In response to:
Channel X: Two Plays on the Race Conflict from the May 28, 1964 issue
Philip Roth’s review of LeRoi Jones’s Dutchman produced the following exchange of letters:
Dear Mr. Roth:
Sir, it is not my fault that you are so feebleminded you refuse to see any Negro as a man, but rather as the narrow product of your own sterile response. You can not categorize men. If my character is, as you say, “not Negro enough…”, then that would mean you have a “definition” of what Negroes are.
The main rot in the minds of “academic” liberals like yourself, is that you take your own distortion of the world to be somehow more profound than the cracker’s. There is little difference, except you guys have hipper cover stories (e.g. Norman Podhoretz “Negro Problem” in Commentary). A writer-in-residence. indeed!
One of the gaudiest aspects of the American Establishment, as nation, social order, philosophy, etc., and all the possible variations of its strongest moral and social emanations, its emotional core, is its need to abstract human beings. It is a process that leads to dropping bombs.
Mr. Roth, you are no brighter than the rest of America, slicker perhaps.
Philip Roth replies:
Dear Mr. Jones:
You misunderstand one of the points I tried to make in my review of Dutchman. It seems to me that Clay—the Negro character whom I discussed in more than the three words you choose to quote—describes himself in the second scene as one kind of man (very consciously a Negro; very violently disposed), after he has behaved in the first scene like quite another. Rather than dramatizing this as an actual tension in the man, you seem to me only to assert its existence, and fail to reveal, for one thing, the toll it might take on the one man really to be two—above all, to show us this tension affecting his responses to the predicament he is in with the white girl from the start. I interpreted your refusal to follow through to its conclusion this complexity of character (or else to reveal the complexity as a delusion of the character’s) as necessary to a moral purpose you had in writing the play—a purpose which served to destroy, I believe, what was truly morally compelling in the situation. As I said in my review, “…I believe this play is written [for a white audience]—not so that they should be moved to pity or to fear, but to humiliation and self-hatred. For that purpose, nothing but a black innocent and a white devil will do.”
This judgment has nothing whatsoever to do with any “‘definition”‘ I may have “of what Negroes are.” It has entirely to do with a complexity you yourself ascribed to the Negro character in your play, but one which you did not render in action, because of the other character you had to fry.
Though charity might lead me to suggest that some clumsiness in my review caused you to misconstrue my meaning, the rhetoric and reasoning of your letter are sufficient to overwhelm any great flow of generous feelings in me. But then you would make it especially hard for anyone, I think, to trust very far your powers of analysis, literary or otherwise, when you warn emphatically in a first paragraph, “You can not categorize men,” only to rush on in a second to speak of “the main rot in the minds of ‘academic’ liberals like yourself.”
July 9, 1964