COMMENTARY played a significant role in Philip Roth’s career. In early 1957, the 27-year old assistant editor of COMMENTARY, Norman Podhoretz, was perusing the magazine’s “slush pile” of unsolicited manuscripts and found a piece titled “You Can’t Tell a Man by the Song He Sings,” submitted by a little-known 24-year old named Philip Roth. Podhoretz convinced his senior editors to publish it, and it appeared in the November 1957 issue of COMMENTARY. It became part of Goodbye, Columbus in 1959, which won the National Book Award, and the rest is literary history. In the following decades, Norman Podhoretz's reviews of Roth and his books at COMMENTARY (such as this and this) comprised some of the most trenchant literary criticism written in those years.
This past week, as readers mourned Roth’s passing, there has been a mini-debate about which of his books was his best. Most of the short lists included The Plot Against America, Roth’s novel imagining what might have happened had Charles Lindbergh run for president in 1940, won election as an anti-Semitic isolationist, negotiated an “understanding” with Hitler, and brought fascism to America. Several pages into the novel, which is structured as a memoir, the narrator recalls his false sense of security as a Jewish youngster growing up in America:
Israel didn’t yet exist, six million European Jews hadn’t yet ceased to exist, and the local relevance of distant Palestine (under British mandate since the 1918 dissolution by the victorious Allies of the last far-flung provinces of the defunct Ottoman Empire) was a mystery to me. When a stranger who did wear a beard and who was never once seen hatless appeared every few months after dark to ask in broken English for a contribution toward the establishment of a Jewish national homeland in Palestine, I, who wasn’t an ignorant child, didn’t quite know what he was doing on our landing. My parents would give me or Sandy a couple of coins to drop into his collection box, largess, I always thought, dispensed out of kindness so as not to hurt the feelings of a poor old man who, from one year to the next, seemed unable to get it through his head that we’d already had a homeland for three generations. I pledged allegiance to the flag of our homeland every morning at school. I sang of its marvels with my classmates at assembly programs. I eagerly observed its national holidays, and without giving a second thought to my affinity for the Fourth of July fireworks or the Thanksgiving turkey or the Decoration Day double-header.
“Decoration Day” was what Memorial Day was generally called before World War II, celebrated every May 30 until Congress moved it to the last Monday in May, to create a three-day holiday.
Making Memorial Day part of a long weekend has had the unfortunate effect of in many cases relegating it to a vacation rather than focusing on it as a day of memory. As Meir Soloveichik notes in the June issue of Commentary, it is “observed by many (though not all) Americans as escapes from work, and too few ponder the link between the sacrifice of American dead and the freedom that we, the living, enjoy.”
Roth’s novel showed how (in Sinclair Lewis’s phrase) it might have “happened here.” But the book was fiction, and the historical fact is it didn’t happen here. Eventually more than 400,000 Americans died in World War II to make sure it didn't, and to secure our extraordinary freedoms. The list of American casualties in various other wars is also stunning. In its legislation, Congress designated the minute beginning at 3:00 p.m. (local time) on Memorial Day each year as the “National Moment of Remembrance”. We owe all of those who died in our defense much more than that.