Philip Roth (1933-2018) on Iowa City

Philip Roth, 1973. — photo via Wikimedia Commons

Philip Roth, one of the major figures of 20th century literature, died of congestive heart failure on Tuesday night. The author, known for his darkly comic novels and short stories, was 85.

His first book, Goodbye Columbus, a collection of five short stories and a novella, won the National Book Award in 1960. The title novella was set in New Jersey, where Roth was born and raised, and focused, as much of his early work did, on the lives of middle-class Jewish Americans.

Critics typically classify Roth as a Jewish writer, and while Roth’s protagonists were almost invariably Jewish — and sometimes named “Philip Roth” — he rejected the classification as too narrow. “The epithet American-Jewish writer has no meaning for me,” the New York Times quotes him as stating. “If I’m not an American, I’m nothing.”

Much has been written about Roth’s place in American culture, especially since 2010 when he announced his retirement from literature, and much more will be written in the coming weeks, but, for the moment, it might be interesting to recall a brief episode in Roth’s long career: his years in Iowa City.

Roth taught at the Iowa Writers Workshop from 1960 to 1962. In 1962, he wrote about his time in Iowa City for Esquire.

Iowa — A Very Far Country Indeed,” is written from the perspective of a worldly East Coaster suddenly transplanted to a “place that’s just not home,” as the article’s subtitle puts it. Roth wasn’t quite the stranger to the Midwest the piece suggests. Before coming to Iowa, he’d lived for years in Chicago, studying and teaching at the University of Chicago.

“I set off for Iowa City expecting it to be Kansas. Not that I had been to Kansas,” Roth wrote. He was not impressed by what he found.

The city was not entirely without charm: “Entering Iowa City, or, better, standing in the evening on the foot bridge that crosses the river and divides the town and campus in two, you have the feeling that you are in an environment in which men I agree that one of the sources of pleasure is beauty.” [sic]

But things were different in the daylight.

Neither town nor University has a style that dominates; this is not so much architectural diversity, deliberate, energetic anarchy, as blindness, the vacancy of imagination … What the eye takes in — I speak now particularly of the downtown section — is the visual equivalent of a businessman’s luncheon speech: all that muddle‐headed talk about “progress and conservatism,” identification to a past so brief that it was a legend before it hardened as fact, and to a future whose appeal is almost totally in the fuzziness and factlessness of the word itself, “the future.”

If the days lacked aesthetic value, the nights lacked, well, just about everything.

“At night, what my wife and I discovered you could do in Iowa City, is you could go to the movies,” Roth wrote. After a movie, you could go to a bar — Roth preferred a place called Kenney’s on Clinton Street, “the only place in town where one sees Negros in a group outside, that is, off the football field on a Saturday.”

A bookstore, “The Paper Place, a paperback bookshop run by several graduate students,” got a somewhat condescending nod in the essay, but Roth devotes far more space to the difficulties of buying liquor in Iowa City, due to the state’s strict laws regulating the retail sale of alcohol.

Some aspects of life in Iowa City Roth described still seem familiar, including the most serious issue he touches on: the divide between the city’s black and white residents.

Though there are some white people I know who would tell you that it is no town to be white in, surely it is not a pleasant place to be a black in either. It is difficult for Negroes to find decent housing, or any housing off the complex, and not all the barbershops in town will cut their hair. When this became a public issue some years back (as it seems to in small college towns), some of the Iowa City barbers, choosing humility as a defense, maintained that it wasn’t that they didn’t want to cut what is known as Negro hair, but that they didn’t know how to.

Other familiar aspects include where UI undergraduates like to drink, according to Roth—The Airliner and Joe’s Place—as well as the fervor of UI football fans.

Demure housewives ‐‐ ladies who bake cakes, make fudge, who speak at PTA meetings in little tiny girly voices that don’t carry ten feet — rise like gushers and absolutely shriek as each Iowa first down is rolled up. In a stadium I have seen businessmen, bankers, and optometrists become beasts — “Pour it on, Iowa! Pour it on!”

Roth also included an extended passage on the quintessential Iowa City problem — finding a convenient parking space.

In his essay, Roth conceded, “In my two years at Iowa, I lived mostly at the periphery of Iowa life; that is to say, I was in Iowa because of my affiliation with the University, and it seems to me peripheral to Iowa life,” and that “It would be ill‐advised of me to make large general statements about the people, other than that a majority of them vote Republican and use with staggering frequency the descriptive phrase, ‘real good.’”

Roth used Iowa City as the setting for the beginning for his 1962 novel, Letting Go, but other than a few references to the university and a street name or two, the city plays very little part in the book.

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