First edition cover
|Genre||Novella, short story collection|
|May 7, 1959|
|Media type||Print (hardback & paperback)|
|Followed by||Letting Go|
Goodbye, Columbus is a 1959 collection of fiction by the American novelist Philip Roth, comprising the title novella "Goodbye, Columbus"—which first appeared in The Paris Review—and five short stories. It was his first book and was published by Houghton Mifflin.
In addition to the title novella, set in New Jersey, Goodbye, Columbus contains the five short stories "The Conversion of the Jews," "Defender of the Faith," "Epstein," "You Can't Tell a Man by the Song He Sings," and "Eli, the Fanatic." Each story deals with the concerns of second and third-generation assimilated American Jews as they leave the ethnic ghettos of their parents and grandparents and go on to college, to white-collar professions, and to life in the suburbs.
The book was a critical success for Roth and won the 1960 U.S. National Book Award for Fiction. The book was not without controversy, as people within the Jewish community took issue with Roth's less than flattering portrayal of some characters. The short story Defender of the Faith, about a Jewish sergeant who is exploited by three shirking, coreligionist draftees, drew particular ire. When Roth in 1962 appeared on a panel alongside the distinguished black novelist Ralph Ellison to discuss minority representation in literature, the questions directed at him became denunciations. Many accused Roth of being a self-hating Jew, a label that stuck with him for years.
Roth's own retrospective reckoning
Roth wrote in the preface to the book's 30th anniversary edition:
"With clarity and with crudeness, and a great deal of exuberance, the embryonic writer who was me wrote these stories in his early 20s, while he was a graduate student at the University of Chicago, a soldier stationed in New Jersey and Washington, and a novice English instructor back at Chicago following his Army discharge...In the beginning it amazed him that any literate audience could seriously be interested in his story of tribal secrets, in what he knew, as a child of his neighborhood, about the rites and taboos of his clan—about their aversions, their aspirations, their fears of deviance and defection, their embarrassments and ideas of success."
Its story and themes
The title story of the collection, Goodbye, Columbus, was an irreverent look at the life of middle-class Jewish Americans, satirizing, according to one reviewer, their "complacency, parochialism, and materialism." It was controversial with reviewers, who were highly polarized in their judgments.
The story is told by the narrator, Neil Klugman, who is working in a low-paying position in the Newark Public Library. He lives with his Aunt Gladys and Uncle Max in a working-class neighborhood of Newark, New Jersey. One summer, Neil meets and falls for Brenda Patimkin, a student at Radcliffe College who is from a wealthy family living in the affluent suburb of Short Hills. The novella explores the classism which afflicts the relationship, despite the fact that Brenda's father, Ben, came from the same environment as Neil. The issue of ethnic assimilation is intrinsic, since Brenda is more assimilated than Neil.
The title “Goodbye, Columbus” is a quote from a song that was sung by the departing seniors, including Brenda's brother, Ron, at their graduation from the Ohio State University at Columbus. Ron dearly enjoys listening to a record of the song that evokes his years as a varsity athlete on a campus where sports are big. By listening to the record for a few years and later having Neil listen along, he is given continuing proof of the Patimkins' success at assimilation. As the story proceeds, Neil finds that his relationship with Brenda is falling apart. Thus, the alma-mater nostalgia of the novella's title can be heard as a choral parallel to Neil's saying goodbye to the affluent, assimilated world of the Patimkins and, in his unreported future, remembering, re-evaluating and possibly, in low moments or periods, missing it and them.
A New York Yiddish theater song of 1926 (seven years before Philip Roth's birth) includes lyrics whose translation is “I’m going home....I’m going to Palestine....Goodbye, Columbus.”  The rhythm of this Jewish song is that of a march. The novella’s title restates or points at the proud and emotional rejection of assimilation that was belted out in this song by an East-European Jew who had immigrated to the U.S. This song's Columbus is not a campus but rather the man who induced Europeans to follow him to America, and its "Goodbye" (unlike the one in the college song) is neither a sentimental summation nor a grateful or admiring one.
The title functions as a trick: to tempt and enable a reader to simultaneously hear the point that is made by "Goodbye" in each of the two songs (two incompatible points), while watching Neil ambivalently and uncomfortably tip back and forth between the two of them, and to simultaneously feel those attitudes and Roth's attitudes toward them, in order to see, among other things, the incompleteness and distortedness of each of the three goodbye-sayers' view of what he is saying goodbye to. It is a magic trick, though not of the kind that stops the members of a magician's audience from glimpsing what is happening two feet away from what they have all fixed their gaze on. Quite the contrary: The trick illuminates what is murky and unconscious.
The short stories
"The Conversion of the Jews"
This short story, which first appeared in The Paris Review in 1958, deals with the themes of questioning religion and being violent to one another because of it.
Ozzie Freedman, a Jewish-American boy about thirteen years old, confronts his Hebrew school teacher, Rabbi Binder, with challenging questions: especially, whether it is possible that God gave the Virgin Mary a child without having intercourse. Ozzie's mother, though she loves her son dearly, is a more conventional thinker and can't understand why Ozzie courts trouble at school for posing such unorthodox queries. During an argument, she slaps him across the face. Back at school, Rabbi Binder interprets Ozzie's question about the virgin birth as impertinent, though Ozzie sincerely wishes to better understand God and his faith. When Ozzie continues to ask challenging questions, Binder too slaps him on the face, accidentally bloodying Ozzie's nose. Ozzie calls Binder a bastard and, without thinking, runs to the roof of the synagogue. Once there, Ozzie threatens to jump.
The rabbi and pupils go out to watch Ozzie from the pavement and try to convince him not to leap. Ozzie's mother arrives. Ozzie threatens to jump unless they all bow on their knees in the Christian tradition and admit that God can make a virgin birth, and furthermore, that they believe in Jesus Christ; he then admonishes all those present that they should never "hit anyone about God". He finally ends by jumping off the roof onto a glowing yellow net held by firemen.
"Defender of the Faith"
The story—originally published in The New Yorker—deals with a Jewish American army sergeant who resists the attempted manipulation of a fellow Jew to exploit their mutual ethnicity to receive special favors. The story caused consternation among Jewish readers and religious groups, as recounted in chapter five of Roth's 1988 memoir The Facts: A Novelist's Autobiography.
The title character goes through a crisis, feeling at age fifty-nine that by accepting the responsibilities of business, marriage, and parenthood, he has missed out on life, and starts an affair with another woman.
"You Can't Tell a Man by the Song He Sings"
An unnamed narrator recalls the events surrounding his meeting with Alberto Pelagutti, a troublemaker, in high school.
"Eli, the Fanatic"
The assimilated Jews of a small community express fear that their peaceful coexistence with the Gentiles will be disturbed by the establishment of an Orthodox yeshiva in their neighborhood.
- "Books Today". The New York Times: 30. May 7, 1959.
- "National Book Awards – 1960". Retrieved 2012-03-30. There is a link there to Roth's acceptance speech. The National Book Awards blog for the 50th anniversary of Goodbye, Columbus is essays by five writers about the book. The annual awards are made by the National Book Foundation.
- Zucker, David J. "Roth, Rushdie, and rage: religious reactions to Portnoy and The Verses." BNET. 2008. 17 July 2010.
- Kaplan, Justin (September 25, 1988). "Play It Again, Nathan". The New York Times.
- "Profile: Philip Roth: Literary hit man with a 9/11 bullet in his gun." The Times. 19 September 2004. 17 July 2010.
- Roth, Philip (1989). Goodbye, Columbus. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. ISBN 0395518504.
- Roth, Philip (1989). "Goodbye Newark: Roth Remembers His Beginnings". The New York Times. Retrieved June 13, 2018.
- Parker Royal, Derek, ed. (2005). "3". Philip Roth : new perspectives on an American author. Westport, Conn.: Praeger. pp. 43–57. ISBN 9780313018039. OCLC 518020092.
- The Zionist Yiddish song’s title is “Ikh For Aheym” (English translation: “I’m going home”). There is an English-subtitled video of a performance of the song in 2014 by singer Jane Peppler and pianist Roger Spears that includes the chorus and first and fourth of the four stanzas. The words and music were written by David Meyerowitz a.k.a. Meyerovitz (1867-1943), who immigrated from Latvia to New York City in either 1880 or 1890. The lyrics whose translation is the title of Roth’s novella are the first line of the final stanza: “Zay gezunt, Kolumbes.” Translation of some of the other lyrics of this song: “The Exile has ended, and now I’m going back....as my grandfather wanted to do....I don’t want to be a foreigner anymore....I’m not staying anymore at someone or other's place....What have I got to lose?...If you’re talking about girls, you can take my word: All you get here is cute skirts; but real fabric/merchandise is gotten there....Keep drinking ice cream soda; I will drink the wine of Mount Carmel.” The flair, high-hattiness and bite of some of the lyrics—especially, the line that became the title of the novella—would have appealed to Neil Klugman and the very young Philip Roth. We can safely assume that when Roth decided on a title for it, he realized that the percentage of the subscribers to the Paris Review (in which the novella came out in 1958) and the percentage of the readers of any book in which it would later be published who had heard the Yiddish song—which isn't quoted or mentioned in the novella—in 1926 or later and also remembered its fourth stanza would be a very small minority of the novella’s audience. We can safely assume that he expected them to feel privileged or self-congratulatory at the expense of readers the title would perplex.
- Philip Roth, The Facts: A Novelist's Autobiography, New York: Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1988.
The Magic Barrel
| National Book Award for Fiction
The Waters of Kronos