Philip Roth Pays Tribute to a Mentor, Character
‘Doc Lowenstein’ was the inspiration for his character Murray Ringold
Over the weekend, Philip Roth delivered a eulogy for Bob Lowenstein, an old teacher of Roth’s from Weequahic High School. While Roth may be retired from writing, an abridged version of the address was published in the weekend Times before the funeral service itself was held on Sunday.
So how is an adaptation of a eulogy to be delivered by America’s most celebrated author considered newsworthy? Well, here’s a small section of it.
Bob was the model for a major figure in my novel “I Married a Communist,” a book I published in 1998 recalling the anti-Communist period I mentioned earlier and that savage, malicious mauling that people like Bob suffered in those years from the teeth and the claws of the scum then in power.
The character is a retired high school teacher named Murray Ringold, and, like Bob, he teaches at Weequahic High, though not, like Bob, Romance languages but English. I also altered Bob’s appearance, his war record and certain significant details of his personal life — Bob didn’t, for example, have a hotheaded murderer for a brother — but otherwise I tried to remain true to the force of his virtues, as I perceived them.
I also included in passing his singular pleasure of hurling a blackboard eraser when what was said by a pupil seemed to him radically knuckleheaded and more than likely the oafish outgrowth of inattentiveness, the crime of crimes.
The tribute itself is predictably moving, especially when you consider that Roth met Lowenstein when Roth was only 12 years old and their friendship lasted into the 21st century.
The reviews of “I Married a Communist” were decidedly mixed (perhaps magnified by the fact that Roth was following an act like “American Pastoral”). In the book itself, Lowenstein’s stand-in character Murray was an entry point for the larger conflict of the story between a couple that may have had some basis in real life as well. As one reviewer wrote at the time:
It is through Nathan’s recollections of the long-winded reminiscences of Ira’s brother, Murray, that we learn about Ira’s ill-fated marriage to the beauteous but treacherous Eve and his precipitous fall from grace. As Murray tells it, Eve’s fame had protected Ira from the wrath of red-baiters in the Government, but the collapse of their marriage and Eve’s publication of a best-selling tell-all book (titled “I Married a Communist”) have swift, fateful repercussions. Ira loses his job, his reputation and his cool. All the violence in his nature, so long suppressed, comes bubbling to the surface, and he vows to exact revenge.
Mr. Roth has always liked to work imaginative variations on his own life, and the reader familiar with that tendency is apt to suspect that “I Married a Communist” is his own revenge on his former wife, the actress Claire Bloom, who published a memoir two years ago that depicted him in unflattering terms.
The Bloom-Roth controversy may have receded into the realm of semi-obscure literary trivia (Roth refuses to talk about it), but real history–by which Lowenstein was trampled–still has its sting. By publishing his eulogy for Lowenstein ahead of the memorial service itself, Roth was throwing a blackboard eraser at Newark, asking it to reconsider one of its historical victims.