Philip Roth - Biography
Philip Milton Roth (born March 19, 1933) is an American novelist. He gained fame with the 1959 novella Goodbye, Columbus, an irreverent and humorous portrait of Jewish-American life that earned him a National Book Award. In 1969 he became a major celebrity with the publication of the controversial Portnoy's Complaint, the humorous and sexually explicit psychoanalytical monologue of "a lust-ridden, mother-addicted young Jewish bachelor," filled with "intimate, shameful detail, and coarse, abusive language."
Roth has since become one of the most honored authors of his generation: his books have twice been awarded the National Book Award, twice the National Book Critics Circle award, and three times the PEN/Faulkner Award. He received a Pulitzer Prize for his 1997 novel, American Pastoral, which featured his best-known character, Nathan Zuckerman, the subject of many other of Roth's novels. His 2001 novel The Human Stain, another Zuckerman novel, was awarded the United Kingdom's WH Smith Literary Award for the best book of the year. His fiction, set frequently in Newark, New Jersey, is known for its intensely autobiographical character, for philosophically and formally blurring the distinction between reality and fiction, for its "supple, ingenious style," and for its provocative explorations of Jewish and American identity.
Philip 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. Roth attended Bucknell University, earning a degree in English. He pursued graduate studies at the University of Chicago, where he received an M.A. in English literature in 1955 and worked briefly as an instructor in the university's writing program. Roth taught 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 at Chicago, Roth met the novelist Saul Bellow, as well as Margaret Martinson, who became his first wife. Their separation in 1963, along 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. Between the end of his studies and the publication of his first book in 1959, 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. 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's first book, Goodbye, Columbus, a novella and five short stories, won the National Book Award in 1960, and afterwards 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 that followed between 1979 and 1986, Zuckerman appeared as either the main character or an interlocutor.
Sabbath's Theater (1995) has perhaps Roth's most lecherous protagonist, Mickey Sabbath, a disgraced former puppeteer. In complete contrast, the first volume of Roth's second Zuckerman trilogy, 1997's 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. Allegedly inspired by the life of the writer Anatole Broyard, 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. In The Plot Against America (2004), Roth imagines an alternate American history in which Charles Lindbergh, aviator hero and isolationist, is elected U.S. president in 1940, and the U.S. negotiates an understanding with Hitler's Nazi Germany and embarks on its own program of anti-Semitism.
Roth's novel Everyman, a meditation on illness, aging, desire, and death, was published in May 2006. For Everyman Roth won his third PEN/Faulkner Award, making him the only person so honored. Exit Ghost, which again features Nathan Zuckerman, was released in October 2007. According to the book's publisher, it is the last Zuckerman novel. Indignation, Roth's 29th book, was published on September 16, 2008. Set in 1951, during the Korean War, it follows Marcus Messner's departure from Newark to Ohio's Winesburg College, where he begins his sophomore year. In 2009, Roth's 30th book The Humbling was published, which told the story of the last performances of Simon Axler, a celebrated stage actor. Roth’s 31st book, Nemesis, was published on October 5, 2010. According to the book's notes, Nemesis is the final in a series of four "short novels," which also included Everyman, Indignation and The Humbling.
In October 2009, during an interview with Tina Brown of The Daily Beast website to promote The Humbling, Roth considered the future of literature and its place in society, stating his belief that within 25 years the reading of novels will be regarded as a "cultic" activity:
I was being optimistic about 25 years really. I think it's going to be cultic. I think always people will be reading them but it will be a small group of people. Maybe more people than now read Latin poetry, but somewhere in that range... To read a novel requires a certain amount of concentration, focus, devotion to the reading. If you read a novel in more than two weeks you don't read the novel really. So I think that kind of concentration and focus and attentiveness is hard to come by — it's hard to find huge numbers of people, large numbers of people, significant numbers of people, who have those qualities[.]
When asked his opinion on the emergence of digital books and e-books as possibly replacing printed copy, Roth was equally negative and downbeat about the prospect:
The book can't compete with the screen. It couldn't compete [in the] beginning with the movie screen. It couldn't compete with the television screen, and it can't compete with the computer screen... Now we have all those screens, so against all those screens a book couldn't measure up.
This interview is not the first time that Roth has expressed pessimism over the future of the novel and its significance in recent years. Talking to the Observer's Robert McCrum in 2001, he said that "I'm not good at finding 'encouraging' features in American culture. I doubt that aesthetic literacy has much of a future here."
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 at times 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".
Roth's first work, Goodbye, Columbus, for his irreverent humor of the life of middle-class Jewish Americans, was controversial among reviewers, which were highly polarized in their judgments; a reviewer criticized it as infused with a sense of 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.
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. 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.
While Roth's fiction has strong autobiographical influences, it has also incorporated social commentary and political satire, most obviously in Our Gang and Operation Shylock. Since the 1990s, Roth's fiction has often combined autobiographical elements with retrospective dramatizations of postwar American life. Roth has 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 Roth's 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 of the 1930s 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 in Roth's earlier works that 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 of 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'."
Awards and honors
Two of Roth's works of fiction have won the National Book Award; four others were finalists. Two have won National Book Critics Circle awards; again, another five 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. In 2002, he was awarded the National Book Foundation's Award for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. Literary critic Harold Bloom has named him as one of the four major American novelists still at work, along with Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, and Cormac McCarthy. His 2004 novel The Plot Against America won the Sidewise Award for Alternate History in 2005 as well as the Society of American Historians’ James Fenimore Cooper Prize for Best Historical Fiction. Roth was also awarded the United Kingdom's WH Smith Literary Award for the best book of the year, an award Roth has received twice. He was honored in his hometown in October 2005 when then-mayor Sharpe James presided over the unveiling of a street sign in Roth's name on the corner of Summit and Keer Avenues where Roth lived for much of his childhood, a setting prominent 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.
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.'" Six of Roth's novels were in the 22 selected: American Pastoral, The Counterlife, Operation Shylock, Sabbath's Theater, The Human Stain, and The Plot Against America. 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."
In May 2011, Roth was awarded the Man Booker International Prize for achievement in fiction on the world stage, the fourth winner of the biennial prize. One of the judges, Carmen Callil, a publisher of the feminist Virago house, withdrew in protest, referring to Roth's work as 'Emperor's clothes.' She said "he goes on and on and on about the same subject in almost every single book. It's as though he's sitting on your face and you can't breathe... I don’t rate him as a writer at all ..." Observers quickly noted that Callil had a conflict of interest, having published a book by Claire Bloom which had criticized Roth. In response, one of the two other Booker judges, Rick Gekoski, remarked: "In 1959 he writes Goodbye, Columbus and it's a masterpiece, magnificent. Fifty-one years later he's 78 years old and he writes Nemesis and it is so wonderful, such a terrific novel ... Tell me one other writer who 50 years apart writes masterpieces ... If you look at the trajectory of the average novel writer, there is a learning period, then a period of high achievement, then the talent runs out and in middle age they start slowly to decline. People say why aren't Martin [Amis] and Julian [Barnes] getting on the Booker prize shortlist, but that's what happens in middle age. Philip Roth, though, gets better and better in middle age. In the 1990s he was almost incapable of not writing a masterpiece – The Human Stain, The Plot Against America, I Married a Communist. He was 65-70 years old, what the hell's he doing writing that well?"
Four of Philip Roth's novels and short stories have been made into films: Goodbye, Columbus; Portnoy's Complaint; The Human Stain; and The Dying Animal which was made into the movie Elegy.
- The Ghost Writer (1979)
- Zuckerman Unbound (1981)
- The Anatomy Lesson (1983)
- The Prague Orgy (1985)
(The above four books are collected as Zuckerman Bound)
- The Counterlife (1986)
- American Pastoral (1997)
- I Married a Communist (1998)
- The Human Stain (2000)
- Exit Ghost (2007)
- Deception: A Novel (1990)
- Operation Shylock: A Confession (1993)
- The Plot Against America (2004)
- The Breast (1972)
- The Professor of Desire (1977)
- The Dying Animal (2001)
- Goodbye, Columbus (1959)
- Letting Go (1962)
- When She Was Good (1967)
- Portnoy's Complaint (1969)
- Our Gang (1971)
- The Great American Novel (1973)
- My Life As a Man (1974)
- Sabbath's Theater (1995)
Nemeses: Short Novels
- Everyman (2006)
- Indignation (2008)
- The Humbling (2009)
- Nemesis (2010)
- 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
- Novels and Stories 1959-1962 (2005) ISBN 978-1-93108279-2
- Novels 1967-1972 (2005) ISBN 978-1-93108280-8
- Novels 1973-1977 (2006) ISBN 978-1-93108296-9
- Zuckerman Bound: A Trilogy and Epilogue 1979-1985 (2007) ISBN 978-1-59853-011-7
- Novels and Other Narratives 1986-1991 (2008) ISBN 978-1-59853-030-8
- Novels 1993–1995 (2010) ISBN 978-1-59853-078-0
- The American Trilogy 1997-2000 (2011) ISBN 978-1598531039
List of awards
- 1960 National Book Award for Goodbye, Columbus
- 1975 National Book Award - finalist for My Life As A Man
- 1978 National Book Critics Circle Award - finalist for The Professor Of Desire
- 1980 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction - finalist for The Ghost Writer
- 1980 National Book Award - finalist for The Ghost Writer
- 1980 National Book Critics Circle Award - finalist for The Ghost Writer
- 1984 National Book Award - finalist for The Anatomy Lesson
- 1984 National Book Critics Circle Award - finalist for The Anatomy Lesson
- 1986 National Book Critics Circle Award for The Counterlife
- 1986 National Book Award - finalist for The Counterlife
- 1991 National Book Critics Circle Award for Patrimony
- 1994 PEN/Faulkner Award for Operation Shylock
- 1994 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction - finalist for Operation Shylock
- 1995 National Book Award for Sabbath's Theater
- 1994 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction - finalist for Sabbath's Theater
- 1998 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for American Pastoral
- 1998 National Book Critics Circle Award - finalist for American Pastoral
- 1998 Ambassador Book Award of the English-Speaking Union for I Married a Communist
- 1998 National Medal of Arts
- 2000 Prix du Meilleur Livre Étranger (France) for American Pastoral
- 2001 Franz Kafka Prize
- 2001 PEN/Faulkner Award for The Human Stain
- 2001 Gold Medal In Fiction from The American Academy of Arts and Letters
- 2001 WH Smith Literary Award for The Human Stain
- 2002 National Book Foundation's Award for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters
- 2002 Prix Médicis Étranger (France) for The Human Stain
- 2003 Honorary Doctor of Letters degree from Harvard University
- 2005 National Book Critics Circle Award - finalist for The Plot Against America
- 2005 Sidewise Award for Alternate History for The Plot Against America
- 2005 James Fenimore Cooper Prize for Best Historical Fiction for The Plot Against America
- 2006 PEN/Nabokov Award for lifetime achievement
- 2007 PEN/Faulkner Award for Everyman
- 2007 PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction
- 2010 Paris Review's Hadada Prize
- 2011 Man Booker International Prize
- Brauner, David (1969) Getting in Your Retaliation First: Narrative Strategies in Portnoy's Complaint in Royal, Derek Parker (2005) Philip Roth: new perspectives on an American author, chapter 3
- Saxton, Martha (1974) Philip Roth Talks about His Own Work Literary Guild June 1974, n.2. Also published in Philip Roth, George John Searles (1992) Conversations with Philip Roth p. 78
Further reading and literary criticism
- Bloom, Harold and Welsch, Gabe, eds., Modern Critical Interpretations of Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint, Chelsea House, 2003.
- Bloom, Harold, ed., Modern Critical Views of Philip Roth, Chelsea House, New York, 2003.
- Cooper, Alan, Philip Roth and the Jews (SUNY Series in Modern Jewish Literature and Culture), SUNY Press, Albany, NY, 1996.
- „Defender of the faith” by Philip Roth
- 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.
- Milowitz, Steven, Philip Roth Considered: The Concentrationary Universe of the American Writer, Routledge, New York, 2000.
- Morley, Catherine, The Quest for Epic in Contemporary American Literature, Routledge, New York, 2008.
- Parrish, Timothy, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Philip Roth, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2007.
- Podhoretz, Norman, "The Adventures of Philip Roth," Commentary (October 1998), reprinted as "Philip Roth, Then and Now" in The Norman Podhoretz Reader, 2004.
- Posnock, Ross, Philip Roth's Rude Truth: The Art of Immaturity, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 2006.
- Royal, Derek Parker, Philip Roth: New Perspectives on an American Author, Praeger Publishers, Santa Barbara, CA, 2005.
- Safer, Elaine B., Mocking the Age: The Later Novels of Philip Roth (SUNY Series in Modern Jewish Literature and Culture), SUNY Press, Albany, NY, 2006.
- Searles, George J., ed., Conversations With Philip Roth, University of Mississippi Press, Jackson, Mississippi, 1992.
- Searles, George J., The Fiction of Philip Roth and John Updike, Southern Illinois University Press, Carbondale, Illinois, 1984.
- Shostak, Debra B., Philip Roth: Countertexts, Counterlives, University of South Carolina Press, Columbia, SC, 2004.
- Simic, Charles, "The Nicest Boy in the World," The New York Review of Books, Vol. LV, No. 15, 9 October 2008.
- Wöltje, Wiebke-Maria, My finger on the pulse of the nation. Intellektuelle Protagonisten im Romanwerk Philip Roths (Mosaic, 26), Trier: WVT, 2006.
- Literary Encyclopedia biography
- The Philip Roth Society
- Philip Roth looks back on a legendary career, and forward to his final act
- Roth interview - from NPR's "Fresh Air", September 2005
- Roth interview - from The Guardian, December 2005
- Roth interview - from Open Source
- Roth interview - from Der Spiegel, February 2008
- Roth interview - from the London Times, October 17, 2009
- Roth interview - from CBC's Writers and Company. Aired 2009-11-01