Philip Roth Essay - Roth, Philip (Vol. 201)

Roth, Philip (Vol. 201)


Philip Roth 1933-

(Full name Philip Milton Roth) American novelist, short story writer, essayist, autobiographer, and critic.

The following entry presents an overview of Roth's career through 2003. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 9, 15, 22, 31, 47, 66, 86, and 119.

One of the most prominent and controversial writers in contemporary literature, Roth draws heavily upon his Jewish-American upbringing and his life as a successful author to explore such concerns as the search for self-identity, conflicts between traditional and contemporary moral values, and the relationship between fiction and reality. The scatological content of some of his works and his harsh satiric portraits of Jewish life have inspired considerable critical debate. While some commentators view his work as anti-Semitic, perverse, or self-indulgent, others laud Roth's skill at rendering dialect, his exuberance and inventiveness, and his outrageous sense of humor.

Biographical Information

Roth was born in Newark, New Jersey. After graduating from Weequahic High School in 1950, he enrolled at Newark College of Rutgers University. He transferred to Bucknell University in Pennsylvania in 1951. There he published his first story, “Philosophy,” in the literary magazine Et cetera, which he helped to found and edit. Roth graduated magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa, earning a bachelor's degree in English in 1954. He received a master's degree in English from the University of Chicago in 1955 and served briefly in the United States Army but was discharged due to a back injury he sustained during basic training. Although he returned to study for his Ph.D. in English at the University of Chicago, Roth withdrew to pursue his writing career in 1957. With the aid of a grant from the National Institute of Arts and Letters, a Houghton Mifflin Literary Fellowship, and a Guggenheim fellowship, Roth was able to complete his first book, Goodbye, Columbus, and Five Short Stories (1959). He began teaching at the Writers' Workshop at the University of Iowa in 1960, and in 1962 he became a writer-in-residence at Princeton University. Roth resigned to become a full-time author following the financial success of his third novel, Portnoy's Complaint (1969). With his provocative and well-regarded novels, he quickly established himself as one of America's best-known authors. He has received several prestigious awards for his work, including two PEN/Faulkner Awards for fiction, a Pulitzer Prize, several National Book Critics Circle Awards, and a Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters from the National Book Foundation in 2002.

Major Works

Roth first garnered significant critical reaction with his first work, Goodbye, Columbus. In the acclaimed novella, which was adapted for film by Paramount in 1969, Roth satirizes American materialistic values by focusing on the conflicting emotions of Neil Klugman, a lower-middle-class Jewish man struggling to adjust to the unfamiliar lifestyle of Brenda Patimkin, a wealthy Jewish suburbanite with whom he falls in love. Roth is credited with propelling Jewish-American fiction into the realm of popular culture with Portnoy's Complaint. Originally appearing as a series of sketches in Esquire, Partisan Review, and New American Review, the novel takes the form of a profane, guilt-ridden confession related by Alexander Portnoy to a silent psychoanalyst, Dr. Spielvogel. Decrying his Jewish upbringing, Portnoy wrestles with his Oedipal complex, obsession with Gentile women, and sexual fetishes in an attempt to free himself from the restrictions of his cultural background. Following the book's publication, scholars and Jewish Americans labeled Roth an anti-Semitic Jew and objected to the novel's sexually explicit content and what they considered Roth's degrading treatment of Jewish life. However, Portnoy's Complaint also won praise for its ethnic humor, adroit dialogue, and psychological insight.

Much of Roth's ensuing work is about the relationship of fiction to reality. My Life as a Man (1974) concerns a novelist named Peter Tarnopol who is writing about a controversial novelist named Nathan Zuckerman. Zuckerman reappears in several of Roth's later novels, including The Ghost Writer (1979), in which the young author gains notoriety and sparks intense critical debate with his salacious novel Carnovsky, much as Roth did with Portnoy's Complaint. Two subsequent novels, Zuckerman Unbound (1981) and The Anatomy Lesson (1983), trace Zuckerman as he encounters the joys and disadvantages of fame and then succumbs to the terrors of writer's block. These books examine such topics as the difficulties of familial and sexual relationships and the conflicts between traditional and contemporary moral values. Roth received the National Book Critics Circle Award for his next novel, The Counterlife (1986). The novel chronicles Zuckerman's travels to Israel, where his brother has joined a militant terrorist group, and then to England, where he combats English anti-Semitism. Operation Shylock (1993) focuses on the fictional story of the writer Philip Roth, who pursues a man in Israel who has been using his identity. Roth travels to Israel, finds his impostor, and gets involved in the Arab-Israeli conflict. In 1995 Sabbath's Theater was published to mixed critical reaction. Critics often compare the novel to Portnoy's Complaint, because Roth focuses on the sexual obsessions and monomaniacal musings of a self-involved protagonist, Mickey Sabbath. As Sabbath realizes that he has lost everyone close to him, he considers ending his own life. The book won the 1995 National Book Award for fiction.

Roth's next three novels are considered a trilogy: American Pastoral (1997), I Married a Communist (1998), and The Human Stain (2000). American Pastoral chronicles the story of a Jewish man in Newark, New Jersey, whose placid, suburban life is torn apart by the violent actions of his unbalanced daughter. The novel received both a National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize. Nathan Zuckerman reappears in I Married a Communist, this time as the narrator of the tragic story of Ira Ringold, a radio actor whose life is ruined by his ex-wife's charge that he was a devoted Communist. Blacklisted, he is unable to work and plots an elaborate revenge, which he is ultimately unable to exact. Zuckerman also appears in The Human Stain, which relates the story of Coleman Silk, an elderly professor at a Northeastern college who is dismissed from his position because of a politically correct witch-hunt. After the sudden death of his wife, Silk falls into an affair with a school janitor who is half his age. Eventually it is revealed that Silk has been hiding a secret that has dramatically shaped his entire life. In Roth's next novel, The Dying Animal (2001), he utilizes the character of David Kepesh, who originally appeared in an earlier novel, The Breast (1972). In The Dying Animal, Kepesh is an elderly man who, years earlier, had left his wife and son to partake in the sexual revolution. At his advanced age, he is still obsessed with women and the sexual act. In Roth's latest work, The Plot against America (2004), he explores what might have happened if Charles Lindbergh, the renowned aviator and anti-Semitic politician, would have been elected president in 1940 instead of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Roth also speculates on the repercussions of this very different political landscape on his Jewish family in Newark, New Jersey.

Critical Reception

Negative criticism of Roth's works has included charges of anti-Semitism, degradation of women, obscenity bordering on pornography, and repetitiveness of theme. Positive response to his work, however, is equally strong, and Roth's supporters have consistently maintained that he is a deeply moral writer. They argue that his books are humorous in a fantastic sense, and that his satires, while written from a Jewish perspective, offer universal insight into the foibles of American life. Recent critical studies of his oeuvre discuss Roth as an autobiographical and Jewish-American author, investigate the impact of anti-Semitism and the Holocaust on his fiction, place his work in a sociohistorical context, and examine the use of tragedy and farce in several of his novels. The quantity and variety of critical opinion that greets each new book clearly indicates Roth's stature as a major contemporary novelist.

Principal Works

Goodbye, Columbus, and Five Short Stories (novella and short stories) 1959

Letting Go (novel) 1962

When She Was Good (novel) 1967

Portnoy's Complaint (novel) 1969

Our Gang (novel) 1971

The Breast (novel) 1972

The Great American Novel (novel) 1973

My Life as a Man (novel) 1974

Reading Myself and Others (essays and criticism) 1975

The Professor of Desire (novel) 1977

The Ghost Writer (novel) 1979

Zuckerman Unbound (novel) 1981

The Anatomy Lesson (novel) 1983

The Counterlife (novel) 1986

The Facts: A Novelist's Autobiography (autobiography) 1988

Deception (novel) 1990

Patrimony: A True Story (memoir) 1990

Operation Shylock: A Confession (novel) 1993

Sabbath's Theater (novel) 1995

American Pastoral (novel) 1997

I Married a Communist (novel) 1998

The Human Stain (novel) 2000

The Dying Animal (novel) 2001

Shop Talk: A Writer and His Colleagues and Their Work (interviews and essays) 2001

The Plot against America (novel) 2004


Mark Krupnick (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: Krupnick, Mark. “Jewish Autobiographies and the Counter-Example of Philip Roth.” In American Literary Dimensions, edited by Ben Siegel and Jay L. Halio, pp. 155-67. Newark, Del.: University of Delaware Press, 1999.

[In the following essay, Krupnick places Roth within the tradition of Jewish-American autobiographies.]

Like so many other writers in America, Jewish novelists have often derived inspiration from their own lives. Who can read about Henry Roth's David Schearl or Bellow's Herzog or Grace Paley's Faith Darwin or Philip Roth's Zuckerman or Cynthia Ozick's Puttermesser without seeing that their creators have put a lot of themselves into these...

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David Brauner (essay date 2000)

SOURCE: Brauner, David. “Masturbation and Its Discontents, or, Serious Relief: Freudian Comedy in Portnoy's Complaint.Critical Review, no. 40 (2000): 75-90.

[In the following essay, Brauner explores the comedic aspects of Portnoy's Complaint, contending that the novel is based on the unresolved tension between Roth's impulse “to treat psychoanalysis comically, and to treat comedy psychoanalytically.”]

It has been more than thirty years since the first publication of one of the most infamous post-war novels, Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint (1969). Although it still outrages many readers—in my experience of teaching it to undergraduates...

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D. A. Boxwell (essay date spring/summer 2000)

SOURCE: Boxwell, D. A. “Kulturkampf, Now and Then.” War, Literature & the Arts: An International Journal of the Humanities 12, no. 1 (spring/summer 2000): 122-35.

[In the following essay, Boxwell praises The Human Stain, believing the novel aptly explores the historical, political, social, and cultural forces working in American society in the late 1990s.]

The dust jacket to The Human Stain announces the basic premise of Philip Roth's salvo fired “in a time of cultural warfare, with ‘the persecuting spirit’ on the rise, a president is hounded over a sexual affair, a professor loses his job over a single word, and the nation succumbs to an ‘ecstasy of sanctimony.’” While Roth does not actually use the phrase “cultural warfare” at any point in the novel, he doesn't need to. As I write, in the summer of 2000, we are so immersed in the war, reminded of it daily in the run-up to the presidential election, that there's no need to call overt attention to it. Not only do we hear the black flak erupting to traumatize us, but we are engulfed by the constant white noise of competing forces in this current war; indeed, we can't imagine the 1990s without it. What's more, we can't imagine the cultural warfare of the decade without its political counterpart (shutting down the Federal government, impeaching the President).

Roth's book is a great novel for our times; it's an angered response to the moral crusade of forces arrayed on the political and religious right engaged in a counterrevolutionary coup against the 1960s, symbolized by Bill Clinton and his multifarious betrayals. Most importantly, Roth's novel engages with the domestic wars convulsing America since the end of the Cold War. The Human Stain's contorted narrative interfuses the historical and cultural conflicts swirling around America's end of the millennium which, for the sake of convenience, the book's publishers can readily shorthand as “the culture wars.” Coleman Silk, Roth's beleaguered protagonist, is caught up in—and fatally victimized by—a time of cultural warfare, the terrain of which is a shelled battleground created by Vietnam's unhealed scars; the unfulfilled promises of 60s progressive ideologies; the debasement of those same ideologies to the “political correctness” controversies on American campuses; a continuing legacy of racism and anti-Semitism; second wave feminism and its discontents; and the enduring pain of America's suppressed class conflict. All come together in Roth's despairing vision of a country whose aggressive tendencies are turned inward, destroying good men like Silk, in a frenzy of destructive “rituals of purification” (2).

Roth's novel is the perfect Zeitgeist book for an America unable to let go of its puritanical heritage after 400 long years, consumed by its own self-annihilating impulses, which are acted upon in particular historical moments when perceived threats from within (and within the American national character) are more dangerous than threats from without. We are in another one of those moments, just as we were in the 1930s. As Nathan Zuckerman, the novel's narrator tells us, post-cold war America is in the throes of “an enormous piety binge, a purity binge, when terrorism—which had replaced communism as the prevailing threat to the country's security—was succeeded by” a national obsession with the Commander-in-Chief's sexual peccadillos (2). Moreover, Roth insists on historicizing the current culture war, seeing it as just the latest manifestation of “what Hawthorne. […] identified in the incipient country of long ago as ‘the persecuting spirit’” achieving its first full flowering at Salem. Thus the essential conflict—in both the American individual and at large in the American body politic, between a censorious, theocratic impulse and a secular, democratic streak of independence from any external policing action—erupts at moments in American life with almost predictable frequency. And what's interesting is the degree to which this essential conflict has been intensified rhetorically, since the end of the Cold War, by metaphorizing it as warfare. If, as Clausewitz so famously declared, war is the continuation of politics by other means, the ferocity of political contention and debate in turn of the millennium America is such that the body politic is not merely in conflict with itself, as in previous historical periods, but is at war. As Roth's novel so tellingly makes clear, Jeffersonian political ideals have been KIA. Politics in America isn't a matter of attaining consensus through informed and rational debate and reflection, but is now all-out warfare, the uglier the better. And not just one war, either. It's a proliferation of wars: the war on drugs; the gender wars; the race wars; the culture wars. I'll trace the evolution of the rhetoric of cultural conflict in terms of “the culture war” to a plurality of “the culture wars” and explore that evolution as it has occurred in the absence of “real” war after the fall of the Berlin Wall. I'll end by raising the specter of the culture wars marking the decade before America's entry into the Second World War, suggesting that maybe the more things change on the front lines of the culture wars, the more they remain the same.

Actually, the phrase “culture war” is nothing new, nor is the concept of a culture at war with itself. In the modern era, we can go all the way back to Germany in the period after the Franco-Prussian War, when (as the OED informs us) the word kulturkampf (literally, culture struggle) entered the lexicon to describe the convulsive conflict between the Bismarck's government and the Papacy for control of schools and Church appointments (1872-87). The bitterly contested effort to secularize the nascent German empire wasn't unique in the 19th century, but it was this particular one that articulated it as something more than just a debate or even a conflict. The opposing forces of church and state, if not considered krieg (war), was a “struggle,” according to the phrase's maker Rudolf Virchow, the scientist and Prussian liberal statesman, who declared in 1873 that the battle with Roman Catholicism assumed “the character of a great struggle in the interest of humanity.” Note that Virchow universalized the conflict in terms larger than the German people, inflating the rhetoric circulating around the controversy, to argue that it had import for all of mankind. As in all struggles, there are wins and losses; in this first kulturkampf, most of the anti-Catholic legislation had been repealed, moderated by Bismarck, or fell by the wayside from a lack of enforcement and public resistance to it. Fast forward to discourse around the American election of 2000, when the phrase “kulturkampf” is invoked by the neoconservative public intellectual Gertrude Himmelfarb in the recent pages of Commentary:

This, in short, has been a more instructive primary season than most, for it has obliged us once again to take the measure of our country. What we witness is not a political war in the usual sense—a war waged first among the several factions within each party and then between the two parties. Nor is it, more ominously, a Kulturkampf, a religious war that threatens to alter the longstanding relations of church and state. It is something more than the first and less than the second—a new episode in the culture wars that, contrary to the predictions of some, continue to engage us as they have for almost a half-century.

(Himmelfarb 23)

Here she imports, from a momentous conflict in German history, the compound word to suggest that contemporary secular America, however challenged by the “dissident culture” of social and religious conservatism, will be spared all-out war only if politicians and religious leaders “recogniz[e] and respon[d] to the serious issues at stake in these culture wars.” Approving, from the political right, of those “dissidents,” whose “traditional customs and beliefs” must be respected by politicians, Himmelfarb enjoins the candidates from “exacerbat[ing] conflict into open warfare.” Her deployment of such rhetoric is just one example of the sheer ubiquity of metaphorizing cultural conflict in terms of war in contemporary America.

Yet the word kampf only suggests cultural conflicts in terms of struggle, of contestation in the form of politics by means other than all-out violent war. If any single individual is responsible for ratcheting up the rhetoric to invoke kulturkrieg it would be Patrick Buchanan. Almost exactly contemporary with the fall of the Berlin Wall, Buchanan's magnetic demagoguery articulated for the right a more aggressive and combative rhetoric that transferred the suppressed violence inherent in the Cold War (only unrepressed and enacted by proxy in Vietnam, El Salvador, and so forth) to the domestic realm of cultural production. A key moment in this rhetorical transformation was the headline for an editorial by Buchanan in the Washington Times on May 22, 1989: “Losing the War for America's Culture?” The question he posed was answered in the affirmative by a slashing condemnation of the National Endowment for the Arts for funding such provocatively offensive cultural production as Andres Serrano's and such institutions as the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Arts (of Winston-Salem, North Carolina) for exhibiting Serrano's work. While Buchanan was pleased to pronounce America the victor of the Cold War, he thundered that “America's art and culture are, more and more, openly anti-Christian, anti-American, nihilistic” (32). Moreover, the cultural transgressors were sneaky and subversive, having taken advantage of America's victorious battles in the Cold War to worm their way into the body politic, weakening its integrity. “While the right has been busy winning primaries and elections, cutting taxes and funding anti-communist guerrillas abroad, the left has been quietly seizing all the commanding heights of American art and culture” (32). Buchanan could not resist elaborating the figure of the American cultural scene as a battlefront, castigating the enemy for successfully “taking that hill.” Buchanan drew the battle lines in stark and simple terms: right versus left, flattening the complex landscape with what he knew would be the popular, but polarizing, appeal of his Manichaean world view.

Buchanan ended his Washington Times editorial with an overt linking of the end of one war, directed outwards, with another war, directed inwardly. “Political leaders in Washington believe that the battle against communism is being fought in the jungles of Asia and Central America, while failing to realize the war is also raging on the battlefield of the arts within our own borders” (33). His call, in 1989, for “conservatives and the religious community that comprise the vast middle-American population” to take arms and “do what the liberals did long ago—capture the culture,” reached even more soldiers at the 1992 Republican National Convention. At Houston, Buchanan seized the delegates' rapt attention as he called for the right to reject the call to turn swords into ploughshares and instead take up the fight against a domestic enemy contaminating and corrupting the nation's Judeo-Christian values. It was such a defining moment in contemporary politics that Buchanan savored the moment again at the Texas GOP convention in San Antonio in 1996. “What did we say? I said there was a cultural war going on in this country for the soul of America, and that war is about who we are, what we believe, and what we stand for as people” (“Speech”). Of course, Buchanan didn't singlehandedly invent the battalions of this war. He was merely crystallizing for the right a strong impulse to take up arms evolving since the early 1980s, when such elite palace guards as the Reverend Donald Wildmon's National Federation for Decency and the Reverend Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority joined forces with almost 400 other fundamentalist Christian organizations (the Eagle Forum, Concerned Women for America, et al.) to form the Coalition for Better Television in February 1981 (Bolton 334). The CBT began organized boycotts of objectionable TV programs, as well as targeting corporate advertisers of such programming. In that same year President Ronald Reagan's Task Force on the Arts and Humanities, packed with religious conservatives, reported a “Mandate for Leadership” and advocated slashing the budgets of both the National Endowment for the Humanities and that pernicious JFK invention, the National Endowment for the Arts. But there's no question that by the time of the 1992 GOP convention, a decade of combat could be conceptualized conveniently by Buchanan as a “war,” and, at that, an unspoken war against the 1960s and a war of revenge for Watergate.

If Buchanan popularized the metaphor of war to get our minds around the debate between the forces of right and left, few refused it. Forces on the left readily embraced it as well. For example, The Revolutionary Worker, the newspaper of the Revolutionary Communist Party, opined in an editorial in its August 14, 1989 issue (“Down with the Senate Art Police!”) that the Senate's “fascistic” move to abolish the NEA, inspired by Buchanan's Nazi-like condemnation of so-called “degenerate art” (entartete kunst), was a manifestation of social control to “tur[n] back the clock and revers[e] social progress made since the 1960s. “Cultural war,” in the words of the Revolutionary Worker, “is very sharp right now because it concentrates big questions that are up in society as a whole.” Here the RCP marshals forth the figures of speech of the military campaign (and in all caps for that propagandistic flair): “And NOW IS NOT THE TIME FOR REBEL ARTISTS TO BE ON THE DEFENSIVE. NOW IS THE TIME TO TAKE THE POLITICAL OFFENSIVE,” as yet again the right and left, het up by the extremist rhetoric of their most extreme spokesmen, prepare to engage in hand-to-hand combat. It is worth noting how quickly, at the end of the 1980s, the metaphorization of perennial cultural conflict as all-out war, became entrenched in the American imagination—so much so, that by the end of the following decade, Roth's novel The Human Stain doesn't have to express it directly (only for the dust jacket writer to more overtly remind us of it). It becomes an ever-present backdrop, engulfing us so that we can't remember a time when controversy wasn't a matter of destructive war, scarring the national psyche so that “healing” (to invoke another popular metaphor at large in a therapy-obsessed culture of continual self-reinvention) can't ever seem to “begin.”

In the summer of 2000, when Dick Cheney (a former Secretary of Defense) was announced as the GOP Vice Presidential nominee, much discourse swirled around Lynne Cheney's public identity as a “cultural warrior” in the 1990s as head of the NEH during the Reagan and Bush administrations (1986-1993). It was Reagan speechwriter-turned star TV pundit Peggy Noonan who used exactly that phrase on MSNBC to praise Lynne Cheney's value to the Bush-Cheney ticket in the election. Matt Bai of Newsweek asserted that “it is Lynne Cheney who has been the true right-wing warrior in the family,” fighting the good fight at both the NEA and then, predictably enough, as a TV pundit on Crossfire during the Clinton-Gore years (Bai). Indeed, we probably shouldn't underestimate the degree to which the rise and proliferation of network and cable TV political analysts in the 1990s have helped the public discourse around cultural conflicts (from public funding for the Arts to controversial art exhibits) become increasingly “hot.” While such programs are hardly big ratings winners, their very titles—Firing Line and Crossfire—announce themselves as productions where “sparks fly” and competitive media force up the vituperation factor as opposing pundits vie for attention. It has been easy for such staged antagonism to revel in all the metaphors of violent combat, as portentous, doom-laden music chords accompany the talking heads in the shows' intros. It is therefore completely fitting that Lynne Cheney continue the battle, with the bully pulpit of the White House unavailable to the GOP during the wilderness years of Clinton-Gore, in the electronic town square, forming and fomenting outraged public opinion against the kind of cultural production that does nothing to uplift and enlighten, but rather threatens to unravel the moral fiber of the American body politic's uniform.

One of the problems that moralizing cultural warriors like Lynne Cheney and Tipper Gore and Patrick Buchanan and Michael Medved and Donald Wildmon and William Bennett and Joseph Lieberman (and the names of dozens of prominent figures in the post-Cold War era could be reeled off here) have is that in a much-vaunted capitalist free enterprise market economy dominated by giant American media corporations, the targets of attack actually sell. Consumers exercise freedom of choice at the box office for gore-filled action flicks, send Nielsens sky-high for nightly sniggering sexual innuendo, and sustain a multibillion-dollar porn industry because, presumably, they know what they like. The 1990s witnessed an enormously contentious period of public debate, organizational boycotting, and critical vilification over not just offensive Art with a capital A, the unspeakably vile objects in museums (works by Serrano, Mapplethorpe, Ofili, et al.), but also over a countless number of popcult artifacts, even as seemingly anodyne as Disney's feature-length cartoons (which were presumed to conceal satanic and sexual imagery read subliminally by zombified tots). It was also the Internet Decade, exacerbating alarmist fears of cultural pollution by a seemingly fungal new medium capable of evading any political boundaries or parental oversight and control. V-chips, “Nannyblockers” on the internet, parental advisories on rap CDs: all are inventions of a decade which marshaled technology away from outer space and foreign enemies and towards the new war for the hearts and minds of America's children and to protect the easily outraged sensibilities of their increasingly helpless parents, who risked losing the fight right on the doorstep of America's hearth and home. Of course, that metaphoric doorstep has disappeared, since the now-porous threshold of the middle-class American suburban home has multiplied to every electrical, cable, and telephone outlet in it.

The religious right continued to metaphorize all these bewildering social and cultural developments in the easily familiar terms of war. As Robert Knight did very recently in a statement issued by his influential Family Research Council: “The ex-gay movement is a way out of this plague [of homosexuality] that has hit our families. It's time to let faith take over. This is the Normandy landing in the larger cultural wars” (Knight). This could make a lot of sense to Knight's audience in the wake of the baby boomers' guilt-ridden rediscovery in the late 1990s of the World War II generation's heroism (capped by the overwhelming success of Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan and Tom Brokaw's The Greatest Generation). Overt reference to the actuality of the Second World War ups the rhetorical ante from earlier in the decade when Beverly LaHaye, in a 1992 Concerned Women for America fundraising appeal, simply referred to the war in generic terms: “We are at war in America today. […] We don't want our children taught that the sin of homosexuality is an acceptable lifestyle ‘choice.’” Knight masterfully invokes a crucial offensive in the war against a bad enemy (so bad as to be medicalized as “plague,” which in turn plants a field of associations pertaining to AIDS) to suggest the paramount importance of expunging homosexuality from the home front. For Knight and his fellow congregants, the enemy in the current war is one that launches its attack from within, yet the rhetoric also powerfully externalizes that enemy, insisting on its essential foreignness or Otherness.

Perhaps the most scabrous critique of this fundamentally xenophobic streak in the American national character, now directed towards enemies of a vaunted (if mythical) “traditional Judeo-Christian morality,” came in the guise of a crude cartoon movie, the kind of nasty popcult artifact that would earn one of Bennett and Lieberman's “Silver Sewer” Awards. Actually, Matt Stone's and Trey Parker's South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut has been unjustly overlooked by the Award, which ironically, as ever, calls increased attention to the effluent of popular culture (winners like Marilyn Manson, Howard Stern, Ally McBeal, and Jerry Springer) and its producers (Fox, CBS, Seagram Inc.), thus ensuring continuing masscult fascination with what is condemned by moral arbiters. Bennett has, in his own compelling rhetoric, turned the American hearth and home into a besieged space that has become an imperfectly run police state at war with its own citizens. “You can't keep” sexual and violent imagery “away from the kids. It's a siege. If you turn it off at your house, they'll see it at somebody else's house,” Bennett averred (qtd. in “Fox TV”), inadvertently pointing up the terrifying dispersal of popcult artifacts over increasingly multiple media outlets when the era of Three Network dominance of the airwaves is well and truly over. The media are uncontrollable, and so are the kids. The movie version of the Comedy Central show audaciously suggests that the only meaningful war, in the post-Cold War era, is not even the kind of humanitarian police-keeping actions over Northern Iraq or Kosovo that have marked Bill Clinton's controversial watch as Commander-in-Chief, but is, rather, the all-out full-scale traditional land invasion of a scapegoat nation irrationally singled out by outraged mothers for corrupting their children.

In South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut America declares war on its neighbor to the north when the Canadian import Asses of Fire, itself a crude feature-length spinoff of a massively popular and scatological TV cartoon, incites the kids of South Park (led by Kyle, Cartman, Stanley, and Kenny) to emulate their foul-mouthed, farting cartoon heroes, Terrance and Phillip. Local protests against the film soon become a national movement by the concerned mothers of America, determined to “form a full assault / It's Canada's fault.” Actually, it's at least the theater manager's fault, too, since the South Park kids snuck into the R-rated movie which is, as Kyle's Mom insists, “nothing but foul language and toilet humor.” But Stone and Parker cannily show that Americans will always externalize the blame whenever and wherever possible. Stan's mother sings, “Don't blame me for my son Stan;” rather, as the Oscar-nominated song has it, “Blame Canada,” because “It seems everything's gone wrong / since Canada came along.” The most demonized external enemy of the early 1990s, Saddam Hussein, gets relegated in South Park to the depths of hell as Satan's insatiable lover (he's been killed by a pack of wild boars); once he's disposed of, Canada takes pride of place as the number one threat to an embattled nation directing its militaristic impulses towards the producers of movies that, to paraphrase Cartman, warp the fragile little minds of American youth. As the Mothers Against Canada watch the horrific carnage from afar, Kyle's Mom remarks, blind to the irony of America's culture wars: “This what we wanted. We wanted our children brought up in a smut-free environment.”

Stone and Parker's movie, for all its provocative crudity, struck a chord with many moviegoers in the summer of 1999 seeking a satiric expression of protest against the barking watchdogs of public morality; certainly, the movie was both popular at the nation's multiplexes (where 16 year-old ticket-takers allowed 13 year-old cinemagoers to sneak from theater to theater) and became a critics' darling. Rita Kempley in the Washington Post praised it for its “surprising smarts” and for being a “sharp, wildly funny social satire.” Richard Corliss in Time told his readers that he laughed himself sick. Even Roger Ebert, who's as mainstream a critical voice as one can imagine, admitting laughing, however guiltily. His sententious review in the Chicago Sun-Times fussed about how important a statement it was: “it serves as a signpost for our troubled times. Just for the information it contains about the way we live now, thoughtful and concerned people should see it,” if only to inoculate themselves against its “depraved” content. And as the Clinton-era combat film par excellence, it was the perfect expression of the entertainment's industry refusal to toe the Bennett-Lieberman line. Indeed, Bill Clinton's overly enthusiastic, and requited, embrace of Hollywood was yet another reason for the right's disdain for him, and the two were associated inextricably in the minds of many who credited both with sapping American moral and military strength. In the absence of any other enemy in the post-Cold War era, the whole idea of war as a heroic enterprise gets parodied by Parker and Stone. For instance, Kyle's Mom, in a Mothers Against Canada uniform, stands alone in long shot in front of a huge American flag, an irreverent riff on George C. Scott's Patton. She pumps up the troops: “Horrific, deplorable violence is OK, as long as people don't say any naughty words; that's what this war is all about.” Her war spins apocalyptically out of control when she inadvertently unleashes Satan's visitation on the earth with a resurrected Saddam Hussein at his side to begin two million years of darkness.

Stone and Parker's kinetic satire of the Culture Wars, refreshing as it is to many, though, prompts a thought or two about how easy it might be to mock parents' concern for their children, maybe too easy. They are easy targets, and they justifiably resent it, accurately confirming their own impression that the forces of media capitalism hold them in pitiable contempt. Certainly, popular entertainment like South Park doesn't alleviate those concerns, especially since Parker and Stone have their cake and eat it, too, by making a movie filled with “naughty words” which satirizes those who are upset by those “naughty words.” But this perhaps only exemplifies how vast the divisions are in American culture at the turn of the third millennium, when there seems to be little cultural consensus over what expression best expresses the nation's ideals. Indeed, there seems to be even less desire for such consensus. For sure, the extent to which opposing forces in the culture wars depend on hyperbolic rhetoric, each side either demonizing or ridiculing the other, suggests that the metaphorization, in militaristic terms, of a lack of consensus over artistic expression may well be completely futile. But one might despair less when one understands that America's kulturkampf is nothing new. The fundamental impulse to get exercised about provocative forms of cultural expression doesn't have much inherently to do with Bill Clinton or Comedy Central or trash talk shows or white rapper Eminem. Rather, it has much to do with the degree to which America is satisfied with its own salvation, and then becomes preoccupied with salvific missions overseas. Distracted by real war, all becomes more quiet on the domestic cultural front. National consensus over cultural production was an easier matter during the first half of the 1940s, for instance, when even New Deal leftists like Aaron Copland or Marc Blitzstein composed music unequivocally dedicated to the Allied war effort and an uncomplicated vision of America as a good, pastoral place where ordinary heroes were born and raised. But the socially and economically turbulent early 1930s, by contrast, when American military commitments overseas were correspondingly minimal, marked another cycle in American history, much like the 1990s, when a vocal and volatile battle was fought over the content of the most pervasive form of popular entertainment: the movies.

Film historians like Lea Jacobs, Thomas Doherty, Gregory Black, and Mark Vieira have recently done much important work reminding us that another culture war occurred almost immediately after the Stock Market crash in 1929, a war between the Catholic Church (and its allies) and Hollywood that culminated in a crisis in the summer of 1934, when the U.S. Senate was poised to pass legislation regulating the content of Hollywood's studio productions. Interestingly enough, this war got especially hot, when America finally confessed to itself that the first national war on drugs (Prohibition) was a dismal failure, a cure much worse than the disease it was designed to eradicate. In the nick of time, the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Association finally acknowledged that the industry would have to call a halt to a profitable trend toward more graphic representations of sex, drugs, and violence in its ribald comedies (like the Marx Brothers' Monkey Business and Mae West's I'm No Angel), gangster flicks (such as Scarface and The Beast of the City) and women's melodramas (Red-Headed Woman and Call Her Savage, to name only two examples of a particularly notorious genre). Threats of boycotts and legislation from high, which would have amounted to a governmental system of censorship, were averted when the MPPDA agreed finally to revise, strengthen, and enforce a 1930 Production Code that had been virtually ignored. Thus the industry was permitted to get serious about censoring itself. The moral arbiters of the Depression era railed against the cultural pollutants manufactured by the Dream Factory in terms absolutely familiar to us 70 years later.

In 1933, the immensely influential Catholic National Legion of Decency enjoined the flock to chant an oath to avoid objectionable movies as “occasions for sin” with words like these: “I condemn absolutely those salacious motion pictures which, with other degrading agencies, are corrupting public morals and promoting a sex mania in our land” (qtd in Doherty 320-1). On June 8, 1934, Denis Cardinal Dougherty of Philadelphia went so far as to consider all movies the occasion for sin: “A vicious and insidious attack is being made on the very foundation of our Christian civilization” (qtd in Doherty 321). Protestant and Jewish protest groups, as well as over 40 secular organizations, also joined the Legion throughout the 1933-4 run-up to the threat of government legislation, upping the rhetorical ante (Vieira 152). Politicians had a field day bloviating at length. Here, for example, is Francis D. Culkin, Republican Congressman of New York: “Steadily the stream of pollution which has flowed forth from Hollywood has become wilder and more turbulent” (qtd. in Doherty 324). Sociologists like Henry James Forman and Herbert Blumer also entered the fray, beating the drums for iron-hand oversight of movie content. Forman's best-selling tract Our Movie-Made Children argued that children were empty vessels, incapable of resisting direct character (mal)formation and corruption by Hollywood's producers and writers, who were “subversive to the best interests of society […] nothing less than an agent provocateur, a treacherous and costly enemy let loose at the public expense” (qtd. in Doherty 321). The net result was the industry's capitulation to the forces of conservative morality, very effective self-policing of the industry under the aegis of Fightin' Irishman Joseph Ignatius Breen, and the survival of the Code until 1967, when the first rating system came into effect. A measure of how quickly the film industry both adjusted and adhered to its own new moral standards was the replacement of the top-grossing female star of 1933 (Mae West) by 1935's top female money-earner, Shirley Temple. Culture was, at the end of this particular culture war, made safe for children and their parents.

The culture wars that periodically erupt in American history, and take a formidably divisive form, are not trivial outbursts. They're important manifestations of America's contradictory impulses to conform to conventional moral precepts rooted in Leviticus or St. Augustine or Calvin and to rebel against those very same moral dictates. The overheated dramatic rhetoric inhering in metaphorizing cultural debate as “war,” as “attack,” as “struggle” reminds us that, for all participants—artists, corporations, consumers, politicians, kids and their parents—it's almost as if life itself were at stake. And, in a way, it is. Creative expression is essential to the life of a culture and to the life of the individual, embodying the desire for the truth of the human condition as each of us sees it. That we see it differently inevitably leads to outbreaks of kuturkampf. However traumatic and even destructive culture wars are in a time of withdrawal from military conflicts outside our national borders, they at least suggest a lively culture of consent and dissent that energizes both cultural producers and those who refuse their visions. Say what you will, however moribund America's military-industrial complexes may be in the post-Cold War world we won for ourselves, the public response to the production from America's studios is far from quiet.

Works Cited

Bai, Matt. “‘I Have Strong Opinions:’ Cheney's Wife, Lynne, Is the Family's True Right-Wing Warrior.”

Bolton, Richard. Culture Wars: Documents from Recent Controversies in the Arts. New York: New Press, 1992.

Buchanan, Patrick. “Losing the War for America's Culture?” Washington Times, May 22, 1989. In Bolton 31-3.

Buchanan, Patrick. “Speech at Texas GOP Convention, 1996.”

Corliss, Richard. “Sick and Inspired.”,3266,27428,00

Doherty, Thomas. Pre-Code Hollywood: Sex, Immorality, and Insurrection in American Cinema. 1930-1934. New York: Columbia UP, 1999.

“Down with the Senate Art Police!” In Bolton 92-4.

Ebert, Roger. “South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut.”

“Fox TV Wins ‘Silver Sewer’ Award.”

Himmelfarb, Gertrude. “The Election and the Culture Wars.” Commentary 109.5, May 2000: 23.

Kempley, Rita. “The Wickedly Funny South Park.

Knight, Robert. Family Research Council: “Issues in Depth.”

Roth, Philip. The Human Stain. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2000.

Vieira, Mark A. Sin in Soft-Focus: Pre-Code Hollywood. New York: Abrams, 1999.

James Wood (review date 17 & 24 April 2000)

James Wood (review date 17 & 24 April 2000)

SOURCE: Wood, James. “The Cost of Clarity.” New Republic 222, nos. 16 & 17 (17 & 24 April 2000): 70-8.

[In the following mixed review of The Human Stain, Wood traces Roth's literary development, asserting he is “an extraordinarily intelligent novelist” whose intellect may actually contribute to his “vulgarianism.”]

If Philip Roth began his career as a fine realist who combed his distinguished prose in conventional directions, it might be said that he is ending it as a coarse realist who is all bristles. His early work approached character with a sensitive sentimentality; his...

(The entire section is 4779 words.)

James Hynes (review date 7 May 2000)

SOURCE: Hynes, James. “Professor of Passion.” Washington Post Book World (7 May 2000): 3.

[In the following mixed assessment, Hynes asserts that Roth displays passion and an eloquent search for meaning in The Human Stain.]

The hot engine powering all of Philip Roth's novels is rage. Years ago it was a young man's rage at small-minded, bourgeois provincialism, but over the years, as Roth has become more intellectually ambitious, that rage has broadened its scope into something like a general critique of American culture. Indeed, his most recent books, American Pastoral and I Married a Communist, constitute a sort of fictional history of American...

(The entire section is 1150 words.)

Tim Adams (review date 8 May 2000)

SOURCE: Adams, Tim. “Clinton's Complaint.” New Statesman 129, no. 4485 (8 May 2000): 56-7.

[In the following review of The Human Stain, Adams lauds Roth's exploration of American popular culture in each of his works, maintaining that there is a “supreme confidence” displayed in his writing.]

It was only a matter of time before Philip Roth confronted the pressing question of his President's dick. Over the past five years, through the tragic heroes of an extraordinary trilogy of novels that culminates in this one [The Human Stain], Roth has set out to measure what America has become against what it once seemed capable of being. In American...

(The entire section is 1000 words.)

Ron Charles (review date 11 May 2000)

SOURCE: Charles, Ron. “Rage Is All the Rage in America.” Christian Science Monitor (11 May 2000): 18.

[In the following review, Charles offers a laudatory assessment of The Human Stain.]


Philip Roth has written another brilliant novel, but almost anything you read about The Human Stain will spoil the effect. Several reviewers have already blown it. (They should be forced to watch The Crying Game 100 times.) If you plan to read the book, beware what else you read about it.

Roth's favorite narrator and alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman, is back to tell the surprising life story of Coleman Silk, “an outgoing,...

(The entire section is 783 words.)

Michael André Bernstein (review date 26 May 2000)

SOURCE: Bernstein, Michael André. “Getting the American People Right.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5069 (26 May 2000): 22.

[In the following review, Bernstein contends that Roth provides richly detailed character portraits in The Human Stain and feels this novel effectively explores crucial points of American postwar history.]

“Tell me something, is it at all possible, at least outside of those books, for you to have a frame of reference slightly larger than the kitchen table in Newark?” If the accusation sounds instantly familiar—and, at least about one phase of Philip Roth's own career, not entirely unfair—it is largely because Roth himself is...

(The entire section is 1633 words.)

Brooke Allen (review date May-June 2000)

SOURCE: Allen, Brooke. “Twilight Triumphs.” New Leader 83, no. 2 (May-June 2000): 30-2.

[In the following excerpt, Allen praises Roth's depiction of Coleman Silk in The Human Stain, viewing him as a “powerfully imagined and deeply appealing character.”]

That at the age of 68, and with 25 books behind him, Philip Roth still has so much to say and still says it as well as he does in his new novel, The Human Stain, is astonishing. Indeed, it might appear something of a miracle, except that Saul Bellow, who is 84, has just issued Ravelstein, his most engaging work in years. Both books are tales of old age set in an academic milieu; both...

(The entire section is 1939 words.)

Carlin Romano (essay date 12 June 2000)

SOURCE: Romano, Carlin. “The Troves of Academe.” Nation 270, no. 23 (12 June 2000): 53-6.

[In the following essay, Romano finds connections between The Human Stain and Francine Prose's Blue Angel.]

“A university,” poet John Ciardi acidly observed, “is what a college becomes when the faculty loses interest in students.” Add this contemporary counterpunch: A college is what a university becomes when its faculty and administrators lose interest in truth. Though liberal arts colleges don't acknowledge it in the snazzy brochures they express-mail to high school seniors, many elements of all but the best institutions—the modest franchises, the flimsy...

(The entire section is 2935 words.)

John Leonard (review date 15 June 2000)

SOURCE: Leonard, John. “A Child of the Age.” New York Review of Books 47, no. 10 (15 June 2000): 6-9.

[In the following review, Leonard views character Nathan Zuckerman as a reflection of Roth and traces Zuckerman's development throughout The Human Stain.]


Like Portnoy in the Holy Land, Zuckerman in the Berkshires can't get it up [in The Human Stain]. The problem isn't the state of Israel. The problem is absence of a prostate. All that worry in The Counterlife about quintuple bypass heart surgery turns out to have been beside the point. Cancer is the point. Philip Roth's autumnal novels are riddled with it. As if the...

(The entire section is 4416 words.)

Jane Gardam (review date 17 June 2000)

SOURCE: Gardam, Jane. “Pursued by the Furies.” Spectator 284, no. 8967 (17 June 2000): 49-50.

[In the following review, Gardam discusses the main thematic elements within The Human Stain.]

‘What ish my nation?’ asks the drunken, disillusioned Macmorris in Henry V after Agincourt. ‘Ish a villain and a bastard and a knave and a rascal. Who talks of my nation?’

In his last two novels and now in this one [The Human Stain], Philip Roth has been examining his nation, in particular describing how an individual in the USA can be destroyed by the sweeping national mood of the moment. First we had the violence of the Sixties, then the...

(The entire section is 959 words.)

Ian Hamilton (review date 22 June 2000)

SOURCE: Hamilton, Ian. “‘OK, Holy Man, Try This’.” London Review of Books 22, no. 12 (22 June 2000): 36-7.

[In the following review, Hamilton considers aspects of The Human Stain, musing over which elements in Roth's writing are possibly autobiographical.]

Philip Roth likes, or has liked, to describe himself as a ‘suppositional’ novelist. Much of his writing practice, he has said, takes off from a ‘what if?’ What if Franz Kafka had made it to America and there lived on to become a New Jersey schoolmaster? What if Anne Frank had survived and found out about the publication of her diary from a chance reading of Time magazine? What if...

(The entire section is 2693 words.)

Mark Krupnik (review date 13-20 September 2000)

SOURCE: Krupnik, Mark. “Stain of Sanctimony.” Christian Century 117, no. 25 (13-20 September 2000): 920-21.

[In the following excerpt, Krupnik draws a connection between the events portrayed in The Human Stain and those occuring in the American political scene during the late 1990s.]

Philip Roth's powerful new novel [The Human Stain] takes place during the time when news of Bill Clinton's misconduct with White House intern Monica Lewinsky dominated dinner parties and casual conversations. Roth tells the story of a professor of classics who is drummed out of his job by a pack of faculty jackals. The author wants to make vivid a parallel between the...

(The entire section is 656 words.)

Igor Webb (review date fall 2000)

SOURCE: Webb, Igor. “Born Again.” Partisan Review 67, no. 4 (fall 2000): 648-52.

[In the following review, Webb contends that Roth presents well-crafted prose and a complex portrayal of Nathan Zuckerman in The Human Stain.]

Philip Roth's latest novel, The Human Stain, forms the third, and perhaps concluding, volume of his recent “historical” novels or chronicles (American Pastoral [1997] and I Married a Communist [1998]), while at the same time harking back to his great novella The Ghost Writer, published twenty years ago. All of these books are narrated by Nathan Zuckerman. In The Ghost Writer Zuckerman is a wide-eyed...

(The entire section is 2001 words.)

Andrew Bachman (review date November 2000)

SOURCE: Bachman, Andrew. “America from the Waist Down.” Tikkun 15, no. 6 (November 2000): 61.

[In the following review, Bachman views The Human Stain as a compelling reflection of culture, politics, and society in America in the late 1990s.]

In his quest for the Nobel Prize in Literature, Philip Roth may now be able to claim that he is not only a great writer—he's a prophet to boot. In the opening chapter of his recent novel, The Human Stain, Roth casts vice-presidential candidate Senator Joseph Lieberman as the righteous protector of American values and sexual ethics in the midst of the President Clinton-Monica Lewinsky scandal of 1998.


(The entire section is 2954 words.)

Steven Milowitz (essay date 2000)

SOURCE: Milowitz, Steven. “Holocaust Writing.” In Philip Roth Considered: The Concentrationary Universe of the American Writer, pp. 147-65. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 2000.

[In the following essay, Milowitz examines Roth's treatment of the Holocaust in such works as The Professor of Desire, The Prague Orgy, Deception, Operation Shylock, and others.]

Why come to the battered heart of Europe if not to examine just this? Why come into the world at all? ‘Students of literature, you must conquer your squeamishness once and for all! You must face the unseemly thing itself! You must come off your high horse! There, there is your final...

(The entire section is 9597 words.)

Tom Wilhelmus (review date winter 2001)

SOURCE: Wilhelmus, Tom. “Communities Perhaps.” Hudson Review 53, no. 4 (winter 2001): 696-97.

[In the following excerpt, Wilhelmus describes The Human Stain as a well-knit novel that explores controversial racial and ethnic dilemmas.]

Two recent novels deal with the problems of community and morality more in terms of their failures than in terms of their possible accommodations. The first is Philip Roth's bitter analysis of racial and ethnic dilemmas in The Human Stain, third in a trilogy of novels in which the author analyzes America's cultural decline during the 1950s through the 1990s. All three novels, narrated by doppelganger Nathan Zuckerman,...

(The entire section is 816 words.)

Rita D. Jacobs (review date winter 2001)

SOURCE: Jacobs, Rita D. Review of The Human Stain, by Philip Roth. World Literature Today 75, no. 1 (winter 2001): 116.

[In the following review, Jacobs provides a laudatory assessment of The Human Stain.]

Philip Roth has long been one of the great chroniclers of contemporary American life. There have been a few less-than-great novels, but from Goodbye Columbus and Portnoy's Complaint through American Pastoral, Roth has given us quintessential portraits of men in their times. In The Human Stain he is at the height of his powers. In fact, at one point he has his narrator and recurring alter ego Nathan Zuckerman tell us, “For better...

(The entire section is 568 words.)

Molly Haskell (review date May 2001)

SOURCE: Haskell, Molly. Review of The Dying Animal, by Philip Roth. New Leader 84, no. 3 (May 2001): 38.

[In the following review, Haskell identifies physical and emotional intimacy as key thematic concerns of The Dying Animal.]

As preoccupied as it is with the frailties of the human body, there is nothing crepuscular about The Dying Animal, Philip Roth's intense novella-length monologue. David Kepesh, a.k.a, the Professor of Desire, is back and just as in thrall to the imperatives of the flesh at 70 as he was at 21. David K, you will remember, was the Roth protagonist in The Breast (1972) who, through a “massive influx of hormones,” turned...

(The entire section is 1569 words.)

Zoë Heller (review date 21 May 2001)

SOURCE: Heller, Zoë. “The Ghost Rutter.” New Republic 224, no. 21 (21 May 2001): 39-42.

[In the following review, Heller considers sexual intercourse as a major theme of The Dying Animal, and of Roth's entire oeuvre.]

When we first met Professor David Kepesh in 1972, in Philip Roth's novella The Breast, he was a junior academic who had recently awoken to find himself transformed into a one-hundred-fifty-five-pound female bosom. Later, Roth toyed with the notion of writing a sequel to The Breast, a book about Kepesh's experiences as a celebrity breast-at-large. (Kepesh was to tour America in a customized padded van, making appearances on The...

(The entire section is 3152 words.)

Keith Gessen (review date 11 June 2001)

SOURCE: Gessen, Keith. “The Professor of Desire.” Nation 272, no. 23 (11 June 2001): 42-4.

[In the following review, Gessen compares Roth's writing to that of Leo Tolstoy and views The Dying Animal as an extended essay about Roth's recurring theme of sexual relations.]

When Philip Roth compiles lists of the writers he most admires, Tolstoy never seems to make it. There's Flaubert, Kafka, Bellow—the touchstones. Gogol, Dostoyevsky, Céline—the madmen. Henry Miller, of course; even Chekhov and Thomas Mann. But Tolstoy, when he appears in Roth's fiction at all, is usually something of a joke. In The Ghost Writer, young Nathan Zuckerman travels to...

(The entire section is 2385 words.)

Maureen Freely (review date 25 June 2001)

SOURCE: Freely, Maureen. “D Cups to Die For.” New Statesman 130, no. 4543 (25 June 2001): 52-3.

[In the following review, Freely commends the humor and candor she finds within The Dying Animal, but deems the novel “in execrable taste.”]

No one has ever accused Philip Roth of pandering to the female reader. His heroes and alter egos make no apologies for the male gaze. They are frank, shamelessly frank, about their preferences and proclivities. These are eclectic: they have lots of time for women who are cerebral and gutsy and witty and accomplished. But the ones they rate the highest are never just cerebral, gutsy, witty and accomplished. They are also...

(The entire section is 1275 words.)

Sebastian Smee (review date 30 June 2001)

SOURCE: Smee, Sebastian. “January and April.” Spectator 286, no. 9021 (30 June 2001): 39-40.

[In the following mixed review, Smee contrasts The Dying Animal and J. M. Coetzee's Disgrace.]

In an age of relentless ranting passing itself off as commentary, Philip Roth may be the only writer we have who is at once a great ranter and a great novelist. One wishes, at times, that he would ease up on the pedal; but when one sees what he can do with the good old-fashioned tirade, the harangue—what uncomfortable truths he arrives at—one is grateful to have him just as he is.

The narrator of Roth's latest, The Dying Animal, is one David...

(The entire section is 718 words.)

David Lodge (review date 5 July 2001)

SOURCE: Lodge, David. “Sick with Desire.” New York Review of Books 48, no. 11 (5 July 2001): 28-32.

[In the following review, Lodge appreciates Roth's literary achievements and judges The Dying Animal as a brief “disturbing masterpiece.”]

Philip Roth's output of fiction in the seventh decade of his life has been astonishing for both quality and quantity. It has been to critics and fellow novelists a spectacle to marvel at, an awe-inspiring display of energy, like the sustained eruption of a volcano that many observers supposed to be—not extinct, certainly, but perhaps past the peak of its active life. One might indeed have been forgiven for thinking...

(The entire section is 5709 words.)

Evelyn Toynton (review date 13 July 2001)

SOURCE: Toynton, Evelyn. “Consuela's Charms.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5128 (13 July 2001): 23.

[In the following review of The Dying Animal, Toynton argues that Roth fails to fulfill the potential within his characters and story, resulting in a disappointing book.]

After the triumph of his wide-ranging, hyper-energized post-war trilogy, Philip Roth has written a short, spare novel [The Dying Animal] with a much narrower compass, a book that might be called an ageing artist's meditation on sex and death—except it does not live up to that description. “Lust and rage … dance attendance upon [the] old age” of Roth's narrator, to borrow a...

(The entire section is 757 words.)

Ross Posnock (essay date fall 2001)

SOURCE: Posnock, Ross. “Purity and Danger: On Philip Roth.” Raritan 21, no. 2 (fall 2001): 85-101.

[In the following essay, Posnock explores the tension between the good boy/bad boy persona used within Roth's novels, particularly in The Human Stain.]

At least since Baudelaire portrayed Poe as a martyr to “the savagery of bourgeois hypocrisy,” writers have found an unfailing source of creative energy in assaulting the canons of genteel propriety. In his epochal 1911 essay on the genteel tradition, George Santayana named it a “yoke,” a “tyrant from the cradle to the grave.” While one of the constraints Santayana had in mind was the genteel Brahmin social...

(The entire section is 6368 words.)

Jonathan Levi (review date 25 November 2001)

SOURCE: Levi, Jonathan. “Reading Lessons.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (25 November 2001): 1.

[In the following review, Levi contends that the conversations, letters, and essays collected in Shop Talk provide insightful glimpses into the careers of important postwar writers, particularly into Roth's motivations and literary inspiration.]

Philip Roth spent much of the '90s writing a series of sharp-edged novels that probed the darker dynamics of American life. Shop Talk arrives not so much as a coda to this project but da capo—a return to the first measures of his writing life, a playing through from the beginning of the obsessions of a 40-year...

(The entire section is 958 words.)

James Duban (essay date 2002)

SOURCE: Duban, James. “Being Jewish in the Twentieth Century: The Synchronicity of Roth and Hawthorne.” Studies in American Jewish Literature 21 (2002): 1-11.

[In the following essay, Duban explores connections between Roth's story “Eli, the Fanatic” and Nathaniel Hawthorne's “The Minister's Black Veil.”]

To be a Jew in the twentieth century
Is to be offered a gift. If you refuse,
Wishing to be invisible, you choose
Death of the spirit, the stone insanity.
Accepting, take full life. Full agonies:
Your evening deep in labyrinthine blood
Of those who resist, fail, and resist; and God
Reduced to a hostage among hostages.
The gift is torment. Not...

(The entire section is 4645 words.)

Blake Morrison (review date 18 January 2002)

SOURCE: Morrison, Blake. “Talking without Tears.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5155 (18 January 2002): 41.

[In the following review, Morrison assesses Shop Talk as an insightful, interesting collection that reveals much about the ten authors that Roth “interviews” in the book.]

Writers, Philip Roth claims, “divide like the rest of mankind into two categories: those who listen to you and those who don't”. His own fiction is famous for its manic talkers; large chunks of his recent novels take the form of monologues and draw us in so deeply that we forget the speech marks. A fiction like this, with protagonists who are desperate to unburden...

(The entire section is 1012 words.)

Ronald Bush (review date January-February 2002)

SOURCE: Bush, Ronald. “My Life as an Old Man.” Tikkun 17, no. 1 (January-February 2002): 77-80.

[In the following review, Bush compares The Dying Animal to Fyodor Dostoevsky's Notes from the Underground and asserts that Roth's focus on private, male, sexual themes reinforces public stereotypes about his earlier works.]

Philip Roth must have known he would be pummelled for this brief, ambiguous, and disturbing sequel to his acclaimed three-volume social history of post-war America—American Pastoral (1997), I Married a Communist (1998), and The Human Stain (2000). The Dying Animal's reversion to private, male sexual...

(The entire section is 1940 words.)

Elaine B. Safer (essay date spring 2002)

SOURCE: Safer, Elaine B. “Tragedy and Farce in Roth's The Human Stain.Critique 43, no. 3 (spring 2002): 211-27.

[In the following essay, Safer interprets The Human Stain as a commentary on the “political correctness fever” during the 1990s and outlines the tragic and farcical elements of the novel.]

Philip Roth has called his recent three novels “a thematic trilogy.” They all deal, he explains, with the “historical moments in postwar American life that have had the greatest impact on my generation”: the McCarthy era, the Vietnam War, and 1998, the year of Bill Clinton's impeachment (McGrath, “Interview” 8).1


(The entire section is 8688 words.)

David W. Madden (review date spring 2002)

SOURCE: Madden, David W. Review of Shop Talk, by Philip Roth. Review of Contemporary Fiction 22, no.1 (spring 2002): 151-52.

[In the following review, Madden believes Shop Talk demonstrates Roth's position as a powerful and important voice in the world of contemporary literature.]

In some ways Shop Talk is a misleading title, suggesting detailed discussions about the minutiae of fictional composition and inspiration. Instead, Roth discusses Kafka, Bruno Schulz, and Judaism, as well as politics and the media, as banes and inspirations for creativity. All ten profiles are reprinted from earlier sources, of which six are somewhat awkwardly assembled...

(The entire section is 336 words.)

Derek Parker Royal (essay date summer 2002)

SOURCE: Royal, Derek Parker. “Postmodern Jewish Identity in Philip Roth's The Counterlife.Modern Fiction Studies 48, no. 2 (summer 2002): 422-43.

[In the following essay, Royal argues that The Counterlife is Roth's most pivotal novel and marks the starting point for his exploration of a postmodern Jewish identity.]

Of all Philip Roth's novels, The Counterlife (1986) is perhaps his most pivotal. Read within the context of his oeuvre, it occupies a curious and highly revealing place in the author's literary trajectory. The novel is significant for several reasons. First, when it was written it was the most intricate and experimental (and...

(The entire section is 8667 words.)

Mark Shechner (essay date summer 2003)

SOURCE: Shechner, Mark. “On the Road with Philip Roth.” New England Review 24, no. 3 (summer 2003): 89-96.

[In the following essay, Shechner assesses Roth's influence on his own literary outlook.]

For all I know, I was the only person in America who was taken by surprise by the double-barreled attack on Philip Roth in the December 1972 issue of Commentary, which featured Norman Podhoretz's essay “Laureate of the New Class” and Irving Howe's surly and agitated “Philip Roth Reconsidered.” Even Roth, who had been taking blows for more than ten years, must have been on red alert for this. It certainly took me by surprise; the revelation that literary...

(The entire section is 4712 words.)

Further Reading


Bakewell, Geoffrey W. “Philip Roth's Oedipal Stain.” Classical and Modern Literature 24, no. 2 (fall 2004): 29-46.

Examines The Human Stain and its sources within Sophocles's Oedipus plays.

Gessen, Keith. “Deposition for a Master.” Dissent 47, no. 4 (fall 2000): 115-19.

Explores the strengths and weaknesses of The Human Stain, asserting that the book explores moral choices made in everyday life, lauding Roth as a leader in contemporary fiction.

Johnson, Gary. “The Presence of Allegory: The Case of Philip Roth's American Pastoral.Narrative 12,...

(The entire section is 531 words.)