Author Profile: Philip Roth

Indignation By Philip Roth

John Freeman
3 min read
The Long Project
Philip Roth (Nancy Crampton)
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Philip Roth may have become famous for the exuberant carnality of Portnoy’s Complaint (Vintage), but he remembers a very different sexual America.

When Roth was in college in the ’50s, female students had a curfew. Men were not allowed in their rooms. Dances were chaperoned.

“That little world was replicated on one campus after another," says Roth, wearing khakis and a checkered shirt at the offices of his New York literary agent.

Those days are on Roth’s mind again because they are the topic of his 29
th book, Indignation (Houghton Mifflin), a short novel set in the ’50s about a Jewish man named Marcus Messner who flees the oppressive anxieties of his family in Newark for a small liberal arts college in Ohio called Winesburg.

Marcus should feel liberated, but he discovers he has merely traded the illogic of his parents’ surveillance for that of the college administration. "He goes from one overseer to another," Roth says.

Marcus clashes with roommates, rages at a college dean and manages to turn his one blessing—a date with a woman sexually ahead of the times—into a source of towering anxiety.

Roth, legs crossed, tone professorial, acts less a literary Gulliver than a man who has watched America change far beyond his own wildest expectations. He talks about the changes that came to universities after students like Marcus left.

“The old system was just discarded: Sexual freedom, personal freedom, all the freedoms that have been extended to the generations after mine are extraordinary," he says.

One of the key freedoms Marcus lacks—which most American college students enjoy today—is the freedom from having to fight. In 1951, the U.S. was at war with North Korea and the draft was on.

“With the draft, everybody was involved," Roth says. Marcus’ fear of being expelled, called up and sent to die on the battlefield provides the book with a taut windup, even though Marcus essentially narrates the book from beyond the grave after this very sequence of events occurs.

Like Marcus, Roth is feeling the pull of history, the press of time running out. “I want to have a big, long project that will occupy me until my death," Roth says, his big eyes shining, his expression so deadpan it may or may not be ironic.

"I’m ready for it. I have a 25-year book. And when I’m 100, I will hand it in and then lie down in darkness."
The Long Project

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