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Philip Roth's Newark, the hometown he never really left



NEWARK – Roberta Harrington, a retired nurse of the same vintage as Philip Roth, remembers a visit from Mr. Roth one year ago to his home in Summit Avenue. He liked to remember the many times he had "run up the stairs and come downstairs" as a child, just because he enjoyed it and he appreciated a cherry tree that was no longer there.

This quiet, tree-lined street, this neighborhood, this esteemed city was the setting for many Roth's novels, just as William Faulkner immortalized many of his stories around his hometown of Oxford (Miss). Although Faulkner used the fictional name Yoknapatawpha County, Mr. Roth, who died on Tuesday at age 85, hardly cared about Newark in any way.

In his groundbreaking debut novel "Goodbye, Columbus," his alter-ego Neil Klugman worked at the Newark Public Library for a summer, captivated by the bumpy Brenda Patimkin. In "American Pastoral," another Roth Deputy, Nathan Zuckerman, Weedequahic High School's star athlete, idolizes a figure based on the school's real star athletes when Mr. Roth visits in the 1940s. His latest novel, Nemesis, recalls the panic that prevailed in 1944 in his close Jewish neighborhood, when a polio epidemic maimed and paralyzed some of his children. Roth was considered to be Saul Bellow, John Updike and one or two others titans of American literature of the second half of the twentieth century. He earned this attention in part by milking the commonplace people, buildings, streets and customs of the humble Weequahic neighborhood and other city landmarks, often with palpable and wistful affection.

For the last 50 years, most residents of the Weequahic Quarter lived. The Hillside and Irvington suburbs were African-American, not Jews. Ms. Harrington's niece Rhonda Hughes says it's still a middle-class block of families trying to earn a living and enjoying a few amenities. The block and surrounding streets are populated by postal workers, nurses, nurses and teachers, many of whom are now retired.

The city itself is in the midst of a renaissance of booming development, less crime and falling unemployment, and is on Amazon's list of possible locations for a second headquarters. Mayor Ras J. Baraka, who was helped by the resurgence, was easily re-elected this month.

"This is one of the nicest quietest blocks," said Ms. Hughes ("Howard Howard, But Without the Dollars") Before he retired, he was a coordinator for commercials on WCBS-TV in Manhattan. "After dark, you hear nothing but traffic, and when it's snowing, the kids come over and shovel it in vain."

Of course, children no longer play in the street as they did in Roth's time, preferring indoor activities such as television and the internet. But that's true everywhere in America, she said. Virtually every house, including Mr. Roth's, seems to have a television antenna.

Ms. Hughes is an avid reader, but her bookshelves suggest her taste for fiction is more like Ralph Ellison's "Invisible Man" and Alice Walker's "The Color Purple" than Mr. Roth.

The central library in the city center is planning a structure for Mr. Roth's extensive private book collection, which he bequeathed to the library. Built in 1932, the high school prides itself on its mocha-colored Art Deco façade, which it had in Mr. Roth's day, and the type of W.P.A. Mural gracing the lobbies of many public buildings from the Depression

Myra Lawson, director of the Alumni Association of the School, produced a yearbook of Mr. Roth's graduating class in 1950. Under his photograph of a young man with an exuberant smile, reads it: "A boy of true intelligence, combined with wit and common sense" and lists activities that he participated in, such as the school newspaper and the closing committee.

Andre Hollis, the director said, Mr. Roth's name was sometimes called at a weekly summoning of the school's teachers, where he could cheer them by saying Mr. Roth: "Because size emerged from school, greatness may you can be this Philip Roth. "

For two years, the school has a Philip Roth Book Club with 10 to 15 students. Ofelia Pancarician, an English teacher from a former Yugoslavian immigrant family and counselor to the club, said the students liked the first yearbook "Goodbye, Columbus" because it was a love story, but it was marked participation this year. The plot against America "was unveiled.This novel envisions an America where an anti-Semitic, authoritarian Charles Lindbergh defeats Franklin D. Roosevelt for the presidency and begins to persecute Jews, including the Roth family – her real name in the book, and the narrator is her son Philip – of Newark.

"They had difficulty with the historical context," said Mrs. Pancarician.

She brought two teachers to debate the book. It was argued that there were echoes under President Trump America, with the government's tendency to spread falsehoods and stir up "hostility toward the other" – like Mexican immigrants who do not reflect the majority of American society – denied this idea.

In a city, where so many residents as Newark resided, Ms. Pancarician said many young people do not see themselves as outsiders.

Our children do not understand this concept because they are the other, "she said.


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