Arts & Entertainment

Tour reminds Newark of author Philip Roth's mark 

A member of the Philip Roth tour reads an example of the author's work at the Newark Public Library. Credits: Mark J. Bonamo
Famed author and Newark native Philip Roth (1933-2018) bequeathed his 4,000-book personal library to the Newark Public Library.
Downtown Newark residents Jorge Marques, 27, and Erin Mortensen, 33, look at a list of novels that author Philip Roth noted as significant in influencing his own work. Credits: Mark J. Bonamo
A tour group of more than 50 people examined places around Newark where the late author Philip Roth found inspiration for his work. The tour left from the main branch of the Newark Public Library. Credits: Mark J. Bonamo

The lustrous literary legacy of native Newark son Philip Roth began at home.

In the aftermath of Roth's death last month, a tour of places that made the pages of his books not only demonstrated that his imprint on Newark is still deep. It shows that his life's work still makes people's hearts, minds and souls come alive. 

The Sunday afternoon tour, which left from the Newark Public Library, stopped at touchstones of Roth's life, where passages from his books were read that expressed how his experiences at these locales were woven into his work. 

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"If you live somewhere or care about it, you have to know the narrative of the place," said Jonathan Curley, a humanities professor at the New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT), who teaches a seminar all about writers and poets from Newark, including Roth, and who read one of the passages. "You can't live in or come to somewhere every day and not know its story and make connections." 

The main protagonist of Roth's seminal 1959 short-story collection Goodbye, Columbus, works at the library, soaking in the city across the street at Washington Park before he heads into the stacks:

"Sitting there in the park, I felt a deep knowledge of Newark, an attachment so rooted that it could not help but branch out into affection."

The tour branched out throughout the city—down Broad Street past City Hall, making a slight right turn on to Clinton Avenue past the Riviera Hotel, where Roth's parents honeymooned. It wended to Weequahic Park, a verdant, emerald jewel separating its eponymous neighborhood from the hubbub of the airport and the port, the proximity to which defined your socioeconomic status. 

All of the local students who came of age in the 1940s and 1950s, including Roth, converged on Weequahic High School from what was then a predominantly Jewish neighborhood before the aftermath of the 1967 riots changed the area's demographics. The Art Deco building was a place where academic prowess was valued more than athletic power, with good grades paving the road to realizing the American Dream. 

The last stop of the tour pulled up to 81 Summit Avenue, Roth's boyhood home, a modest house befitting his family's middle-class status. Tour participants, some wearing Weequahic High School orange-and-brown colored shirts, emerged from the bus to take a closer look at the historical site plaque affixed to the building's front, a sign that Roth once walked these streets. A few people walked on to the house's postage-stamp sized lawn to take pictures of the sign.

An older African-American who lives in the house looked on the scene, then smiled and shrugged. 

"It's OK," she said. "This happens more often that you think."

What didn't happen often was Roth talking about the details of his life—he left that for both his non-fiction work and novels, in which he often used the character of Nathan Zuckerman as his semi-autobiographical voice. 

But when Liz Del Tufo, president of the Newark Landmarks and Preservation Committee, was trying to get to the root of which bus route Roth described riding from Weequahic to downtown, he answered her phone call. 

"I can't believe it! You let somebody into your life, and the next thing you know, they are asking the most intimate questions," Roth said, then paused. "Darling, it was the 14." 

For Bernice Lewitter Manshel, Roth was in her life, and least peripherally. A member of the Weequahic High School class of 1949, she was a year ahead of Roth. When she reads his work, she has a range of feelings, etched like growth rings in an old tree deeply rooted in the Newark of her youth.

"We knew him, and he got it right about us. He was right on target about how special it was, and how lucky we were," Manshel, of West Orange, said. "When I started to read his work, I wondered if it was so special because it was my world. But then I realized that the writing was magnificent. That's why he was a genius." 

After his death, many people referred to his 2004 novel The Plot Against America, an alternative history which details a fascist takeover of American politics by a demagogue, as a prescient parable in the light of the election of President Donald Trump in 2016. 

"I'm so sad that Philip didn't live to write about now," Manshel said. "I think he would have come out of retirement to do it." 

Roth bequeathed his 4,000-book personal library to the Newark Public Library, a fitting tribute to a city that played a major role in his life and in his work. Inside the main hall of the library's Italian Renaissance-inspired main branch on Washington Street after the tour, the impact of Roth's work motivated people to learn more. 

"Not everybody is aware of what people have done here in Newark. You need to take your time to understand where people came from," said Adrian DeVore, a city resident, while she looked up at four stories of marble arches rising from the central hall. "I'm going to go out and read a couple of his books."

Downtown residents Jorge Marques, 27,  and Erin Mortensen, 33, looked at a list of books that Roth cited as the most meaningful works of fiction he read during the first half of his life. The significance of Roth's work was well-recognized—he won every major literary prize, including the Pulitzer for his 1997 novel American Pastoral, expect for the one that eluded him—the Nobel Prize in Literature.

"Philip Roth's work is still alive. It's a not a museum piece," said Marques, who took a picture of himself on the steps of Roth's house. "His extensive body of work speaks for itself. I think he got shafted." 

Roth apparently disagreed with that assessment. Not long after he did not win the prize again after the publication of American Pastoral, he noted what he felt was the true acknowledgement of his love for writing, and of his love for Newark.

"Today, Newark is my Stockholm," Roth said after they affixed the sign marking his Weequahic home. "And that plaque is my prize." 

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