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Philip Roth Should Come Out of Retirement, Write a Novel on Gilded Age Corruption


What is Philip Roth doing in retirement?

Roth: Currently, I am studying 19th-century American history. The questions that preoccupy me at the moment have to do with Bleeding Kansas, Judge Taney and Dred Scott, the Confederacy, the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments, Presidents Johnson and Grant and Reconstruction, the Ku Klux Klan, the Freedman’s Bureau, the rise and fall of the Republicans as a moral force and the resurrection of the Democrats, the overcapitalized railroads and the land swindles, the consequences of the Depression of 1873 and 1893, the final driving out of the Indians, American expansionism, land speculation, white Anglo-Saxon racism, Armour and Swift, the Haymarket riot and the making of Chicago, the no-holds-barred triumph of capital, the burgeoning defiance of labor, the great strikes and the violent strikebreakers, the implementation of Jim Crow, the Tilden-Hayes election and the Compromise of 1877, the immigrations from southern and eastern Europe, 320,000 Chinese entering America through San Francisco, women’s suffrage, the temperance movement, the Populists, the Progressive reformers, figures like Charles Sumner, Thaddeus Stevens, William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, President Lincoln, Jane Addams, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Henry Clay Frick, Andrew Carnegie, J.P. Morgan, John D. Rockefeller, etc. My mind is full of then.

Maybe he’d respond to a change.org petition??

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  • Jayzoos!

    To write a book that included all of that, would take a Russian novelist!

  • LeeEsq

    This seems more like E.L. Doctorow’s territory. I’m not sure if a grand historical novel covering lots of themes is within Roth’s sphere of competency. The closest Roth novel to this would be the Plot Against America and that worked because Roth focused on the micro-level and used his own family as the protagonists. Something on a wider and more epic scale would be very different from anything else Roth written.

    • I dunno, authors can leave their wheelhouse and still produce amazing material. I would like to read even “an interesting failure” from Roth on the 19th Century.

      • LeeEsq

        I have no doubt that the prose would be great even if the novel failed on other levels.

    • Srsly Dad Y

      Zuckerman would time-travel.

  • Actually, this sounds like a book that the late Gore Vidal might have succeeded in writing.

    • Principal Snyder
      • njorl

        He didn’t get into the dirtiest parts of the gilded age in that book. There was plenty of the rot at the top, but not a lot of the cruelty at the bottom.

        • LeeEsq

          Gore Vidal fancied himself as something of an aristocrat and a snob. He probably found the rot on the top much more fascinating.

        • Anna in PDX

          I loved Burr and Lincoln but I could not get through Empire for the life of me. Rot at the top bores me.

          • Mike Schilling

            1876 is almost all about Charlie Schuyler, who’s a really boring character. The parts of Burr that aren’t Burr telling stories are pretty forgettable too. But the reveal at the end of 1876 is amazing, almost worth slogging though the rest of it.

      • Whooooops!
        I read that one, and forgot!

        There, now this reply is where it belongs.

      • Bitter Scribe

        He wrote two of them, if you count 1876.

  • William Berry

    Awesome idea, Erik. And I’d prefer something like this from Roth rather than any of the others mentioned above.

    It could be a sprawling “U.S.A.”/ “RAGTIME”-style work of historical fiction, with dozens (hundreds) of characters, from Calhoun, to Tubman, to Bill Cody, to Sitting Bull, and everybody in between. Or, it could be non-fiction, which would be an interesting turn for Roth (whom I greatly admire, btw).

    • William Berry

      I would almost be willing to bet he is doing it. That list he rattled off is suggestive of some rather intensive reading and note-taking.

      If non-fiction, it should be a popular work, so he would be mostly freed from wading through tons and tons of primary material and documenting same.

      • Richard
        • Lee Rudolph

          Well, then, David Lee Roth could come out of retirement and write a rock opera!

          • Rigby Reardon

            About Philip Roth!

        • Anna in PDX

          Maybe he will write a great series of noir short stories.

        • Jon C.

          Yes, he’s been very explicit about this for a few years now. And I’m not surprised he can rattle off a list of thematically related historical terms in an email interview — he has been a very prolific, and, I believe, very disciplined, writer and reader for over half a century. It’s probably one thing to say there is nothing more you want to say, but another to turn off the information processing machine altogether.

          That said, I’m not sure I’d want to see a big fat fact-centric historical Roth novel, even if meant one more book. Maybe a bunch of acerbic, intelligent blog posts essays on American culture and history as informed by the Civil War and the excesses of 19th-Century laissez-faire capitalism . . .

  • Ronan

    The thing is you just know Roth would take that WONDERFUL starting base of 19th century American history, and turn it into some woe to me self pitying tale about a middle aged man going through a mid life crisis.

    Some thoughtful, intellectual contemplating the changes wrought by untrammalled capitalism and white supremacy as it devours all in front of it, while having an a affair with a suffragette, or something along those lines.

    • Ronan

      the bits and pieces ive read form roth ive liked though, i must say.I think american pastoral and the human stains about it

    • rea

      Imagine James G. Blaine going out to the icehouse for some liver . . .

      • Oh dear.

        • rea

          I tried reading Portnoy’s Complaint as a teenager, back when the book first came out (how the public library in Silver City, New Mexico came to have a copy, or let me out the door with it, I don’t know). I made it as far as the liver scene and concluded the book was not for me. I have not made a serious attempt to read Roth since.

    • Craigo

      I came to post this. Roth is what happens when you tell a sexually frustrated narcissist to “write what you know.”

    • Origami Isopod


      Can’t we find better novelists for this sort of thing than self-absorbed white baby boomer dudes with laughable track records on writing women characters? Or should we just say “fuck it” and suggest that Roth make Jonathan Franzen his co-author?

      • Lee Rudolph

        Roth was born in 1933 (according to Wikipedia), so “baby boomer” is off-target (or perhaps—the word just swam into my consciousness, and I checked its definition, and it seems to apply: I swear I’ve never used it before in my life—proleptic).

  • rw970

    So long as Kevin James plays Trotsky in the movie adaptation, I’m on board.

    • Ronan

      the fella from king of queens ?

    • Ronan

      adam sandler as lenin ?

      • rw970

        No, it’s a serious movie. Adam Sandler will play Frederick Douglass.

        • Ronan

          Hmmm, wasnt Douglas a good bit taller than sandler though ?

          • rw970

            Yeah, but as they say, Sandler may be only 90% the height of Douglass, but he’s 100% of the character.

            • postmodulator

              And Douglass only three-fifths of Sandler?

          • Lee Rudolph

            Well, then, let him play Stephen Douglas!

            • rw970

              Then who will Rob Schneider play?

              • LeeEsq

                I don’t know but Seth Rogen should play Judah Benjamin.

              • Ronan

                Perhaps if we made space for the fredrick douglas/daniel o connel relationship, something along the line of Murtagh and Riggs in the 19th century (‘ daniel theres a bomb in the lantrine’ – ‘im getting to old for this Dilberries’ etc)
                Rob Schneider could play O Connell?

              • Abraham Lincoln’s horse.

    • UserGoogol

      Trotsky looked more like Rob Schneider.

      • LeeEsq

        Young Trotsky or older Trotsky? The young Trotsky was a bit of dandy as well as revolutionary. We need an actor that can come across as I guess a hipster, the closest modern equivalent to a dandy, and a genuine revolutionary.

  • Bitter Scribe

    “My mind is full of then”?

    Was that supposed to be “them”? I’m asking not to be a typo Nazi but because, in a slightly abstract way, the sentence makes sense as written.

    In any case, it floors me that Roth is apparently interested in writing an historical novel. This is a guy who has mined his own childhood for material as successfully as any major writer in history. I remember him making a disparaging reference, with scare quotes, to “‘researching’ novels”—although he was sneering at one particular hack, so maybe he wasn’t slagging on the whole concept. Who knows.

    • Rigby Reardon

      in a slightly abstract way, the sentence makes sense as written.

      I assumed it wasn’t a typo, but just because it strikes me as something Roth might actually say.

    • Mike Schilling

      A fair amount of research went into The Great American Novel. As wild as it is, there is a lot of real baseball history at its core. For instance, the 1899 Cleveland Spiders played 112 of their 154 games on the road, though, unlike the Mundies, it wasn’t because their stadium was sold for scrap. (The Spiders were so bad that they only drew 3,000 or so spectators a game, making the visitor’s cut of the gate not worth the trip out.)

      • Bitter Scribe

        Too bad he couldn’t come up with better jokes.

  • NewishLawyer

    This novel will be approximately 2000 pages long

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