Philip Roth 1933-
(Full name Philip Milton Roth) American novelist, short story writer, essayist, autobiographer, and critic.
The following entry presents an overview of Roth's career through 2003. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 9, 15, 22, 31, 47, 66, 86, and 119.
One of the most prominent and controversial writers in contemporary literature, Roth draws heavily upon his Jewish-American upbringing and his life as a successful author to explore such concerns as the search for self-identity, conflicts between traditional and contemporary moral values, and the relationship between fiction and reality. The scatological content of some of his works and his harsh satiric portraits of Jewish life have inspired considerable critical debate. While some commentators view his work as anti-Semitic, perverse, or self-indulgent, others laud Roth's skill at rendering dialect, his exuberance and inventiveness, and his outrageous sense of humor.
Roth was born in Newark, New Jersey. After graduating from Weequahic High School in 1950, he enrolled at Newark College of Rutgers University. He transferred to Bucknell University in Pennsylvania in 1951. There he published his first story, “Philosophy,” in the literary magazine Et cetera, which he helped to found and edit. Roth graduated magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa, earning a bachelor's degree in English in 1954. He received a master's degree in English from the University of Chicago in 1955 and served briefly in the United States Army but was discharged due to a back injury he sustained during basic training. Although he returned to study for his Ph.D. in English at the University of Chicago, Roth withdrew to pursue his writing career in 1957. With the aid of a grant from the National Institute of Arts and Letters, a Houghton Mifflin Literary Fellowship, and a Guggenheim fellowship, Roth was able to complete his first book, Goodbye, Columbus, and Five Short Stories (1959). He began teaching at the Writers' Workshop at the University of Iowa in 1960, and in 1962 he became a writer-in-residence at Princeton University. Roth resigned to become a full-time author following the financial success of his third novel, Portnoy's Complaint (1969). With his provocative and well-regarded novels, he quickly established himself as one of America's best-known authors. He has received several prestigious awards for his work, including two PEN/Faulkner Awards for fiction, a Pulitzer Prize, several National Book Critics Circle Awards, and a Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters from the National Book Foundation in 2002.
Roth first garnered significant critical reaction with his first work, Goodbye, Columbus. In the acclaimed novella, which was adapted for film by Paramount in 1969, Roth satirizes American materialistic values by focusing on the conflicting emotions of Neil Klugman, a lower-middle-class Jewish man struggling to adjust to the unfamiliar lifestyle of Brenda Patimkin, a wealthy Jewish suburbanite with whom he falls in love. Roth is credited with propelling Jewish-American fiction into the realm of popular culture with Portnoy's Complaint. Originally appearing as a series of sketches in Esquire, Partisan Review, and New American Review, the novel takes the form of a profane, guilt-ridden confession related by Alexander Portnoy to a silent psychoanalyst, Dr. Spielvogel. Decrying his Jewish upbringing, Portnoy wrestles with his Oedipal complex, obsession with Gentile women, and sexual fetishes in an attempt to free himself from the restrictions of his cultural background. Following the book's publication, scholars and Jewish Americans labeled Roth an anti-Semitic Jew and objected to the novel's sexually explicit content and what they considered Roth's degrading treatment of Jewish life. However, Portnoy's Complaint also won praise for its ethnic humor, adroit dialogue, and psychological insight.
Much of Roth's ensuing work is about the relationship of fiction to reality. My Life as a Man (1974) concerns a novelist named Peter Tarnopol who is writing about a controversial novelist named Nathan Zuckerman. Zuckerman reappears in several of Roth's later novels, including The Ghost Writer (1979), in which the young author gains notoriety and sparks intense critical debate with his salacious novel Carnovsky, much as Roth did with Portnoy's Complaint. Two subsequent novels, Zuckerman Unbound (1981) and The Anatomy Lesson (1983), trace Zuckerman as he encounters the joys and disadvantages of fame and then succumbs to the terrors of writer's block. These books examine such topics as the difficulties of familial and sexual relationships and the conflicts between traditional and contemporary moral values. Roth received the National Book Critics Circle Award for his next novel, The Counterlife (1986). The novel chronicles Zuckerman's travels to Israel, where his brother has joined a militant terrorist group, and then to England, where he combats English anti-Semitism. Operation Shylock (1993) focuses on the fictional story of the writer Philip Roth, who pursues a man in Israel who has been using his identity. Roth travels to Israel, finds his impostor, and gets involved in the Arab-Israeli conflict. In 1995 Sabbath's Theater was published to mixed critical reaction. Critics often compare the novel to Portnoy's Complaint, because Roth focuses on the sexual obsessions and monomaniacal musings of a self-involved protagonist, Mickey Sabbath. As Sabbath realizes that he has lost everyone close to him, he considers ending his own life. The book won the 1995 National Book Award for fiction.
Roth's next three novels are considered a trilogy: American Pastoral (1997), I Married a Communist (1998), and The Human Stain (2000). American Pastoral chronicles the story of a Jewish man in Newark, New Jersey, whose placid, suburban life is torn apart by the violent actions of his unbalanced daughter. The novel received both a National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize. Nathan Zuckerman reappears in I Married a Communist, this time as the narrator of the tragic story of Ira Ringold, a radio actor whose life is ruined by his ex-wife's charge that he was a devoted Communist. Blacklisted, he is unable to work and plots an elaborate revenge, which he is ultimately unable to exact. Zuckerman also appears in The Human Stain, which relates the story of Coleman Silk, an elderly professor at a Northeastern college who is dismissed from his position because of a politically correct witch-hunt. After the sudden death of his wife, Silk falls into an affair with a school janitor who is half his age. Eventually it is revealed that Silk has been hiding a secret that has dramatically shaped his entire life. In Roth's next novel, The Dying Animal (2001), he utilizes the character of David Kepesh, who originally appeared in an earlier novel, The Breast (1972). In The Dying Animal, Kepesh is an elderly man who, years earlier, had left his wife and son to partake in the sexual revolution. At his advanced age, he is still obsessed with women and the sexual act. In Roth's latest work, The Plot against America (2004), he explores what might have happened if Charles Lindbergh, the renowned aviator and anti-Semitic politician, would have been elected president in 1940 instead of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Roth also speculates on the repercussions of this very different political landscape on his Jewish family in Newark, New Jersey.
Negative criticism of Roth's works has included charges of anti-Semitism, degradation of women, obscenity bordering on pornography, and repetitiveness of theme. Positive response to his work, however, is equally strong, and Roth's supporters have consistently maintained that he is a deeply moral writer. They argue that his books are humorous in a fantastic sense, and that his satires, while written from a Jewish perspective, offer universal insight into the foibles of American life. Recent critical studies of his oeuvre discuss Roth as an autobiographical and Jewish-American author, investigate the impact of anti-Semitism and the Holocaust on his fiction, place his work in a sociohistorical context, and examine the use of tragedy and farce in several of his novels. The quantity and variety of critical opinion that greets each new book clearly indicates Roth's stature as a major contemporary novelist.