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.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1178

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.

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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...

(The entire section contains 1178 words.)

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