Roth, Philip (Milton) 1933-
American short story writer, novelist, essayist, and critic. See also Philip Roth Literary Criticism (Volume 1), and Volumes 3, 4, 6, 9, 15, 22, 86, 119.
One of contemporary literature's most prominent and controversial writers, Roth achieved early critical and popular acclaim with his first book, Goodbye, Columbus, a collection of five short stories and a novella. The book was hailed as the opening volley from a daring and brilliant new voice on the American literary scene, particularly from the Jewish American sector. However, as quickly as critics classified him with Saul Bellow and Bernard Malamud, they also set him apart by virtue of his disaffected and caustic handling of Jewish American culture, his suburban settings, and his third-generation heritage. In terms of Roth's subsequent output, the book proved premonitory of his thematic concerns—the search for self-identity, conflicts between traditional and contemporary moral values, the relationship between fiction and reality—and of the controversy that he would generate. Roth has won numerous literary awards, twice winning the National Book Award—for Goodbye, Columbus (1959) and Sabbath's Theatre (1995). In all, he has published twenty-one books, though only one collection of short stories. Critical discussion of Roth, the short story writer, focusses on the stories, "The Contest for Aaron Gold" (1955), the collection Goodbye, Columbus, and on the essay-story "'I Always Wanted You to Admire My Fasting'; or, Looking at Kafka" (1973).
Philip Roth grew up in Newark, New Jersey, the son of Beth Finkel and Herman Roth, a salesman for the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company. There he attended Hebrew school and spent one year at Newark College of Rutgers University. From 1951 through 1954, Roth attended Bucknell University, where he majored in English and graduated magna cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa. He edited and helped found the Bucknell literary magazine, Et Cetera, which published his first stories. In the Fall of 1954, the Chicago Review published "The Day It Snowed." In 1955, the year Roth earned his University of Chicago M.A., his story "The Contest for Aaron Gold" was published in Epoch and anthologized in Martha Foley's Best American Short Stories. He taught English at Chicago and later instructed creative writing at Iowa and Princeton. Goodbye, Columbus, which contains several stories previously published in The Paris Review, The New Yorker, and Commentary, appeared when Roth was only twentysix. It was followed by a number of novels, the majority of which feature Jewish Americans and center around such self-reflective themes as identity, alienation, sex, and illness.
Major Works of Short Fiction
In addition to the title novella, Roth's only collection contains five short stories: "The Conversion of the Jews," "The Defender of the Faith," "Epstein," "You Can't Tell a Man by the Song He Sings," and "Eli, the Fanatic." His short fiction most often centers on assimilated Jewish Americans who "are distinguished by their Americanism rather than their Jewishness," according to Joseph C. Landis. Each of Roth's stories features unlikely heroes, who find themselves trapped within the social constraints of their immediate environment, usually the family, religion, or American society in general. While Roth's fiction depends heavily on theme, it is likewise replete with dark humor and keen observation, which is at its best in the acclaimed novella, Goodbye, Columbus. Here, Roth examines a summer romance between Neil Klugman, a poor Jewish intellectual, and Brenda Patimkin, a wealthy Jewish suburbanite. Though initially attracted to Brenda's comfortable lifestyle, Neil quickly becomes repulsed by the vacuous materialism of the Patimkin family. So much emphasis is placed on the Patimkin's materialism that some scholars, most notably Saul Bellow, have suggested that the true subject of the novella is American society's predilection toward the material—houses, cars, sports equipment—rather than the spiritual. Still others have taken both the romance and materialism of Goodbye, Columbus into account, comparing the novella to Fitzergerald's The Great Gatsby. As Alfred Kazin has remarked, "in the midst of the tense romance between poor boy and rich girl, one catches lampoonings of our swollen and unreal American prosperity that are as observant and charming as Fitzgerald's description of a Long Island dinner party in 1925."
The stories of Goodbye, Columbus, along with a handful of other fictions published indepently, constitute Roth's most significant work in the genre. They are frequently anthologized, and they continue to speak meaningfully about what it means to be Jewish American in the contemporary world. In "The Contest for Aaron Gold" a summer camp art instructor wrongfully completes a student's project to keep his job. In "The Conversion of the Jews" a Hebrew school student brings to his knees a rabbi who will not allow him to ask questions about his religion. In "Defender of the Faith" a Jewish American army seargent has to resist the crass manipulations of a self-serving private who couches his requests for special favors in calls to ethnic solidarity. The title character of "Epstein" suddenly feels at age fifty-nine that because he has accepted fully the responsibilities of business, marriage, and parenthood, he has missed out on life. In "Eli, the Fanatic" the assimilated Jews of Woodenton fear that their peaceful coexistence with the Gentiles will be put at risk by the establishment of an Orthodox yeshiva in their community. In the 1973 story '"I Always Wanted You to Admire My Fasting'; or, Looking at Kafka," writer Franz Kafka, a teacher at nine-year-old Roth's Newark, New Jersey school, has a brief affair with Roth's aunt Rhoda, a former puppeteer, before his death. John M. McDaniel considered this story "a continuation of one of the earliest thematic conflicts in Roth's fiction: the conflict between the sensitive man . . . and an insensitive society that constricts, stupefies, and maddens the would-be hero to despair."
Roth's works, especially his satiric portraits of Jewish life, have inspired a considerable amount of critical debate. 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, maintaining 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.