Philip Roth Roth, Philip (Milton) (Contemporary Literary Criticism) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Philip (Milton) Roth 1933–

American novelist, short story writer, and critic.

A prominent contemporary author, Roth often draws on his Jewish background to present his recurring thematic concerns: an individual's search for identity, the effect of American culture on self-realization, and the relationship of art to life, among others. Roth's humorous, often outrageous satires of American life have inspired a considerable amount of critical debate, often centering on the irreverence toward Jewish life perceived to permeate his fiction. In interviews, essays, and even in his fiction Roth has defended and explained his work. He has both enthusiastic supporters and vehement detractors among critics, as well as a large, appreciative audience of readers. In defense of Roth's fictional treatment of Jewish life, Alfred Kazin stated that Roth portrays the "Jew as an individual and not the individual as a Jew." Irving Howe, one of the major challengers of the value of Roth's work, declared that "the talent that went into Portnoy's Complaint and portions of Goodbye, Columbus is real enough, but it has been put to the service of a creative vision deeply marred by vulgarity." Nevertheless, most commentators agree on Roth's exceptional skill in rendering Jewish dialect and evoking place and praise his exuberant inventiveness and his stylistic talent.

Roth introduces one of his major thematic concerns, the individual's search for identity, in his first book, Goodbye, Columbus, and Five Short Stories (1959). In the title novella, Neil Klugman, a poor boy from Newark, falls in love with nouveau riche Brenda Patimkin. Roth examines the conflicting emotions of Neil, who struggles to fit into an "alien culture." By contrasting the backgrounds of these two young people, Roth is also able to satirize the American dream of financial success. Gabe Wallach of Letting Go (1962), Roth's first novel, also experiences conflicts of identity in his various relationships.

Roth's most flamboyant portrayal of a character in search of himself is Alexander Portnoy. The best-selling Portnoy's Complaint (1969) vaulted Roth into widespread public and critical scrutiny. Some critics called it the funniest "serious" literature they had ever read and reacted sympathetically to the hero's machinations to free himself from the suffocating restrictions of his Jewish background. Others objected to the sexual explicitness and what they considered Roth's degrading treatment of Jewish life, claiming that the novel led nowhere. The Breast (1972) fantasizes the transformation of a professor into a six-foot mammary gland. Those who were drawn into the fantasy claimed that the determination of David Kepesh to come to terms with his "reality" demonstrated the human will to survive with dignity.

Particularizing his theme in order to focus on how literature affects an individual's self-realization, Roth, in My Life As a Man (1974), depicts himself as an author writing about a novelist, who is also writing about a novelist. Many critics suggest that this is Roth's best novel. The Roth-Tarnopol-Zuckerman character reappears in Roth's recent Zuckerman trilogy, a satiric view of artistic recognition in America. In the first of the novels, The Ghost Writer (1978), Zuckerman is a young author who recalls Roth himself. Once again, the hero is trying to establish his identity and Roth uses the situation to pose some provocative questions about the relationship of life to literature. The subsequent volumes, Zuckerman Unbound (1981) and The Anatomy Lesson (1983), trace Zuckerman as he experiences the joys and disadvantages of fame and then eventually succumbs to the terrors of writer's block. Many critics faulted the self-preoccupation of the narrator but did appreciate some of the hilarious and imaginative entanglements in which Roth's hero finds himself.

Three other novels exemplify the versatility of Roth: Our Gang (1971), specifically a political satire of President Nixon, but also a critical view of political logic and doubletalk; The Great American Novel (1973), a parody on the mythology of both baseball and the idea of "the great American novel"; and When She Was Good (1967), Roth's only novel to feature a female character and to be set in a protestant, midwestern milieu. As usual, these three works met with sharply divided response.

The gamut of negative criticism to Roth's work ranges from charges of anti-Semitism, degrading depictions of women, obscenity bordering on pornography, repetitiveness of theme, lack of humanity toward characters other than his alter-ego hero, and the joylessness of his humor. But the positive response to his work is equally strong and maintains that Roth is a deeply moral writer, that his books are fantastically humorous, even if darkly so, and that his satires, although written from a Jewish perspective, offer insight into the foibles of American life. The quality and variety of critical opinion that greets each new book by Roth indicates that he is a novelist to be taken seriously. Although he may not please everyone, he is, in the words of John Gardner, "on good terms with the hunchbacked muse of the outrageous."

(See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 9, 15, 22; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 1; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 2, 28; and Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook: 1982.)


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Philip Roth is a singular figure in recent American fiction: he is a social realist who adamantly refuses to withdraw from the field, even though he sees around him no smiling aspects of American life. Taking as his domain the recognizable present, Roth has been the most prolific—and the most controversial—writer in America in the last decade and a half. His immense popularity in the universities and the marketplace has raised appreciative eyebrows and elicited cries of outrage, in some cases both at the same time. Irving Howe reveals the ambivalence that Roth's fiction typically generates when he says, "His reputation has steadily grown these past few years, he now stands close to the center of our culture (if that is anything for him to be pleased about)," and "we are in the presence not only of an interesting writer but also of a cultural 'case'" [see CLC, Vol. 2].

Roth's wonderfully rich and varied works—the sharp-edged and well-crafted stories in the Goodbye, Columbus collection (1959), the gloomily realistic Letting Go (1962) and When She Was Good (1967), the serio-comic Portnoy's Complaint (1969), the fabulistic The Breast (1972), the satiric Our Gang (1971) and The Great American Novel (1973), the candidly autobiographical My Life As a Man (1974)—illustrate important insights into America's cultural predicament as Roth sees it from his own vantage point: up close and personal, as the television commentators say. No other living writer has so rigorously and actively attempted to describe the destructive element of experience in American life—the absurdities and banalities that impinge upon self-realization in this "The Land of Opportunity and the Age of Self-Fulfillment" (as David Kepesh in The Breast says). And no other writer so clearly bridges the buoyant optimism of Jewish-American writers of the fifties and the dark, despairing world view of such recent writers as John Hawkes, Thomas Pynchon, Joseph Heller, Ken Kesey, Anthony Burgess and Jerzy Kosinski. Yet Roth is more often than not dismissed as a cultural "case," as if that explained away the variety and vision of his fiction or mitigated the acute embarrassment that accompanies the spectacle of brash young soldiers obstinately continuing in losing battles.

But of course Howe is right: Roth is a cultural "case" in that he has been both attracted to and repelled by the shaping forces of society—and who of us has not? Here, perhaps, is a key to the popularity that Roth enjoys as a spokesman for a growing sense of disgust, outrage and impotence felt by so many Americans who view the Vietnam War, the Watergate affair, the sensationalism of the press, the fatuousness of popular novels, television sit-coms, broadway shows, indeed the entire phenomenon of American society, with fascination and repulsion. As Norman Podhoretz says in taking issue with Howe, "Roth is now central not because he has sold out … but because in the course of his literary career more and more people have come along who are exactly in tune with the sense of things he has always expressed in his work and who have accordingly and in increasing numbers come to recognize him as their own." (pp. 3-4)

Roth's struggle with American culture has developed along two fronts, one religious and the other artistic. By far the more important of the two has been the artistic battle, one that calls upon the artist to confront American society, "the real thing," head-on. This, Roth feels, is a confrontation that is essential to the writing of fiction and to the writer of fiction. It is, then, with some regret that Roth discovers how uncommon his artistic stance is—and how alone he seems to be in his fight. In a seminal essay entitled "Writing American Fiction" Roth charges that there has been "a voluntary withdrawal of interest by the writer of fiction from some of the grander social and political phenomena of our times." (p. 5)

[Roth] believes it is the writer's task to make an imaginative assault on "the corruptions and vulgarities and treacheries of American public life."… Roth's complaint, like Portnoy's is a sweeping observation about the cultural predicament facing the sensitive, creative individual: American reality, Roth concludes, "stupefies, it sickens, it infuriates, and finally it is even a kind of embarrassment to one's own meager imagination,"… and hence it is understandable, perhaps, that many modern writers continue in the romantic strategy of evasion, which involves, as Walter Allen notes, the "opting out of society." (p. 6)

It is difficult to overestimate the importance of the hard core of social realism at the center of Roth's artistic creed: it qualifies the most romantic of Roth's early stories and explains his most recent ventures into social and political satire (Our Gang, The Great American Novel) and fantasy (The Breast); it gives credence to Roth's exploration of stereotypes and stereotypic attitudes promulgated by mass media and accepted by some segments of the American public; and, perhaps most importantly, it generates the central conflicts and basic themes found in Roth's fiction. (pp. 6-7)

In emphasizing the predicament that the modern writer faces, Roth suggests a broader predicament, one that is faced, he feels, by many people. Although he has the writer specifically in mind, there is no doubt that the problem he describes is cultural. Making note of Benjamin DeMott's observation that there seems to be today a kind of "universal descent into unreality," Roth goes on to observe that he too is often overwhelmed by the "unreality" of the world that he wants to describe in his fiction…. (p. 7)

"What the hell," exclaimed John Barth recently, as if confirming Roth's observation, "reality is a nice place to visit but you wouldn't want to live there, and literature never did, very long…. Reality is a drag." Yet it is precisely this predicament that fascinates Roth, captivating his imagination and feeding his creative impulse. He will not be defeated; he will not turn to other matters, other worlds. Like Kafka before him he will turn the familial, communal, and cultural pressures facing him into the very substance of his art. The problems facing the artist become, in Roth's fiction, human problems to be faced by the hero; the "unreality" of American public life exercises a brutal power which the hero can attempt to conquer but cannot evade. Like the hero of Ellison's Invisible Man, whom Roth so admires, the Rothian hero must go out into the world—even if it is only to discover that he is a man without a country, invisible, homeless, a stranger to himself and his deepest beliefs—before he can go underground to wait for a new spring and the promise of hope. (p. 8)

The religious issues raised by Roth's fiction have precipitated a battle of a different sort, yet one that Roth has entered aggressively. Jewish readers and literary critics alike have taken stands on the "Jewishness" of Roth's fiction…. Praised as a Jewish moralist and condemned as a self-hating Jew, Roth has been offered, as David Baroff says, as a "kind of shibboleth for American Jews; they define themselves and other people in terms of how they react to Philip Roth."… The controversies that swirl around the "Jewishness" of Roth's fiction have clouded, in most cases, the more essential questions of Roth's artistry: his affinities with social realism, his vision of human potential, his assault on American reality. It seems, however, that Roth has been called, ironically enough, to bear the standard in a dubious battle, while more fundamentally Jewish writers like Bernard Malamud and Saul Bellow have been allowed a graceful retreat behind university walls. (p. 21)

The complaints most often made against Roth's fiction by the Jewish community do not legitimately come under the heading of literary criticism in that such complaints do not derive from an analysis of the fiction. It is true, however, that the values that emerge from Roth's fiction often serve as a point of departure for charges of anti-semitism. After Goodbye, Columbus was published, many rabbis and other members of the Jewish community responded with letters and sermons denouncing Roth's fiction. (p. 22)

The charge of anti-semitism against a Jewish writer is not, of course, new…. In Roth's case, however, charges of anti-semitism have extended beyond the stage of initial reaction, and the question of his Jewishness continues to occupy not only the Jewish community but also serious literary critics—both Jewish and non-Jewish.

If anything is clear about the controversies surrounding Roth's depiction of Jewish life, it is that there is no agreement among respected critics on just how traditionally Jewish Roth's values are. (pp. 23-4)

Roth and his fiction do not yield easily to Jewish-oriented theses about Jewish-American writers and their fiction, primarily because Roth is the most "marginal" of Jews. His reliance on Jewish materials and Jewish values is qualified by an essentially secular and skeptical perspective, a perspective that he has defended vigorously, even in the camp of the supposed enemy—in, that is, Jewish magazines like Commentary and Jewish symposia like the one held in Tel Aviv in 1963. His defense of himself is occasionally acerbic, in large part because of the intense and often heated attacks directed at...

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Sanford Pinsker

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Prometheus remains the quintessential rebel-hero, the mythological figure who defied Zeus, stole the secret of fire from Hephaestus, and gave it to mankind. For that liberating act, he was punished—chained to a rock where an eagle pecked away at his liver. Nathan Zuckerman is a paler post-Modernist version. He defied the American Jewish community, exposed its dirty little secrets and then blabbed the whole business in public—i.e. Gentile—print. For that liberating (?) aesthetic act, he became Rich and Famous, Remorseful and Troubled. Zuckerman's portrait of the assimilated American Jew specialized in warts. No wonder his readers cried "Foul!" when they saw the mirror he held up to their nature.


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Patrick O'Donnell

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Interpretative fantasies, from Clarissa and Tristram Shandy to Finnegans Wake, Pale Fire, and Gravity's Rainbow, have traditionally concerned themselves with such problems as "validity," "discursivity," and "reality" vs. "textuality," particularly with the status of fictional texts, their origins, ends, and authoritative power. Philip Roth's recent novel, The Ghost Writer, is part of this tradition: it is about origins, and the problems of originality that any serious writer eventually comes to face. It is the kind of novel that forces us to reflect upon the act of writing, in a traditional sense, as an embodiment of "selfhood," and less traditionally, as the place where the "self"...

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Christopher Lehmann-Haupt

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In "The Anatomy Lesson"—Philip Roth's rich, satisfyingly complex conclusion to his Zuckerman trilogy, of which "The Ghost Writer" and "Zuckerman Unbound" formed the first two parts—the writer Nathan Zuckerman has a pain….

It is a pain that has forced Zuckerman to give up writing and spend most of his time lying on the floor in his apartment on a play mat….

Does Zuckerman learn anything from his mysterious ailment, as Tolstoy's Ivan Ilyich did from his? Do the cemetery and hospital settings of the final scenes of "The Anatomy Lesson" suggest that Zuckerman has come to terms with death and suffering like the protagonist in "The Death of Ivan Ilyich"? It's difficult to say....

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Robert Kiely

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Philip Roth, recalling a visit to Prague in 1971, said he was struck by the contrasting situation of writers in a country that is not free and in the United States. Here, it seemed to him, "everything goes and nothing matters"; there, "nothing goes and everything matters." It is this concern that seems to underline the trilogy that Roth began with "The Ghost Writer," continued with "Zuckerman Unbound" and now concludes with "The Anatomy Lesson."

Certainly, Roth's fictitious novelist, Nathan Zuckerman, faces neither censorship nor imprisonment in his rapid journey up the freeway of American literary notoriety. What Zuckerman does face is an ambitious and egocentric self, strong on nerve and stomach,...

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Gary Giddins

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

When Zuckerman Unbound appeared two years ago, it was widely assumed to be Nathan's farewell to his past and Philip Roth's farewell to his alter ego Nathan. But Roth had a trilogy in mind.

As The Anatomy Lesson demonstrates, Nathan's problems were just beginning. During the next four years, his self-esteem withered under one assault after another until he no longer knew if his talent was still intact. The death of his mother left him mourning over unfinished business; his brother blamed him for both parents' deaths and stopped speaking to him; a hugely respected critic—once a supporter—published a savage attack, legitimizing middlebrow accusations that had been leveled against him...

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Joseph Epstein

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

There is, as the folks in the head trades might say, a lot of rage in Philip Roth. What, one wonders, is he so angry about? As a writer, he seems to have had a pretty good roll of the dice. His first book, the collection of stories entitled Goodbye, Columbus, published when he was twenty-six, was a very great critical success; in brilliance, his literary debut was second in modern America perhaps only to that of Delmore Schwartz…. After two further novels, Letting Go (1962) and When She Was Good (1967), he wrote Portnoy's Complaint (1969), a succès fou, a tremendous hit both critically … and commercially (it was a bestseller of a kind that removes a writer permanently from the...

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Mervyn Jones

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

It's remarkable that Bellow, Styron, Malamud and Roth have all written novels in which the central character is a writer, more or less closely identifiable with the author whose name appears on the title-page. It's also rather interesting, to my mind, that all these writers are men; while they write about their problems as writers, women writers write about their problems as women. The American public, undeniably, receives these confessions with fascinated appetite, but it isn't axiomatic that a writer's life is of richer significance than the lives of the whaling captains or tobacco farmers chronicled in earlier American novels. In [The Anatomy Lesson], Zuckerman remarks: 'Other people. Somebody should have...

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John Mellors

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Zuckerman in The Anatomy Lesson is a pugnacious rebel and one can well imagine his railing at God and waving a banner saying 'Unfair to Zuckerman!'. Indeed, the polemics in Philip Roth's third Zuckerman book are among its most effective passages….

Roth is at his best complaining, as he has shown in Portnoy's Complaint and, indeed, in most of his fiction. He—and one cannot help thinking of the 'he' as a composite character, Philip Nathan Roth Zuckerman—rants and raves against all his enemies, especially 'those sentimental, chauvinist, philistine Jews' who regard his satires as treachery. The most hated of them is a critic, Milton Appel, who had referred to Zuckerman's 'mean,...

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Julian Webb

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The Anatomy Lesson] is the finest, boldest and funniest piece of fiction which Philip Roth has yet produced—and that is quite something to say about the author of Portnoy's Complaint, Goodbye, Columbus and Letting Go. Perhaps because of the 'personal' nature of most of his work—and also perhaps simply because he is one of the half-dozen writers alive who make you laugh aloud—readers and some critics in this country have tended to underestimate the scale and nature of Roth's gifts. He has been treated as a Jewish-American farceur who took advantage of a good education to hoist his emotional confusions on a public eager to read about sex—so long as it was wrapped in the severe...

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W. Clark Hendley

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Ghost Writer must be initially examined from the context of the Bildungsroman because Roth has so deliberately placed it in this context. After focusing on the novel as a work of fiction within a clearly defined tradition, then the critic can look to the narrative for parallels to the author's life and insights into his growth and development. In comparing the novel with its predecessors we can not only evaluate its departures from that tradition but also assess Roth's implications about the viability of this form in late twentieth-century fiction…. Roth's late twentieth-century Bildungsroman protagonist typically searches for a father and simultaneously flees both a father and all the...

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