Visiting Newark, New Jersey and participating in Philip Roth’s 80th birthday celebration has had a seismic effect on how I relate to his fiction.
Seeing the place from which all that great art erupted was an ecstatic experience, but one that also filled me with a sense of profound loss. Roth’s career has been in many ways a project of re-constructing lost Jewish Newark, his childhood home, and this, it occurs to me, is why I find it all so moving. Roth has done something with his tragi-comic art that I am unable to do in my serio-farcical life.
I feel as though I come from nowhere.
I was born in Cleveland to two wonderful parents who participated in a great migration north from Appalachia. About half my family remained and about half moved to the Northeast Ohio region. This migration was altogether called-for, as the coal mining industry that was the region’s economic base had become highly mechanized and work was difficult to come by. My parents moving to Ohio with a few of their brothers and sisters was a difficult decision, but a necessary one. I am to this day in awe of their bravery and thankful for the life they made possible for me.
Yet all of this comes with a cost, doesn’t it?
The roots of tradition, culture, and family were necessarily cut off from me and I was left to cobble my own identity together from Spider-Man comics, Sherlock Holmes stories, and Elvis Costello. All good things, but so specifically mine.
What I’ve always longed for was a place to bestow on me a collective cultural memory. I’ve always wanted to be a part of something bigger than myself. This is certainly the root of my attraction to Roth’s fiction and probably the reason I’ve chosen the liberal arts as my career. It also probably explains a mania I have about getting my kids settled in a place as soon as possible. (Relax Anderson! Just let it happen…). I’m a bit of a “community” fetishist.
A quick shout out to the internet is due here: Thanks to the advent of Facebook, I’ve been able to reconnect with much of my extended West Virginia family, and I hope to keep that connection active through family reunions in the future (if any of you are reading this, please lets get this done).
So what does all of this have to do with the great Dwight Yoakam?
Well, Yoakam is, in my opinion, a singular American Genius. His ability to absorb a huge variety of cultural influences and hone them into a sound that is authentically and unmistakably hillbilly is unparalleled. In addition, his songwriting, at its best, captures small details about life that communicates the vastness, wonder, joy, and pain of living.
I described above a cultural de-rooting that has been my legacy, and I fear that I cannot find words to due it justice. My description is, I’m sure, very trite. Yoakam’s song “Readin’, Writin’, and Route 23” is a far greater emotional document of the experience. Please enjoy and share!