I just finished reading a short story from Goodbye, Columbus, the collection that launched Phillip Roth’s career 50 years ago this month. The gem included in the Norton North American Literature Anthology was Defender of the Faith, a tight, plainspoken tale about three Jewish Army trainees and the Jewish sergeant who both learns and teaches a lesson about the boundaries of faith.
Roth has plenty of acclaimed long works to his name, having won a Pulitzer and a National Book Award. But like so many great novelists, he honed his craft on short stories. About himself writing Goodbye, Columbus, he said in a 30th Anniversary Edition:
With clarity and with crudeness, and a great deal of exuberance, the embryonic writer who was me wrote these stories in his early 20s, while he was a graduate student at the University of Chicago, a soldier stationed in New Jersey and Washington, D.C., and a novice English instructor back at Chicago following his Army discharge. Eisenhower, who was president, the embryonic writer despised, though not nearly as much as he was to despise Eisenhower’s Republican successors.
His cultural ambitions were formulated in direct opposition to the triumphant, suffocating American philistinism of that time: he despised Time, Life, Hollywood, television, the best-seller list, advertising copy, McCarthyism, Rotary Clubs, racial prejudice and the American booster mentality. Among the writers he was reading when he wrote these stories in the 1950s — and he was reading all the time, all kinds of books, dozens and dozens of them — were David Riesman, Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, John Cheever, James Baldwin, Randall Jarrell, Sigmund Freud, Paul Goodman, William Styron, C. Wright Mills, Martin Buber, George Orwell, Suzanne Langer, F.R. Leavis, David Daiches, Edmund Wilson, Alfred Kazin, Ralph Ellison, Erich Fromm, Joseph Conrad, Dylan Thomas, Sean O’Casey, e.e. cummings — who collectively represented a republic of discourse in which he aspired to be naturalized.