His Subject, Himself: Claudia Roth Pierpont’s ‘Roth Unbound’

Martin Amis in The New York Times:

RothAmerican anti-Semitism, which was running high throughout the 1930s, steadily increased after the onset of war. During the entire period, polls showed, well over a third of the populace stood ready to back discriminatory laws. Nor was this a mere offshoot of the general xenophobia spawned by isolationism. Every synagogue in Washington Heights was desecrated (and some were smeared with swastikas); in Boston, beatings, wreckings and defilements had become near-daily occurrences by 1942. The disgraceful fever, which ruled out all but a trickle of immigration and so cost countless lives, reached its historic apogee in 1944 — by which time the Holocaust was more or less complete. And what of the media? News of the killings emerged in May/June 1942: a verified report with a figure of 700,000 already dead. The Boston Globe gave the story the three-column headline “Mass Murders of Jews in Poland Pass 700,000 Mark,” and tucked it away at the foot of Page 12. The New York Times quoted the report’s verdict — “probably the greatest mass slaughter in history” — but gave it only two inches. We may venture to say that such reticence is slightly surprising, given that the historiography of the events outlined above now runs to many tens of thousands of volumes.

Philip Roth would use this soiled and feckless backdrop in “The Plot Against America” (2004), his 26th book; but ­anti-Semitism and its corollary, anti-anti-­Semitism, wholly dominated the publication of his first, “Goodbye, Columbus and Five Short Stories” (1959). “What is being done to silence this man?” asked a rabbi. “Medieval Jews would have known what to do with him.” Roth’s cheerful debut, some thought, shored up the same “conceptions . . . as ultimately led to the murder of six million in our time.” So he wasn’t only contending with a “rational” paranoia; he was also ensnared in the ongoing anguish of comprehension and absorption, as the sheer size of the trauma inched into consciousness. After a hate-filled public meeting at Yeshiva University in New York in 1962, Roth solemnly swore (over a pastrami sandwich) that he would “never write about Jews again.”

It was a hollow vow.

More here.