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BlogApril-May-June, 2015
Song of Myself in Goodbye, Columbus

In Philip Roth's 1995 preface to Goodbye, Columbus (1959), he lists the names of 23 writers he was reading at the time of that book's composition. It's an authorial master stroke, with enough believable names (Malamud, Bellow, Freud) that you can easily make the mistake of taking an artist at his word.

Everybody knows artists are famously coy in citing their real influences. You'll relent on the obvious--Roth admitting to Malamud, Bellow, and Freud is hardly surprising--and stay elusive where you can.

Thus it's curious to me why Roth didn't list Walt Whitman in his preface. Sure, you could argue that citing Whitman is like citing Shakespeare; hardly necessary, since to use the English language is to acknowledge your debt.

Yet there are two words in the Roth novella "Goodbye, Columbus," which I think owe a strong debt to Whitman's use of them in "Song of Myself." Those words are "wet" and "acquisitive."

Let's explore "acquisitive" first. It stands out no matter where you read it, because it's by and large a word you read, rather than one you use in speaking. So any writer who uses it better be careful, for he'd be rightly accused of "writerly" usage, which is to say, being hifalutin when you don't have to be. Here's how Whitman's narrator uses it: are not guilty to me, nor stale nor discarded
I see through the broadcloth and gingham whether or no,
And am around, tenacious, acquisitive, tireless....and can never be shaken away (139).

Now here's how Roth's narrator, 23-year-old Neil Klugman, uses it. For context, Klugman is sitting in St. Patrick's Cathedral in Manhattan, amusing himself by formulating a half-assed prayer while his girlfriend is seeing a doctor about getting a diaphragm:

If we meet You at all, God, it's that we're carnal, and acquisitive, and thereby partake of You. I am carnal, and I know you approve, I just know it. But how carnal can I get? I am acquisitive. Where do I turn now in my acquisitiveness? Where do we meet? Which prize is You? (100).

You need not be well-versed in Whitman to grasp the parallels. Young Klugman is, frankly, acting like for all of the reading he's done at Rutgers and the public library, he's never come upon "Song of Myself." If he had, he'd know one of the chief joys of the Whitman-narrator-God's dissenting transcendentalism is his embrace of all joys and bodily freedoms, be they carnal, acquisitive, lazy, heartfelt, or suicidal. Klugman is musing on the conventional God of the bible when he should be finding solace in the all-encompassing ubiquitous ultra-deity at the heart of Whitman's oeuvre.

As for "wet": In "Goodbye, Columbus," the word is central to one of the novella's thematic binaries: the raw and natural versus the manufactured and artificial. Here's how Brenda Patimkin, Klugman's girlfriend, uses the word "wet" when playing a poolside game with Klugman:

Why don't you go in the water, and I'll wait for you and close my eyes, and when you come back you'll surprise me with the wet (52).

Like that? It's "wet" as a noun. It's not entirely unheard of. The dictionary still says it's allowed. And catches you off-guard each time you read it. As with "acquisitive," it's a bit writerly. And it, too, is arguably rooted in the Whitman-narrator-God's usage of wet as a noun in "Song of Myself." Here's an extended cut from "Song" culminating in wet:

You sea! I resign myself to you also....I guess what you mean,
I behold from the beach your crooked inviting fingers,
I believe you refuse to go back without feeling of me;
We must have a turn together....I undress....hurry me out of sight of the land,
Cushion me soft...rock me in billowy drowse,
Dash me with amorous wet....I can repay you (455).

Wow. While those six lines deserve limitless dissertations, here I'll limit myself to noting one parallel with the "Goodbye, Columbus" passage. In both, there are twined acts of faith and resignation, confidence and vulnerability. A man is essentially closing his eyes in the belief his lover (Brenda, or the sea) will return and hold him. While the passage in "Song" is evocative of death and Oedipal longings and other traits that make comparing it to the "Goodbye, Columbus" passage perhaps a foolish idea on my part, I'm still taken in by the passages' shared use of "wet" as a noun in a sensual context.

Moreover, there are parts of "Goodbye, Columbus" that make me believe Roth was intent on only using "wet" where he really needed to. For example, in the story's famed first paragraph, it seems as if Klugman takes pains to not use the word "wet" in describing Brenda:

She dove beautifully, and a moment later she was swimming back to the side of the pool, her head of short-clipped auburn hair held up, straight ahead of her, as though it were a rose on a long stem. She glided to the edge and then was beside me. "Thank you," she said, her eyes watery though not from the water (3).

Pay special attention to that last sentence.

Ilan Mochari is the author of the Pushcart-nominated debut novel Zinsky the Obscure (Fomite Press, 2013). The novel earned rave reviews from Publishers Weekly, Booklist, and Kirkus. It was also featured in the Boston Globe and on Boston's NPR station. His short stories and poetry have appeared or are forthcoming in Keyhole, Hobart, Stymie, Midway Journal, and elsewhere.
Another story received an honorable mention in a Glimmer Train competition. He has a B.A. in English from Yale University.

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