The Philip Roth birthday tour: The sights that inspired a great American literary canon

Few settings have been more richly chronicled than the streets of Newark, New Jersey, where the great American novelist, who turned 80 this week, was born and based many of his works. Nikhil Kumar joined a group of enthusiasts for a tour of the sights that inspired a great literary canon

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The Independent US

For many if not most outsiders, Newark, New Jersey is where you go when you really want to go to New York.

You fly in to Newark’s Liberty International Airport because the ticket is cheaper than the one to JFK or LaGuardia, and then you head east. Do you turn your head to look through the rear window? Maybe. More likely you peer ahead expectantly, to catch sight of Manhattan.

But this week a group of college professors, writers, graduate students and others – readers all – headed in the other direction. Into Philip Roth’s Newark.

The writer, who entered his 81st year on Tuesday, was born and raised here. Over the decades, as his books won acclaim and he amassed trophies (though not the Nobel Prize – yet), he moved on to live in New York, Chicago, London, Rome and Connecticut. But he never gave up Newark, which – beginning with his first novel, Goodbye, Columbus, published in 1959 – is recalled, often in minute detail, in his work.

His fourth book, Portnoy’s Complaint, an instant bestseller on its release in February 1969, brought literary fame to both Roth and Weequahic High, the alma mater of both the author and Alexander Portnoy, his bright, funny, guilt-ridden, manic-voiced creation. The city is also there in I Married A Communist, American Pastoral, The Human Stain and others. Roth’s friend, Saul Bellow, had Chicago; Roth had Newark. Had, not has, because last year, in an interview with the French magazine Les Inrocks, he said was finished writing books.

And so it was on the writer’s 80th birthday, as the city paid tribute to him with a series of celebratory events, the group of visiting Roth fans and some locals piled into three coaches waiting in the rain outside the Newark Museum for a tour of the places they’d read about. Places where Roth grew up, and where, as he recalled in The Plot Against America, Jewish doctors and lawyers and merchants once “lived in one-family houses on streets branching off the eastern slope of the Chancellor Avenue hill, closer to grassy, wooded Weequahic Park”.

That passage was among those read out by volunteers on board as the buses wound through Newark for nearly three hours.

Many of the visitors belonged to the Philip Roth Society, a far-flung group of Roth scholars and fans, which held a conference to mark his birthday. The venue: the Robert Treat Hotel, where members of the House Un-American Activities Committee stay in I Married A Communist when the committee comes to investigate Communist influence in ’50s Newark.

The hotel wasn’t on the tour route, nor was the site of the Empire Burlesque House, long since knocked down, where Portnoy sat in a side seat “jerking off into the pocket of my fielder’s glove.”

Instead, after leaving the Museum, driving up Washington Street and around Washington Park, which was “empty and shady and smelled of trees, night and dog leavings” in Goodbye, Columbus, the coaches headed down past the Essex County Courthouse with the bronze seated Lincoln featured in I Married A Communist. Then it was on to the Riviera Hotel, where the parents of both Roth the writer and Philip the character in The Plot Against America spent their wedding night, and on again to Weequahic.

Outside, the city was clearly past its best – and well past the mid-20th century that Roth often, though not exclusively, travels back to in his books.

Settled by Puritan colonists in 1666, it boomed in the 19th century, attracting waves of European migrants. Between 1900 and the end of the Second World War Newark’s population swelled by some 200,000, according to a history of the town by Brad Tuttle.

The population peaked at about 440,000 in 1930, three years before Roth was born (like Merry, Seymour “Swede” Levov’s daughter in American Pastoral, at “The Beth”, as the city’s Beth Israel Hospital is known). Race riots in the 1960s – recalled in American Pastoral and the cause of a swift racial shift that drove the Jews out of Weequahic – and the subsequent decline in Newark’s fortunes depressed the population, which fell steadily after 1950. Factories were shuttered. Work dried up.

Things have improved, but Newark today is very different to the one where Roth grew up. When the tour buses pulled up in front of Weequahic High, a small group of black students wandered out to see what the fuss was about. In Roth’s time they would have been Jewish, like Portnoy, who recalled the cheer that went up at the end of school football games: “Ikey, Mikey, Jake and Sam/ We’re the boys who eat no ham/ We play football, we play soccer/ And we keep matzohs in our locker!”

Jonnet Abeles, a retired journalist on the tour and whose sister-in-law and brother were guides on two of the coaches, grew up in a nearby New Jersey town, and as a child often came into Newark with her parents. “That’s what I recognise,” she said, looking out the coach window. “The voices [in Roth’s work] are voices from that time.”

She added: “His verisimilitude for my parents’ generation is outstanding.” And what does he mean to Newark? “Oh, a lot,” Ms Abeles said. “A lot.”

Bookmarks: Roth’s World

Weequahic High

“At football our Jewish high school was notoriously hopeless (though the band, may I say, was always winning prizes and commendations)...”  Portnoy’s Complaint

Weequahic Park

“... a landscaped three hundred acres whose boating lake, golf course, and harness-racing track separated the Weequahic section from the industrial plants and shipping terminals lining Route 27...” The Plot Against America

Beth Israel Hospital

“North Vietnam she called the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, a country she [Merry] spoke of with such patriotic feeling that, according to Dawn, one would have thought she’d been born not at the Newark Beth Israel but the Beth Israel in Hanoi.” American Pastoral

81 Summit Avenue  (Philip Roth’s childhood home)

“Our street, Summit Avenue, sat at the crest of the neighbourhood hill...” The Plot Against America

Washington Park

“The Park bordered by Washington Street on the west and Broad on the east, was empty and shady and smelled of trees, night, and dog leavings...” Goodbye, Columbus

Essex County Courthouse

“... to me he [Ira] never looked more like the elongated Abraham Lincoln who is cast in bronze at the foot of the broad stairway leading up to Newark’s Essex County Courthouse...”  I Married A Communist

Riviera Hotel

“We were on Clinton Avenue just passing the Riviera Hotel, where, as I never failed to  remember, my mother and father had spent their wedding night.” The Plot Against America

Robert Treat Hotel

“On Monday evening, a thousand UE [United Electric Workers] members came over on chartered buses from New York to picket the Robert Treat Hotel, where the committee staff members were staying.”

I Married a Communist