Philip Milton Roth (born March 19, 1933, Newark, New Jersey) is an American novelist. He gained early literary fame with the 1959 collection Goodbye, Columbus (winner of 1960's 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. The Zuckerman novels began with The Ghost Writer in 1979, and include the Pulitzer Prize-winning American Pastoral (1997).
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 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, 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. 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 Nathan Zuckerman alter ego. In a series of highly self-referential novels and novellas that followed between 1979-1986, Zuckerman appeared as either the main character or as an interlocutor.
In Sabbath's Theater (1995), Roth presented his most lecherous protagonist yet with 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. 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.
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 182-page novel Everyman, a meditation on illness, desire, and death, was published in May 2006.
Exit Ghost, which features his alter ego Nathan Zuckerman, was released in October 2007. According to the book's publisher, it is the last Zuckerman novel.
Indignation, Roth's twenty-ninth book, is scheduled to be published on September 16, 2008. Set in 1951 to the backdrop of the Korean War, it follows Marcus Messner's departure from Newark to Ohio's Winesburg College, where he begins his sophomore year.
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 time's 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, had been severely criticized by rabbis and readers as crude and 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. 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 have taken 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 travelled 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 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'."
Philip Roth is one of the most celebrated living 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. 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’ prize. 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 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.
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. 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, would have won."
(The above four books are collected as Zuckerman Bound)
Edited by Ross Miller