Philip Roth’s Authorized Biography Goes Awry

I’m currently reading Blake Bailey’s authorized biography of Philip Roth, a work removed from the shelves of America’s bookstores (not to mention from Amazon warehouses) after its publisher WW Norton suspended shipping and promotion as a consequence of several women accusing Bailey of sexual misconduct, including assault, which he adamantly denies. An independent publisher called Skyhorse has acquired the rights and issued a paperback edition, so the book is still available, though in a less glamorous format.[1]

Before tackling the biography (wrapping it in my arms and driving it to gridiron), I revisited Portnoy’s Complaint, one of the funniest books I’ve ever read, and though it came out in 1969, the prose is as fresh as this morning’s oven-extracted loaf of Jewish rye, except that Portnoy uses the c-word as both an anatomical descriptor and as a synecdoche for womankind in general.[2] Of course, Portnoy’s a madman, so we shouldn’t hold Roth personally responsible for his creation’s misogynistic language, any more than we should lambaste Nabokov for Humbert’s pederasty, except that throughout the biography, Roth himself uses the c-word in the same manner, anatomically and collectively.[3] This unfortunate habit tends to conflate the biographer with his subject.

Indeed, it seems that like Portnoy and perhaps Blake Bailey, Roth was sex obsessed. When interviewing Bailey for the job of authorized biographer, he produced a photo album devoted to his ex-girlfriends, which reminded me of the scene in Carnal Knowledge when the Jack Nicholson character projects a slideshow of photos of his sexual conquests. On the other hand, Bailey writes that the album was “an artifact attesting to the only passion that ever rivaled his writing. He doted on these women and vice versa; several of them came to his bedside while he lay dying, as did I.” 

In her review of Philip Roth the Biography, entitled “In ‘Philip Roth,’ a Life of the Literary Master as Aggrieved Playboy,” Parul Sehgal writes that Bailey’s book is “a narrow portrait of a wide life. We know the ’60s have arrived because we are told that Roth is now regularly propositioning women in the elevator. When he travels to Thailand, Bailey speculates: ‘Perhaps he was most struck by the ubiquitous availability of sex.”’

Also, there is the conundrum of Roth’s relationship with Judaism. Again, Sehgal, “Whether he was pilloried as the Jewish second coming of Goebbels (‘What is being done to silence this man?’ the president of the Rabbinical Council of America wrote to the Anti-Defamation League) or a woman hater, he held to the notion of novelist as the ‘nose in the seam of the undergarment,’ the enemy of public relations. And now, he who found liberation in sex and work reported being rid of the tyranny of both.”

Ultimately, though, it’s the Roth’s literary output that I’m eager to see analyzed. I mean, his body of work inspires awe: American PastoralThe Human StainThe Plot Against AmericaThe Ghost Writer, etc. To me, his not being chosen for a Noble Prize borders on criminality. So what if Roth was arrogant, self-obsessed, vengeful, it’s the work that matters. Look at Yeats, Eliot, Hemingway, Faulkner, Philip Larkin – they all possessed more than their share of human frailties. I’m only 100 pages in Bailey’s bio but haven’t seen much critical contemplation of Roth’s fiction. It reminds me of David Lipsky’s Although of Course You End Up Being Yourself, an assessment of David Foster Wallace that essentially ignores his work. What makes Roth and Wallace interesting is their art, not their foibles. 

The bad news for Roth is that Blake Bailey’s own sexual misconduct may have tainted the biography, to have, in the words of Alexandra Alter and Jennifer Schuessler, “intensified a parallel conversation about Roth’s treatment of women, adding fuel to the questions of whether Bailey’s account of Roth’s sexual and romantic relationships was overly sympathetic and oversimplified” despite Roth’s attempt to, as one critic put it, through Bailey “ghost write his own biography.” 

The best laid schemes of mice and men.

Roth in 2010, photo by Nancy Crampton

[1] I actually possess the hardback edition, which I copped from independent bookseller Buxton Books right after Norton yanked it out of print. I’m hoping that one day it will be considered a rare first edition and I’ll be able to swap it for a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle.  (BTW, I’m weary of Microsoft Word EB-White-ing out every goddamned adverb I carefully insert in my sonorous sentences). They want me to ax “actually” which I actually don’t want to do.

[2] “Synecdoche is a literary trope in which a part stands for the whole, as in “I should have been a pair of ragged claws/Scuttling across the floors of silent seas,” or more familiarly, “Donald Trump is an asshole.” 

[3] The late James Hillman made a cogent observation about the ugliness and violence of English vernacular terms dealing with sex, e.g., “nailed her,” “fucked her eyes out,” “gash,” etc. as opposed to Hindi’s “jade stalk” for penis and “pearled temple” for vagina, suggesting, of course, very different attitudes toward sex, one diseased, the other reverential.

Ode to Oblivion

DNA by Iwasaki Tsuneo

Ode to Oblivion

“Form is emptiness, emptiness form”
The Heart Sutra

The sum of nothing, 

            vacuity cubed,

silence so profound,

            saints and sages

stuff their ears 

            with cotton.

Land of a Thousand [plus] Hysterics

St. Vitus’ Dance by Pieter Brueghel the Elder

I’m squandering this glorious autumn Sabbath Sunday up in my drafty garret researching medical maladies.[1] I have discovered, to my great relief, that somehow I avoided coming down with St. Vitus Dance, also known as Sydenham’s chorea, which is a by-product of rheumatic fever, a disease that laid me up for three months when I was five. Sydenham chorea came to be known as St. Vitus Dance because its victims develop spasmodic involuntary herky-jerky movements involving arms, legs, fingers, heads, and tongues. If you want to vicariously feel what it’s like, pull out the ol’ phonograph, un-sleeve your Wilson Pickett’s Greatest Hits album, turn the speed up to 78 rpm, guide the stylus to the last song on the B-side, “Land of a Thousand Dances,” and let the music guide you.

It seems, however, that during the Middle Ages, a manic compulsion, also known as St. Vitus’s Dance, swept through Europe. To quote John Waller in his A Time to Dance, a Time to Die: The Extraordinary Story of the Dancing Plague of 1518:

It started with just a few people dancing outdoors in the summer heat. Arms flailing, bodies swaying and clothes soaked with sweat, they danced through the night and into the next day. Seldom stopping to eat or drink, and seemingly oblivious to mounting fatigue and the pain of bruised feet, they were still going days later. By the time the authorities intervened, hundreds more were dancing in the same frenetic fashion.

So, this is a different type of St. Vitus dance from the post-streptococcus, post-rheumatic-fever variety. Blogger Jen Messier offers a review of theories as to whether it was “a real illness or social phenomenon,” which includes the possibility it may have been a by-product of Ergot poisoning (aka St. Anthony’s Fire), or a freaked-out response of super-stressed people facing the bubonic plague and malnutrition, or, her favorite theory, the dancers were religious cultists feigning illness so they could get around quarantine rules forbidding dancing.

Some of these enthusiasts literally danced themselves to death, especially in what has become known as “the Dancing Plague of 1518,” which took place in Strasbourg. Again, John Waller: “the dancing mania underscores the power of cultural context to shape the way in which psychological suffering is expressed.” 

Mass hysteria, anti-quarantine shenanigans, cultists crashing school board meetings overcome with uncontrollable anger manifesting itself in herky-jerky movements, arms flailing, fingers jabbing, mouths –to borrow Ezra Pound’s memorable phrase – “arse belching.” 

Yes, seems like old times.

[1] By the way, the windows are open, and I can see from my vantage point sun glinting on pine needles and the soft swaying of magnolia boughs just beyond the iMac screen, so I ain’t completely cut off from nature.

Shouldn’t Orwell or Huxley Warned Us about This?

Bryce Hall, Tic-Tok and YouTube Super Celebrity (Gimme a D, gimme a U, gimme an H)

Last Friday, I attended homecoming at the high school where I had taught for thirty-four years. The stadium wasn’t crowded, which suited Caroline and me, given the pandemic. We stood on the perimeter of the field chatting with a couple of moms behind a fence near the goal line when a sudden din distracted us. A swarm of middle schoolers scuttled past with phones held aloft.

Some celebrity, it seemed, had entered the stadium. I figured it must be Kris Middleton, an NBA all-star alum. The squealing commotion reminded me of Beatlemania, and it surprised me that Middleton’s presence would generate so much enthusiasm. The scrum, which had swarmed past a moment ago, now stumbled en masse slowly in the opposite direction with a tall, unsmiling beefy black man in its center. 

As it turned out, he was Bryce Hall’s bodyguard. 

Bryce Hall was in the house! The Bryce Hall![1]

His coming [archaic usage warning] was telegraphed via Tik-Tok, his arrival announced on Tic-Tok. Eventually, the melee settled down on our end of the field, and for a half hour or so, Bryce roamed the homefield sidelines of the stadium. I think he left before halftime, prior to the coronation of the homecoming queen.[2]

As it turns out, Bryce is a Tik-Tok and YouTube celebrity with umpteen-K followers.[3] When I got home, I ascended the stairs to my drafty garret and conjured on my desktop commuter a ten-minute video of Bryce and his pals and a then subjected myself to a couple of his Tic-Toks. 

Look, I have nothing against Bryce – he seems amiable enough – but over the course of that YouTube video, I decided that if I were in my early twenties, these wanna-be cats wouldn’t be hanging out in my seedy apartments. They be vacuous, mon, overly ironic in the boring contemporary unwitty way that un-spleenful cynics are ironic, as a force of habit, not conviction, trafficking in cynicism lite, if you will. In the video, they bragged about quantities of Ks and performed cannonballs in a pool overlooking a canyon. I didn’t dislike them but found them boring and wondered how such unremarkable fellows could garner so much adulation, not to mention, I’m assuming, hundreds of thousands of dollars. 


In 1977, I read a just-released book by Christopher Lasch called Cultural Narcissism, which received megatons of media attention after President Carter read it and accused the nation of suffering from a “moral malaise.”  

I have no idea what happened to my copy, so I can’t quote directly, but I clearly remember Lasch’s writing about the narcissistic individuals’ compulsion to appear on national television during football games, the desire of having CBS’s cameras focusing on them, zooming in, flashing their images around the world live (hence the attention-grabbing frat-boy war paint in Gainesville and in Green Bay middle-aged men dressed up like cheese). Lasch argued that being on live TV authenticated their being, underscored their reality.

The same thing might be said for people seeking proximity to celebrity. If you’re near a celebrity, sharing the same space, your status rises, the large number of “likes” the celebrity photo generates on your social media platforms validates your existence.

The more the merrier.

I see a similar phenomenon on Twitter, people groveling for followers, some going so far as announcing publicly mere minutes after loved ones have died how “broken they are” so they can amass “likes” and sympathetic comments.

What’s odd, though, is that one of my stepdaughter’s sleepover friends told me that “no one likes” Bryce, that, in fact, everyone hates him, though she herself admitted to being part of the mob that tried to get as close to him as possible.

It’s as if that in late capitalism that self-worth is a commodity that must be amassed, counted, verified, and broadcast. 

In fact, I’m guilty of it as well.

the scowling author basking in his 15 nanoseconds of fame in Bryce’s YouTube video (hat tip Lucy Freeman)

[1] Whoever that is.

[2] This raises the question: did the opposing team’s teens from Pinewood Prep know of Bryce’s presence? And if they, did they come over to our side to bask in his glow? 

[3] Given my status as “tattered coat upon a stick,” you can bet your very last bitcoin I ain’t bothering to look it up.

A Not Fervent Hypocritical Plea

Listen, when I was young, I was reckless. Just ask my dead mother who in a Biloxi, Mississippi beach cottage circa 1956 scraped me screaming off a hardwood floor after I had leapt Lone-Ranger-like from the top of my chest-of-drawers onto a rocking horse that catapulted me face first splat. 

Ask Joey Brown, whose Toyota I totaled in Hilton Head on a roundabout in August of 1976.

Or ask Jacob T. Williams II who two years later rode shotgun as I drove my MG Midget down a capital city sidewalk and made an ill-fated left down steps into a parking garage whose bottom floor housed the Campus Police of the University of South Carolina.[1]

Given that regrettable history, you might think I’d grant slack to others who foolishly throw caution to the salt breeze of Folly Beach, yet, this afternoon, as I walked home from Chico Feo on East Erie, my tongue cluck-clucked as I espied[2] a family of conservative-looking folks[3] barreling past in a golf cart with a grandmother teetering on the back seat clutching a squirming child no more than six months old. 

Yes, that’s foolish, I was foolish, but is it any of my business?

No, it’s not. They, though Darwinianly dense, weren’t endangering anyone but themselves (and their progeny), The odds were pretty good they’d get where they were going without a distracted texter, blind-as-a-bat octogenarian, or meth-crazed speed demon smashing into them.[4]

No, it’s none of my business.

On the other hand, reckless people who refuse to get vaccinated or wear masks indoors in close quarters are everyone’s business. Their refusal, whether prompted by political lobotomization, laziness, and/or unscientific paranoia, has allowed the virus to mutate.[5]. The needless continuance of contagion dampens sparks, snuffs out fun. Twice now, my 50th highschool reunion has been postponed – that and 1 out of 500 Americans has died of COVID according to the Washington Post.

So, c’mon people now, smile on your brother [and sister].

Everybody get together and get a vaccine right now.[6]

Right now.

Right how. 

Because if you roll the dice often enough, you gonna come up snake eyes. 


Here’s Rickie Lee doing “The Horses”

Rickie Lee Jones performs on Saturday Night Live in 1982, the year after she released her second album, Pirates.</e

[1] This little lark cost me a reckless driving conviction, 200 dollars, and six points off my license, not to mention a significant elevation of my insurance rates, but as Rickie Lee Jones so eloquently put it in her best song “The Horses,” “when I was young, I was a wild, wild one.”

[2] You know any writer who uses the verb “espied” has one foot in the ditch of dementia. 

[3] And I don’t mean by “conservative” MAGA-hat-wearing gun-toting cretins but regular-looking Jesus-believing white Southerners.

[4]  However, two blocks west of where I saw the golf cart stands a marker commemorating the spot where someone named Mark Riedel was killed by someone who ran a stop sign.

[5] The bad good news is that it seems that COVID has taken out a disproportionate number of rightwing radio personalities, which is okay with me.

[6] Of course, the odds of a vaccine holdout reading this blog are less than the University of South Carolina Gamecocks going undefeated this season. 

Welcome Guest Blogger, Edward Lee-Edward Edwards IV

Edward Lee-Edward Edwards IV

Hello, Hoodoo readers. Today I’m honored to introduce guest blogger Edward Lee-Edward Edwards IV, the distinguished Henry James Professor of Locution at Vanderbilt University. Professor Edwards holds many provocative viewpoints that no doubt would shock (and perhaps dismay you) if you could only figure out what in the hell he’s trying to get at.

So, without any further ado . . . 

A Confession

I need to phrase delicately the following to soften (i.e., to obscure) with carefully selected Latinate diction and syntax rife with interruptive asides, to soften, as I say, the impact of an opinion that I hold that is anathema to Christian charity, i.e., to common human decency.

To wit: whenever I run across an account (which happens more frequently than you might imagine) of an illiberal rightwing radio personality[1] who had broadcast misinformation about the Covid-19 virus, e.g., that masks and vaccinations are ineffective, that vaccinations result in sci-fi-grade side effects such as epidermal magnification, or that other non-approved veterinary drugs such as Ivermectin can successfully treat the malady, and discover, as I read these accounts, that the said radio personality has succumbed to Covid, instead of dismay, a warm, pleasant feeling of schadenfreude washes over me until I realize that, oh no, dullards will perceive the deceased radio personality’s flaunting of COVID protocols and then dying of the disease as ironic when in fact his contracting the disease is just what one would expect, i.e., the antithesis of irony!

Edward Lee-Edward Edwards IV

Way Yonder East in the Land of Tora Bora

Yesterday, the former President of the United States of America, Donald J. Trump, issued a proclamation decrying the removal of a statue in Richmond, Virginia, of the famed Confederate General Robert Edward Lee.[2] After lauding the statue’s aesthetic attributes and lamenting its being “cut into three pieces […] prior to its complete desecration,” the former President muses that “[i]f only we had Robert E. Lee to command our troops in Afghanistan, that disaster would have ended in a complete and total victory many years ago. What an embarrassment we are suffering because we don’t have the genius of a Robert E. Lee!”

I won’t beleaguer my readers with an interminable recapitulation of the abject failure of Western Invaders’ attempts over the centuries (commencing with Alexander the Great) to subdue the Afghan people or to argue that perhaps the removal of the statue had more to do with Great Uncle General Lee’s status as slaveowner and insurrectionist than it did with his military genius nor point out that Trump’s claim that Lee was indeed a military genius is, in fact, not universally shared by historians[3], but rather, I’d like to acknowledge the amusement Trump’s statement provided me as I visualized the Army of Northern Virginia clashing with the Taliban in Tora Bora or in the streets of Kabul. 

At any rate, few pleasures are possible for a man of my advanced age, gout-ridden, suffering from vertigo, etc., so I doff my hat to President Trump for the that wry smile that creased my age-etched visage.


So that’s it for today. Kudos and thanks to Professor Edwards. We’d love to invite you back sometime. You certainly have a way with words!


[1] I concede “illiberal rightwing radio host” may be a tautology, i.e., redundant, like the explanation in this footnote itself.

[2] For the sake of full disclosure, General Lee was a great-great-great-uncle of mine, i.e., I’m a distant relative. 

[3] There is, however, a consensus among historians that Lee was the losing general in the Civil War.

My Sweet Tooth Says I Wanna, But My Wisdom Tooth Says No

Jamaican reggae musician, singer and producer Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry performs at Poppodium De Flux, Zaandam, Netherlands, 8th April 2018. (Photo by Paul Bergen/Redferns)

Here’s what I’m not going to write about today:

Not about the Murdaughs of Colleton County whose family drama has entered the terrain of Greek tragedy, a once proud House suffering a Faulknerian fall akin to the Compsons’ collapse.

The Murdaugh saga commenced with drunken redheaded USC junior Paul Murdaugh crashing his boat and killing a passenger, followed by his and mother’s murder, their bodies discovered by father/husband Alex at the family hunting lodge. This weekend as Alex changed a tire on a country road, a bullet allegedly fired from a truck grazed his head. On Labor Day, he checked himself into rehab after resigning from his law firm amid accusations of missing millions. We’re talking two mini-series worth of real life Southern gothic mayhem that out-Outer-Banks Outer Banks.

Have at it, Netflix screenwriters. I’ve got better things not to do.

Not about Fletcher Henderson, underappreciated, who transformed Dixieland into Swing, led a big band that employed the likes of Louis Armstrong, Roy Eldridge, Coleman Hawkins, a band that provided the soundtracks for the Harlem Renaissance and Terrytoon animated shorts.

Fletcher Henderson

Not about Gandy Goose cartoons, an LSD substitute for tots, Gandy and pal Sour Puss bopping along, the jazz soundscape providing syncopation for the herky jerky action of the animation, often dream sequences with metamorphoses galore. BTW, Gandy Goose and Sour Puss sound as if they could be a Jamaican Dance Hall duo a la Yellowman and Fathead.

Not about Dub Shaman Scratch Perry, Reggae producer extraordinaire, mentor to Bob Marley, Scratch ping-ponging in the studio from synthesizer to guitar to drums in a creative dance that makes music rather than the music making the dance. An incredibly important figure in 20th century music that virtually no one has heard of.

Not about cherubic grandson Julian Levi Moore who just celebrated his two-month birthday.

So, that’s it. What are you not writing about today?

Down Their Carved Names

Hardy and his second wife Florence

On a clear March afternoon in 1977 after we had decided to get married, I remember riding shotgun in Judy Birdsong’s gold-flecked Camaro headed over the Gervais Street Bridge in Columbia, South Carolina, and thinking to myself as I watched her hair fluttering in the open window wind, “Oh no, in twenty-five years she very well may be dead.”[1]

A fairly morbid thought for a twenty-four-year-old, but it runs in the family.

And, um, duh, every organism, whether it be goldfish, hamster, kitty cat, or puppy dog– not to mention house plants and patches of Saint Augustine – is doomed to die. Healthy people repress the thought or look forward to an afterlife or rationalize that there could be no genetic diversity without death or like Wallace Stevens hail death “the mother of beauty.”

Not Thomas Hardy. For him, death is ever-present, lurking in even the most pleasant of settings. Here’s a poem he wrote shortly after his first wife Emma’s death.

During Wind and Rain

They sing their dearest songs— 

       He, she, all of them—yea, 

       Treble and tenor and bass, 

            And one to play; 

      With the candles mooning each face. . . . 

            Ah, no; the years O! 

How the sick leaves reel down in throngs! 


They clear the creeping moss— 

       Elders and juniors—aye, 

       Making the pathways neat 

            And the garden gay; 

       And they build a shady seat. . . . 

            Ah, no; the years, the years, 

See, the white storm-birds wing across. 


They are blithely breakfasting all— 

       Men and maidens—yea, 

       Under the summer tree, 

            With a glimpse of the bay, 

       While pet fowl come to the knee. . . . 

            Ah, no; the years O! 

And the rotten rose is ript from the wall. 


They change to a high new house, 

       He, she, all of them—aye, 

       Clocks and carpets and chairs 

          On the lawn all day, 

       And brightest things that are theirs. . . . 

          Ah, no; the years, the years; 

Down their carved names the rain-drop ploughs.

These lives aren’t “solitary, nasty, brutish and short” but rather pleasant. In fact, the first five lines of each stanza are positive, describe harmonious family gatherings. However, each stanza ends in a refrain that foreshadows what Andrew Marvel called “deserts of vast eternity.”

The critic John Foy describes the poem’s structure as “double-looking,” pointing “to both life and oblivion.”

“This rhetorical pattern, replicated in all four stanzas, contains two thematic perspectives, where the first five lines point one way and the last two point another.  It acknowledges Hardy’s understanding of the terrible duality inherent in the nature of things.  We are here for a while, and then we are gone.  In his stanza, the heedlessness and the impending dissolution don’t cancel each other out.  They exist together in tragic equipoise, five lines to life, two lines to dissolution, bound together by the structure”.

            John Foy, “Form as Moral Content in Thomas Hardy’s ‘During Wind and Rain’”

To love a poem doesn’t mean you have to embrace the poem’s theme. For example, although I’m not a Christian, I’d haul Paradise Lost with me to the proverbial desert island (or on a spacecraft headed to Mars). Despite that sudden morbid thought in 1977, I haven’t spent my life brooding over its inevitable end. In fact, I’m fine with oblivion, didn’t mind at all my pre-existence, yet I really love Hardy’s poem, especially its last line, the music of it, the three accented final words and the image of a raindrop like a tear running down a name carved in stone.

And, as it turned out, Hardy remarried a woman named Florence Dugdale who wrote to a friend, “Perhaps you have read, if you have the English papers, that I am now the proud and very happy wife of the greatest living English writer – Thomas Hardy. Although he is much older than myself it is a genuine love match – on my part, at least, for I suppose I ought not to speak for him. At any rate I know I have for a husband one of the kindest, most humane men in the world.”

A happy ending of sorts for Hardy, a rarity in his works.

[1] Actually, it was 40 years later that she died.