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High School Classmates Revisited


The feminist anthropologist Sherry Ortner and the writer Philip Roth surprisingly have much in common. Both attended Weequahic High School (!) in Newark, New Jersey and both revisit their old school and classmates in trying to make sense of America. Anthropologist and philosopher Jonanthan Schwartz explores the connection - and the border - between fiction and ethnography.

FORUM/17.9.98 It is a rarity that an anthropologist and a novelist return - figuratively - to the high school which they both attended nearly a half century ago in search of materials to understand their society-at-large. This exceptional constellation is precisely that which Sherry Ortner and Philip Roth have given form to in a return to their Weequahic High School classmates in Newark, New Jersey.

The "class reunion," which both authors address, is by no means a nostalgic walk down memory lane. One of the most affectionate scenes in Philip Roth's novel, nevertheless, is the class reunion party. High school crushes are reawakened on the dance floor. Sherry Ortner's research project is not as cosy. She drives across the length and width of the United States to conduct interviews with her former classmates in their living rooms.

The anthropologist and the novelist, each in her or his way, achieve a sense of distance from the social fields which formed them in their youth. To achieve that distance is also an elementary part of identity work. Growing up involves growing out, but the passage of time itself does not necessarily bring perspective to the person.

Reflexivity and critical distance result from sustained inquiry into one's former associates as well as into oneself. The inquiry is both experimental and existential. The two forms of inquiry, moreover, reveal where ethnography borders fiction.

In this note, I am not endorsing what was once upon a time the predilection of post-modernist theory: a state of liminality where fiction and science blurred each other. Philip Roth in his fiction toys with facticity; he makes believe that he is an ethnographer of New Jersey. In many respects his detailed and very thick description of social life and customs exceeds the condensed and abstracted science of the ethnographer.

Sherry Ortner's ethnographic project includes reading Philip Roth's fiction. Her essay Reading America (1991) is devoted in large measure to the fiction of Roth. He graduated from Weequahic High School in 1951, she in 1958. They both came from Jewish foregrounds; she could have been his kid sister. Sherry Ortner writes about Roth: "I do think he is a brilliant ethnographer...but he is also...a great informant."

The writer of fiction has the option of hiding behind his or her characters. In real life, as in fiction, persons act in ways that we, the readers, can recognize ourselves. When artists capture or simulate social reality, one imagines an "as if" nature in their work. When ethnographers seek to uncover or recover reality, they learn from novelists how to highlight the significant aspects of social conduct. The narratives sometimes resemble each other, but reading Roth's and Ortner's recent work together shows where art and ethnography diverge from similar histories.

Roth is a male novelist and Ortner is a female anthropologist, who reads Roth with relish as well as with chagrin. This dual reading creates a remarkable depth of vision for understanding contemporary American society. The two writers do not duplicate each other except insofar as they come "from the same background". This is exactly Ortner's point: the term "background" loses almost all meaning once we begin to explore our social fields. Everything then becomes part of the foreground. History moves up front. Paying attention to one's past puts it immediately in the present.

Sherry Ortner's project in the 1990's is to direct the attention of American anthropologists to the salience of social class. As one of the leading feminists in American anthropology since the 1970's, she has, with other colleagues, focused on the latent and manifest power of gender in social relations. Gender and ethnicity studies by American anthropologists have eclipsed the issues of social class, and Ortner's detailed interviews with her classmates, forty years after graduation, will correct the omission. In her opinion, Philip Roth - the novelist and quasi-ethnographer - has maintained a proper balance of gender, class, and ethnicity in his representations of American society.

Roth has been especially sensitive to the deflections of class experience into sexual and ethnic struggles. Oppression and resentment in one sphere bounce into another, and so on. Ortner's informants, her former classmates, often denied or neglected the presence of class differences, but in the course of the interview, the depth of class seemed to surface momentarily. Ortner summarizes one such interview with "a Polish- American woman, the daughter of a Teamster":

"I tried to raise the question of class, and she refused the category. When she was saying that her father wouldn't hear of her going to college, she said it was because he had old world values. And I said do you think it was a factor of class, and she looked slightly disconcerted, so I tried to smooth it over and continued, or just his cultural values, and she pounced on that, and said "just his cultural values." ("Ethnography Among the Newark: The Class of '58 of Weequahic High School", 1993)

One can notice, with Sherry Ortner, that "cultural values" and "old world values" assume, for her former classmates, explanatory power over class consciousness and affiliation. When the ethnographer presses the explanation towards class, the informant is upset, and the ethnographer backs away to maintain rapport. The anecdote, however, confirms Ortner's theory that class is eclipsed by culture. Class is no less real, than the moon when it is being eclipsed.

Sherry Ortner's ethnography chooses the making and unmaking of gender as the primary experience. Though she would direct American anthropologists to consider the force of class in their research, her top priority remains gender - what she calls "the gender game":

"One of the central games of life in most cultures is the gender game, or more specifically the multiplicity of gender games available in that time and place. The effort to understand the making and unmaking of gender, as well as what gender makes, involves understanding the workings of these games as games, with their inclusions and exclusions, multiple positions, complex rules, forms of bodily activity, structures of feeling and desire, and stakes of winning, losing, or simply playing. It involves as well the question of how gender games themselves collide with, encompass, or are bent to the service of other games, for gender is never, as they say, the only game in town." (from "Making Gender: The Politics and Erotics of Culture", 1996)

Philip Roth's main character in American Pastoral is Seymour "Swede" Levov, a third-generation Jewish-American who became a star player on the high school football, basketball, and baseball teams. His nickname "Swede" stemmed from his handsome size, his athletic ability, and his blond hair. The high school that Swede attended was predominately Jewish, and to be a star player on all three American sports teams was something of an anomaly. The boys envied him; the girls loved him.

After finishing high school Swede turns down the chance to play professional baseball. He decides instead to follow in his father's footsteps and enter the family business of manufacturing fine leather gloves. Instead of marrying a Jewish girl from Newark, he courts and later marries an Irish Catholic beauty queen who was Miss New Jersey of 1948. Gender, class, and ethnicity are prominant themes in Roth's quasi-ethnography of New Jersey society, 1940-1995. Four generations of Jewish Americans from ghetto to suburb are the chief informants for this ethnography. The Fall from the first brilliant successes in "Paradise" is the guiding narrative.

Swede's daughter, Merry, breaks away violently from the expectations of her parents. She plants a bomb in the local post office to protest the war in Vietnam, and the town doctor is killed. The young girl goes into hiding and continues her sabotage, killing three more people. She suddenly converts to radical Jainism and will no longer do harm to any living creature, including germs. Almost starved and filthy, she meets briefly with her father in her abandoned, darkened room not far from the family factory in Newark. Hopes for reunion and rehabilitation are kindled in Swede. It is the week before Thanksgiving.

However, first as militant Weatherman and later as pious Jainist, the young woman has cut herself off completely from her Gentile mother and her Jewish father. This is the virtual Fall from the Garden of Eden. We can recall that New Jersey has the nickname "the Garden State". There seems to be no limit to Philip Roth's close-range observations and minute memories in his large novel, American Pastoral (423 pages).

The novel's title implies not only a fictional time and space in which the rural virtues prevail. The "pastoral" is likewise contained in the representations of community in social science. Pastoral points, like the faces of Janus, both ways. "American Pastoral", then, is both fiction and ethnography. Roth indulges his memory for interior, domestic life as well as for the exterior, national events: World War 2 and especially, the War in Vietnam. The two sorts of space impinge on each other, but Roth wants to resist blurring them. Intimate relations incorporate public issues, but this is not to say they blur or distort them.

Moreover, Roth's choice of title for the novel refers to the key symbol in fiction, films and ethnography for celebrating American kinship: the annual Thanksgiving Dinner at the end of November: "It is the American pastoral par excellence and it lasts twenty-four hours." The carving of the turkey is the ceremony which brings the American family together.

The Thanksgiving pastoral is vividly represented in films. In Woody Allan's "Hannah and her Sisters" (1986) and more bitingly in Ang Lee's "The Ice Storm" (1997) the Thanksgiving turkey dinner is the central event of a family's dismembering. "The Ice Storm," like Roth's "American Pastoral," is set in 1973, the waning of the war in Vietnam and the fall of President Nixon after Watergate.

A generous portion of irony, therefore, is also served on the dining room table. For Roth, the Levov family - minus its daughter - sits down to Thanksgiving at the climax of the novel.

A careful reading of both Sherry Ortner and Philip Roth would reveal many similar themes. There may even be some shared methods of observation and interpretation. Both feel the urge to return to the milieu of their youth in order to make sense of their own lives.

I introduced this note by urging a refusal to mix the genres of fiction and science, as tempting as the desire may be. The qualities of both become evident, when they are kept distinct enough for comparison. Both writers must keep in touch with reality, as it changes before their eyes. The privilege of the novelist, however, is that reality can assume in the text an "as if" nature, whereas the ethnographer must struggle to minimize the "as if" status of the inquiry. Neither author holds up a perfect mirror to reality, but the ethnographer is committed to tell us exactly how the imperfections got there.

Jonathan Schwartz is lecturer in Anthropology at Copenhagen University.

For references to this article, click here.

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