Philip Roth

From New World Encyclopedia

Philip Roth
Philip Roth - 1973.jpg
Roth in 1973
Born March 19 1933(1933-03-19)
Newark, New Jersey
Died May 22 2018 (aged 85)
Manhattan, New York City
Occupation novelist
Nationality American
Genres Literary fiction
Influences Henry James, Franz Kafka, Saul Bellow, Henry Miller, Anne Frank, Louis-Ferdinand Céline, James Joyce, Joseph Conrad

Philip Milton Roth (March 19, 1933 - May 22, 2018) was an American novelist. He gained early literary fame with the 1959 collection Goodbye, Columbus (winner of 1960 National Book Award), cemented it with his 1969 bestseller Portnoy's Complaint, and has continued to write critically acclaimed works, many of which feature his fictional alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning American Pastoral (1997).

Roth's work expresses the difficulties of reconciling traditional Jewish culture with modernity. The conflict between tradition and progressive modernism is an important concern in many cultures, especially so in the more ancient traditions such as Judaism.

Life and career

Roth grew up in the Weequahic neighborhood of Newark, New Jersey, as the second child of first-generation American parents, Jews of Galician descent, and graduated from Newark's Weequahic High School in 1950.[1] Roth went on to attend Bucknell University, earning a degree in English. He then pursued graduate studies at the University of Chicago, where he received an M.A. in English literature and worked briefly as an instructor in the university's writing program. Roth went on to teach creative writing at the University of Iowa and Princeton University. He continued his academic career at the University of Pennsylvania, where he taught comparative literature before retiring from teaching in 1991.

While in Chicago, Roth met the novelist Saul Bellow, as well as Margaret Martinson, who became his first wife. Their separation in 1963, together with Martinson's death in a car crash in 1968, left a lasting mark on Roth's literary output. Specifically, Martinson was the inspiration for female characters in several of Roth's novels, including Lucy Nelson in When She Was Good, and Maureen Tarnopol in My Life As a Man.[2]

Roth served two years in the United States Army and then wrote short fiction and criticism for various magazines, including movie reviews for The New Republic. His first book Goodbye, Columbus, a novella, and five short stories won the National Book Award in 1960, and afterward he published two novels, Letting Go and When She Was Good. However, it was not until the publication of his third novel, Portnoy's Complaint, in 1969 that Roth enjoyed widespread commercial and critical success.

During the 1970s Roth experimented in various modes, from the political satire Our Gang to the Kafkaesque The Breast. By the end of the decade Roth had created his alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman. In a series of highly self-referential novels and novellas, 1979-1986, Zuckerman appeared as either the main character or as an interlocutor.

In Sabbath's Theater (1995), Roth presented his most lecherous protagonist with Mickey Sabbath, a disgraced former puppeteer. In complete contrast, in 1997 American Pastoral, focuses on the life of virtuous Newark athletics star Swede Levov and the tragedy that befalls him when his teenage daughter transforms into a domestic terrorist during the late 1960s. I Married a Communist (1998) focuses on the McCarthy era. The Human Stain examines identity politics in 1990s America. The Dying Animal (2001) is a short novel about eros and death that revisits literary professor David Kepesh, protagonist of two 1970s works, The Breast and The Professor of Desire.

Roth's short novel Everyman, a meditation on illness, desire, and death, was published in May 2006.

Exit Ghost, the last novel featuring his alter ego Nathan Zuckerman, was published in 2007.[3]

Indignation, Roth's twenty-ninth book, (2008) is set in 1951, it follows Marcus Messner's departure from Newark to Ohio's Winesburg College, where he begins his sophomore year.

Events in Roth's personal life have occasionally been the subject of media scrutiny. According to his pseudo-confessional novel Operation Shylock (1993), Roth suffered a nervous breakdown in the late 1980s. In 1990, he married his long-time companion, English actress Claire Bloom. In 1994 they separated, and in 1996 Bloom published a memoir, Leaving a Doll's House, which described the couple's marriage in detail, much of which was unflattering to Roth. Certain aspects of I Married a Communist have been regarded by critics as veiled rebuttals to accusations put forth in Bloom's memoir.

Roth died at a Manhattan hospital of heart failure on May 22, 2018, at the age of 85.[4][5]

Roth was buried at the Bard College Cemetery in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, where he taught a class in 1999. He had originally planned to be buried next to his parents at the Gomel Chesed Cemetery in Newark, but changed his mind about fifteen years before his death, in order to be buried close to his friend the novelist Norman Manea.[6] Roth expressly banned any religious rituals from his funeral service, though it was noted that only one day after his burial a pebble had been placed on top of his tombstone in accordance with Jewish tradition.[7]

Influences and themes

Much of Roth's fiction revolves around (semi-)autobiographical themes, while self-consciously and playfully addressing the perils of establishing connections between the author Philip Roth and his fictional lives and voices, including narrators and protagonists such as David Kepesh and Nathan Zuckerman or even the character "Philip Roth," of which there are two in Operation Shylock.

In Roth's fiction, the question of authorship is intertwined with the theme of the idealistic, secular Jewish-American son who attempts to distance himself from Jewish customs and traditions, and from what he perceives as the suffocating influence of parents, rabbis and other community leaders. Jewish sons such as most infamously Alexander Portnoy and later Nathan Zuckerman rebel by denouncing Judaism, while at the same time remaining attached to a sense of Jewish identity. Roth's fiction has been described by critics as pervaded by "a kind of alienation that is enlivened and exacerbated by what binds it."[8]

Roth's first work, Goodbye, Columbus, was severely criticized by rabbis and readers as crude and infused with a sense of Jewish self-loathing. In response, Roth, in his 1963 essay "Writing About Jews" (collected in Reading Myself and Others), maintained that he wanted to explore the conflict between the call to Jewish solidarity and his desire to be free to question the values and morals of middle-class Jewish-Americans uncertain of their identities in an era of cultural assimilation and upward social mobility. "The cry 'Watch out for the goyim!' at times seems more the expression of an unconscious wish than of a warning: Oh that they were out there, so that we could be together here! A rumor of persecution, a taste of exile, might even bring with it the old world of feelings and habits — something to replace the new world of social accessibility and moral indifference, the world which tempts all our promiscuous instincts, and where one cannot always figure out what a Jew is that a Christian is not."[9]

In Roth's fiction, the exploration of "promiscuous instincts" within the context of Jewish-American lives, mainly from a male viewpoint plays an important role. Such promiscuity entails not only sexual promiscuity but also more generally a transgression of Jewish-American cultural values and norms, such as observance of the Jewish dietary laws, respect for the conventions of Judaism, and marrying a Jewish spouse. Through transgressions such as ignoring dietary laws, ridiculing Judaism, dating "shiksas" and engaging in "immoral" sexual activities, Roth's characters achieve a sense of liberation. But the resulting sense of freedom in Roth's fiction also results in feelings of alienation and emptiness, particularly in the context of the rapid cultural changes in the US that took place during Roth's lifetime. In the words of critic Hermione Lee:

Philip Roth's fiction strains to shed the burden of Jewish traditions and proscriptions. … The liberated Jewish consciousness, let loose into the disintegration of the American Dream, finds itself deracinated and homeless. American society and politics, by the late sixties, are a grotesque travesty of what Jewish immigrants had traveled towards: liberty, peace, security, a decent liberal democracy.[10]

While Roth's fiction has strong autobiographical influences, it also incorporated social commentary and political satire, most obviously in Our Gang and Operation Shylock. One reviewer writes that Operation Shylock, set in Jerusalem, "asks why it is that American Jews — the so-called “normalized” Jews like Roth — can both revere and detest Israel at the same time."[11] After the 1990s, Roth's fiction often combined autobiographical elements with retrospective dramatizations of postwar American life.

Roth described American Pastoral and the two following novels as a loosely connected "American trilogy." All these novels deal with aspects of the postwar era against the backdrop of the nostalgically remembered Jewish-American childhood of Nathan Zuckerman, in which the experience of life on the American home front during the Second World War features prominently.

In much of Roth's fiction, the 1940s, comprising Roth's and Zuckerman's childhood, mark a high-point of American idealism and social cohesion. A more satirical treatment of the patriotism and idealism of the war years is evident in more comic novels such as Portnoy's Complaint and Sabbath's Theater. In The Plot Against America, the alternate history of the war years dramatizes the prevalence of anti-Semitism and racism in America during the war years, despite the promotion of increasingly influential anti-racist ideals in wartime. Nonetheless, the 1940s, and the New Deal era that preceded it, are portrayed in much of Roth's recent fiction as a heroic phase in American history. A sense of frustration with social and political developments in the US since the 1940s is palpable in the American trilogy and Exit Ghost, but had already been present on much earlier works which contained political and social satire, such as Our Gang and The Great American Novel. Writing about the latter novel, Hermione Lee points to the sense disillusionment with "the American Dream" in Roth's fiction:

The mythic words on which Roth's generation was brought up—winning, patriotism, gamesmanship—are desanctified; greed, fear, racism and political ambition are disclosed as the motive forces behind the 'all-American ideals.'[10]


The May 21, 2006 issue of The New York Times Book Review announced the results of a letter that was sent to what the publication described as "a couple of hundred prominent writers, critics, editors and other literary sages, asking them to please identify 'the single best work of American fiction published in the last 25 years.'" Of the 22 books cited, six of Roth's novels were selected: American Pastoral, The Counterlife, Operation Shylock, Sabbath's Theater, The Human Stain, and The Plot Against America.[12] The accompanying essay, written by critic A.O. Scott, stated: "If we had asked for the single best writer of fiction of the past 25 years, [Roth] would have won."[13]

Awards and honors

Philip Roth is one of the most celebrated American writers. Two of his works of fiction have won the National Book Award; two others were finalists. Two have won National Book Critics Circle awards; again, another two were finalists. He has also won three PEN/Faulkner Awards (Operation Shylock, The Human Stain, and Everyman) and a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for his 1997 novel, American Pastoral.

In 2001, The Human Stain was awarded the United Kingdom's WH Smith Literary Award for the best book of the year. Roth was also awarded the 42nd Edward MacDowell Medal by the MacDowell Colony in 2001.[14]

In 2002, he was awarded the National Book Foundation's Award for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. In 2003, literary critic Harold Bloom named him as one of the four major American novelists still at work, along with Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, and Cormac McCarthy.[15] His 2004 novel The Plot Against America won the Sidewise Award for Alternate History in 2005 as well as the Society of American Historians’ prize and the United Kingdom's WH Smith Literary Award for the best book of the year.

In Newark, New Jersey, on October 2005 a street sign in Roth's name was unveiled at the corner of Summit and Keer Avenues where Roth lived for much of his childhood, a setting immortalized in The Plot Against America. A plaque on the house where the Roths lived was also unveiled.

In May 2006, he was given the PEN/Nabokov Award, and in 2007 he was awarded the PEN/Faulkner award for Everyman, making him the award's only three-time winner. In April 2007, he was chosen as the recipient of the first PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction[16].

In 2009 he was awarded the Welt-Literaturpreis of the German newspaper Die Welt. Roth was awarded the 2010 National Humanities Medal by U.S. President Barack Obama in the East Room of the White House on March 2, 2011.[17]

In May 2011 Roth was awarded the Man Booker International Prize for lifetime achievement in fiction on the world stage, the fourth winner of the biennial prize.[18]

In 2012 Roth received the Prince of Asturias Award for literature.[19] On March 19, 2013, his 80th birthday was celebrated in public ceremonies at the Newark Museum.[20]

Major works

Zuckerman novels
  • The Ghost Writer (1979)
  • Zuckerman Unbound (1981)
  • The Anatomy Lesson (1983)
  • The Prague Orgy (1985)
  • The Counterlife (1986)
  • American Pastoral (1997)
  • I Married a Communist (1998)
  • The Human Stain (2000)
  • Exit Ghost (2007)
Roth novels
  • Deception: A Novel (1990)
  • Operation Shylock: A Confession (1993)
  • The Plot Against America (2004)
Kepesh novels
  • The Breast (1972)
  • The Professor of Desire (1977)
  • The Dying Animal (2001)
Other novels
  • Goodbye, Columbus (1959)
  • Letting Go (1962)
  • When She Was Good (1967)
  • Portnoy's Complaint (1969)
  • Our Gang (novel)|Our Gang (1971)
  • The Great American Novel (1973)
  • My Life As a Man (1974)
  • Sabbath's Theater (1995)
  • Everyman (2006)
  • Indignation (2008)
  • The Facts: A Novelist's Autobiography (1988)
  • Patrimony: A True Story (1991)
  • Reading Myself and Others (1976)
  • A Philip Roth Reader (1980, revised edition 1993)
  • Shop Talk (2001)
Library of America editions, edited by Ross Miller


  1. Arnold H. Lubasch, Philip Roth Shakes Weequahic High The New York Times, February 28, 1969. Retrieved January 11, 2020. "It has provided the focus for the fiction of Philip Roth, the novelist who evokes his era at Weequahic High School in the highly acclaimed Portnoy's Complaint.… Besides identifying Weequahic High School by name, the novel specifies such sites as the Empire Burlesque, the Weequahic Diner, the Newark Museum and Irvington Park, all local landmarks that helped shape the youth of the real Roth and the fictional Portnoy, both graduates of Weequahic class of '50."
  2. Philip Roth, The Facts: A Novelist's Autobiography (New York, 1988). Roth discusses Martinson's portrait in this memoir. He calls her "Josie" in When She Was Good (149, 175). He discusses her as an inspiration for My Life As a Man throughout the book's second half, most completely in the chapter "Girl of My Dreams," (110): "Why should I have tried to make up anything better? How could I?" Her influence upon Portnoy's Complaint is seen in The Facts as more diffuse, a kind of loosening-up for the author: "It took time and it took blood, and not, really, until I began Portnoy's Complaint would I be able to cut loose with anything approaching her gift for flabbergasting boldness" (149).
  3. Zuckerman’s Last Hurrah New York Times, November 30, 2006. Retrieved January 11, 2020.
  4. Philip Roth: Portnoy's Complaint author dies aged 85 BBC News, May 23, 2018. Retrieved January 11, 2020.
  5. Philip Roth, Towering Novelist Who Explored Lust, Jewish Life and America, Dies at 85 The New York Times, May 22, 2018. Retrieved January 11, 2020.
  6. Josefin Dolsten, Philip Roth, Who 'Forbade' Jewish Rituals at His Funeral, to Be Buried Monday Haaretz, May 26, 2018. Retrieved January 11, 2020.
  7. Mikhail Horowitz, Philip Roth is laid to rest in Annandale HV1, May 29, 2018. January 11, 2020.
  8. Robert M. Greenberg, Transgression in the Fiction of Philip Roth Twentieth Century Literature 43(4) (Winter, 1997): 487-506.
  9. Philip Roth, Writing About Jews Commentary, December 1963.
  10. 10.0 10.1 Hermione Lee, Philip Roth (New York: Methuen & Co., 1982).
  11. David Louis Edelman, Philip Roth's Shylock Baltimore Evening Sun, October 11, 1993. Retrieved January 11, 2020.
  12. What Is the Best Work of American Fiction of the Last 25 Years? The New York Times, May 21, 2006. Retrieved January 11, 2020.
  13. A.O. Scott, In Search of the Best The New York Times, May 21, 2006. Retrieved January 11, 2020.
  14. Medal Day History MacDowell Colony, October 7, 2010. Retrieved January 11, 2020.
  15. Harold Bloom, Dumbing down American readers The Boston Globe, September 24, 2003. Retrieved January 11, 2020.
  16. PEN American Center. "Philip Roth Wins Inaugural PEN/Saul Bellow Award". April 2, 2007.
  17. Jacqueline Trescott, President Obama talks about the influence of art and words The Washington Post, March 2, 2011. Retrieved January 11, 2020.
  18. Literary giant wins fourth Man Booker International Prize The Man Booker Prizes, May 18, 2011. Retrieved January 10, 2020.
  19. US author Philip Roth wins Prince of Asturias prize for literature EiTB, June 6, 2012. Retrieved January 11, 2020.
  20. Steven G. Kellman, Four Score and Philip Roth Tablet, March 22, 2013. Retrieved January 11, 2020.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Cooper, Alan. Philip Roth and the Jews. 1996. ISBN 0791429105
  • Edelman, David Louis. "Philip Roth's Shylock." review
  • Greenberg, Robert. "Transgression in the Fiction of Philip Roth." Twentieth Century Literature (Winter 1997)
  • Kinzel, Till. Die Tragödie und Komödie des amerikanischen Lebens. Eine Studie zu Zuckermans Amerika in Philip Roths Amerika-Trilogie (American Studies Monograph Series), Heidelberg: Winter, 2006. ISBN 3825352234
  • Lee, Hermione. Philip Roth. New York: Methuen & Co. 1982 ISBN 9780416329803
  • Milowitz, S., Philip Roth Considered: The Concentrationary Universe of the American Writer, 2000 ISBN 0815339577
  • Roth, Philip. The Facts: A Novelist's Autobiography. Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, New York, 1988. ISBN 9780374152123
  • Royal, Derek Parker. Philip Roth: New Perspectives on an American Author. 2005. ISBN 0275983633
  • Safer, Elaine B. Mocking the Age: The Later Novels of Philip Roth. 2006. ISBN 0791467090
  • Searles, George J. (ed.). Conversations With Philip Roth. 1992. ISBN 978-0878055586
  • Shostak, Debra B. Philip Roth-Countertexts, Counterlives. 2004. ISBN 1570035423

External links

All links retrieved November 23, 2022.


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