Unlike the main characters in almost all of Philip Roth’s other texts, the narrator of “You Can’t Tell a Man by the Song He Sings” is nameless and never clearly identified as Jewish or non-Jewish, though his companions are Italian American. This story also stands out for its lack of female characters, even peripheral ones. It is a boys’ world, full of gym class contests and sparring in the halls, but it is a world that offers lessons applicable to the adult world, as well.
Although the story’s title sounds like a figure of speech, it is not, and in fact two songs are sung: “Don’t Sit under the Apple Tree,” recorded by Glenn Miller in 1942, and “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Each does indeed tell something about the singers. Miller’s popular song is a duet between a soldier and his girl, each asking the other for fidelity while they are apart; it is playful and flirtatious, and a bit precocious for the teenage classmates who sing it in the story. The second song, the national anthem, does not seem to be invoked patriotically; rather, its recitation is rote and almost mocking. The “men” of the title are a handful of adolescents; those trying to “tell” or assess them are their teachers and school administrators, who use tests and labels to track students and predict their aptitudes and failures. Paradoxically, these methods seem to create reality as much as they forecast it. With our country’s current emphasis on testing, assessment, and pedagogical accountability, Roth’s story might serve as a warning of the limitations of such outcome-based, one-size-fits-all approaches to education.
The story is composed of a 30-year-old narrator’s reminiscences of 1942, his freshman year of high school and, according to our society, an all-important time for one’s personal development and professional trajectory. The narrated episodes of the story do not seem to have been particularly significant at the time, only given importance through hindsight. In spite of his presumed respectability, the narrator finds himself keeping dubious company with the reformatory school alumnus Alberto Pelagutti, “the ex con” (234), and Duke Scarpa, who “had reached us only after the Board of Education had tried Albie at two other schools and the Duke at four” (240). The audience must wonder about his choice of friends and his willingness to take on the role of “liaison between Albie and the well-behaved, healthy nonconvicts like myself” (241–242). One might not be able to tell a man by the song he sings, but it seems that a man can be told by the company he keeps. In contrast to the organized systems that the school employs, the narrator’s friendship with Albie and Duke seems quite random. Albie, the “hippopotamus,” becomes the narrator’s companion after asking him for answers on the Occupations placement test, while “reptilian” Duke “hypnotize[s]” the narrator (240).
The details of Albie’s criminal past are never specified, but Albie himself does not seem particularly fearsome. His espoused decision to go straight, along with his attempts to fit in with the narrator, give him the quality of a lost puppy. And yet he has already been labeled in a way that will mediate the way that people interact with him. Even the narrator is guilty of stereotyping and judging superficially. For example, he makes Albie his first choice for his gym class softball team on the basis of Albie’s size and what turn out to be false claims of being a star on the reformatory school squad. When Albie proves “a lemon” (239)—the Italian ex-con is not yet a master of the national pastime—the narrator becomes angry and mocks him.
This episode does not, however, prevent the narrator from becoming an accomplice in one of Pelagutti’s plots. Although the ploy seems harmless, it is indicative of one of the major motifs in the story, the permanency of records. Occupations instructor Russo draws Albie’s wrath by sending him and the other would-be lawyers (as indicated by Russo’s beloved tests) to the local courtroom to observe the proceedings. Paradoxically, it is Russo’s lack of prejudice that offends Albie, who has already had negative experiences with courts. Russo ignores Albie’s record at his own peril as Albie is affronted and takes action.
Albie’s revolt is tied into the political undercurrent of the story, which is set against the backdrop of McCarthyism; indeed the story takes place two years after the passage of the Alien Registration Act, which criminalized agitating for the government’s overthrow. When Pelaguttiactualizes his planned assault against the offending teacher, the narrator’s characterization of Albie changes accordingly. Referencing two famous Italians, the narrator reports: “This was no Capone, this was a Garibaldi!” (244). Hence Pelagutti shifts from crime boss to revolutionary hero. And the revolutionary hero unifies the class and its supplanted leader, Mr. Russo, by leading them in song: “Don’t Sit under the Apple Tree” and an off-key, maximal volume rendition of the national anthem.
Ironically, it is Russo who becomes a victim to the House Un-American Activities Committee. Although the name Russo is Italian in origin, it shares four letters with Russian—and means “red.” Just as Russo gets into difficulty by ignoring Albie’s past, he loses his job for disregarding his own. Russo’s alleged status as “a Marxist while attending Montclair State Teachers’ College circa 1935” (245)—in other words, a typical young idealist—gains him the unwanted attention of the Senate Committee and the Newark Board of Education.
Russo’s ouster is juxtaposed with the schism that develops between the narrator and his two associates when they leave him to take the blame for breaking a window during a sparring match in the hall. Although the narrator initially judges them harshly for their betrayal, he later realizes that they cannot afford to lengthen their own records of behavioral problems. The school principal keeps a file card of naughty acts; the narrator’s boyish escapade becomes part of his permanent record. Hence the narrator expresses uncertainty that his letter to the School Board (swearing that Mr. Russo never dispensed communist ideas in the classroom) did any good. Permanent records work against ex-cons, good kids, and idealistic teachers, alike.
Roth, Philip. “You Can’t Tell a Man by the Song He Sings.” In Goodbye, Columbus and Five Short Stories (1959). New York: Vintage International, 1993.