Authors: Philip Roth

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2017

American novelist and nonfiction writer

March 19, 1933

Newark, New Jersey

Biography

Along with Bernard Malamud and Saul Bellow, Philip Milton Roth is one of the most prominent of the American Jewish novelists who emerged after World War II. Most of his fiction focuses on figures who are recognizably second-or third-generation Jews struggling to come to terms with the attractions and repulsions of life in the United States. Roth was born in Newark, New Jersey, on March 19, 1933, and grew up in a lower-middle-class Jewish section of the city. His father was an insurance salesman, and his mother a homemaker. After one year at Newark College, Rutgers University, Roth transferred to Bucknell University, in rural Pennsylvania, where he edited the literary magazine and received a B.A. in English, magna cum laude, in 1954. After receiving an M.A. in English from the University of Chicago in 1955, he enlisted in the U.S. Army but, as a result of a back injury sustained in basic training, received a medical discharge. He returned to Chicago, where he spent a year as a Ph.D. candidate and an instructor in English. He later held teaching positions at the University of Iowa, Princeton University, the State University of New York at Stony Brook, and the University of Pennsylvania, and he maintained residences in both London and upstate New York. A champion of authors from Soviet Bloc nations, Roth in 1975 became editor of the Writers from the Other Europe series for Penguin Books.

Roth’s first public literary acclaim came when “The Contest for Aaron Gold” was selected for inclusion in The Best Short Stories of 1956. Goodbye, Columbus (1959), a novella published with five of his short stories about contemporary American Jews, won the 1960 National Book Award and the Houghton Mifflin Literary Fellowship, and its success launched his national reputation. In the same year, he began a troubled marriage with Margaret Martinson Williams, a Gentile who furnished the model for fictional harpies in several of Roth’s works. The two separated in 1963 and were divorced in 1966, two years before her death in an automobile accident. In 1976 he began a long-term relationship with English actress Claire Bloom, who became his wife in 1990; they were divorced in 1994.

Publicity photo of Philip Roth.

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By Nancy Crampton (ebay) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Roth’s first novel, Letting Go, is a Jamesian study in individual freedom and moral choice. Five years later, in 1967, Roth published his second novel, When She Was Good, a severely naturalistic account of five generations of a compulsive Protestant family in a small midwestern town. His next novel, Portnoy’s Complaint, marked a radical departure in style and tone, becoming the most controversial best-seller of 1969. The success of Portnoy’s Complaint made Roth rich and infamous. Ribald, flamboyant, and deliberately outrageous, Portnoy’s Complaint is the extended monologue that Alexander Portnoy, a responsible young city official with lascivious obsessions, delivers to his psychoanalyst. The book’s notoriety drastically altered Roth’s relationship to his reading public, a relationship that became a theme in his writing.

The unflattering portrait of Jewish assimilationists, hypocrites, and mediocrities in Goodbye, Columbus had earlier led to the denunciation of Roth from rabbinical pulpits as an enemy to his people. He was also attacked by influential critics for the paucity of his grounding in a genuinely Jewish tradition. The publication of Portnoy’s Complaint led to further vilification, as it also contributed to his celebrity. Uncomfortable in the role of public figure and unrepentant of what he saw as his honest attempts to portray American Jewish life torn between traditional ethical restraint and the libidinous temptations of contemporary materialism, Roth continued to express himself through his fictions. Increasingly, his novels concerned themselves with the burdens of fame, intellect, and Jewishness for recurring characters who seem alter egos for Roth himself.

My Life as a Man, for example, is a reflexive fictional structure recounting the New Jersey childhood, rebellious adolescence, disastrous marriage, and literary ambitions of Nathan Zuckerman, who is himself a creation of American Jewish writer Peter Tarnopol. Zuckerman would appear in several more novels: The Ghost Writer, Zuckerman Unbound, and The Anatomy Lesson (referred to as the Zuckerman trilogy), and The Prague Orgy, which forms an epilogue to the trilogy. These novels were particularly noted as Roth’s initial foray into self-reflexive metafiction. Zuckerman would appear again in The Counterlife, Pulitzer Prize–winning American Pastoral, I Married a Communist, and The Human Stain, the last three of which have been called Roth’s American trilogy, both reflecting Roth’s personal life and key American experiences of the 1960’s, 1950’s, and 1990’s, narrated from the perspective of an older and more reclusive Zuckerman. The character once again resurfaces as the protagonist of 2007's Exit Ghost, a follow-up of sorts to The Ghost Writer that deals with themes of post-9/11 American fears of terrorism as well as traditional Roth concerns such as lust, love, and identity.

To the early charge that his novels were only thinly disguised autobiography and that he was using fiction as a coy evasion of the facts, Roth responded with The Facts and Patrimony. Although The Facts purports to recount his life directly, the book omits much and is framed, like Roth’s most elaborate metafictions, with a critique by his own character Zuckerman. Patrimony, winner of the 1991 National Book Critics Circle Award, expresses his love for his father. “Sheer Playfulness and Deadly Seriousness are my closest friends,” declared Roth in a 1974 interview, and his novels may be grouped according to which mood prevails. It is when both styles contribute equally, primarily in the Zuckerman cycle and Operation Shylock, that Roth produces his most satisfying works. Operation Shylock, winner of the 1993 PEN/Faulkner Award, has been dubbed “the Great American Jewish Novel” by Cynthia Ozick.

Roth abandoned his Zuckerman persona in the darkly comic Sabbath’s Theater, which won the 1995 National Book Award. The novel introduced a new protagonist, Mickey Sabbath, a onetime puppeteer who remains libidinously young in heart and loins but at sixty-four descends into self-pity when the death of his mistress, the erotic love of his life, and another friend’s death prompt him to make his own final plans.

A protagonist appearing in more than one Roth novel, David Kepesh of The Breast (a Kafkaesque tale of a man who turns into a 155-pound female breast) and The Professor of Desire, returned in The Dying Animal. In that tale, the now white-haired, aging Kepesh, a famous national cultural critic who makes regular television appearances, looks back on a life of “emancipated manhood,” a sexual freedom made possible by forgoing commitment and family ties, only to be undermined by a late-life affair with a Cuban American heiress in her twenties, who undermines his emotional equilibrium when he falls in love with her.

Aging—and a man's response to it—is likewise a major concern in Everyman, which garnered Roth his third PEN/Faulkner Award in 2007, and The Humbling, his thirtieth novel. In the former, the nameless septuagenarian protagonist grapples with how he became who he is as his body begins to weaken. In the latter, the protagonist, actor Simon Axler, copes with losses, both professional and marital, through a sexual affair with a highly stereotyped, much-younger lesbian that critics found implausible.

In his later years, Roth mined history for inspiration, from the alternate history of The Plot against America, in which anti-Semite Charles Lindbergh ascends to the presidency and colludes with Adolf Hitler, to the historical fictional Nemesis, which explores one young man's choices during the polio epidemic of the 1940s.

In the twenty-first-century, Roth gained recognition for his decades-long career, with an American Academy of Arts and Letters' Gold Medal in Fiction and the National Book Foundation's Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, both in 2002; the National Humanities Medal in 2010; and the Man Booker International Prize in 2011.

In the 1961 essay “Writing American Fiction,” later collected in Reading Myself and Others, Roth bemoans the imagination’s inability to rival the grotesque reality of contemporary American experience—yet much of his fiction is energized by this desperate sense of its own inadequacy. A spirited, comic inventor and an incisive chronicler of life in the United States in the second half of the twentieth century, especially among Jews, academics, and writers, Roth made a successful career out of the themes of family, ethnicity, and fiction itself. Unlike many novelists, his depth and sheer storytelling power increased with age.

Author Works Long Fiction: Letting Go, 1962 When She Was Good, 1967 Portnoy’s Complaint, 1969 Our Gang, 1971 The Breast, 1972, revised 1980 The Great American Novel, 1973 My Life as a Man, 1974 The Professor of Desire, 1977 The Ghost Writer, 1979 Zuckerman Unbound, 1981 The Anatomy Lesson, 1983 Zuckerman Bound, 1985 (includes The Ghost Writer, Zuckerman Unbound, The Anatomy Lesson, and Epilogue: The Prague Orgy) The Counterlife, 1986 Deception, 1990 Operation Shylock: A Confession, 1993 Sabbath’s Theater, 1995 American Pastoral, 1997 I Married a Communist, 1998 The Human Stain, 2000 The Dying Animal, 2001 The Plot against America, 2004 Everyman, 2006 Exit Ghost, 2008 The Humbling, 2009 Indignation, 2009 Nemesis, 2010 Short Fiction: Goodbye, Columbus, and Five Short Stories, 1959 Nonfiction: Reading Myself and Others, 1975, expanded 1985 The Facts: A Novelist’s Autobiography, 1988 Patrimony: A True Story, 1991 Shop Talk: A Writer and His Colleagues and Their Work, 2001 Bibliography Baumgarten, Murray, and Barbara Gottfried. Understanding Philip Roth. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1990. Interpretation and discussion of Roth’s fiction. Includes a bibliography and index. Bloom, Harold, ed. Philip Roth. New York: Chelsea House, 1986. A good study of Roth’s fiction. Includes a bibliography and index. Cooper, Alan. Philip Roth and the Jews. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996. A carefully researched examination and consideration of Roth’s work, his biography, and Roth’s political views which are evident in his writing. Guttmann, Allen. The Jewish Writer in America: Assimilation and the Crisis of Identity. New York: Oxford University Press, 1971. This book provides a broader context for interpreting Roth’s work, one that a number of critics believe to be essential, particularly for some of the early short stories. Halio, Jay L. Philip Roth Revisited. New York: Twayne, 1992. Discusses the critical response to Roth’s fiction. Includes a bibliography and index. Jones, Judith Paterson, and Guinevera A. Nance. Philip Roth. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1981. Traces three themes throughout Roth’s work: the “good” Jewish child’s struggle for freedom from parental coercion and guilt, the “conflict between high-minded moral responsibility and sensuous self-assertion,” and the absurdities of contemporary American society, which elicit satirical treatment from the novelist. Kahn-Paycha, Danièle. Popular Jewish Literature and Its Role in the Making of an Identity. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 2000. A study of Jewish and Anglo-Jewish characters in English and American literature. Meeter, Glenn. Philip Roth and Bernard Malamud: A Critical Essay. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1968. An interesting comparison of Roth and Malamud, authors with compelling similarities as well as important differences. Milbauer, Asher Z., and Donald G. Watson, eds. Reading Philip Roth. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988. This collection of essays is consistently insightful, examining Roth as a social critic and an exemplar of Jewish alienation. Also compares him to some prominent American novelists, as well as to Franz Kafka. Milowitz, Steven. Philip Roth Considered: The Concentrationary Universe of the American Writer. New York: Taylor & Francis, 2000. Explores Roth’s writings on the “concentrationary” world of the “camps” of the Holocaust, how this world keeps revealing itself through memories and other reminders, and how the “shadowy presence” of the Holocaust refuses forgetting. Omer-Sherman, Ranen. Diaspora and Zionism in Jewish American literature: Lazarus, Syrkin, Reznikoff, and Roth. Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 2002. A discussion of how these writers have addressed the issue of Jewish nationalism and the fate of the Jewish diaspora. Parrish, Timothy, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Philip Roth. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007. Comprised of eleven original scholarly essays, this volume critiques Roth’s fiction, from his early works to his recent novels, examining the themes of sexuality, cultural identity, and the Holocaust. This book serves is an excellent introduction to Roth’s works and includes a chronology and a section of notes for further reading. Pinsker, Sanford. The Comedy That “Hoits”: An Essay on the Fiction of Philip Roth. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1975. Pinsker knows Roth inside out. In this relatively early work he does a good job of analyzing the precise relation of Roth’s humor to the more serious issues addressed in his work. Pinsker, Sanford, ed. Critical Essays on Philip Roth. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1982. Composed of fourteen reviews of various Roth works, including his short story “The Conversion of the Jews” and an equal number of critical essays. Several of the essays deal with Roth’s treatment of the Jewish American experience, and one essay compares Roth to Kafka. Pinsker provides a helpful introduction. Rand, Naomi R. Silko, Morrison, and Roth: Studies in Survival. New York: Peter Lang, 1999. A study of how Silko, Morrison, and Roth each use a “survival narrative motif” as a way of defining their ethnic stance. Rodgers, Bernard F., Jr. Philip Roth. Boston: Twayne, 1978. This book examines a variety of Roth’s work, including several of his short stories, arguing that Roth’s experimentation with different literary forms should not disguise his overriding commitment to “realism” as socio-moral therapy. Roth, Philip. Conversations with Philip Roth. Edited by George J. Searles. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1992. Roth talks about his life and the influences on his fiction. Includes a bibliography and index. Wade, Stephen. The Imagination in Transit: The Fiction of Philip Roth. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1996. Wade details Roth’s growth as a novelist through a study of his fiction, relates the connection of Roth’s work to American Jewish literary style, and lists influences on Roth’s work.

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