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Climbing Over the Ethnic Fence: Reflections on Stanley Crouch and Philip Roth

ISSUE:  Summer 2002

As Stanley Crouch likes to tell the tale, he and Philip Roth were having dinner in an up-scale New York City restaurant one evening shortly before their respective novels—The Human Stain in Roth’s case, Don’t the Moon Look Lonesome in Crouch’s—hit the bookshelves. Because both men share a taste for good food, first-rate wine, and sophisticated cultural talk, it must have been quite a time. But at some point in the banter Roth proposed the following bet—namely, that none of the reviewers would mention that their novels were, in large measure, about moving beyond parochial boundaries, or about what I’m calling “climbing over the ethnic fence.” At stake was the next dinner, with the loser picking up the check.

I’m not sure if Roth ever collected on the dinner, but what may be more important is that his suspicions were proved right: in all the ink spilled about the novels, nobody touched on the abiding desire in both writers to talk about America in the same easy way that they had shared an evening’s discussion about cultural politics, the latest exhibition at the MOMA, or who was stompin’ the blues at the Village Vanguard that week. True enough, Roth’s Jewishness remains a fact, just as Crouch’s skin color is a truth; but, as artists, they are more, much more, than their identity politics. Indeed, the struggle for both writers has been to fashion an aesthetic response to everything in America that stupifies, infuriates, and sickens, as well as to everything in the founding American principles that lifts the human spirit.

Roth is often seen as a writer who has turned transgression into a cottage industry. His characters, whether one is thinking of Alexander Portnoy in Portnoy’s Complaint (1969) or David Kepesh in The Dying Animal (2001) want to be “bad” and still feel “good.” This abiding wish, depending on one’s perspective, may be the stuff of heroic struggle or more evidence (as if more were needed) that Roth’s characters are often stuck in the narcissism of early adolescence. In any event, their railings, taken together, do not add up to transgression. The Golden Calf that the ancient Hebrews prayed to during their desert wanderings from Egypt . . .now, that was transgression. In much the same spirit, it is silly to talk about Roth as a “heretical” writer because he simply doesn’t know, or care, enough about Jewish theology to be an authentic heretic. He, in short, is no Spinoza, despite the fact that many Jewish-Americans would excommunicate him if they could.

But what Roth does want to do is jump over the ethnic fence that keeps him forever chained to the expectations of the tribe. For an earlier generation of Jewish-American writers and intellectuals, the ones who collected around the water cooler at Partisan Review during the 1940’s and ‘50’s, alienation was simultaneously a cultural condition and a badge of honor. Indeed, New Yorker writers of the period liked to quip that these guys must have typewriters in which “alienation” was scrunched into a single key. One stroke and there it was: alienation. Hit it again a paragraph later and the word would reappear. Roth belongs to a very different generation, one that knew more about postwar affluence and the meretriciousness of certain Jewish-American suburbs than it did about crowded immigrant tenements on the lower East Side. Roth is the chronicler of their assimilation. Given these cultural facts, it is not surprising that he launched his meteoric career with Goodbye, Columbus and Other Stories (1959), a collection that made it clear he had as much talent as he had a smart-alecky swagger.

Many of Roth’s first readers were dismayed to see so much dirty linen about quotidian Jewish-American life hung out to dry on very public lines, but that is, of course, an old story—the same one that greeted James Joyce’s short stories about Dublin or William Faulkner’s novels about Oxford, Mississippi. What turned out to be much more important, however, is the way that Roth showed a subsequent generation of writers how to mine the rich material beneath their very noses. In Roth’s case, what his protagonists want is nothing more or less than that old-fashioned, all-purpose American word—freedom. To liberate oneself from Tribal constraint, from the parochial straight jacket of everything that screams “Thou shalt not . . .” (whether the words emanate from God on Sinai or from one’s mother at the dinner table) . . .that is the dream Roth’s characters hanker for. As Alexander Portnoy puts it, as he works himself into one of his characteristic “tears”:

Because I’m sick and tired of goyische this and goyische that! If it’s bad it’s the goyim, if it’s good it’s the Jews! Can’t you see, my dear parents, from whose loins I somehow leaped, that such thinking is a trifle barbaric? That all you are expressing is your fear? . . . Jew Jew Jew Jew Jew Jew! It’s coming out of my ears already, the saga of the suffering Jews! Do me a favor and stick your suffering heritage up your suffering ass— I happen also to be a human being!

With certain necessary adjustments, Coleman Silk, the black character who passes as Jewish in The Human Stain (2000), feels much the same way. Indeed, one could argue that he expresses in “black face,” as it were, what many of Roth’s characters have insisted on earlier— namely, a weighting that puts its primary emphasis on the Self as opposed to Society. For Silk, the moment of truth, the incident that changes everything, happens, ironically enough, in Washington, D.C., when he is about to enroll in all-Negro Howard University. He is called the N-word, with its accumulated cultural force of all that is degrading and delimiting. Silk, however, will have none of it. Instead, he will reinvent himself, and in the process, become

. . . free to be whatever he wants, free to pursue the hugest aim, the confidence right in his bones to be his particular I. . . . Free to go ahead and be stupendous. Free to enact the boundless, self-defining drama of the pronouns we, they, and I.

The dream strikes us as quintessentially American, whether it clusters around a Benjamin Franklin making his way down Philadelphia’s Broad Street with three loaves under his arms and three pennies in his pocket, a Midwestern boy named Gatz dreaming of

one day becoming the fabulous Jay Gatsby, or the Coleman Silk who wills himself into becoming a putatively Jewish professor of classics at Athena College.


Many reviewers pointed out the similarities between [fictional] Coleman Silk’s situation and that of Anatole Broyard, The New York Times book reviewer who passed as white because he wanted to make his way as a writer, rather than as a “black” writer, but we need not be drawn into possibilities that Roth, being Roth, will neither confirm nor deny. What matters is that the novel-qua-novel dramatizes the gains as well as the costs of jumping over the ethnic fence. As Nathan Zuckerman learns during his long, tangled investigation into Silk’s fascinating history, race is more abiding, complicated, and, yes, “tragic” than either he (or Silk for that matter) had imagined. Indeed, this is what makes The Human Stain such a compelling American story, and why it completes the trilogy of ruminations into American history and culture that began with American Pastoral (1997) and I Married a Communist (1998).

Much, probably too much, of Roth’s earlier work was given over to the hysterics of justification and defense. Given the ugly personal attacks that Portnoy’s Complaint unleashed, it is hardly surprising that Nathan Zuckerman, his resident mouthpiece, would spend so much time—and so many novels—tonguing the sore tooth that being rich and (in)famous brought him. At one point Roth invents Milton Appel, a literary critic who specializes in moral gravitas and who has been particularly hard on Zuckerman’s fiction. Zuckerman/Roth then goes on to give him the comic pasting he presumably deserves for being such a pinch-face. The “pinch-face” in question is, of course, based on the late Irving Howe, hardly a spokesperson for the easily offended Jewish-American community. What so infuriates Appel—or Howe, if you prefer—is that Zuckerman has no historical sensibility, that he comes from what Howe, in a devastating put-down of Roth, called a “thin personal culture.”

I realize full well that it is often difficult to keep the lines between Roth and his fictional inventions straight, but this is a function of Roth’s “style.” Take the prefix “—counter,” for example. Not only does the device allow Roth to introduce a series of fictional counter-weights (e.g., Milton Appel) to play against, and qualify, Zuckerman’s certainties, but it also makes for the dazzling postmodernist permutations of The Counter-Life (1986), a novel in which certain characters die in one chapter only to be reborn in the next. Indeed, for a very long time in his long career, one could characterize his work as Playfully Serious—that is, playful when it was most serious, and serious when it was most playful.

What changed much of this was Roth’s decision to turn Nathan Zuckerman from a man who whines into a man who listens. The result is a narrator who resembles the Marlow of Conrad’s Lord Jim (1900) as he pieces together a story of a man in disgrace. Zuckerman does the same detective work on behalf on the unfairly pilloried Coleman Silk, just as Zuckerman had earlier listened as the stories of Iron Rim and Swede Levov unfolded. The point is that Zuckerman seems much more interesting when he is not (ostensibly) at the center of the saga, partly because we have, quite frankly, grown tired of Nathan Zuckerman, the Tantrum Kid, but also because, by taking on larger, more distinctly American themes, Zuckerman (and, yes, Roth) can climb over the ethnic fence that dictates what is, or is not, good for the Jews.

Interestingly enough, Stanley Crouch also knows how roughly the same dynamic plays itself out for black critics and writers. As he put it in the Introduction to Notes of a Hanging Judge (1990), the prize-winning collection that brought him to wide public attention:

Having been born in 1945, 1 consider myself part of an undeclared lost generation that ran into the xenophobic darkness, retreating from the complex vision of universal humanism that underlay the Civil Rights Movement. It was surely a flight that called for embracing black power, black nationalism, black studies, the racist rants that were known as “revolutionary black art,” and a comical but tragic version of leadership that recently reiterated itself in the outlandish antics of the advisers of the Tawana Brawley case, all of whom were quick to call any Afro-American critical of their charges and tactics some sort of traitor to the collective skin tone.

Crouch, in short, once lived his life in the belly of the beast, not only penning forgettable poems of the “black arts” sort, but also buying into much of the giddy rhetoric of those times, those places. He ran into trouble, however, when the “black arts” police began to detect

“Western” references in his writing, and, even worse, a tendency to think against the demagogic grain. As Crouch suggests, the Tawana Brawley case became yet another litmus test that divided true believers from traitors; and when far too many black leaders hid under the covers, fearful that the black community would turn against them, Crouch stood tall, exposing the Reverend A1 Sharpton for the charlatan he surely was then, and continues to be now. Indeed, as I write this paragraph, Sharpton is making noises about mounting a presidential campaign and waltzing his way into the White House. No doubt this will excite many of his Harlem constituents, but the sad truth, Crouch insists, is that a black politics worthy of the name requires more than photo-ops and heated rhetoric. Inching social justice forward requires a politics capable of coalition building and, yes, of compromise. But above all else, it must be a politics wedded to the promises made in the nation’s founding documents. By contrast, much that passes itself off as black nationalism believes that nothing less than total revolution will reverse centuries of white racism.


Much of Crouch’s writing means to expose and then attack the “clichés, sentimentality, and the demagoguery that endangers the excluded as much as it does any other group.” He opposes black set-asides in the work force and affirmative action programs that admit less academically qualified black students solely on the basis of their race. Moreover, he is no friend of black studies or of all-black dorms. He is, in short, a gadfly who reaches for his pen whenever he figures that somebody is playing the race card or when litanies of victimhood start to drown out good sense.

Crouch makes no secret of how he came to be the sort of public intellectual who throws off all manner of ideas with the happy abandon of a wet puppy shaking himself on the living room rug. The larger, more humane vision that Albert Murray first began exploring in The Omni-Americans (1970) still abides in Crouch’s consciousness, partly because what Murray pointed out more than 30 years ago nicely withstands the test of time, and partly because, in Crouch’s words, Murray knew that “to be all-American is to be Indian, African, and Asian, if only through cuisine. In fact, an American at his or her best can feel the cowboy (who is white, black, and Mexican), the Negro, the Irish, the Jew, the Italian, the Asian rise up, depending on the stimulus or the image or the reference.” It has taken the latest census to catch up with the intertwining strands of our national reality.

Granted, Murray is not the only mentoring figure in Crouch’s carpet; like any public intellectual worth his or her salt, he made his way through the library stacks, paying special attention to the work of Ralph Ellison, Herman Melville, Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Mann, and dozens of others. Ellison, Albert Murray’s schoolmate at Tuskeegee, operated as a ghostly figure in the Ellison-Murray-Crouch triangle, not least of all because they were jazzmen—people who knew how to play the music, talk intelligently about the music, and most of all, see the music as a model for an America that operated with the same energy, cooperation, and spontaneity that one feels when a jazz group is trading 12s.

Crouch has spent nearly 25 years at the cultural helm, simultaneously expanding a set of ideas about the fabric of American democracy and applying them to local situations. In the process, he came to see himself as an avatar of the ex-pirate and then “hanging judge,” Henry Morgan, who, in Crouch’s words, “sent many of his former pirate buddies to the gallows, certain that they deserved what they got.” Crouch parcels out similarly tough sentences to those who were largely responsible for sinking the Civil Rights Movement and who continue to bully whites with the R-word (racist) and/or to silence any black opposition with the muzzle of political correctness.

Crouch brings large measures of intelligence, style, and inexhaustible optimism to hot-button issues that would cause most people to dummy up and look for cover. He does not suffer fools gladly, nor does he mince his words And if people are outraged by his sharp opinions (in Notes of a Hanging Judge he scours the likes of Jesse Jackson, Spike Lee, and Toni Morrison)—and many were—Crouch seems to care not a fig. As he likes to repeat, “Victory is assured.”

Still, climbing over the ethnic fence is no easy task, even if you happen to be Stanley Crouch. Granted, his keen sense of how the various subcultures in New York City really work made him a regular contributor to the Village Voice and, later a weekly columnist for the New York Daily News. In addition, his writings appear regularly in The New Republic and he often appears as a talking head on such television shows as “Nightline” and “Charlie Rose”; but all that duly noted, race continues to define Crouch far more than Crouch defines race. Would he get the same media exposure, many wonder, if he were white? My own sense is that, in the final analysis, it ought to be the quality of one’s ideas, rather than the color of the mouth uttering them, that should matter, but we are hardly standing on colorblind ground at the moment. Crouch is in demand, at least in part, because his skin color brings a certain legitimacy to the discussion that it would not otherwise have.

That is why Crouch’s first novel, Don’t the Moon Feel Lonesome, could not climb over the ethnic fence, at least so far as most reviewers were concerned. Granted, Crouch was clearly swinging for the fences, trying to write a book that would take on the broadest possible American landscape and to fill it with characters, white and black, who would reflect our contemporary [racial] reality rather than one trapped in the old constraints of what black fiction ought, or ought not, to be. On some measures, the novel was an impressive success. As a novel largely set in the world of jazz (his lovers are an inter-racial couple: Maxwell, a world-class black jazz saxophonist and Carla, an accomplished white jazz singer), it has the right beat, the right rhythm. Indeed, one would be hard pressed to think of a novel since Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952) that does a better job of representing riffs on the page. Most writers who try this—one thinks, for example, of Jack Kerouc listening to Charlie Parker records and then trying to give On the Road (1957) a be-bop feel—fail miserably. Crouch, by contrast, pulls it off, although some of his harshest reviewers (Crouch expected “pay-back”—and he got it) went out of their way to comment on his leaden ear.

A more reasonable criticism might be that it is sometimes hard to know when Crouch, the cultural critic, leaves off and Crouch, the novelist, begins. I say this because Don’t the Moon Look Lonesome too often falls into the sort of commentary that we have seen before:

When they turned the appropriate comer in the Museum of Modern Art and the Water Lilies swept up against their eyes, an extraordinary, elevating repose took over. They were immediately as at ease as everyone else who was already there, some of whom sat on the padded benches for hours, transported by the power of those brushstrokes, the ones most deeply touched crying the meditative tears of exultation.

No doubt Crouch would defend the passage above by pointing out that whites are not the only people who visit the MOMA, nor is the diction used in the passage inappropriate. To argue otherwise is to place black writers in a small patch of ground and then to erect an ethnic fence around it. One of the primary ambitions of Crouch’s very ambitious novel was to climb over this ethnic fence, to take the novel’s directional arrows to the West of Carla’s childhood as well as to the Southwest of Maxwell’s Houston upbringing; and to set important family scenes in malls as well as museums. In a very different way, that was also the ambition of Philip Roth’s The Human Stain, a novel out to make the case that a writer who had not gone to Vietnam could imagine a traumatically stressed-out Vietnam vet; and that a white writer could imagine a black family. Roth and Crouch are hardly alone in this enterprise. Granted, writers write about what they know, what they “are,” if you will, as long as you allow plenty of room for poetic license and novelistic embellishment. But writers also write about what they imagine, and aren’t. These observations usually don’t require special pleading, but in the case of blacks, Jews, and other minorities, the ethnic/racial fence seems to loom as large, and as high, as it ever did.



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