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.)