William Faulkner wrote several works about the fictional Yoknapatawpha County. Steinbeck mined the possibilities of his native California in the “Dustbowl” years of the Depression. But we have to look back to James Joyce and his love-hate relationship with Dublin to find an equivalent of Philip’s Roth attitude to his birthplace, Newark.
Joyce left Dublin in his 20s, never to return, but Dublin’s streets, houses and characters became the setting for everything he wrote.
Roth grew up and went to school in Newark, but once he moved to college, he never returned. He wrote about his hometown obsessively, though.
Newark appears in two novels of his wonderful late-flowering trilogy, American Pastoral and I Married a Communist (the third, The Human Stain, is set in Massachusetts.) Each features a character who grows up in Newark but has to leave after becoming embroiled in a historically significant conflict. In Pastoral, Seymour Levov’s daughter Merry bombs a post office in protest against the Vietnam War; in Communist, Ira Ringold becomes a furious, anti-establishment Marxist at the time of the McCarthy witchhunt.
The Weequahic district of Newark is seen in the former book as the birth-place of the archetypal American life of family ties and fulfilment, before Vietnam protests and social or racial unrest ruin everything.
A new documentary, Philip Roth: Unmasked, airs on the PBS “American Masters” TV series on Friday. You can search it in vain for Roth’s memories of real-life Newark, which are at best perfunctory; but the Newark of his imagination is available to all his readers. And has been for 50 years.