Blake Bailey Had Exclusive Access to Philip Roth’s Personal Papers. Roth’s Estate Plans on Destroying Them.

From The National Review:

Celebrated author Philip Roth made a startling admission while speaking to a French interviewer nine years ago: He had asked his executors, the uber-powerful literary agent Andrew Wylie and ex-girlfriend Julia Golier, to destroy many of his personal papers after the publication of the semi-authorized biography on which Blake Bailey had recently begun work. His manuscripts, after all, were already housed in the Library of Congress; the Newark Public Library had his books, as well as many personal possessions. A control freak about his legacy and just about everything else, Roth wanted to ensure that Bailey, who was producing exactly the type of biography he wanted, would be the only person outside a small circle of intimates permitted to access personal, sensitive manuscripts, including the unpublished Notes for My Biographer (a 295-page rebuttal to his ex-wife’s memoir) and Notes on a Slander-Monger (another rebuttal, this time to a biographical effort from Bailey’s predecessor). “I don’t want my personal papers dragged all over the place,” Roth said. 

At the time, Roth’s insistence that his executors destroy important biographical documents received little attention, and for good reason: In the same interview, Roth announced his retirement, ending one of the most important American literary careers of the postwar period. He died in 2018; Bailey’s biography, Philip Roth: The Biography was published last month. In the intervening period, few noted the Roth Estate’s plan to destroy these papers—it is mentioned in passing in a New York Times Magazine profile of Bailey and in a footnote in a Vulture interview, for example. 

Much has changed in recent weeks. Last month, Bailey’s publisher, W.W. Norton, announced that it was halting promotion and distribution of the book after Bailey was accused of grooming, and in one instance raping as an adult, middle-school students he taught while working as an eighth-grade teacher in New Orleans in the 1990s. Soon after a publishing executive accused him of raping her at the home of a New York Times book reviewer in 2015, Norton announced it was taking the book out of print.

. . . .

The fate of Roth’s personal papers took on new urgency in the wake of Norton’s decision. Last week, the Philip Roth Society published an open letter imploring Roth’s executors “to preserve these documents and make them readily available to researchers.” Efforts undertaken by Roth and his estate to control his legacy have backfired spectacularly. The best way to preserve his legacy, which has been damaged by the fallout from Bailey’s scandal, is to open up his papers to a wide variety of scholars. 

Roth, of course, had other plans: Bailey was to provide the final word on his life and legacy. Even in this, the results have been disastrous. Bailey’s efforts to settle scores on Roth’s behalf, as The New Republic’s Laura Marsh wrote in a definitive piece, failed. The resulting work portrayed the author as a “spiteful obsessive,” while Bailey’s focus on Roth’s personal life overwhelmed a slight discussion of his literary output and other work, such as his advocacy on behalf of Eastern European writers. (One Roth scholar I spoke to compared reading the book to “watching Bridgerton—it’s all love and sex and lust.”) The subsequent scandals, moreover, have permanently tarnished the book’s reputation and only bolstered Roth’s own reputation for misogyny. 

. . . .

With so little having gone to plan, many Roth scholars are hoping to save the writer’s papers that have been slated for destruction. As scholar Aimee Pozorski, who teaches English at Central Connecticut State University told The New Republic, the effort is “about intellectual inquiry and protecting and diversifying the legacy of one of the most important authors in America.” 

“In his fiction he writes about the complexity of human beings, of making mistakes, of getting people wrong,” Pozorski said. “In Exit Ghost he predicted this scenario—[in that book] Richard Kliman is a biographer who is not serving his subject well. One wishes that Roth could have seen into his work to understand that you need more voices, not fewer, as a result of the complexity.” 

Jacques Berlinerblau, the Rabbi Harold White Professor of Jewish Civilization in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, observed that Roth had spent his life creating a clique outside (and, in a few special cases, inside) the academy to control his legend. “Something very interesting happens with Philip Roth, and Philip Roth alone, wherein friends and fans with glorious perches in the media drive the narrative about him and the scholars—those pathetic figures—are completely sidelined,” Berlinerblau told me. “We’ve got to get control of this narrative because for three decades everything they know about Roth they know from his friends.” 

Link to the rest at The National Review

4 thoughts on “Blake Bailey Had Exclusive Access to Philip Roth’s Personal Papers. Roth’s Estate Plans on Destroying Them.”

  1. Hurray! Once they do that, Philip Roth can be accused of everything under the sun, and the estate can’t prove he didn’t do it.

    Bestiality. Antisemitism. Anti-Antisemitism. Voting for Trump. Tearing labels off mattresses. Anything will be possible.

    Will they televise the burning?

  2. I’ve been following the Blake Bailey – Roth biography saga. That makes an interesting Story folder.

    I just finished reading Lisey’s Story for the fourth time since it came out. I’m tempted to read it again next month.

    The story is about the wife of a famous author who died two years before. She has yet to clean out his writing loft. She is constantly fending off the various academics that want to descend on his papers, since they don’t trust the wife to do the “right thing”.

    The academics are nicknamed “The Incunks” in the book. I kept thinking of that nickname each time the various academics are demanding access to Roth’s papers. “Don’t destroy them. We want to devour them ourselves.” – to paraphrase the latest batch of Incunks. i.e., they want to have the right to make their name or fortune with Roth’s papers.

    What’s interesting, in the various reviews of Lisey’s Story I see the same sneering contempt for King that the Incunks hold for the people in control of Roth’s papers, and now sneering contempt for Roth.

    All that gives me pause about the danger of having “papers” to leave to posterity. I need to think about that. At least find a way to keep the Incunks out of the picture.

  3. I think the lesson here is that if you want your stuff burned, get a burn barrel and matches.

    • I was thinking the same thing, why keep papers in first place or why give them to someone else if you want them destroyed?

      And depending on them to follow your wishes after your death? All you need is one sympathetic judge to someones plight and its hard to argue from the grave. Unless the spirits of the deceased are allowed to testify in court.

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