Newark, New Jersey, and Philip Roth

I lived for many years in and around Newark, New Jersey. I had moved from San Diego to Los Angeles and then onto St. Louis on the way to Northern New Jersey. I started my serious adult career in a tall office building in the center of Newark that famously had trilobites fossilized in the marble surrounding the elevators. For a while I lived just over the line in East Orange but later moved to a small apartment close to the park (on the Belleville side). I took the city trolley into work most days or a bus that ran down Franklin and dropped me off near the Newark Museum.

Philip Roth

This was a time not long after the riots but before the major changes to the downtown shopping areas. Newark was a fine city, not without its problems, but well-controlled by the likes of Hugh Addonizio and Tony Imperiale with an open hand and a pocketful of corruption.

Although I was most familiar with the North Ward and the neighboring towns like Nutley, Bloomfield, and Belleville, I commuted to work for several years with a co-worker from the south side:  Weequahic and Irvington. This was Philip Roth country but it was early in the writer’s career so I didn’t recognize my familiarity with the many local sites that would later make his novels so real to me.

But I also understand that Philip Roth is writing fiction and the Newark he describes is manipulated by the his imaginative mind as much as by the inevitable changes time has thrown down on the city. To celebrate and emphasize this connection with Newark, both real and fictional, the New York Times published a very nice piece associated with the author’s 80th birthday …

Goodbye, Newark, the Place Roth Never Left

NEWARK — Since he announced his retirement from writing, Philip Roth has been in an unusually good mood. On Tuesday he celebrated his 80th birthday here — a city where he no longer lives but never entirely left — by juking into a reception space at the Newark Museum behind marching-band drummers from Weequahic High School, his alma mater. There Mr. Roth, normally the most private of authors, was greeted with applause from 250 friends, relatives and invited guests, including members of the Philip Roth Society, scholars who specialize in his work.

Mr. Roth on the beach with his mother in 1935 in a family photograph on display at the Newark Public Library. More Photos »
Waving and smiling, he cut into a huge cake shaped like a stack of books while the novelist Louise Erdrich toasted him in Ojibwe, giving him the Indian name Everlasting Man of Opposites. “I wanted you to jump out of a cake,” he told her.

The event was part of a two-day celebration organized by the Roth Society and the Newark Preservation and Landmarks Committee, with a lot of input from Mr. Roth. On Monday at the Robert Treat Hotel there was a daylong academic conference, “Roth @ 80,” devoted to his work. He did not attend, which was just as well. His presence would have been both distracting and unnecessary, since most members of the Roth Society know his books probably better than he does. There were papers on narrativity, performativity and counterfactuality in Roth; on the connections between Roth and Austen, Roth and Joyce, Roth and Yeats, Roth and Synge; on Roth in Romania and Roth in Russia. …

On Tuesday morning “Philip Roth: An Exhibit of Photos from a Lifetime” opened at the Newark Public Library, where parts of “Goodbye, Columbus” are set and where the show will remain until Aug. 31. The photos, arranged in cases on the second floor, were selected from his own collection by Mr. Roth, who also wrote the captions. One shows Mr. Roth in his New York apartment, standing in front of a map of Newark. It looks, the caption says, as if his “beloved Newark” were “oozing out of his head.”

Many of the photos are of a vanished Newark and the people who used to live there, especially Roth’s parents and grandparents, and of Bradley Beach, on the Jersey Shore, where the Roth family used to go for a couple of weeks every summer. One of these, of Mr. Roth on the beach with his mother in 1935, leaves the viewer in no doubt that, as he once said, “She adored me.”

Please read the entire article at the NYT and if you’re in the area, a visit to the photography exhibit at the Newark Public Library (one of my old haunts) is certainly not to be missed.

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