Alas, it wasn’t exactly what I’d had in mind. Particularly as I was one of those students of the Fifties who came to books by way of a fairly good but rather priestly literary education, in which writing poems and novels was assumed to eclipse all else in what we called “moral seriousness.” As it happened our use of that word “moral”—in private conversations about our daily affairs as easily as in papers and classroom discussions—tended often to camouflage and dignify vast reaches of naïveté, and served frequently only to restore at a more prestigious cultural level the same respectability that one had imagined oneself in flight from in (of all places) the English department.
The emphasis upon literary activity as a form of ethical conduct, as perhaps even the way to the good life, certainly suited the times: the postwar onslaught of a mass electronically amplified philistine culture did look to some young literary people like myself to be the work of the Devil’s legions, and High Art in turn the only refuge of the godly, a 1950s version of the pietistic colony established in Massachusetts Bay. Also the idea that literature was the domain of the truly virtuous would seem to have suited my character, which, though not exactly puritanical at heart, seemed that way in some key reflexes. So, inasmuch as I thought about Frame when I was starting out as a writer in my early twenties, I only naturally assumed that if and when it ever came my way, it would come as it had to Mann’s Aschenbach, as Honor. Death in Venice, page 10: “But he had attained to honor, and honor, he used to say, is the natural goal towards which every considerable talent presses with whip and spur. Yes, one might put it that his whole career had been one of conscious and overweening ascent to honor, which left in the rear all the misgivings or self-derogation which might have hampered him.”
In the case of Aschenbach it was not his lustful fantasies (replete with mythological illusions, but finally masturbatory) for which he is to be remembered by the “shocked and respectful world [that] receives the news of his decease,” but, altogether to the contrary, for powerful narratives like The Abject, “which taught a whole grateful generation that a man can still be capable of moral resolution even after he has plumbed the depths of knowledge.” Now that is something like the sort of reputation I’d had in mind for myself. But, as it was to turn out, the narrative of mine that elicited a strong response from a part of a generation at least “taught” less about the capacity for moral resolve than about moral remission and its confusions—and about those masturbatory fantasies that generally don’t come decked out in adolescence (and in Newark) in classical decor.
Instead of taking an honorific place in the public imagination à la Gustav von Aschenbach, with …
Critical Standards December 12, 1974
Philip Roth and the Jews: An Exchange November 14, 1974