Philip Roth Biography

Philip Roth Biography

Philip Roth is one of America’s most award-winning authors. He’s won the National Book Award twice, the National Book Critic’s Circle Award twice, three PEN/Faulkner Awards, and a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Roth began his literary career shortly after receiving his master’s degree in English literature. In addition to his well-received novels, Roth has also written short stories, film reviews, and political satire. His most famous works are Goodbye, Columbus and Portnoy’s Complaint. Roth also created a character named Nathan Zuckerman that figures prominently in several of his books. Because personal angst is a hallmark of Roth’s writing, the Zuckerman character, which serves as an alter ego for the author, has been a kind of barometer for Roth’s personal and artistic growth.

Facts and Trivia

  • Roth’s first wife, Margaret Martinson, inspired several characters in his novels, including his well-known Portnoy’s Complaint.
  • Roth reportedly suffered a nervous breakdown later in life. The event is reflected in his novel Operation Shylock.
  • In addition to writing award-winning books, Roth has taught comparative literature at the University of Pennsylvania for many years.
  • Actress Claire Bloom, Roth’s second wife (and second ex-wife), published a tell-all book titled Exiting a Doll’s House, which documented in unflattering detail the breakdown of their marriage.
  • The title of Roth’s novel The Human Stain is a reference to the sex scandal involving former U.S. President Bill Clinton, intern Monica Lewinsky, and her now-infamous (and unwashed) dress.


(Masterpieces of American Literature)
ph_0111201276-Roth_P3.jpg Philip Roth Published by Salem Press, Inc.

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...

(The entire section is 1178 words.)

Philip Roth Biography

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Roth’s development as a novelist shows both a deepening of his comedy and an expanding range of skills. Preoccupied by the idea of “counter-lives,” or variations upon self-portraits, he examines various versions of his experience with telling effect and enormous insights. His preoccupation notwithstanding, he rarely repeats himself. Instead, he constantly attempts to expand the boundaries of his comic art, whose depths he tirelessly and wittily explores, with bountiful rewards.

Philip Roth Biography

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Philip Milton Roth was reared in Newark, New Jersey, where he was influenced by the rising urban Jewish culture that dominated the intellectual and cultural life of part of that city. After graduating from Weequahic High School, he attended Newark College of Rutgers University from 1950 to 1951, finished his B.A. at Bucknell University in 1954, and earned an M.A. at the University of Chicago in 1955. After a stint in the United States Army, he returned to the University of Chicago, where he completed most of his work toward a Ph.D. and taught literature from 1956 to 1958. Roth’s stormy personal relationships and health problems have figured in much of his writing. In 1959 he was married to Margaret Martinson Williams, from whom he obtained a legal separation in 1963. She died in 1968. In 1990, Roth married his long-term companion, the actress Claire Bloom, and they divorced in 1995. Roth suffered serious appendicitis and peritonitis in 1967, drug-induced depression following knee surgery in 1987, and quintuple-bypass surgery in 1989; he also spent time in a psychiatric hospital during his marriage to Bloom.

Philip Roth Biography

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Born in the Weequahic section of Newark, New Jersey, on March 19, 1933, Philip Roth learned very early what it was like to grow up Jewish in a lower-middle-class neighborhood of a large metropolitan area. His parents were Beth Finkel Roth and Herman Roth; his father was a salesman for the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company. After he graduated from Weequahic High School in 1950, Roth worked for a while at the Newark Public Library and attended Newark College of Rutgers University. A year later, he transferred to Bucknell University. Although the family could ill afford the expense of a private college, Herman Roth determined that if his son wanted to go there, he would go. At Bucknell, Roth began writing stories and edited the school’s literary magazine. He also had his first love affairs, from which he drew incidents (fictionally transformed) for his subsequent novels. He received his B.A. in English, magna cum laude, in 1954, and he accepted a teaching fellowship at the University of Chicago for graduate work in English.

After receiving his M.A. in English from Chicago, Roth enlisted in the U.S. Army, but a back injury suffered during basic training resulted in an early discharge. He returned to Chicago to pursue doctoral studies in English and continued writing short stories; he had begun to get stories published as early as the fall of 1954 in small literary journals such as the Chicago Review and Epoch. Several of his stories were...

(The entire section is 576 words.)

Philip Roth Biography

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Philip Roth’s youth in a largely Jewish neighborhood of Newark, New Jersey, established his first subject: the ambivalence felt by American Jews on facing assimilation into American culture, which entails the loss of much, possibly all, of their distinctive Jewishness. Roth grew up in a middle-class home where, he writes, “the Jewish family was an inviolate haven against every form of menace, from personal isolation to gentile hostility.” Roth has been unwilling, however, simply to depict the Jewish family as a haven. His inclination to challenge Jewish American propriety and his extravagant comic imagination have won for him a controversial place in American letters. After an education at Bucknell University and the University of Chicago, Roth earned with the publication of Goodbye, Columbus, and Five Short Stories the National Book Award and condemnation as an anti-Semite by some Jewish leaders.

Roth’s tendency to use details from his life in his fiction has invited misinterpretations of his work as autobiography. An unhappy and short-lived marriage to Margaret Martinson, for example, was translated by Roth into My Life as a Man, in which Margaret’s fictional surrogate attracts and devastates the protagonist in part because she is not Jewish. Roth’s second wife, the Jewish actress Claire Bloom, may have provided in her English background a context for Roth’s alter ego, the writer Nathan Zuckerman, to explore his identity as a Jew in The Counterlife, in which Zuckerman becomes involved with a Christian Englishwoman. A suicidal breakdown in 1987, caused by medication prescribed for Roth after minor surgery, appears undisguised in Operation Shylock: A Confession, a probing quest for cultural and personal identity.

Roth’s writing can be seen in stages, from the early realist fiction, to the discovery of his comic voice in Portnoy’s Complaint, to the mid-career novels featuring Jewish writer-protagonists, to the works of the late 1980’s and 1990’s that either overtly recount Roth’s past or collapse the distinction between fiction and reality. Throughout, however, the thread that weaves the work together is Roth’s interest in exploring and exposing the Jewish American self.

Philip Roth Biography

(American Culture and Institutions Through Literature, 1960-1969)

Early Life

Roth was born into a lower-middle-class Jewish family, and his memories of the social stratification of his home have found their way into his fiction. He attended Rutgers University and in 1954 received his bachelor’s degree from Bucknell University and the next year his master’s degree from the University of Chicago. From 1956 to 1957, he studied at the University of Chicago, and some of those experiences were transformed into his second novel, Letting Go (1962). His writing career began with the publication of Goodbye, Columbus (1959), a novella and five stories, that won him a number of awards and signaled the emergence of a new, compelling voice in American letters.


(The entire section is 1143 words.)

Philip Roth Biography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Along with Bernard Malamud and Saul Bellow, Philip Milton Roth is one of the most prominent of the American Jewish novelists who emerged after World War II. Most of his fiction focuses on figures who are recognizably second-or third-generation Jews struggling to come to terms with the attractions and repulsions of life in the United States. Roth was born in Newark, New Jersey, on March 19, 1933, and grew up in a lower-middle-class Jewish section of the city. His father was an insurance salesman and his mother a homemaker. After one year at Newark College, Rutgers University, Roth transferred to Bucknell University, in rural Pennsylvania, where he edited the literary magazine and received a B.A. in English, magna cum laude, in 1954....

(The entire section is 1162 words.)

Philip Roth Biography

(Short Stories for Students)

Philip Roth was born on March 19, 1933, in Newark, New Jersey, into a lower-middle-class Jewish family. He attended Rutgers University in...

(The entire section is 348 words.)

Philip Roth Biography

(Short Stories for Students)

Roth was born in Newark, New Jersey, on March 19, 1933, into a working-class Jewish family. He attended Rutgers University (1950–1951),...

(The entire section is 311 words.)

Philip Roth Biography

(Novels for Students)

One of America’s leading novelists of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first century, Philip Roth explores the conflicts and...

(The entire section is 417 words.)