Philip Roth was born in Newark, New Jersey, on March 19, 1933, and grew up in a section of Newark that was then predominantly middle-class Jewish. Roth graduated from Weequahic High School in 1951 and attended Newark College at Rutgers University for a year before transferring to Bucknell University in Pennsylvania. Though the family could scarcely afford the expensive private college, Roth’s father was determined to make the sacrifices necessary to let his son get the education he wanted.
At Bucknell, Roth wrote for the literary magazine, in which he published his earliest stories. He made Phi Beta Kappa and graduated with an A.B., magna cum laude, in 1954, after which he went to the University of Chicago as a graduate student and instructor in English literature. He received his M.A. in 1955 and then served in the United States Army in 1955 and 1956. By this time, his stories had begun appearing in literary magazines such as The Chicago Review and Epoch; in 1955, one of them was selected for Martha Foley’s anthology Best American Short Stories. While in the Army Roth continued writing, and in 1959 his first collection, Goodbye, Columbus, and Five Short Stories, was published. It won the National Book Award for fiction in 1960. Roth was only twenty-six.
Much of his early life is presented in The Facts: A Novelist’s Autobiography (1988), in which he describes in detail what it was like growing up in Newark in the 1930’s and 1940’s among lower-middle-class Jews. Family life was close and intense; whatever internal friction or strife there might be, everyone recognized that “family indivisibility” was “the first commandment.”
Although Roth modeled the life of Alexander Portnoy in Portnoy’s Complaint (1969) somewhat upon his own experiences, the reader must be careful not to make exact identifications between the real Roth and his fictional counterpart—a major concern especially in his later fiction. Roth idolized his mother, who from all accounts was vastly different from Sophie Portnoy, just as his hardworking, devoted father differed from harried, constipated Jack Portnoy, Alex’s father. Although both were employed by large insurance companies and were discriminated against for being Jewish, their personalities are scarcely identical. Unlike Alex Portnoy, but like Nathan Zuckerman in “Salad Days” (one of the “useful fictions” in My Life as a Man, published in 1974), Roth has an older brother, Sandy, who studied art at the Pratt Institute in New York after serving in the Navy. It was through his brother that Roth began reading works such as Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio (1919) and James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) while still in high school.
Like other boys of his social class and...
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