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.

Biography

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

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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 religion, Roth attended Hebrew School after public school and received at least a rudimentary training in Judaism. That aspect of his life may be glimpsed in stories such as “The Conversion of the Jews” and “’I Always Wanted You to Admire My Fasting’: Or, Looking at Kafka.” The energy, vitality, and iconoclasm of his schoolmates contrasted vigorously with the biblical stories of Jews living in tents or building the pyramids, and in his later life Roth admitted to missing that kind of person when he moved for a while to London. (He has since returned to the United States.) Young Roth was also an avid baseball fan and loved to play the sport. His powerful interest in baseball appears in several of his novels, but in The Great American Novel (1973) it takes over the scene and situation completely.

College confirmed Roth’s interest in literature. His stories written while still an undergraduate were not at all about Jews or Newark, and they were not humorous. He admits to the influence of Thomas Wolfe, J. D. Salinger, and Truman Capote. With several of his fraternity brothers, he helped to found Et Cetera, the campus literary magazine, which he edited in 1952-1953.

At the University of Chicago, Roth was a popular graduate student; his gift for mimicry made him the hit of many parties. In Chicago he met and became friends with Theodore Solotaroff, later an editor for Commentary and subsequently of The New American Review, and an important literary critic. At this time, Roth was seriously interested in the work of Henry James, whose influence on Roth’s first full-length novel, Letting Go (1962), is profound. Returning to Chicago after his Army service to work on a Ph.D. in English, Roth began dating Margaret Martinson, a divorcée with two children. They were married in 1959 after a tumultuous relationship. Far from a happy marriage, theirs was fraught with quarrels and antagonism, which Roth fictionalized in My Life as a Man (the trick that Margaret’s counterpart uses to get her lover to marry her is factual).

Encouraged by the success of Goodbye, Columbus, Roth had by then abandoned his doctoral studies and was writing Letting Go, set largely in Chicago. From 1960 to 1962, he was visiting writer at the University of Iowa. In 1962, Roth won a legal separation from Margaret and went to Princeton University as writer-in-residence. Afterward, he lived in New York City and continued writing full time. Margaret refused to grant him a divorce, and the stringent laws of New York State then made it impossible for him to obtain one in any other way.

Roth lived in a small apartment, where he studiously wrote his next novels and had a long romance with someone he calls May Aldridge in The Facts. Margaret was killed in an automobile crash in 1968, leaving Roth free to marry, yet he did not wed Aldridge. From 1967 to 1980, he was a popular part-time lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania, where he taught the works of Franz Kafka, Fyodor Dostoevski, and other great novelists. He became interested in contemporary Eastern European writers and edited a series for Penguin Books called “Writers from the Other Europe,” in which books by such authors as Milan Kundera appeared in English translations.

When he began sharing his life with the British actress Claire Bloom, Roth divided his time between London, where he kept a flat and a studio for working, and his home in rural Connecticut. He married Bloom in 1990 and then lived mostly in the United States. In 1993, he and Bloom were divorced, and Roth settled permanently into his home in Connecticut, where he enjoyed his solitude and being able to write without distraction every day for many hours. He became reclusive and seldom ventured out for interviews, public readings, or social events.

Many of his novels have won major awards since his first National Book Award in 1959. In 1992, his memoir of his father, Patrimony, won the National Book Critics Circle Award; in 1993, his novel Operation Shylock won the PEN/Faulkner Award; in 1995, Sabbath’s Theater won his second National Book Award; in 1997 American Pastoral was given the prestigious Pulitzer Prize in fiction; and in 2000 The Human Stain won another PEN/Faulkner Award. In 1998, Roth received the National Medal of Arts from President Bill Clinton at a ceremony in the White House. Roth has been a member of the American Academy since 1970.

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