Only subscribers may read this in its entirety. What follows is a free preview, truncated midway through.In 1959, a thirty-one-year-old writer named Cynthia Ozick was hard at work, in her determined tortoise-like way, on an ambitious novel that, seven years later, would be published as Trust; and also in 1959, a young, in-your-face writer named Philip Roth published Goodbye, Columbus, and Five Short Stories. Not since Norman Mailer set the literary world on its ear with The Naked and the Dead (1948) had a collection of stories so changed the American cultural landscape. Roth was surely the hare of Aesop’s tortoise-and-hare fable, a young man out of the literary gate before most of his competitors had made it to the track. Not only did Roth speed off with what, in those days, was a prestigious National Book Award, but he also set into motion debates about tradition, responsibility, and the individual artist that would dog his heels from then on—book after book, decade after decade.
Many Jewish Americans were not pleased to see what Roth’s satiric eye and deadly accurate ear could dig up about . . . well, them. Goodbye, Columbus put their manners and mores on public display, and while they may have denied the accuracy of Roth’s observations (“Unfair! Unfair!” they shouted, in what seemed a single voice), they also winced whenever his stories edged too close to the truth.
What Goodbye, Columbus laid bare was the empty triumphs of contemporary Jewish American life. He wrote, in short, about Short Hills and other outposts of the Jewish American suburbs in a way that boosters equated with prophetic scolding and that knockers worried would precipitate anti-Semitic riots. Hindsight suggests that both groups were wrong: Roth’s collection occasioned neither an abrupt shift in mainstream Jewish American attitudes nor broken noses suffered from Gentile fists. What did change, however, was a revised—and revitalized—sense of the subjects and the sounds that Jewish American writers could lay claim to.