Philip Roth’s Newark, the Hometown He Never Really Left


    NEWARK — Roberta Harrington, a retired nurse of the same vintage as Philip Roth, remembers a visit a year ago by Mr. Roth to his clapboard boyhood home, which she now lives in, on Summit Avenue. He recalled with pleasure the many times that as a child “he’d run up the stairs and come back down again” just for the fun of it and how he prized a cherry tree that was no longer there.

    That house, that quiet tree-lined street, that neighborhood, this treasured city was the setting of many of Mr. Roth’s novels just as William Faulkner set many of his stories in the region around his hometown, Oxford, Miss. Though Faulkner used the fictional name Yoknapatawpha County, Mr. Roth, who died Tuesday at 85, rarely bothered to camouflage Newark in any way.

    In his breakthrough debut novella, “Goodbye, Columbus,” his alter ego Neil Klugman, working at the Newark Public Library for a summer, is bewitched by the fetching and much better-heeled Brenda Patimkin. In “American Pastoral,” another Roth stand-in, Nathan Zuckerman, idolizes Swede Levov, the star athlete of Weequahic High School, a character based on the school’s real-life star athlete when Mr. Roth attended in the 1940s. His last novel, “Nemesis,” recalls the panic that enveloped his tightly knit Jewish neighborhood in 1944 when a polio epidemic maimed and paralyzed some of its children.

    Mr. Roth’s childhood home on Summit Avenue in Newark.
    Credit Bryan Anselm for The New York Times

    Mr. Roth was regarded with Saul Bellow, John Updike and one or two others as the titans of American literature of the second half of the 20th century. He earned that regard, in part, by milking the everyday people, buildings, streets and mores of the humble Weequahic neighborhood and other city landmarks, often with palpable and wistful affection.

    “This passion for specificity, for the hypnotic materiality of the world one is in is all but at the heart of the task to which every American novelist has been enjoined since Herman Melville and his whale and Mark Twain and his river: to discover the most arresting, evocative verbal depiction for every last American thing,” Mr. Roth said when he celebrated his 80th birthday in Newark in 2013.

    Nevertheless, on Wednesday there were no large turnouts of mourners or literary fans at the Rothian sites, no shrines of flowers. The Weequahic neighborhood and much of the city was transformed after Mr. Roth’s youth by white flight to the suburbs, particularly after the riots of 1967 left more than two dozen people dead and scores of stores along the commercial spine of Springfield Avenue torched or looted. The riots are among several historic events described in “American Pastoral,” which centers on how the 1960s’ national cultural and political turbulence destroys Levov’s family.

    Weequahic High School in the 1940s, and today.Creditvia Jewish Historical Society of New Jersey; Bryan Anselm for The New York Times

    For the last 50 years, most of the residents of the Weequahic neighborhood, which borders the suburbs of Hillside and Irvington, have been African-Americans, not Jews. Ms. Harrington’s niece, Rhonda Hughes, says it is still a middle-class block of homeowning families trying to scratch out a living and enjoy a few comforts and pleasures. The block and surrounding streets are inhabited by postal workers, home health aides, nurses and teachers, many now retired.

    The city itself is in the midst of a renaissance with booming development, less crime and falling unemployment, and is on Amazon’s list of possible sites for a second headquarters. Mayor Ras J. Baraka, buoyed by the resurgence, was easily re-elected this month.

    “This is one of the nicest quietest blocks,” said Ms. Hughes (“H like Howard but without the dollars”), who before retiring was a coordinator of commercials at WCBS-TV in Manhattan. “After dark you hear nothing but traffic. When it snows, kids will come over and shovel for free.”

    Mr. Roth’s high school yearbook. Credit Bryan Anselm for The New York Times

    Of course, children no longer play in the streets the way they did in Mr. Roth’s day, preferring indoor activities like television and roaming the internet. But that is true everywhere in America, she said. Practically every house, including Mr. Roth’s, seems to have a TV dish antenna.

    Ms. Hughes is an avid reader, but her bookshelves indicate her tastes for fiction run more to Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man” and Alice Walker’s “The Color Purple” than Mr. Roth’s.

    The central library downtown plans a structure to house Mr. Roth’s voluminous private book collection, which he willed to the library. The high school, built in 1932, is proud of its mocha-colored Art Deco facade, the same it had in Mr. Roth’s day, and the kind of W.P.A. mural that graced the lobbies of many Depression-era public buildings.

    A street in Newark around the time of Mr. Roth’s birth in 1933, and a different view of the city today. Credit via Jewish Historical Society of New Jersey; Bryan Anselm for The New York Times