In March 1969, 19 months after riots had devastated Newark, Philip Roth took to the New York Times with a plea to save the city’s library. In a budget-cutting move, the Newark City Council had proposed slashing funding for the library’s main branch and the adjoining Newark Museum, two notable landmarks constructed during more prosperous times in the early twentieth century. “When I was growing up in Newark,” wrote Roth, “we assumed that books in the public library belonged to the public. Since my family did not own many books, or have the money for a child to buy them, it was good to know that solely by virtue of my municipal citizenship I had access to any book I wanted from that grandly austere building downtown on Washington Street.” Soon after Roth’s appeal, city council members found the money to keep the library and museum operating, most likely because they never really intended to shutter two of the city’s signature institutions. The threat was likely a way to dramatize Newark’s accelerating decline.
Nearly five decades later, Newark is described as a failed city, “a classic example of urban disaster,” “the worst American city,” and “America’s most violent city.” One of Roth’s own characters, Swede Levov, from his 1997 novel American Pastoral, calls Newark a place that once “manufactured everything” but turned into “the car theft capital of the world.” Still, Roth, who left Newark in 1951 for college and a writing career that includes a novel titled Letting Go, has been unable to let go of the city. Last October, he announced that he was bequeathing his collection of 4,000 books to the Newark Library—recognition of the role that Newark played not only in his life but also in his work.
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