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Herman Roth

In response to:

The Reality Game from the May 16, 1991 issue

To the Editors:

Robert M. Adams’s review of my book, Patrimony [NYR, May 16], contains a sentence which misrepresents my text and by implication, presents my father as having been a stupid bigot. Mr. Adams writes:

A reader will be most impressed by images of the manager [Herman Roth] and his staff going out nights among their mainly black clients to collect premiums (a few cents a week, mostly) in the sincere conviction that these painfully extracted dribs of money would save their reluctant clients from their own “shiftlessness.”

This is a terrible slur and I am at a loss to understand it. The word shiftlessness or shiftless appears nowhere in my book. Here, in its entirety, is the passage containing the image Mr. Adams finds impressive. There is nothing else anywhere in Patrimony about the blacks to whom my father once sold insurance.

…insurance men…pinochle players…veteran foot soldiers with whom he had gone out collecting door-to-door on Newark’s benighted “colored debit,” coming home long after dark with his clothes smelling sourly of cheap cooking oil. “There would be colored families,” he now told me, “still paying premiums twenty, thirty years after the death of the insured. Three cents a week. That’s what we collected.” “How come they kept paying?” “They never said anything to the agent. Somebody died and they never mentioned it. The insurance man came round and they paid him.” “Amazing,” I said, though it was by no means the first time that I was hearing his stories of the eerie evenings collecting pennies from the poorest of Newark’s poor, stories from thirty-eight years with the Metropolitan, with Bill and Abe and Sam and J.M. Cohen, all of them, as he reminded me, several times, long gone.

For the record, my father happened to have been a strong civil rights Democrat whose voice was invariably raised in contemptuous exasperation against the stupid bigots with whom he argued over racial issues in the card room of his local “Y” and he was renowned in our family, if not in the White House, for the angry letters he wrote regularly to President Reagan about his administration’s racial policies.

Philip Roth
Cornwall Bridge, Connecticut

Robert M Adams replies:

I deeply regret the inadvertent impression I may have given Philip Roth by handling carelessly a single loaded adjective. Needless to say I had no reason and even less intention to impute racism to Herman Roth.

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