[Marxism] Eric Duncan

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Jan 8 14:59:23 MST 2018

READINGS — From the August 2017 issue of Harper's.

Eric Duncan

By Philip Roth, from remarks he gave at a celebration of his 
seventy-fifth birthday at Columbia University in 2008. They are included 
in Philip Roth: Why Write?, which will be published next month by the 
Library of America.

Seventy-five. How sudden! It may be a commonplace to note that our time 
here steals away at a terrifying speed, but it nonetheless remains 
astonishing that it was just 1943 — it was 1943, the war was on, I was 
ten, and at the kitchen table, my mother was teaching me to type on her 
big Underwood typewriter, its four upward-sloping rows of round white 
keys differentiated by black letters, numerals, and symbols that, taken 
together, constituted all the apparatus necessary to write in English.

I was at the time reading the sea stories of Howard Pease, the Joseph 
Conrad of boys’ books, whose titles included Wind in the Rigging, The 
Black Tanker, Secret Cargo, and Shanghai Passage. As soon as I’d 
mastered the Underwood’s keyboard and the digital gymnastics of the 
touch system of typing, I inserted a clean sheet of white paper into the 
typewriter and tapped out in caps at its exact center a first title of 
my own: Storm Off Hatteras. Beneath that title I didn’t type my name, 
however. I was well aware that Philip Roth wasn’t a writer’s name. I 
typed instead “by Eric Duncan.” That was the name I chose as befitting 
the seafaring author of Storm Off Hatteras, a tale of wild weather and a 
tyrannical captain and mutinous intrigue in the treacherous waters of 
the Atlantic. There’s little that can bestow more confidence and lend 
more authority than a name with two hard c’s in it.

In January 1946, three years later, I graduated from a public elementary 
school in Newark, New Jersey — ours was the first postwar class to enter 
high school. That a brand-new historical moment was upon us was not lost 
on the brightest students in the class, who had been eight or nine when 
the war began and were twelve or thirteen when it concluded. As a result 
of the wartime propaganda to which we’d regularly been exposed for close 
to five years — and because of our almost all being knowledgeable, as 
Jewish children, about anti-Semitism — we had come to be precociously 
alert to the inequalities in American society.

The heady idealistic patriotism with which we were inculcated during the 
war spilled over in its aftermath into a burgeoning concern with 
contemporary social injustice. For me, this led to my being teamed up by 
our eighth-grade teacher with a clever female classmate to write — in 
part on my mother’s Underwood — the script for a graduation play we 
called Let Freedom Ring.

Our one-act play, a quasi allegory with a strong admonitory bent, pitted 
a protagonist named Tolerance (virtuously performed by my coauthor) 
against an antagonist named Prejudice (sinisterly played by me). It 
included a supporting cast of classmates who, in a series of vignettes 
in which they were shown attending to their harmlessly healthy-minded 
pursuits — and which were intended to advertise how wonderful all these 
people were — played representatives of ethnic and religious minorities 
unjustly suffering the injurious inequities of discrimination. Tolerance 
and Prejudice, invisible to the others onstage, stood just to the side 
of each uplifting scene, arguing over the human status of these various 
and sundry non–Anglo-Saxon Americans, Tolerance quoting exemplary 
passages from the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution of the 
United States, and the newspaper columns of Eleanor Roosevelt, while 
Prejudice, appraising her with as much pity as disgust, and in a tone of 
voice he wouldn’t have dared to use at home, said the nastiest things 
about the inferiority of these minorities that he could get away with in 
a school play.

Afterward, in the corridor outside the auditorium, giving me a fervent 
hug to express her delight in my achievement, my proud, admiring mother 
told me, while I was still in my costume of head-to-foot black, that, 
sitting at the edge of her seat in the audience, she who had never 
struck anyone in all her life had wanted to slap my face. “How ever did 
you learn to be so contemptible!” she said, laughing. “You were 
thoroughly despicable!” In truth, I didn’t know — it just seemed to have 
come to me out of nowhere. Secretly it thrilled me to think I had a 
natural talent for it.

Let Freedom Ring ended with the full cast of miscellaneous minorities 
hand in hand at the footlights, joining Tolerance with everything they 
had as she rousingly sang “The House I Live In,” a 1942 pop oratorio in 
praise of the American melting pot that had been famously recorded by 
Frank Sinatra. Meanwhile, exiting stage right, bound alone for his evil 
abode, loathsome Prejudice stalked off in bitter defeat, shouting 
angrily at the top of his voice a sentence I’d stolen from somewhere: 
“This great experiment cannot last!”

That was the beginning, the hometown launching of a literary career 
leading right up to today. It isn’t entirely far-fetched to suggest that 
the twelve-year-old who coauthored Let Freedom Ring! was father to the 
man who wrote The Plot Against America. As for Eric Duncan, that 
estimable Scotsman, years after crediting him with the authorship of 
Storm Off Hatteras, I sometimes had reason to wish that I had donned 
that pseudonym before Portnoy’s Complaint went forth into the world. How 
different life would have been!

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