Friday, November 14, 2014

You Can’t Tell a Man by the Song He Sings

Philip Roth (1933–2018)
From Philip Roth: Novels & Stories 1959–1962

Philip Roth, with a photo of Franz Kafka in the background. Bob Peterson/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images
Sixty years ago Chicago Review, a small but prestigious literary quarterly published by the University of Chicago, accepted a story by a twenty-one-year-old graduate student who had just begun attending the school on a scholarship. “The Day It Snowed” was Philip Roth’s first published work of fiction—if one doesn’t count the five stories he wrote for the literary magazine he cofounded while an undergraduate at Bucknell College. The following year his second story (“The Contest for Aaron Gold”) appeared in Epoch, a literary review published by Cornell University—and that story was selected for inclusion in the 1956 edition of Best American Short Stories.

Then, in 1957, Roth’s literary career took a dramatic turn when he sent his next story, unsolicited, to Commentary magazine, and Norman Podhoretz, still a relatively new assistant editor, championed its publication. Years later Podhoretz recalled:
In reading “You Can’t Tell a Man by the Song He Sings” when I had fished it out of the slush pile, I, too, was amazed by how extraordinarily accomplished this young writer already was. . . . [In the stories included in his first book] Roth demonstrated that no one, not even Bellow himself, had so perfectly pitched an ear for the speech of the first two generations of Jews who had come to America from Eastern Europe, or so keen an eye for the details of the life they lived, or so alert a perception of the quirks and contours of their psychological makeup.
“You Can’t Tell a Man by the Song He Sings” was Roth’s first story in a national magazine. Additional stories, as well as essays and reviews, soon appeared in The New Republic, The Paris Review, Esquire, and The New Yorker. In 1959 Roth gathered six of his early works of short fiction (including “You Can’t Tell a Man . . .”) in Goodbye, Columbus and Five Short Stories, the first of twenty-nine volumes of fiction—and his only story collection. The book received the first of Roth’s two National Book Awards.

During a career spanning more than fifty years, Roth returned again and again to the unnamed Newark school that provides the setting for “You Can’t Tell a Man”—right up to his final novel, Nemesis, which describes a “fictionalized but plausible” polio outbreak at Weequahic High in 1944. And, perhaps most famously, his alma mater serves as the backdrop of Portnoy’s Complaint, which includes the school’s unofficial chant:
Ikey, Mikey, Jake and Sam
We’re the boys who eat no ham
We play football, we play soccer—
And we keep matzohs in our locker!
Aye, aye, aye, Weequahic High!
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Notes: In 1950–51 the Kefauver Committee (mentioned on page 185) was headed by Estes Kefauver, Democratic senator from Tennessee, to investigate the infiltration of organized crime into interstate commerce. The Ancient referred to on the same page is Heraclitus (c. 540 – c. 480 BCE), who wrote, “A man’s character is his fate.”

This Story of the Week selection was suggested by Greg Martinez, of Gainesville, Florida.

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