Mr. Roth, Mr. Melville & Mr. Trump

We hadn’t thought about Philip Roth in some years, so it was with some delight, and a few misgivings, that we ran into him recently in the pages of The New Yorker (Jan. 30 issue). Actually it was just a Philip Roth e-mail, or portions of e-mails, extracted for a Talk of the Town “casual” by Judith Thurman. 

Thurman had sent a note to the 83-year-old Roth because she wanted to pick his brains on the only subject anyone wants to talk about these days, Our New President. Some years back Roth wrote a darkly satirical fantasy, The Plot Against America, in which Charles Lindbergh gets into the White House and commences a pro-Nazi regime, complete with Nuremberg-style laws restricting the Jews. (The whole concept sounds like a lurid exercise in Jewish paranoia, but Roth mostly got around that by telling it as faux-autobiography, thereby making such paranoia the implicit theme of the book.)

The big question the interviewer posed here was, approximately: Do you see a parallel here between the fictional President Lindbergh and Donald Trump, who seemed to echo Lindbergh with his calls for “America First” in his Inaugural address?

Roth’s answer was scathing on the subject of Trump. He said he much preferred Lindbergh, who—quoting Roth’s reply here—“despite his Nazi sympathies and racist proclivities, was a great aviation hero who had displayed great physical courage and aeronautical genius in crossing the Atlantic in 1927. He had character and he had substance . . . Trump is just a con artist. The relevant book about Trump’s American forebear is Herman Melville’s ‘The Confidence-Man,’ the darkly pessimistic, daringly inventive novel—Melville’s last—that could just as well have been called ‘The Art of the Scam.’”

There is so much shallow glibness in this reply that it’s probably easiest to begin by pointing out a couple of factual errors. Like a bumptious, conceited grad student, Roth cites an obscure Melville novel and suggests it’s a prophetic allegory about Donald Trump. The problem here is, Roth almost certainly never read The Confidence-Man past its title. Because it is actually not the tale of a flim-flam artist who seduces a gullible public, as Roth apparently imagines. It’s an experimental, absurdist, rather self-indulgent exercise, with only a scant semblance of a plot. Set on a Mississippi steamboat, it describes a vast array of passengers, depicting a cross-section of American “types” of the 1850s. Some of them are snake-oil salesmen or charity-hucksters, others are eager investors looking looking for get-rich-quick schemes. Moving among them is a nameless character who changes his disguise from chapter to chapter. 

The full title of the novel is The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade, and the title character’s shape-shifting is the real point of the story, inasmuch as it has one. Whatever else one thinks of Donald Trump, he is the diametrical opposite of a mysterious shape-shifter. One of the oddest and most striking things about Trump, in fact, is how little his persona has changed in forty years of public life. You have to figure Roth just found the name, “The Confidence-Man” too good to resist. If it wasn’t a book about a Trump-like character, then it should be. Few people would be the wiser.

Roth’s other blunder was calling the book Melville’s last novel, which is not quite true, unless you leave out the far better known and posthumously published Billy Budd.

Roth’s snooty, false erudition in the field of American literature is much of a piece with his cartoony ideas about President Trump. He levels at Trump every tiresome insult, every dismissive characterization that Washington Post columnists and cable-news commentators have been reciting since Trump first entered the political arena. As in his comparison of Trump with Lindbergh, Roth tries hard to appear fair and judicious by mentioning other Republican Presidents he didn’t like but weren’t nearly as bad as Trump:

I found much that was alarming about being a citizen during the tenures of Richard Nixon and George W. Bush. But whatever I may have seen as their limitations of character or intellect, neither was anything like as Trump is: ignorant of government, of history, of science, of philosophy, of art, incapable of expressing or recognizing subtlety or nuance, destitute of all decency, and wielding a vocabulary of seventy-seven words that is better called Jerkish than English.

He follows this with a dire warning that the Trump Administration may lead to “a genuine assault upon [writers’] rights” in “a country drowning in Trump’s river of lies.”

Roth’s philippic against President Trump has nothing new or insightful in it. It would read like the ravings of a senile madman if we hadn’t already seen this sort of thing, time after time, in a hundred other places. What’s noteworthy here is that Roth is a not a political columnist, or someone with unique insight into Donald Trump, yet he’s eager to recite the main talking-points of the extreme anti-Trump factions, as well as embellish them with whatever random insults come to mind. Trump is ignorant; he knows no art or history or philosophy; he is indecent, threatens freedom of speech, and lies unceasingly. In all likelihood no one’s ever quizzed Mr. Trump on his knowledge of art or history or philosophy. These are just rote denunciations, decoupled from any need for factual basis, and considered beyond challenge. Mere ritualistic signaling that one belongs to Anti-Trump Party . 

There is a paradox here. In his long literary career (c. 1959-2009) Roth’s persona was that of a cranky controversialist who wouldn’t follow the herd and never feared to offend. At the start of his career, his closely observed stories of middle-class Jews were thought to be too revealing, bad PR for the Jewish people. Effectively “anti-Semitic,” in fact: an accusation that dogged Roth for decades. His most successful novel, Portnoy’s Complaint (1969), set the bar for bestselling raunch, combining an obscene sex satire with a manic, breathless, interminable parody of a Jewish stand-up-comic act.

The Jews in The Plot Against America (2004) are transgressive in yet another way. Based on his family and neighbors in Newark, New Jersey, c. 1940, they are flawed, weak, full of denial, hoping to find a way to accommodate themselves to the new Nazi-sympathizing government of President Lindbergh. There’s even a Conservative rabbi who attaches himself to the Lindbergh regime, cajoling his fellow Jews to put their fears at ease. In his e-mails to the New Yorker’s Thurman, Roth explained that he didn’t conceive the book as a “warning,” rather he was just trying to imagine realistically how his family and those around him might have behaved in such a situation. “I wanted to imagine how we would have fared, which meant I had first to invent an ominous American government that threatened us.”  

As it happens, the invented political history is mostly claptrap, full of unlikely plot twists that scarcely work even within the context of a fantasy. Charles Lindbergh might conceivably have become a GOP nominee and even President someday, but not in 1940. (He didn’t even enter the public arena as spokesman for the America First Committee until 1941.) Moreover, even Roth could see that the notion of Lindbergh as a full-on Nazi-sympathizer was a bit much. Accordingly the author  “lampshaded” his way out of that problem by offering the harebrained explanation that Lindbergh was being blackmailed all along. The Nazis had kidnapped his infant son, it seems, and they were holding the boy hostage in order to force Lucky Lindy to implement a Final Solution in America.

Historical-political imagination is not Roth’s long suit. This comes out clearly at the end of the e-mail interview, when Thurman asks him “how Trump threatens us.” Having given that rich litany of anti-Trump clichés earlier, Roth now comes up almost blank. He offers the feeblest, most shopworn worry in the book: “What is most terrifying is that he makes any and everything possible, including, of course, the nuclear catastrophe.”

Why You Should Write Under a Pseudonym

Long before Antifa rowdies began to home in on me and make my life a living hell—posting ugly pix of me and exposing several of my pen-names and a fanciful variant of my maiden name to the world (or at least to their 17 blog readers, oh noes!)—I had a whole smorgasbord of pseudonyms.

One of them, JW, is nearly old enough to be President. I used it for many a flame-war on the old CompuServe SIGs. I even had an American Express card in that name, at least until I charged up a bunch of dinners for my comedy group and decided not to pay!

In those days, early 1980s, I had a TI99/4A with a 90K single-sided hard-drive and a 300 baud modem. I was probably the only one of my friends to be an online addict at that point, but I was hardly unique in the world at large. I subscribed to, and sometimes wrote for, InfoWorld, which reminded me weekly that there were easily a million more hackers and microcomputer hobbyists in the country, most of them with better systems than I had. But I managed.

On discussion boards the words came out so slowly it was like watching a Telex terminal. I sometimes stayed up all night, typing out heated arguments about comic books and the Holocaust. CompuServe in those days cost you $2.50 per hour, so it didn’t take me long to rack up a few hundred in charges on my account. I eventually stiffed them too, and their bill collectors in Dublin, Ohio hounded me for six months. Then they gave up and I got a new CompuServe account, and the whole thing began again.

Discussion-group members were a nasty, opinionated lot. Take the nastiest ten percent of Twitter trolls you see today, and that’s about the average comportment of the old Special Interest Group participant on CompuServe. I recall an unbelievably insulting and rude old Jew from Southern California—a retired thoracic surgeon, would you believe—who would pop out of nowhere to call me a nazi. Once I failed to pay sufficient homage to the Holohoax® so after that it was nazi this, nazi that. He’s dead now, so I can give you his name, which is common anyway. Sid Kahn.

Then there was the SYSOP for the group, another Jew, whose name I will not give you as I believe he’s still around. Ineffably unctuous and politically correct this fellow was. He’d gone to shitty colleges in Ohio and Kentucky, lived with his parents in Cleveland at age 35, and was an aspiring science-fiction writer. (That last is usually a flashing red-alert for me, and should be for you too.) His specialty was tone-policing the whole rowdy lot of us, but as is so often the case with these characters, he was actually responsible for most of the flame wars. He had a small claque that would cheer him and pile on any adversary. Me for instance; I was always a convenient victim because I was a ‘nazi.’ Leader of the claque was a woman who called herself Dagny, after the Ayn Rand character. She supposedly lived in a 55-foot trailer in the Arizona desert, and had 10,000 books. I always imagined her as immensely fat, but those who knew her better than I never filled me in on that detail. Another regular, now dead, was a Peter Amschel, a lawyer in a desert town in Southern California. Peter was some kind of fundie Christian and forever flaming Sid Kahn and others. Years afterwards I friended him on Facebook. Weirdly he had become a Moslem.

My polemical style today is nearly identical to what it was in 1983. I do not doubt that some of these CompuServe participants would remember me distinctly today if I had then posted as Margot Darby. One or two might even remember me from my distinctive prose idiom, my old pseudonym notwithstanding. But at least the pseud defeats the search engines, and that is mighty important these days.


Kilowatt Notes

In my grandparents’ house on Green Hill Lane, there was a vast attic at the top of a rickety flight of wooden stairs. When we visited we were not supposed to go up there, and so of course we would, whenever our grandmother wasn’t nearby. When she discovered us (as she would) she was invariably cross, although if there was anything compromising or untoward up there, it eluded me entirely.

Mainly it was old boxes, old furniture, some splendid Philadelphia Inquirers from 1957 with Sunday Rotocomics of Dick Tracy, Little Iodine, etc.; and an adult-size promotional figure of Reddy Kilowatt (“Your Electric Servant”) from the Philadelphia Electric Company. I have no idea what it was doing there. It’s the sort of thing one might find in an antiques shop today, but it certainly wasn’t brought in by my grandparents as a valuable curio in the 1940s or 50s. A gag gift, maybe? Maybe, not likely.

I did think, when I was 5, 6, 7, that Reddy Kilowatt was a bit frightening to look at. Maybe my grandmother thought it was scary, monstrous. Or apt to tip over and kill a small child. In the end I formed the vague idea that I wasn’t to go up into the attic because of Reddy Kilowatt.

Of course it could just be she thought the slippery, narrow attic stairway was treacherous. I don’t think either grandparent visited the attic very often. Although the house had only been built in the 1930s, it was quirky, designed by my grandfather after some old English country houses he had studied. He was a mechanical engineer rather than an architect, and his emphasis was on antiquarian cleverness rather than utility and safety. The house had things like a witch’s-hat turret with no functional purpose, and ground-floor stairway-ceiling so low that anyone over six feet would need to duck.

Outside, a weird, curving stone staircase wound up from the driveway to the front door. This was never used, as it was unusable; the flagstones were crooked and the steps were tiny. I gather this was meant to look like the detail of a 300-year-old habitation, preserved solely for antiquarian purposes. Anyway the front door of the house was the only entrance (of four) that was almost never used. There was a “sanitation” receptacle sunk into an outside walkway near the kitchen, and I was long grown before I realized this was another useless holdover installed just for period authenticity. A hundred years before this was the thing where people would dump the contents of chamberpots, and other unmentionables, to be collected each day by the nightsoil man.

My grandmother finally sold the house in the 1970s and moved back to her homeland of western Ohio, having first deposited with my parents anything that might possibly have some meaning of value— photo albums, furniture oddments, and boxes of 19th century memorabilia. What became of Reddy Kilowatt I never found out.

Atticus in Bizarro World


(Note: This is a draft, with some mispunctuations and typos, as well as too many clotted clauses. The “final” version is somewhere else.)

As nearly everyone knows by now, Atticus Finch, that steadfast attorney from Maycomb, Alabama, led the local Citizens’ Council in the 1950s.  When agitators from the NAACP and Communist Party came south to stir up trouble after the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown decision, he fought the good fight for segregation. Atticus had even joined the KKK once upon a time, but that was in, like, 1919. You know, back when the Klan was a respectable organization, like the Masons. Something professionals and gentlemen could belong to.

Or so goes the Atticus we are given in the newly published, long-suppressed novel Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee, author of that phenomenal early-60s bestseller To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s the publishing succès de scandale of the season. Because while Watchman is not a very good book (let’s get that out of the way right now), it depicts Atticus as a crusading segregationist. The Atticus in To Kill a Mockingbird is quite another thing entirely.

Remember the Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird, the novel or (better yet) the 1962 Academy Award-winning film? That Atticus is a god-like hero to the local Negro community, a 1960s-styles civil-rights liberal living in 1935. Well, Go Set a Watchman‘s Atticus, written slightly earlier and based more immediately on Harper Lee’s elderly attorney father, A.C. Lee, is a hero of a different sort. He keeps anti-mongrelization pamphlets about the house, and argues that the Negro has not sufficiently “evolved” to be given social equality.

It is not likely that a professional Hollywood liberal like Gregory Peck (Atticus in the Oscar-sweeping movie version of TKAM) would ever care to play or meet this Atticus. The great climactic scene in the story is a conversational showdown with his daughter (and stand-in for the author), in which he lectures her, patiently and at length,  about the Negro problem.

“Jean Louise,” he said. “Have you ever considered that you can’t have a set of backward people living among people advanced in one kind of civilization and have a social Arcadia?” . . . “Let’s look at it this way. . . You realize that our Negro population is backward, don’t you? You will concede that? You realize the full implications of the word ‘backward,’ don’t you? . . . You realize that the vast majority of them here in the South are unable to share fully in the responsibilities of citizenship, and why?”

A couple of pages later, Atticus prophesies what doom and corruption would ensue if we had a Black-Run Government:

“Now think about this. What would happen if all the Negroes in the South were suddenly given full civil rights? I’ll tell you. There’d be another Reconstruction. Would you want your state governments run by people who won’t know how to run ’em? Do you want this town run by—now wait a minute—Willoughby’s a crook, we know that, but do you know of any Negro who knows as much as Willoughby? Zeebo’d probably be Mayor of Maycomb. Would you want someone of Zeebo’s capability to handle the town’s money? We’re outnumbered, you know. . .

“[T]he Negroes down here are still in their childhood as a people. . . The NAACP doesn’t care whether a Negro . . . tries to learn a trade and stand on his own two feet—oh no, all the NAACP  cares about is that man’s vote.”

Finally his daughter, Jean Louise Finch (the “Scout” from TKAM) gets in a spluttering rebuttal, and it’s a doozy.

“I know it’s [civil-rights progress] got to be slow, Atticus, I know that full well. But I know it’s got to be. I wonder what would happen if the South had a ‘Be Kind to the Niggers Week’? If just for one week the South would show them some simple, impartial courtesy. I wonder what would happen. . .”

Then her temper suddenly flares, she calls her father names, and drives off in his car, swearing she’ll never speak to a family member again. [1]

By now you will have some notion of why this “lost” novel was kept buried deep in the Harper Lee archives for over a half-century. It is incredibly un-PC and a little too spot-on in its predictions. Moreover it’s a terribly talky book, one in which little occurs except petty disputations about politics and family relations. The characters spend most of their time talking about obscuranta such as church hymns and Lord Melbourne. Yes, Lord Melbourne—you know, the feather-blowing early-Victorian Prime Minister. But why oh why? He is repeatedly invoked here, and also made a guest appearance in TKAM, for some reason known but to God and Harper Lee.

*   *   *

Watchman has a number of odd stylistic curlicues. The lead character is given to a lot of interior monologue, some of it stream-of-consciousness-y and difficult to disentangle from the outside conversations. She likes to quote Gilbert & Sullivan lyrics to herself. I first spotted something from Trial by Jury, then The Mikado . . . finally, when I came across a Mad Margaret song from Ruddigore, I realized that the narrative routine of Go Set a Watchman is in fact very much like bad W. S. Gilbert. An eccentric character comes on stage, tells why he is eccentric, sings a song—and departs! That’s pretty much how it goes with Watchman. We get a gallery of static characters, many of them mildly eccentric, but none of them eccentric enough to be interesting. Harper Lee no doubt saw this problem, and that’s why she filled TKAM with a whole menagerie of Southern Gothic crazies.

Additionally, and unlike TKAM, Watchman lacks excitement. There are no murders, no rapes. There is no sex or even romance to speak of. Jean Louise Finch has a sad-sack boyfriend, Hank, a young attorney of white-trash origins who works for her father; but Hank is not marriage material for a Finch; so like most of the subplots, this one’s a dud.

There is however one shining episode of a gynecological nature. This is a long flashback to childhood and the schoolyard. The setting makes it a kind of foreshadowing of TKAM even though it occurs a couple of years later than its time-scheme. Jean Louise, still the tomboy known as Scout, is now eleven or twelve years old. One day she gets her period, and high comedy ensues.

Now, Scout’s mother is long dead, so of course Scout doesn’t know about menarche and such like . . . because although Scout’s been reading since she was a baby, supposedly (we learn this in TKAM), somehow she hasn’t learned anything of a practical nature. Finally Scout gets clued in by the Finches’ black housekeeper, Calpurnia. She goes back to school next day, very unhappy, since she’s become a woman and all that. She’s all harnessed up under her school dress with a Kotex pad the size of a brick and a sanitary napkin belt. (The modern reader is probably unfamiliar with the aforementioned contraption, and I expect this passage will puzzle many readers. In brief, sanitary-napkin belts were standard-issue female gear till about mid-century, though they continued to be listed at least through the 1960s on what-to-pack checklists for boarding schools, summer camps, and insane asylums.)

Anyhow, here is Scout, and she’s walking funny. The white-trash girls from up-county know the score and laugh at her. They make jokes about the Curse, and fill her full of schoolyard misinformation.

A boy French-kisses Scout; she’s learned from her white-trash friends that once you start ministratin‘, a tongue-kiss will make you pregnant! Scout thinks she’s in a fambly way and there’s only one way out of her shame. She must go to the edge of town and jump off the water tower. Of course the whole town gathers ’round . . . and young Scout finally learns the Facts of Life.

Here at last is the author in full flower. This episode shows the kind of book she should have written. A black comedy full of menstruation and French-kissing gags would make a fine addition to any publisher’s Young Adult backlist.

*   *   *

Some peculiar and wrongheaded notions have attended the publication of this novel, errors we are going to hear repeated for years to come. One is that it is somehow a rough draft or “prequel” for TKAM. [2]  It is neither, although the setting and characters are similar. Nor, of course, is it a sequel, though it is set twenty years later.

Nor was its existence much of a surprise. Anyone who knew much about Harper Lee understood that TKAM had gone through many revisions before publication, and that she had even written a complete novel with some of the same characters a few years earlier.  According to biographer Charles Shields it was Go Set a Watchman that first brought Lee to the attention of her publishers (Lippincott) in 1957 [3]. But the editors wanted a lot of changes. They hated the title. They wanted to rename it Atticus.[4] They wanted a tighter, leaner narrative line, instead of a meandering string of barely connected episodes. Eventually Lee gave up and cobbled together a new novel out of short stories she’d written about her hometown of Monroeville (Maycomb), Alabama, bits of which stories had been also been repurposed in Watchman. As the new novel was set in the 1930s, out went references to the Second World War, the Brown decision, Emmett Till, the Citizens’ Councils. No longer set in the contemporary 1950s, the new novel would be instead hearken back to the misty watercolored memories of old Alabammy. (As I noted last year, this second novel had similar continuity/plot problems in its early form, which Lee and her editors solved by gluing on a lurid subplot about interracial rape.)

There was a cultural shift between 1957 and the early 1960s that made Watchman a much less attractive property than it had been originally. For much of the Fifties you could still joke, if nervously, about race relations and the Ku Klux Klan. Top model Suzy Parker, statuesque redhead on the cover of LIFE in 1957 and eye-candy in three big feature movies that year, could joke that “I come from an average Ku Klux Klan family,” without causing too much fuss (although her highly respectable kinfolk were slightly embarrassed)[5]. And of course there were still plenty of old Klansmen serving in Congress or the Supreme Court. Why, even Harry S Truman had nearly signed up with his local Kleagle, back in the 1920s. The KKK was just a reality of political history. As for Citizens’ Councils and the John Birch Society [6], they had not yet been tarred with the brush of “extremism” and bigotry as they would be in the 60s.

By the time To Kill a Mockingbird had spent two years on the bestseller list and been made into a landmark film, racial segregation was no longer a tenable argument for mainstream news outlets, or for politicians outside the Deep South states that went for Barry Goldwater 1964. So there were very good reasons for Harper Lee to bury Go Set a Watchman under a mound of personal papers, and never mention it again.


1. Harper Lee, Go Set a Watchman, published 2015. The section quoted and described is in the hardbound edition’s pages 246-257.

2. See for example, Alexandra Petri’s recent column on it in the Washington Post:

3. Charles J. Shields, Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee. 2006.

4. This has given rise to the misconception among some book reviewers that Atticus aka Watchman was in fact an early draft of To Kill a Mockingbird.

5. Bérénice de la Salle, Beautiful Riddle: The Strange Case of Suzy Parker. 2011.

6. The JBS is wispily alluded to in Watchman, even though it would not come into existence for another year. Atticus suggests that the hot-headed speaker at the Citizens’ Council meeting is secretly being subvented (as Revilo Oliver would say) by an outfit in Massachusetts, which would seem to point to Belmont’s own Robert Welch, who was getting some ink in 1957.

The United States of America School of Writing

I was sketching out a piece on Orwell in the 1930s, and how he had to get along with the Commies to preserve his literary viability. So he posed as a man of the Left without quite being a full Fellow Traveler to the Reds. This took some ruses and finesse. When he went to fight in Spain he joined one of most obscure, ill-equipped factions fighting for the “Republican” side.


That was the POUM, an affiliate of the Independent Labour Party in Britain (and another low-efficacy operation, although one of its founders had been Keir Hardie, and such luminaries as Aneurin Bevan had belonged). POUM and ILP were known in those as “anarcho-syndicalist” in orientation. That is, eccentrically leftist. They provided a refuge for people like Orwell who didn’t like the Stalinists but didn’t wish to be in open opposition to them.


While batting these ideas around, I recalled a piece that I read in The New Yorker years ago, a very funny memoir by the (now late) poet Elizabeth Bishop. After Vassar, in the early 30s, she worked for some low-rent “literary” operation (actually a writing school) near Columbus Circle.

A co-worker was a brash obnoxious Jewess who was always trying to get her to join the Party. Elizabeth begged off, saying she was an anarchist, actually. So they had political arguments, and Elizabeth found herself going down to the NYPL main branch in the evening, reading up on anarchism so as to preserve her cover.

This was a story very much in parallel with Orwell’s experience, at least to my way of thinking. But I wasn’t sure when I’d read this piece, and I certainly didn’t remember its name. All I could remember were the broad outlines of the story, that it was in The New Yorker, and it was more than ten years ago. I had a distinct image of myself reading the story at the kitchen counter in the apartment I shared at 53rd and 8th, probably in 1983. But my memories are sometimes jumbled and unreliable, and 1983 seems impossibly distant now.

Mildly curious, I went to The New Yorker online archive today and found the piece. July 18, 1983 issue, “The U.S.A. School of Writing.” It’s extremely funny, better than I remembered, especially the first half.

First I had an interview at the school with its head, or president, as he described himself, Mr. Black. His opening remark was that the U.S.A. School of Writing stood for “The United States of America School of Writing,” and my pleasure in that explanation trapped me immediately.