Philip Roth Has Died
But Weequahic Lives in Infamy
Philip Roth was a great American novelist whose books pierced the soul. He dug into the human condition in raw and real ways. He has won literary awards galore and I am a lifelong fan.
Roth was born in Newark, New Jersey. He grew up in the Weequahic (pronounced weekwayick) section of Newark, which was composed of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe.
They were simple people looking for opportunity and religious freedom. They wanted the American Dream for themselves and more than that, for their children, and grandchildren.
Philip Roth wrote about the Weequahic neighborhood for fifty years. He had the world at his disposal, but the magic of Weequahic pulled his hands along the keyboard.
I Know All about Weequahic
My Family Reigns from There
I only remember one of my great grandparent’s. I called her Baba, the Hebrew name for grandmother. I cannot recall her voice, but I can picture her face in my mind. She and my great-grandfather traveled to the US through Ellis Island and eventually settled in Newark.
I do remember my grandparents, of course. They moved out of Newark when I was little, but all my life my father has described to me the exact place that Philip Roth brought to life in books and on film.
Roth spent only 17 of his 80 years in Newark. It made an everlasting impression, and the Weequahic neighborhood that has changed dramatically from his day has remained perfect thanks to his grand works of literature.
My father grew up blocks away from Mr. Roth. They were not the same age, but they had more than the love of Weequahic in common. They shared a mutual hero, who also happens to be my grandfather.
Philip Roth’s Final Novel, Nemesis
Brought Bucky Harris to Life
In 2010, Roth wrote his final novel, Nemesis. The main character was named Bucky Canter and was the playground coach in Weequahic during the 1940s amidst a polio outbreak.
My grandfather, Bucky Harris, was the actual playground coach in Weequahic during that era. Roth is known for using real people in his books. For example, in American Pastoral, he wrote about a character named the Swede.
The real Swede came from Newark, NJ, and is in the Newark Athletic Hall of Fame along with my grandfather.
When Nemesis was released, The New Jersey Jewish News printed an article about the connection between Bucky Harris and Bucky Canter. True to form, Roth, denied that the two were linked.
My grandfather undoubtedly taught Roth to play ball, to be a good sport, to respect his teammates and opponents alike. He was a fixture in Roth’s childhood. Bucky is not a common name (nor is the Swede), and it is far too coincidental that the character in Nemesis shared the same name and occupation as my grandfather.
Nemesis is a work of fiction, of course. Bucky Canter and Bucky Harris share a few common traits though. Both were passionate about the lives of the boys they coached and intrinsically good. Both touched the lives of hundreds of children in a long-ago neighborhood where love, family, and heritage sewed a community together with the strongest of threads.
A Lesson from Bucky
Leave a Legacy
My grandfather was a good, pure man. He loved sports and sportsmanship. He wanted to pass the joy of being a teammate on to others and made a career of doing just that.
He loved kids and fairness and football and when he put the three together something magical happened. He fostered the purity of childhood and spirit of unity that being a member of a team evokes. He touched more lives than I can count.
He didn’t ask to become a hero. His behavior and attitude created a legacy though. The kids he coached have gone on to do great things. Philip Roth is just one example.
My father and nephew wrote to Roth after Nemesis was published and thanked him for honoring their father and great-grandfather. Roth didn’t have to write back, but he did.
He talked about the fondness he felt for my grandfather and the happiness playing on Bucky’s field offered him.
Bucky taught hundreds of children to play baseball, basketball, and football. He taught my father to play ball, and my father taught me to throw, to catch, to play basketball, and tennis. Now, my father plays golf with his grandchildren. He has taught all of us about being sportsmanlike – not just on the field, but in life. He has passed Bucky’s legacy down to us. We still live by Bucky’s rules of fair play. More than that, though, Bucky inspired the kids he coached to be confident and to dream.
My grandfather believed in the kids he coached and in their futures. THAT is what created his legacy. That is why he became a heroic symbol in Nemesis and why he the city of Newark, N.J., inducted him into their Sports Hall of Fame.
The kids he taught have passed his fairness and self-confidence down to their children. They have inspired their children and grandchildren to DREAM.
What we are all left with is a sense that kindness alone can create an everlasting legacy. The desire to empower and inspire others to be their best selves enables the heroes of this world to live in infamy.
My family is grateful to Roth for introducing Bucky to the literary world. But we also know that Bucky’s legacy transcends Nemesis. It existed before Nemesis and will remain alive as long as the lessons he taught on a little field in Newark are passed down from generation to generation.
Roth created quite a legacy for himself. And I know that as he punched out the name of Nemesis’ main character, Bucky, my grandfather’s voice softly whispered in his ear, “Swing away. You can do this.”
Wherever I go, whatever I do, I too hear that voice. It funnels from Bucky through my father who tells me in all situations…SWING AWAY.
In honor of them, I say those words to you. Whatever stands in front of you, however difficult it may seem, swing away, kid. You’ve got this.