Literary Rites of Passage
Philip Roth’s decision to stop writing earned the laudatory attention it deserves. After authoring 31 books, he announced, first to himself and then to the literary world: “The struggle with writing is over. . . . I’m free.”
Amid appropriate celebration of his literary achievements, and the decision to donate his personal library to the Newark Public Library (which figures prominently in his novel, Goodbye, Columbus), Roth mentioned his boyhood reading favorites. First, the baseball novels of John R. Tunis. Then, as a college student, Thomas Wolfe became his literary hero. And the Newark Public Library, with its open stacks, exerted a magnetic pull: “You could just roam through them and sit down in the aisle and pick though the books.”
Roth’s memories instantly returned me to my own boyhood years, when I avidly read and reread Tunis’s baseball stories about the heroic exploits of Roy Tucker in The Kid from Tomkinsville, World Series and The Kid Comes Back (from military service in World War II). Keystone Kids recounted the struggle of Jewish catcher Jocko Klein against the antisemitism of his Brooklyn Dodger teammates.
Tunis’s fiction converged with my own family reality on September 30, 1945. Hank Greenberg, only recently returned from four years of military service (and no stranger to the antisemitism of teammates and opponents alike), hit a ninth inning grand-slam home run that propelled the Detroit Tigers into the World Series. Pointing to the newspaper photo of Greenberg, surrounded at home plate by jubilant teammates, my father astonishingly revealed: “Hank Greenberg is our cousin.” Whether hitting fly balls to his nephews and me during a family visit, welcoming me to Thanksgiving dinner at his home during my freshman year at Oberlin College or answering my questions by mail, Hank instantly replaced Roy Tucker in my pantheon of heroes.
In my teenage years, as for Roth, John R. Tunis yielded to the passionate and anguished narratives of Thomas Wolfe. Look Homeward, Angel was the first serious fiction I encountered. I skirted Eugene Gant’s boyhood chant, “Drown a Jew and hit a n****r,” to embrace his tortured journey of self-discovery (through more than 600 pages) along the meandering road to adulthood.
Tunis and Wolfe aside, Roth’s mention of the Newark Library stacks – where books provided windows to enticing dreams for middle-class Jewish youngsters who were the grandchildren of impoverished Eastern European immigrants – struck home. It instantly returned me to the formative experience of my college years, molding my life in ways that I could not yet begin to imagine. For unexplained reasons, the Oberlin Library stacks were closed to freshmen until they selected the subject of their required term paper. Then, miraculously, the world of knowledge they concealed became accessible.
By then I had become a Civil War enthusiast. Between Tunis and Wolfe there was Bruce Catton, whose popular trilogy (published during my high-school years) traced the trajectory from George McClellan’s ambivalent hesitancy to Ulysses Grant’s relentless ferocity. Devouring Catton, I had persuaded my father to take me to the Gettysburg battle site and then to Richmond, where I spent hours exploring the Confederate Museum.
Awed by my solitary presence, I wandered though the Oberlin Library stacks until I found shelves of books about the Civil War. There I discovered McClellan’s Own Story, the autobiographical defense of his strategy of indecision as commander of the Army of the Potomac. Claiming a desk by a window that overlooked the venerable Graduate School of Theology, I began to turn pages without knowing what I was looking for.
Then I discovered it. Hand-scrawled marginal comments sharply disputed McClellan’s account. Who, I wondered, would dare to write in a library book, no less challenge the author? Inscribed inside the front cover I found the answer. That copy of McClellan’s memoir (published in 1887) had been owned and donated to the library by Jacob D. Cox, an Oberlin graduate with a degree in theology who had served under McClellan before becoming governor of Ohio, a member of the House of Representatives and secretary of the interior. For Cox, old memories of frustration with McClellan endured.
My understanding of “history” was instantly challenged — and permanently transformed — by Cox’s critical annotations. Suddenly history was not merely the accumulation and mastery of facts. It was interpretation, filtered through the scrutiny (and biases) of the historian. As a college freshman I could not yet fully grasp that. But a decade later, at the beginning of my 45-year career as a college professor, I sensed that the most important lesson I could teach my students was “Q and A”: question and analyze.
Now, nearly a decade into retirement, Philip Roth prompts me to wonder how soon my own struggle with writing might end. The circle may be closing but I always want to be surrounded by my books, especially those I have annotated.
Jerold S. Auerbach is a frequent contributor to The Algemeiner.