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Roth Not Taught

Philip Roth died on May 22 at the age of 85. He was commemorated in the days following as one of the great American authors of his time. Obituaries and remembrances celebrated his many honors (he won nearly every major American literary award) and his vast body of work (more than 30 novels in total). Yet, rather than overcrowding syllabuses at Yale University, Roth’s work is largely absent.

Roth’s voice was missing from almost every course offered at the Yale English department in the 2017-2018 academic year. None of the six “American Literature” courses offered throughout the year included a single Roth novel in its syllabus. And in courses like “Performing American Literature,” his novels were similarly absent. In the final year of his life, “the best and most important American novelist in the last 50 years” was not largely being taught at Yale.

Brian Goodman, a professor of English at Arizona State University who taught four Roth novels in the 2017-2018 academic year, explains the challenges of crafting a syllabus. “There is only so much real estate,” he said in an interview with The Politic. Due to time constraints within a semester, Goodman is able to structure a course around only so many books—his “sweet spot” being five novels paired with a selection of poetry and short fiction. Choosing one book over another is not only reflective of its literary merit and relevance to course themes, but also its length. The longer a book, he says, the more sessions it takes to teach. In practical terms, the inclusion of each Roth novel means one less novel by another author on Goodman’s syllabuses.

Jeffrey Williams, a professor of English at Carnegie Mellon University, notes the changing priorities within undergraduate English departments at American universities. “Probably the real issue,” said Jeffrey Williams in written correspondence with The Politic, “is not that there’s a lack of his being taught, but that there aren’t many Contemporary American Fiction courses offered.” And more broadly, he added, “there are so many other authors to teach.” At Yale, three “American Literature” courses were taught in Spring 2018. Though three “American Literature” courses may seem sufficient, the combined “real estate” of each syllabus is likely too small to accommodate the broad field of American literature, which dates back to 1860.

Both Goodman and Williams’ observations appear true. The Crying of Lot 49, a novel by Roth contemporary Thomas Pynchon, appeared in all three “American Literature” syllabuses in the Yale Spring 2018 semester. The White Album, a book of essays by Roth contemporary Joan Didion, appeared in one. Unsurprisingly, both books are less than 225 pages. Nevertheless, all the three syllabuses found room for Herman Melville’s 544-page magnum opus Moby Dick. On some level, it seems like the professors teaching “American Literature” simply chose to teach Roth’s contemporaries over Roth—which is understandable given the number of noteworthy American authors. Yet it is difficult to overlook Roth’s widespread critical acclaim, especially when compared to that of his contemporaries. Roth won five major American literary awards in his lifetime: a National Book Award, a National Book Critics Circle Award, a PEN/Faulkner, and a Pulitzer Prize. Pynchon and Didion each won a National Book Award.

Yet others argue that the standard format of “American Literature” courses at Yale may not best suit the instruction of Roth. Roth’s literary innovations’ are the most instructive aspect of his body of work, said the Wai Chee Dimock, a professor of English and American Studies at Yale, in written correspondence with The Politic. “The syllabus that shows him to best advantage, she contends, is one that includes at least two or three of his works, dramatizing how each is different. Currently,” she added, “this is not the format for teaching English and Comp Lit either at Yale or nationwide.” Dimock hopes to eventually showcase Roth’s “experiments with the literary form,” such as his play with the nightmarish and comic in Operation Shylock, in a course called “Experimental Humanities.”

Based on the the breadth of American literature and constraints in the format of American literature courses, it is understandable that Roth’s voice was absent from almost every undergraduate course offered in the Yale English department in the 2017-2018 academic year. Yet, given the volume and tone of the obituaries and remembrances that extolled his contributions to American literature, one would think he would be more frequently featured in Yale syllabuses. On one hand, his absence suggests that his voice was simply not being prioritized at that time. On another, his absence stands in marked contrast to the high praise Roth received after his death. In recent months, he has been characterized as “towering,” “propulsive,” and “peerless.”

Most importantly, however, Roth’s absence raises questions about the format of American literature courses at Yale. How should an American literature professor prioritize some authors over others? Is there any core group of American authors that English majors should read before graduating? Is Roth’s absence indicative of larger structural problems within American literature courses?

Beyond such questions, however, now may be the time to include Roth on “American Literature” syllabuses due to his novels’ politically relevant themes. Goodman recalls how, while teaching The Human Stain, one of his students raised her hand to express her frustration with Roth’s male-centric voice. Yet, at the end of the course, that same student voted to keep The Human Stain in the next iteration of the syllabus, precisely because of the novel’s challenging content. Especially in the context of the “Me Too” movement, says Goodman, Roth’s books facilitated important conversation in the classroom about the perspective of the white American male. Perhaps next year we will see more of Roth on Yale syllabuses.