self-hatred motivates so much of the plays’ drama (and poisons his marriage to Harper). Those critics must ignore this passage, which is among the most beautiful and heartbreaking Kushner has written. It’s been at the very back of my mind for nearly a week now but came front and center earlier this evening.

A Long Way Down (2005)

Kakutani’s reading seems lazy to me. She’s misjudged these folks — not to mention Hornby’s intentions — and is punching herself silly, chasing after her straw men.

No Reservations

I read a book last weekend. A 302-page book. I was standing in Borders on Friday night, waiting for Joanna to get a drink, and I picked up a book, read the first few pages, and decided to buy it. Then I went home and finished it in three or four sittings.

How ‘Bout That

How’s that for the perfect end to my academic career? I got a good note in The Times Literary Supplement!

The Human Stain (2003)

But the adaptation of a written text to film also necessarily foregrounds the authority of images, imposing specificity on what an author might have chosen to describe more generally. I was surprised, for example, to find myself suddenly moved by an image of the small boxes in which Faunia stores the ashes of her dead children. In the novel, surprisingly little emphasis is placed on the ashes; Roth does not make of them an excuse for one of his patented ten-page diversions.

For the Artist’s Sake

E. L. Doctorow delivered the following speech before a subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee in the fall of 1981. Given the on-going budget battles in Congress, Doctorow’s words are also more than a bit timely.

Random Thoughts Inspired by Time’s List of 100 Great Novels

You know, I’ve spent the better part of the last decade reading and studying 20th century lit, and I’ve still only read 27 of the best 100 books. Where did I go wrong?

Haruki Murakami

The fall semester of my ESL class kicked off last night, and we began with a discussion of Haruki Murakami’s “The Elephant Vanishes,” which is, quite frankly, one of the most beautiful stories I’ve ever read.

The Moviegoer (1962)

If you’re reading this in the future — say, you’ve wandered here via some poof of Google magic — you should know that if I were to turn on my television right now (now being the afternoon of September 2, 2005), I’d flip past image after image after image of destruction, violence, and misery.

A Few Words on . . .

Week in Review: Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, John Vanderslice, DeLillo, Hornby, Jarmusch, and The Battle of Algiers

So We Beat On . . .

I love how, despite his disgust and anger, Nick is still moved by the vision — how he is unable to ignore its beauty while also acknowledging the human misery that now populates the land. This one paragraph, in both tone and theme, is the entire novel in concentrated form. Amazing.

Great Critics (And the Rest of Us)

Yesterday I made the mistake of pulling Christopher Bigsby’s latest book from the library shelf. Arthur Miller: A Critical Study (2005) will, I assume, be Bigsby’s final statement on Miller.

The Same as It Ever Was

That Mailer’s opinion of the corporate executive echoes exactly D.J. Jethroe’s is no coincidence, for this selective amnesia — this sense that all is permissible so long as it is state-sanctioned, to the benefit of American markets, and hidden from plain view — is, according to Mailer, precisely why America was in Vietnam.

Kushner on Miller

“Although he refused the mechanical determinism of the unthinking Marxist left, he created in his greatest play a drama in which it is impossible to avoid thinking about economics–money–in any attempt to render coherent the human tragedy unfolding before you.”

New Perspectives

So, this is kind of exciting. My copy of Philip Roth: New Perspectives on an American Author just arrived, hot off the proverbial press. My article, “The ‘Written World’ of Philip Roth’s Nonfiction,” is the 17th and final chapter in what I believe is the first book-length study of Roth’s entire body of work, up to and including The Plot Against America. Pretty cool. My first book chapter.


Karen has stumbled upon a wonderful discovery. If you take a magazine, remove all of the stuff that is designed to make you spend money (between 40% and 100% of the content of most mags), and replace that crap with stories, essays, interviews, photos, and jaw-dropping design, you end up with something like art.

Notes on “Sonny’s Blues”

Like a soloist, Baldwin introduces an idea, a phrase, then he explores it, explodes it, develops it until he finds something new, something more precise or melodic. Baldwin accomplishes in his story what Sonny accomplishes in that jazz club. And, really, isn’t this just the most beautiful “vanishing evocation” (as the narrator describes music) of what art is capable of doing?

Arthur Miller

Miller’s politics made him an enemy of the Right when he balked at the hypocrisy of anti-communist politicking, and an enemy of the Left when his “confused liberalism” (in the words of Eric Mottram) was deemed unsatisfactory at a time of revolutionary struggle. Miller, for his part, seemed most interested in simply understanding the human causes of human troubles. The work of the artist, you might say.

Usable Questions

While flipping through the pages of College English in search of an early Frederic Jameson article, I found and photocopied a two-page piece by Ira Shor, which I’ve transcribed below.

Media Blackout

“I’m a Communist because I want the people to take the power that comes with ownership away from the little class of capitalists who have it now.” Subtle, eh?

When (My) Worlds Collide

“He just sits there drinking iced tea, never ordering a thing to eat. So he was married to Marilyn Monroe. Big deal.” “Um, that was Arthur Miller. Not Norman Mailer.”

Living with Miller

After living with Miller for the last few days — after rereading The Crucible and After the Fall and a three inch stack of photocopied criticism — I’ve come to one significant conclusion: I don’t like Miller. His early work shows an obvious knack for wrenching every last drop of sentiment and inevitable heartbreak from a tragic narrative, but, damn, they are really unpleasant to read. His language is starving for poetry.

My Dissertation (in the News)

“A World in Which Everything Hurts,” a profile of Arthur Miller in The Forward, gets bonus points for mentioning, in a single paragraph, three of the authors I’m writing about in my dissertation.

To Hell with Clinton’s My Life

Christopher Goffard of the St. Petersburg Times interviewed Ross Miller about his upcoming “definitive” biography of Philip Roth and learned about their relationship, which extends more than twenty years and which seems to have been founded on an intellectual kinship.


“Perhaps the best lesson of books is not to venerate them — or at least never to hold them in higher esteem than our own faculties, our own experience, our own peers, our own dialogues.” — Christina Nehring

The Plot Against America

I’m excited to learn that Roth is melding his recent interests in mid-century American history with the more experimental projects of the late-80s and early-90s — Operation Shylock, in particular.

Medium Rare

Jack Neely, everyone’s favorite chronicler of life in Knoxville, has a nice piece in this week’s issue of the Metro Pulse about his recent efforts to sell some old books. It’s a great glimpse into the lives of book lovers and the dealers who support their habits, with nary a mention of Borders or Barnes and Nobles in sight.


Williams “without poetry.” That can’t be good.


I’m almost finished Dreamer, Charles Johnson’s novel about Martin Luther King, Jr.’s struggles in Chicago in 1966, and it’s amazing — the finest novel I’ve read in months. (Dreamer wants to become part of my stalled dissertation; I have, as yet, managed to fight that urge.)

Bartok’s Fifth String Quarter

Several years ago, in a seminar on modern and postmodern lit, I wrote a fun paper on Ezra Pound’s music criticism. In particular, I was interested in Pound’s admiration for Bartok’s String Quartet #5.

Vendler and Stevens

Poet/scholar Helen Vendler, the 2004 Jefferson Lecturer in the Humanities, last night gave her address, “The Ocean, the Bird, and the Scholar,” which is as inspiring a defense of the arts as you’re likely to read.

In the Strangest of Places

What a pleasant surprise to stumble into some nice bits of writing in, of all places, Stereophile magazine.

Little Children

So many of Perrotta’s observations of suburban life are so spot-on — I especially like the way that his lead characters absolutely adore their children while still resenting somewhat the life-changes they’ve caused — but the narrative voice never quite transcends the banality of the lives it is documenting. Maybe that’s the point. I doubt it.

The First Long Pauses Giveaway

Yesterday I finally got my hands on the first issue of the new Beyond, and I can’t tell you how proud I am to be associated with it.

Close Reading

Interesting passage from today’s Chonicle. From Susan Wise Bauer, visiting instructor of English at the College of William and Mary, on “close reading.”

History and Fiction

Philip Roth on Charles Lindbergh.

And One More Thing

For your reading pleasure: some snippets from Tony Kushner’s commentary on the Klezmatic’s recent CD, Possessed. Parts of the commentary, I noticed, have made their way into his and Alisa Solomon’s introduction to their new collection of essays, Wrestling with Zion.

The Meanings of Social Life: A Cultural Sociology

I am of two minds about The Meanings of Social Life: A Cultural Sociology. The argument that Alexander and Philip Smith lay out in Chapter 1 is intriguing, and Alexander’s application of it in his readings of the Holocaust and Watergate are refreshingly useful. The rest, to be perfectly frank, feels a bit like filler.

But Is It Funny?

Dale Peck at Slate offers the best critical reading of HBO’s Angels that I’ve found. He points out something that has bothered me a bit as well: the film just isn’t very funny. Which is a shame, because the play is really funny.

A Question for a Friday Afternoon

Did those works affect me so profoundly because of my particular motivations at that particular moment, or because of the artist’s genius? Some combination of the two, I guess.

On My Bedside Table

A brief list of the books I’ll likely not finish.

Minor Quibbles

I’m thrilled so far with Angels. Mary-Louise Parker is stealing the show as Harper, and Justin Kirk is fantastic as Prior. The homage to Cocteau and the casting of the prior Priors were both brilliant. But why, in their trimming and reshaping, did Kushner and Nichols have to cut my two favorite lines from Millennium Approaches?

For Shits and Giggles

I expect conservatives to be offended by many of the lines spoken by Kushner’s characters; I expect conservative critics to acknowledge the distinction between the message of a particular character and the message of the work as a whole. But that is expecting too much of anyone who writes for a partisan magazine (whether the NRO or The Nation) in a climate like ours.

Speaking of Gobbledygook

Today, after tracking down the last of those elusive Philip Roth essays, I gave into my craving and checked out Just Being Difficult? Academic Writing in the Public Arena, a new collection of essays edited by Jonathan Culler and Kevin Lamb. According to the jacket copy.