In the space of seven days this month, American literature lost two of its foremost proponents. In sum, the collected work of Tom Wolfe and Philip Roth is nothing short of a near-complete compendium of post-war American life: together, their fifty or so novels and non-fiction works, as well as their countless essays, short stories, and various more abstruse musings, document vast periods of social upheaval and cultural transition. They offer a roadmap to the development of twentieth century America, and a concurrent criticism of the ideals of the world’s pre-eminent nation state.

In the hall of American letters, they are two of its greatest pillars. Although their lives spanned almost exactly the same stretch of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries (Wolfe was born in 1930; Roth, three years later), Roth, the Newark Jew, fascinated by the self, the family and their place in cultural and religious traditions, seems distinct from Wolfe, the self-styled, white-suited ‘Southern gentleman’ who set out to record the counter-culture.

The essential drama of Roth’s novels derives from the setting of the individual against the grand sweep of history, whether in the McCarthyite threat of ‘I Married a Communist’ or in the scandal of the Clinton impeachment in ‘The Human Stain’. Throughout, the author’s eye remains firmly trained upon the self, the literal self, the male body, at once the microcosm of the American ideal and the image of its decay, as in the case of the legendary athlete and businessman ‘Swede’ Levov in ‘American Pastoral’.

Then there is the Jewish boy, captured first and most emphatically in Portnoy’s Complaint, in which family, community, sexuality and religion all coagulate in the figure of the eponymous hero, an embryo for the characters that appear time and time again throughout Roth’s corpus.

One such of these is Nathan Zuckerman, fictional narrator and alter ego for the author proper in no less than nine novels. This is the third and most obviously autobiographical of the selves.

It is through this lens that we perceive perhaps the three most powerful of Roth’s novels, the so-called historical trilogy of ‘American Pastoral’, ‘I Married a Communist’, and ‘The Human Stain’. In each of these, we are invited to uncover the fiction at the heart of the American dream, as we witness the gradual disintegration of the lives of the great and the everyday: the college football star, the radio broadcaster, and the college professor.

Such an approach stands in complete contrast to Wolfe’s, whose work strives constantly to understand, unify and echo the competing voices that emerged from American society in the fifties, sixties and seventies, the cries of an America ready to throw off its shackles. In each of his works, we are posed in essence the same question: is this America? Are we to find the voice of a nation in the liberty of the wheels of ‘The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby’ or the ramshackle tour bus of Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters, or in the insane nobility of the American space programmes of the early seventies? Or should we instead recognise it in the darker vision of the New York City of ‘The Bonfire of the Vanities’?

In each case, it is the grand narrative, the great cultural wave, that forms the central subject of Wolfe’s investigations, and with each vision, we can recognise a different version of America.

Indeed, so crucial is Wolfe in documenting these seismic shifts in his homeland’s understanding of itself that his own words have been subsumed into the lexicon of American life: along with the eponymous ‘Right Stuff’, his work has given us phrases like ‘the Me decade’, the ‘good ol’ boy’, and ‘radical chic’. Each of these, in its own right, has become a bona fide cultural identifier with an afterlife of its own. It is difficult to think of many other authors – aside of course from Hunter S. Thompson, his fellow proponent of the ‘New’ journalism – who have had quite so profound an effect on the way that we literally talk about our life and times.

The opposition between the two men’s approach extends to their respective styles. For Wolfe, the intended effect is that of a visceral, verbal firecracker, each sentence careering madly down a highway of alliteration and round blind bends of onomatopoeia, its driver cackling madly as we cling on for dear life.

By contrast, Roth seems almost a purist: his voice oscillates between two modes, the detached, inquisitive musings of his authorial alter ego and the barely constrained fury of the American barbaric; indeed, it is in the fusing of these two voices and the introduction of the postmodern and the self-referential to the essentially classical structure of his novels that we might locate Roth’s foremost contributions to the development of literary style. Both voices, though, finally point to one question: when the Catherine wheel stops turning, when the author frees himself from reflection and doubt, we are left with the same thought: ‘What is America?’

If the Great American Novel, the ultimate white whale to which all her nation’s authors are obsessively drawn, is the one that can answer this question once and for all, both authors might legitimately lay claim to having written it: Roth’s historical trilogy, that astounding burst of creativity in the mid-nineties, exercised a similar legacy to that of ‘The Bonfire of the Vanities’ in the eighties. What is, however, made constantly clear by their collective corpus is that the terms of this question, and indeed of its answer, are ever-changing. In 2018, one cannot help to note that for each author, the American self is almost exclusively white and male (indeed, the central drama of ‘The Human Stain’ emerges from its hero’s decision to pass himself off as white). It is no criticism to say this, nor to note that such a vision can only ever be a partial one.

In a new America, with its new mass of contradiction, we have a new generation of interpreters of a cultural consciousness: Kendrick Lamar; Ta-Nehisi Coates; Paul Beatty; and Childish Gambino. The passing of Tom Wolfe and Philip Roth is one that we should mark and that we should mourn: they were two of the great lights of the American literary constellation. But in 2018, in such a time of new cultural upheaval, there is a symbolic appropriateness to go with the sadness of their deaths. One America dies with them, but in the passing of the torch another will be forged, as difficult and broken, pure and pre-eminent, as that which has gone before.

This article was originally published on The Alexandria Review