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October 11, 2004

Stanley Crouch Says Philip Roth Ignores Black People

by Ron Hogan

Nobody alive can write pompous inanity with the virtuosity of Stanley Crouch. Take the lead sentence in his review of The Plot Against America appearing today in Salon:

Great artists can commit great sins of monstrous allegiance, of bigotry, of individual cruelty, but they can commit no greater sin than taking on the mantle of Alzheimer's when addressing major periods in American history.

Never mind the banal generalizations about "great artists," what's with this "taking on the mantle of Alzheimer's" crap? I know, I know, it's supposed to be a fancy metaphor for "forgetting something," but I mean, really: "taking on the mantle"? Like historical amnesia is a conscious choice?

Crouch seems to suggest that it is, by accusing Roth of "a highly celebrated sin against history" in The Plot Against America. Namely depicting a fictional trajectory of anti-Semitism in 1940s America that "expects us to believe that the very deep hostility that white Southerners had toward black Americans, a hostility that had been supported by white Northerners either after the end of Reconstruction in 1877 or soon thereafter, would suddenly dissolve and transform itself into anti-Semitism because Lucky Lindy defeated Franklin Roosevelt." And he doesn't have any black people stick up for the Jews over the course of the story, either, which Crouch thinks is just plain stupid. That actually raises an interesting point; Crouch cites "W.E.B. DuBois, Walter White, Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, Roy Wilkins, Adam Clayton Powell Jr., Thurgood Marshall and Charles Hamilton Houston--all of whom had repeatedly proved their moral courage by standing up to racism through their words or their actions, or both." Can anybody provide any citations for condemnations of anti-Semitic demagogue Father Coughlin by the above-named individuals? It wouldn't actually surprise me to find out that they did make such statements; I just couldn't come up with any in my admittedly limited research and thought somebody else might have access to fuller resources...

Now, Crouch admittedly has a slight advantage over me here, in that I'm still waiting for a copy of The Plot Against America so I can read it, but it seems to me that focusing on the perceptions of a single Jewish-American family in Newark, while it may be "ethnically self-absorbed," is not quite the same thing as suggesting "the hysterical racism and violence toward black people had somehow magically disappeared from American life." In fact, if anybody in the Roth/Crouch dialectic is committing historical amnesia, it's Stanley Crouch, who seems to be suggesting that Roth is portraying a completely fanciful vision of anti-Semitism that somehow magically appears in American life in 1940, a suggestion that completely erases the long history of American anti-Semitism Roth has simply imagined getting worse.

Of course, Stanley being Stanley, he just has to imply that he knows more than anybody else, but he has to say it with three times as many words: "The fulsome praising of this Roth novel is also a commentary on the lack of knowledge of American history by those who consider themselves literary people in our time." From there, he starts asking rhetorically heated questions until he boils over into pure silliness:

Would there be no protest if a great writer or dramatist or filmmaker were to find a marvelous story about Gypsies in German cities during the mid-1930s and create a work in which the Nazis became so hot at the Gypsies that their plight overshadowed an unmentioned anti-Semitism?

Never mind that nobody has to imagine Nazi persecution of the Gypsies. Never mind the foolish metaphor of "find[ing] a marvelous story." Let's get right to the point: if somebody wrote a good story about Gypsies persecuted by Nazis from the Gypsy perspective such that "their plight overshadowed an unmentioned anti-Semitism," there would be no more recourse to legitimate protest than there is for protesting that Anne Frank didn't have much to say about the Gypsies...or, for that matter, that African-American fiction of the early 20th century didn't have much to say about the prejudice displayed towards American Jews...who, by the way, didn't exactly escape the horrors of lynching entirely, not to mention other acts of brutal discrimination. But maybe Crouch is just too "ethnically self-absorbed" to know or care about that.

The verdict in Booksquare seems just about right: "Criticizing an author’s failure to fulfill his vision is one thing; criticizing his failure to fulfill your vision is, well, sort of like asking him to be a mind reader." One might also ask why one should bother to read such a mind when it does a perfectly good job of trumpeting its limited repetoire all on its own?


Hmmm. I don't recall "Doctor Faustus" (by Thomas Mann) having any references to anti-semitism or the Holocaust, despite the fact that it's told from the point of view of a German at the end of WW2. But then again, it's not about that. I think that Ray Bradbury's point is well taken, in that if you want a book to be about something, then write the damn thing yourself.

Posted by: Daniel at October 11, 2004 05:56 PM

I have to agree with Bradbury (were that I'd had time this morning to do research instead of unleash a rant!) -- wanting someone to write your vision is plain unfair. It reminds me of the people who come up and say, "I have a plan: I'll give you the idea, and you can write the book."

Posted by: booksquare at October 11, 2004 09:29 PM

You might try the Aptheker-edited works of DuBois for information regarding blacks' responses to anti-Semitism.

Posted by: Gabrielle Daniels at October 13, 2004 08:04 PM
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