For 14 weeks in the fall of 1977, I was an undergraduate in a graduate English seminar taught by Philip Roth at the University of Pennsylvania.
A few slots in the seminar had been set aside for undergraduates and you had to apply for the position by sending a paper to Mr. Roth. If he liked what you wrote, you were in.
I remember reading the announcement on the departmental bulletin board in Bennett Hall and racing back to the dorm to telephone my mother.
“Mom,” I said. “You have to go through all the boxes on the pingpong table in the basement and find the final paper I wrote for Contemporary American Lit and mail it to me. The title is ‘Fantasy and Fulfillment in Robert Coover’s “Universal Baseball Association.”’ I need a copy to apply for a seminar Philip Roth is teaching in the fall.”
I wasn’t sure how Philip Roth felt about baseball. But I thought my paper demonstrated I was curious and open to writing about subjects not typically associated with my gender. And the professor for whom I’d written the paper had liked it and given me high praise.
“Do I have to look for it this minute?” my mother asked. She explained she was on her way to the supermarket. “Can’t it wait until I get back?”
“Noooooo,” I wailed. “My future depends on getting into this class!”
My mother sighed. “All right.”
My mother was worried about my future, too. People asked her what kind of job one could get as an English major. Neither of us knew.
I was relieved when my mother found the paper and thrilled when I received the letter from the department chair informing me I had been accepted to Philip Roth’s seminar.
The class, on the post-war Eastern European novel, met in a small, dingy room on the fourth floor of Bennett Hall. We were a group of 15 students: 10 graduate and five undergraduate. From the beginning, Mr. Roth developed an intense dislike of the graduate students. He belittled them as unoriginal sycophants and suck-ups. Pretty soon they were afraid to say anything lest they feel the sting of his words.
This created a space for the undergraduates to take over, and we did. He thought we were exceptional. Perhaps we were the children he never had. Maybe we reminded us of himself as a young man — outspoken, opinionated, bold. I enjoyed his class more than any of my others, where I felt shy and intimidated, afraid to participate.
I barely recall what we read. Milosz, Kundera, and, inexplicably, three novels by the French writer, Colette. So much for the study of East European writers.
The thing was, the class met once a week for two hours and Mr. Roth was hardly there. He missed enough classes to anger the already disgruntled grad students. One day I came to class to find someone had taped to the door a newspaper clipping about Philip Roth and Claire Bloom vacationing in the Caribbean. Above the story someone had written in angry, red letters: “So that’s where you’ve been all this time, Phil.”
More than what we talked about in class, I remember the intensity of his presence, a literary luminary in that dismal room in Bennett Hall. The writer whose dark eyes flashed with intelligence and insight. The writer who was a rebel. The writer who never left off probing the question of Jewish identity, of what it means to be a Jew in the 20th century. Much as he hated the label Jewish-American writer, according to his obituary in The New York Times, I think he was both: American by birth and Jewish in his portrayal of protagonists who struggle with and against the weight of Jewish history. My favorite Roth novel is “The Ghost Writer,” a short book where Nathan Zuckerman, Roth’s fictional alter ego, confronts the ghost of Anne Frank.
Philip Roth did not know me but for 14 weeks he was my teacher. The experience of being in his class, his devotion to the written word, inspired me to go to graduate school in English, where I finally understood why grad students feel the need to impress their professors.
He was charming, mercurial, snide, funny, and brilliant. He was passionate about writing, and this was something I felt and understood. He was not reliable, and he was not fair, but he was generous to those he liked, and those few weeks in his class gave me the confidence that my voice mattered and helped me pursue a life of reading and writing.