History professor’s research results during the public broadcast of the 1962 literary event featuring Philip Roth, Ralph Ellison and Pietro di Donato reflecting on the responsibilities of minority fiction writers


Newark Public Library conference confronts role of minority writers in 1962 and 2021

From left to right: Pietro di Donato, Ralph Ellison, moderator Professor David Fleisher and Philip Roth participated in the historic literary event of 1962. Photo courtesy of the Yeshiva University Archives.

William J. Connell, professor of history and the Joseph M. and Geraldine C. La Motta Chair in Italian Studies and co-editor of the historical volume The Routledge History of Italian Americans hosted a lecture at the new Philip Roth Personal Library in Newark. Public library, Conflicts Representing Race and Ethnicity in Fiction, 1962 and 2021: Philip Roth, Ralph Ellison and Pietro di Donato, Tuesday November 16, from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m.

Delivered in person and broadcast live on Zoom and Facebook Live, this event provides a rare opportunity to explore the reflections on the responsibilities of minority fiction writers in the early 1960s that still face writers today. The conference addresses the question of whether writers of fiction who identify with a race or ethnicity have a particular role to play, or particular obligations, when they present characters who share the same identity. Should they seek to advance certain goals? Should they refrain from malicious criticism? Should they avoid or restrict representations of behavior that come close to contemporary or historical stereotypes?

Connell discovered that in 1962 Philip Roth, Ralph Ellison, and Pietro di Donato were invited to speak on this issue at a symposium held at Yeshiva University. The event remains legendary, in large part because throughout his career, Philip Roth said the fierce questioning of his work at Yeshiva was what made him become an author, confirming it in his attitudes towards religion. and ethnicity. The recent recovery from the Yeshiva archives of the 1962 event tape allows participants to experience the first public broadcast since the original event of these three authors speaking eloquently about themselves and what should be the role from both the writer and the reader when confronting them in a work of fiction and segments will be played at this lecture.

Hear the vindication of young Roth under fire and an eloquent Ralph Ellison – then at the top of his game – describe his writings in relation to the civil rights movement. Hear Pietro di Donato, a once famous mid-20th century writer, denounce second generation Italian Americans for their materialism, while lovingly talking about communism (in Cold War America…). The transcript of the discussion at Yeshiva has never been released, and thanks to the estates of the three authors and the Yeshiva University Special Collections, which granted permission, Roth’s Personal Library will be releasing the tape publicly for the first time. .

The Newark Public Library offers this lecture with the full awareness that the issues that were discussed with memorable eloquence in 1962 remain with us in 2021. As part of the program, a distinguished set of academics and critics will discuss the Yeshiva Symposium and explore how ideas of race and ethnicity prevail in 2021 compared to opinions expressed in 1962.

Connell will be moderating a panel of today’s eminent academics speaking about each of the three writers, including Roth with Joyce Carol Oates (who will share the remarks of the critic noted Elaine showalter) and Steven zipperstein (Stanford University, writing a biography of Roth); on Ellison, John callahan (Ellison’s literary executor) and Sterling bland (Rutgers-Newark University); and on Di Donato, Marie Jo Bona (Stony Brook) and Fred gardaphe (Queens College, CUNY). Simone A. James Alexander de Seton Hall will host the question-and-answer session.

“The conference I organized for the Newark Public Library on November 16, 2021 was unfamiliar. I was working on the study of an Italian immigrant in Newark who faced challenges similar to the main characters in the Christ in Concrete (1939) and Philip Roth’s last novel, Nemesis (2010), ”said Connell. “At one point, I found out that the two writers were on the same stage, with Ralph Ellison, at a famous symposium organized by Yeshiva University in 1962 on the responsibilities of minority fiction writers when s ‘acts of portraying members of their own minority groups. “

Curious about what had been said, he contacted Yeshiva’s special collections where, to the librarian’s disappointment, the surviving audio had been embargoed. The authorization of the three literary fields of the authors would be required for its distribution.

“It got me thinking, but then I realized that I might be in a unique position to achieve this, since I had previously hosted a secret emissary from the Nobel Prize Committee charged with investigating the writings of Philip Roth. on Newark, ”he explained.

Connell knew the literary executor of Ralph Ellison, and a good friend of Italian-American studies knew Pietro di Donato’s son, Richard.

“I also enlisted the help of the new Philip Roth Personal Library which opened in 2021 (it’s housed in the Newark Public Library), and soon the conference kicked off. These are three great authors, and the tape of their eloquent remarks that we are about to perform shine a light on their personality, their writing and the state of American literary culture in the early 1960s, while prompting us to reconsider the problems writers still face in 2021 ” , said Connell.

In addition to the milestone event, Connell explained that he was working with a documentary maker and that a book-length manuscript was in the works.

Connell, founding director of the Charles and Joan Alberto Institute for Italian Studies, has received numerous accolades including a 2019 Andrew Carnegie Fellowship, Villa I Tatti at Harvard and the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, the UNICO National Mille Grazie Prize, and the Columbian Foundation Presidential Prize. Twice he was appointed governor of the Italian Heritage Commission of New Jersey. In 2016, he received the Medal of Italian Culture Monsignor Joseph Granato from Seton Hall University.

The conference is sponsored by Seton Hall and the Philip Roth Personal Library of the Newark Public Library, the Philip Roth Endowment of NPL as part of the series Keeping It Real: Conversations about Race, Gender and Class, Seton Hall University Italian Studies Program; with Carnegie Corporation of New York, Verizon, Community Foundation of New Jersey, and donations from the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee of Seton Hall and the Friends of the Jewish Historical Society. The event is free, but reservations are required. Please visit here.


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