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What aspects of Philip Roth’s early fiction could have caused such a vigorous opposition to it by the conservative Jewish community?

Is the charge against Roth of being a self-hating Jew credible?

What is the basis for much of Philip Roth’s humor?

How accurate is Roth’s portrayal of the United States in the post-World War II period in his “American Trilogy”?

In some of his novels, Roth introduces himself as a character. How effective is this device?

Roth has sometimes been criticized as an antifeminist because of his portraits of women. Is the charge justified? If so, how?

Other Literary Forms

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Philip Roth has published a number of novels, many of which were excerpted as self-contained short stories in various magazines. He has written essays of literary criticism and social commentary, dramatic works for stage and screen, and book-length works of autobiography. He also served as general editor of the Penguin series “Writers from the Other Europe” (1975-1989).


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Philip Roth is first and foremost a consummate storyteller. Whether the genre is short fiction, novel, or autobiography, and whether the subject matter is serious, comic, or somewhere in between, Roth’s great narrative power entertains readers. This ability to spellbind his audience stems from Roth’s seemingly effortless command of the English language and his remarkable agility of mind as he maintains a rapid pace of invention, action, and ideas. These talents have been recognized by numerous critics. In addition to his 1959 National Book Award for Goodbye, Columbus and Five Short Stories, Roth has won the Paris Review’s Aga Khan Award (1958) for “Epstein,” a National Institute of Arts and Letters grant (1959), a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship (1959), the Daroff Award, offered by the Jewish Book Council of America (1960; also for Goodbye, Columbus and Five Other Stories), and an O. Henry second-prize award (1960) for “Defender of the Faith.” He was elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1969. Both The Counterlife (1986) and Patrimony: A True Story (1991) won the National Book Critics Circle Award (1987 and 1992, respectively), and in 1991 Roth was awarded the National Arts Club Medal of Honor for Literature. Operation Shylock: A Confession (1993) won the PEN/Faulkner Award, Sabbath’s Theater (1995) won the National Book Award, and American Pastoral (1997) won the Pulitzer Prize in 1998. He has been awarded honorary doctorates by Dartmouth College, Brandeis University, Columbia University, Rutgers University, and other universities.

Roth has also been heavily criticized over the years. Critics accuse him of wasting his talent on a limited, self-absorbed vision of the world, having a sexist attitude toward women, portraying Jews in an unflattering light, and being needlessly pessimistic. While these charges may or may not have validity, no one doubts Roth’s skills as a wordsmith. Moreover, the continuing appeal of Roth’s work indicates that his apparent aimlessness and moral anguish reflect deeply felt trends in contemporary life.

Other literary forms

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Five of Philip Roth’s short stories are collected along with his novella Goodbye, Columbus in a volume bearing that title (1959). A number of his essays, interviews, and autobiographical pieces appear in Reading Myself and Others (1975). Roth’s unproduced screenplay The Great American Pastime was anthologized in 1968, and several of his works, including Goodbye, Columbus, Portnoy’s Complaint, and The Human Stain, have been adapted to film by others. In 1975, Roth began editing a series called Writers from the Other Europe for Penguin Books, to which he contributed several introductions. The Facts: A Novelist’s Autobiography appeared in 1988, and Patrimony: A True Story, a memoir of his father’s life, was published in 1991. In 2001, Roth published Shop Talk: A Writer and His Colleagues and Their Work; seven of the ten chapters in this work are conversations that Roth had with other important authors, such as Primo Levi, Aharon Appelfeld, Milan Kundera, and Mary McCarthy.


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Philip Roth emerged as a leading Jewish American writer when his first published book, Goodbye, Columbus, won the National Book Award in 1960. Many of his subsequent works have involved Jewish characters and specifically Jewish American dilemmas; novels such as Portnoy’s Complaint, The Counterlife, and Operation Shylock, in particular, involve characters struggling to reconcile their desires to be fully American during the age of American triumphalism with their deeply ingrained sense of separateness. More than a touch of local color, Roth’s depictions of Jewish communities form a base from which to spin—and unspin—national and personal narratives. Along with contemporary writers such as John Barth and Norman Rush, Roth has created some of American literature’s most memorable and most self-conscious storytellers: the angst-ridden Alexander Portnoy, the irrepressible Nathan Zuckerman, and the outwardly controlled, inwardly crumbling Swede Levov.

Roth’s special concern in his work is the relationship between writer and subject, which is often closely drawn from his own personal life. His fictional accounts of smothering Jewish mothers, harried Jewish fathers, and illicit love affairs involving Jews in his early work made him notorious among the conservative Jewish establishment during the 1970’s. Subsequent depictions of family relationships bearing a close resemblance to his own drew fire from his ex-wife Claire Bloom, among others. In his later work, Roth has brilliantly presented the fascinating relationship between fiction and autobiography, using fictional surrogates, such as Nathan Zuckerman, to explore what he calls “counterlives,” or the proliferation of possible lives one single person might have lived.

Throughout his fiction, Roth exhibits the abilities of a master comedian. His ear is arguably the best of any contemporary writer, capturing the spoken voice in a wide variety of accents, intonations, and cadences, but his facility with dialogue sometimes leads critics to miss the serious undercurrents of his work. Roth’s fiction covers a variety of satiric modes, from the social (Portnoy’s Complaint) to the political (Our Gang) to the literary and academic (The Professor of Desire). Whatever mode he adopts, he presents the objects of his satire or comedy in vivid and compelling fashion. Once referred to as preeminently a social realist (as in Goodbye, Columbus), he has transcended that mode successfully in such works as The Counterlife and Deception, which show him, as ever, both a consummate craftsman and a tireless experimenter with his medium.

Roth has won numerous prestigious awards for what constitutes one of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries’ most impressive bodies of literary work in the English language. Among other honors, he received the National Book Critics Circle Award for Patrimony, the PEN/Faulkner Award for Operation Shylock, the National Book Award for Sabbath’s Theater, the Pulitzer Prize for American Pastoral, and the Ambassador Book Award of the English-Speaking Union for I Married a Communist. He also received the Koret Jewish Book Award and awards from the New York Times and Chicago Tribune, the National Jewish Book Award, and the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction for The Human Stain. He won the Sidewise Award for Alternate History as well as awards from a number of periodicals for The Plot Against America, and he was honored with another PEN/Faulkner Award for Everyman. In 1998, he was presented the National Medal of Arts in a White House ceremony, and in 2002 he won the Gold Medal in Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the highest award the academy gives. He received the United Kingdom’s W. H. Smith Award, given for making a contribution of significance to literature, for The Human Stain and again for The Plot Against America; he was the first author ever to win that award twice. In 2005, he became the third living author to have his works published in a comprehensive edition by the Library of America.


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Baumgarten, Murray, and Barbara Gottfried. Understanding Philip Roth. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1990. Interpretation and discussion of Roth’s fiction. Includes a bibliography and index.

Bloom, Harold, ed. Philip Roth. New York: Chelsea House, 1986. A good study of Roth’s fiction. Includes a bibliography and index.

Cooper, Alan. Philip Roth and the Jews. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996. A carefully researched examination and consideration of Roth’s work, his biography, and Roth’s political views which are evident in his writing.

Guttmann, Allen. The Jewish Writer in America: Assimilation and the Crisis of Identity. New York: Oxford University Press, 1971. This book provides a broader context for interpreting Roth’s work, one that a number of critics believe to be essential, particularly for some of the early short stories.

Halio, Jay L. Philip Roth Revisited. New York: Twayne, 1992. Discusses the critical response to Roth’s fiction. Includes a bibliography and index.

Jones, Judith Paterson, and Guinevera A. Nance. Philip Roth. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1981. Traces three themes throughout Roth’s work: the “good” Jewish child’s struggle for freedom from parental coercion and guilt, the “conflict between high-minded moral responsibility and sensuous self-assertion,” and the absurdities of contemporary American society, which elicit satirical treatment from the novelist.

Kahn-Paycha, Danièle. Popular Jewish Literature and Its Role in the Making of an Identity. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 2000. A study of Jewish and Anglo-Jewish characters in English and American literature.

Meeter, Glenn. Philip Roth and Bernard Malamud: A Critical Essay. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1968. An interesting comparison of Roth and Malamud, authors with compelling similarities as well as important differences.

Milbauer, Asher Z., and Donald G. Watson, eds. Reading Philip Roth. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988. This collection of essays is consistently insightful, examining Roth as a social critic and an exemplar of Jewish alienation. Also compares him to some prominent American novelists, as well as to Franz Kafka.

Milowitz, Steven. Philip Roth Considered: The Concentrationary Universe of the American Writer. New York: Taylor & Francis, 2000. Explores Roth’s writings on the “concentrationary” world of the “camps” of the Holocaust, how this world keeps revealing itself through memories and other reminders, and how the “shadowy presence” of the Holocaust refuses forgetting.

Omer-Sherman, Ranen. Diaspora and Zionism in Jewish American literature: Lazarus, Syrkin, Reznikoff, and Roth. Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 2002. A discussion of how these writers have addressed the issue of Jewish nationalism and the fate of the Jewish diaspora.

Parrish, Timothy, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Philip Roth. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007. Comprised of eleven original scholarly essays, this volume critiques Roth’s fiction, from his early works to his recent novels, examining the themes of sexuality, cultural identity, and the Holocaust. This book serves is an excellent introduction to Roth’s works and includes a chronology and a section of notes for further reading.

Pinsker, Sanford. The Comedy That “Hoits”: An Essay on the Fiction of Philip Roth. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1975. Pinsker knows Roth inside out. In this relatively early work he does a good job of analyzing the precise relation of Roth’s humor to the more serious issues addressed in his work.

Pinsker, Sanford, ed. Critical Essays on Philip Roth. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1982. Composed of fourteen reviews of various Roth works, including his short story “The Conversion of the Jews” and an equal number of critical essays. Several of the essays deal with Roth’s treatment of the Jewish American experience, and one essay compares Roth to Kafka. Pinsker provides a helpful introduction.

Rand, Naomi R. Silko, Morrison, and Roth: Studies in Survival. New York: Peter Lang, 1999. A study of how Silko, Morrison, and Roth each use a “survival narrative motif” as a way of defining their ethnic stance.

Rodgers, Bernard F., Jr. Philip Roth. Boston: Twayne, 1978. This book examines a variety of Roth’s work, including several of his short stories, arguing that Roth’s experimentation with different literary forms should not disguise his overriding commitment to “realism” as socio-moral therapy.

Roth, Philip. Conversations with Philip Roth. Edited by George J. Searles. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1992. Roth talks about his life and the influences on his fiction. Includes a bibliography and index.

Wade, Stephen. The Imagination in Transit: The Fiction of Philip Roth. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1996. Wade details Roth’s growth as a novelist through a study of his fiction, relates the connection of Roth’s work to American Jewish literary style, and lists influences on Roth’s work.


Critical Essays