Philip Roth has been a part of my life since I was a senior in college. When I first read Zuckerman Bound (a collection of four novels: The Ghost Writer, Zuckerman Bound, Anatomy Lesson, and The Prague Orgy) in a Twentieth Century American Literature class, I was enthralled. His humor and stark honesty were refreshing. Since then, I've read American Pastoral, The Plot Against America, Exit Ghost, Goodbye Columbus, Portnoy's Complaint, and Everyman. And I've still only dusted the top layer of his 32 works. His fresh, truly unique perspective is addictive.
On November 9th I was devastated to learn from The New Yorker online that Philip Roth was leaving writing. At seventy-nine years of age, he is retiring from his over fifty year career.
As one of the most successful living writers, his collection has not suffered over time. He has matured and gained perspective, and though I've enjoyed some of his work more than others, it has always been simply fantastic and utterly remarkable.
I have looked to Philip Roth as a mentor. His career and his body of work is beyond impressive. I cannot think of too many authors who have produced as much quality work as he has. Joyce Carol Oates is the only one who comes to mind, and I am convinced she writes in her sleep. I cannot imagine the sense of worth I would feel having achieved only a fraction of what he has.
At seventy-four, he re-read the his favorite authors then went through his own anthology beginning with the most recent published. After all was said and done, Roth viewed his work as mediocre. He did the best he could. Why write more? He argued that he was no longer living life, no longer interacting with it.
Julian Temper's article "In Which Philip Roth Gave Me Life Advice" in The Paris Review online captured my feelings of awe, and those of discontent not just in the wake of his retirement, but also in his attitude towards writing and his feelings towards his own work. It upsets me that Roth could be so pessimistic towards his own work, considering it commonplace. His recommendation to Temper was, "I would quit while you're ahead. Really, it's an awful field. Just torture. Awful. You write and you write, and you throw almost all of it away because it's not any good. I would say just stop now. You don't want to do this to yourself. That's my advice."
So much of Roth's later writing involves a man looking back at his life. My favorite Roth novel is Everyman. It is honest and beautiful. An aging man regrets his relationships, becomes incontinent, and questions his decisions. But that's what life, and death, is like. We wonder if we lived it well. We set ourselves up for disappointment by comparing ourselves to others we admire so much that it seems they have no faults. It is my hope that Roth, and everyone, writers and non-writers, stop being so hard on themselves. I would love for people, myself included, to see the beauty in their work, their relationships, and their life. It is my hope that Roth sees the artistry he has created in his paper worlds, and feels a real sense of a life lived well.
On October 29th, a Jack Russell Terrier was set on fire in Buffalo’s East Side. He was set on fire, alive. Just let that heinous image set in. After an investigation, two suspects have been taken into custody. Diondre Brown and his uncle, Adell Zeigler, are just 17 and 19 years old.
I’ve been following this story through reports on NPR and The Buffalo News, and I’m devastated by this act. Understanding how two people could consciously and knowingly make a decision to douse an animal in lighter fluid and set it on fire is completely beyond me. It’s worse than disgusting; it’s inhuman.
With third-degree burns covering thirty percent of his body, the puppy will more than likely survive, but may lose one of his legs. Had firefighters not arrived at the scene quickly, Phoenix, still on fire, would have almost certainly died. As it stands right now, he will lose most of his hide to the burns.
Now that suspects have been charged, the blaming has begun between the two young men. Brown’s mother states that Zeigler is responsible. Since the two met in a juvenile detention facility years ago, Zeigler has been a bad influence. She states that though Brown was present, Zeigler is the one who attempted to murder the dog.
Regardless of who performed the act, I hope that both young men are convicted and made responsible for this event, to the fullest extent of the law. When we find parties guilty for murder, whether they actually murdered a person, conspired, or sat by indignantly while the person’s life was being taken, we convict all involved. I do not see how this should be any different in instances of animal welfare. To those who argue it is just an animal, and the boys were just fooling around, please remember that most murderers in their youth took the lives of animals, often torturing them first and using painful means to execute these animals.
Brown’s family also argues that he has been affected by Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder after witnessing the murders of his mother and uncle in 2005. For me, making people responsible for crimes does not involve an eye-for-an-eye legislation. Rather, I think people who commit heinous crimes should be made to truly realize and understand the pain they caused. This is not easy, and it does not involve just saying “I’m sorry.” I don’t doubt that Brown experienced great trauma in witnessing murder in his youth. I am upset that he was not awarded help earlier. Maybe this situation would have been avoided if he had. Maybe he never would have gone into juvenile detention if he had gotten the help he needed in 2005. I think treatment for the psychological issues would be a step in the direction of allowing him to understand exactly what he participated in, and could possibly deter other acts of harm in the future.
The Jack Russell Terrier has been named Phoenix, fittingly. He is in care at the Buffalo Small Animal Hospital and is undergoing costly medical procedures. Please help, if you can, by providing a donation. The clinic is located at 243 South Elmwood Avenue, Buffalo, NY 14202 and their phone number is 716-852-1112.
I was a senior in high school when my English teacher’s jaw dropped, “You’ve never read Mark Twain?” We sat in five rows of five, twenty-five white, middle class, racially and ethnically uniform students. Of course I didn’t understand how important it was to read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn until I became immersed in the novel and educated on the history surrounding it. In college, at University at Buffalo, I read Huck Finn again and added a second annotated copy to my personal library, the latter with more in-depth observations. By my second read of the novel, though it had only been three years, my life had changed dramatically. I was a sophomore in college, in a city more racially diverse than I had ever experienced.
I grew up believing racism did not exist any longer. I lived in a small town buried in the Adirondack Mountains. Most people were Christian and the majority of people were white. I went to a school of about 500 students, two of whom were black, and one Asian, adopted into a white family. I didn’t feel as though these minority students were treated differently in our forest-enclosed ecosystem. Racism was something we learned about in American History. It was in the past.
In Buffalo, I encountered racism. I found racism lurked in people I would least foresee, friends and roommates both black and white expressed viewpoints I had not ever expected to hear. The upbringing I had thought to be normal, with little diversity and no cable television, was anything but. I was seeing racism for the first time, firsthand. In my education courses at UB, I uncovered a history of segregation and racism within the Buffalo Public Schools. I struggled with contradictions of such a sensitive nature that I had no idea what to do or how to feel, except to continue to treat people, all people, in manner that I would like to be treated. I stayed conscious of my interactions and periodically analyzed my thoughts, words, and actions to make sure that I wasn’t allowing prejudiced beliefs to seep into my mind, consciously or unconsciously.
I knew there was a connection between Buffalo and Mark Twain. Clemens Hall, the building that housed UB's English department, was named after him, Samuel Clemens being his biological name. I had heard that he lived in Buffalo for a period of time, and that his estate, on Delaware Ave., had been demolished. Still, it wasn’t until years later that I discovered the original, handwritten manuscript of his most well-known and significant work, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn lived in a glass enclosure in the Central Library in downtown, Buffalo.
Seeing the physical, original text that allowed people to view racism and slavery as it was in Twain’s world was simply inspiring. He created a movement with these words, some jotted hastily in an explosion of thought and others where time lingered in the space between them. Twain brought to life a spectacular work out of ink and paper; it has transformed people's beliefs for over a century, still with resounding relevance today.
And with this priceless document, different pages displayed depending on the day you enter the Twain Room, artifacts from his life, and the trunk where the manuscript was found many years after his death decorate the Twain Room. A ghostly photograph of his long-gone Buffalo home, where only the carriage house now remains. Memorabilia born from his writing and persona, along with different editions of his books, line the walls.
As summer came to a close, I traveled to the Southern Tier to pay my respects. Samuel Clemens lived much of his life in Elmira, New York. He, along with his wife, children, and other family members, were buried in Woodlawn Cemetery. I stood in front of his minimalist gravestone, inscribed with only his birth name, pen name, and the dates he lived. A tiny American flag tucked into the fall ground was the only adornment.
At Elmira College, my legs carried my body up the steps of his study, the circular room where he wrote so many of his timeless works. Originally located on the Quarry Farm estate that his in-laws owned, the study had been relocated to Elmira College in 1952 so that the public could access the historical building. It had originally been built so that Twain would be able to use the beautiful view to inspire his writing, and so that he would no longer smoke cigars in the house while writing. Though most of the belongings in the room were not his own, rather period appropriate, the structure was. The windows were original. The fireplace had been added after Twain could not rid the clouds of cigar smoke from the study's windows lining the entire structure. The addition of a fireplace obstructed his 360 degree view from his summit, but was necessary. Now photographs of his life in Elmira lined the walls above the windows, one taken of him inside the study as he looked out the window, another while he walked the steps down from his study to the main house.
The Twain curator was kind enough to provide me with a tour, answer my questions, and take my photo. A full bodied, beautiful young woman of a mixed racial background, I wondered how his work affected her differently than it did me. How had our different upbringings and interactions, racially influenced or otherwise, formed us and drew us to this literary icon? What did Twain mean to her that I had not and possibly will never unearth? Upon leaving, she handed me a copy of a short story he wrote in that very study, a first hand account of a former slave who worked for his family at Quarry Farm, called "A True Story, Repeated Word for Word As I Heard It."
In the story, Aunt Rachel explains why she has always has a smile on her face and is in good spirits. Clemens assumes it is because she has never had any trouble, that her life has been uncomplicated, a reflection of her optimism. Born into slavery, Aunt Rachel lost her entire family, her husband and seven children when they were sold off in auction. With painful detail, she recounts their loss, and how she vowed to find her youngest son with no direction in sight. She tells of how she survived after the war, and the night when everything changed and her son was brought back into her life.
People often believe what lies on the surface is the imprint of one's insides. Perhaps Twain wrote this story to display his own ignorance; or, maybe he was using himself as a vehicle for the reader to recognize situations where she has made assumptions. Regardless, Twain exercised the ability to show people for who they really are, beneath the tint of their skin.
I implore you, reader, to take advantage of Twain's foresight. We may be molded by our own experiences and the way we were raised, but the ability to sculpt ourselves into a better, more compassionate and less ignorant, version is not lost. Learn from others and empathize. The path to understanding oneself may be found within the experiences of another.
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