Philip Roth fans and scholars from across the country are descending on Newark this week for several activities honoring the city's most famous literary son on the occasion of his 80th birthday.
Among the events is a three-hour bus tour Tuesday that will take riders to more than half a dozen local spots that Roth mentions in his books, such as the high school in Portnoy's Complaint (1969), and the surrounding Weequahic neighborhood evoked in several novels. At each stop, volunteers will read a relevant excerpt from a Roth book.
The tour was actually developed in 2005, when an intersection was named after Roth. This time, according Liz Del Tufo, the president of the Newark Preservation and Landmarks Committee, which is operating the tour, three busloads of people have signed up, many from an academic conference, Roth@80, that is taking place at the nearby Robert Treat Hotel in downtown Newark.
“The 1940s and ‘50s were wonderful years in Newark, and Weequahic was a neighborhood that, thanks to Philip, became one of the best known neighborhoods in the United States,” Del Tufo said. “When people read many of his books, say Plot Against America, they get this feeling of what the world maybe once was like and say, ‘Maybe that’s not so bad after all.’”
Literary scholars have compared Roth’s use of the thriving Jewish areas of Newark to the way Faulkner used the fictional Yoknapatawpha County, as a backdrop to his writing.
The city’s decline in the 1960s and 1970s figured prominently in Roth’s 1997 work, American Pastoral. In that book, according to Michael Kimmage, an associate professor of history at Catholic University in Washington, D.C., the struggling city provides a contrast to the success of the protagonist, known as ‘The Swede.’ One day, The Swede returns to visit his daughter, who got caught up in radical politics, is quite poor, and is still living in Newark
“The center of the city has become a wasteland, and he comes to the very bitter realization that his daughter lives worse than his immigrant grandparents,” Kimmage, the author of In History’s Grip: Philip Roth’s Newark Trilogy, said. “That’s a very vivid way of telling a story of a family crisis or of a family decline but it’s reflected in extraordinary descriptions of Newark in the 1980s and 1990s.”
Roth, who recently announced his retirement, is himself expected to appear at an invitation-only reception Tuesday night, where he'll be greeted with a cake in the shape of a bookshelf filled with the more than two-dozen books he has authored.
The registration deadline for the conference is past. The bus tour ($35), which leaves from the Newark Museum at noon, is nearly full, but may have spaces left, according to Del Tufo. Show up early.
A photo exhibit featuring archival photos of Roth and his neighborhood at the Newark Public Library, however, does have space. It will open tomorrow morning and stay until Aug. 31.