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Philip Milton Roth (March 19, 1933 – May 22, 2018) was an American novelist and short-story writer.
Roth's fiction, regularly set in his birthplace of Newark, New Jersey, is known for its intensely autobiographical character, for philosophically and formally blurring the distinction between reality and fiction, for its "sensual, ingenious style" and for its provocative explorations of American identity.
Roth first gained attention with the 1959 novella Goodbye, Columbus, for which he received the U.S. National Book Award for Fiction. He became one of the most awarded American writers of his generation. His books twice received the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle award, and three times the PEN/Faulkner Award. He received a Pulitzer Prize for his 1997 novel American Pastoral, which featured one of his best-known characters, Nathan Zuckerman, a character in many of Roth's novels. The Human Stain (2000), another Zuckerman novel, was awarded the United Kingdom's WH Smith Literary Award for the best book of the year. In 2001, in Prague, Roth received the inaugural Franz Kafka Prize.
Early life and academic pursuits
Philip Roth was born in Newark, New Jersey, on March 19, 1933, and grew up in its Weequahic neighborhood. He was the second child of Bess (née Finkel) and Herman Roth, an insurance broker. Roth's family was Jewish, and his parents were second-generation Americans. Roth's father's parents came from Kozlov near Lviv / Lemberg in Galicia; his mother's ancestors were from the region of Kiev. He graduated from Newark's Weequahic High School in or around 1950. As Arnold H. Lubasch wrote in the New York Times in 1969, "It has provided the focus for the fiction of Philip Roth, the novelist who evokes his era at Weequahic High School in the highly acclaimed Portnoy's Complaint.... Besides identifying Weequahic High School by name, the novel specifies such sites as the Empire Burlesque, the Weequahic Diner, the Newark Museum and Irvington Park, all local landmarks that helped shape the youth of the real Roth and the fictional Portnoy, both graduates of Weequahic class of '50." The Weequahic Yearbook (1950) describes Roth as "A boy of real intelligence, combined with wit and common sense." He was known as a comedian during his time at school. Roth attended Rutgers University in Newark for a year, then transferred to Bucknell University in Pennsylvania, where he earned a B.A., magna cum laude in English and was elected to Phi Beta Kappa. He received a scholarship to attend the University of Chicago, where he earned an M.A. in English literature in 1955 and worked briefly as an instructor in the university's writing program. That same year, rather than wait to be drafted, Roth enlisted in the army, but he suffered a back injury during basic training and was given a medical discharge. He returned to Chicago in 1956 to study for a PhD in Literature but dropped out after one term. Roth taught creative writing at the University of Iowa and Princeton University. He later continued his academic career at the University of Pennsylvania, where he taught comparative literature before retiring from teaching in 1991. Between the end of his studies and the publication of his first book in 1959, Roth served two years in the United States Army and then wrote short fiction and criticism for various magazines, including movie reviews for The New Republic.
Roth's work first appeared in print in the Chicago Review while he was studying, and later teaching, at the University of Chicago. His first book, Goodbye, Columbus, contains the novella Goodbye, Columbus and four short stories. It won the National Book Award in 1960. He published his first full-length novel, Letting Go, in 1962. In 1967 he published When She Was Good, set in the WASP Midwest in the 1940s. It is based in part on the life of Margaret Martinson Williams, whom Roth married in 1959. The publication in 1969 of his fourth and most controversial novel, Portnoy's Complaint, gave Roth widespread commercial and critical success, causing his profile to rise significantly. During the 1970s Roth experimented in various modes, from the political satire Our Gang to the Kafkaesque The Breast. By the end of the decade Roth had created his alter ego Nathan Zuckerman. In a series of highly self-referential novels and novellas that followed between 1979 and 1986, Zuckerman appeared as either the main character or an interlocutor.
Sabbath's Theater (1995) may have Roth's most lecherous protagonist, Mickey Sabbath, a disgraced former puppeteer; it won his second National Book Award. In complete contrast, American Pastoral (1997), the first volume of his so-called second Zuckerman trilogy, focuses on the life of virtuous Newark star athlete Swede Levov, and the tragedy that befalls him when Levov's teenage daughter becomes a domestic terrorist during the late 1960s; it won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. I Married a Communist (1998) focuses on the McCarthy era. The Human Stain examines identity politics in 1990s America. The Dying Animal (2001) is a short novel about eros and death that revisits literary professor David Kepesh, protagonist of two 1970s works, The Breast and The Professor of Desire. In The Plot Against America (2004), Roth imagines an alternative American history in which Charles Lindbergh, aviator hero and isolationist, is elected U.S. president in 1940, and the U.S. negotiates an understanding with Hitler's Nazi Germany and embarks on its own program of anti-Semitism.
Roth's novel Everyman, a meditation on illness, aging, desire, and death, was published in May 2006. For Everyman Roth won his third PEN/Faulkner Award, making him the only person so honored. Exit Ghost, which again features Nathan Zuckerman, was released in October 2007. It was the last Zuckerman novel. Indignation, Roth's 29th book, was published on September 16, 2008. Set in 1951, during the Korean War, it follows Marcus Messner's departure from Newark to Ohio's Winesburg College, where he begins his sophomore year. In 2009, Roth's 30th book, The Humbling, was published. It tells the story of the last performances of Simon Axler, a celebrated stage actor. Roth's 31st book, Nemesis, was published on October 5, 2010. According to the book's notes, Nemesis is the last in a series of four "short novels," after Everyman, Indignation and The Humbling. In October 2009, during an interview with Tina Brown of The Daily Beast to promote The Humbling, Roth considered the future of literature and its place in society, stating his belief that within 25 years the reading of novels will be regarded as a "cultic" activity:
When asked about the prospects for printed versus digital books, Roth was equally downbeat:
This was not the first time Roth had expressed pessimism about the future of the novel and its significance in recent years. Talking to the Observer's Robert McCrum in 2001, he said, "I'm not good at finding 'encouraging' features in American culture. I doubt that aesthetic literacy has much of a future here." In an October 2012 interview with the French magazine Les Inrockuptibles, Roth announced that he would be retiring from writing and confirmed subsequently in Le Monde that he would no longer publish fiction. In May 2014, Roth claimed in an interview with Alan Yentob for the BBC that "this is my last appearance on television, my absolutely last appearance on any stage anywhere."
Influences and themes
Much of Roth's fiction revolves around semi-autobiographical themes, while self-consciously and playfully addressing the perils of establishing connections between Roth and his fictional lives and voices. Examples of this close relationship between the author's life and his characters' include narrators and protagonists such as David Kepesh and Nathan Zuckerman as well as the character "Philip Roth", who appears in The Plot Against America and of whom there are two in Operation Shylock. Critic Jacques Berlinerblau noted in The Chronicle of Higher Education that these fictional voices create a complex and tricky experience for readers, deceiving them into believing they "know" Roth. In Roth's fiction, the question of authorship is intertwined with the theme of the idealistic, secular Jewish son who attempts to distance himself from Jewish customs and traditions, and from what he perceives as the sometimes suffocating influence of parents, rabbis, and other community leaders. Roth's fiction has been described by critics as pervaded by "a kind of alienation that is enlivened and exacerbated by what binds it".
Roth's first work, Goodbye, Columbus, was an irreverently humorous depiction of the life of middle-class Jewish Americans, and met controversy among reviewers, who were highly polarized in their judgments; one criticized it as infused with a sense of self-loathing. In response, Roth, in his 1963 essay "Writing About Jews" (collected in Reading Myself and Others), maintained that he wanted to explore the conflict between the call to Jewish solidarity and his desire to be free to question the values and morals of middle-class Jewish Americans uncertain of their identities in an era of cultural assimilation and upward social mobility:
In Roth's fiction, the exploration of "promiscuous instincts" within the context of Jewish lives, mainly from a male viewpoint, plays an important role. In the words of critic Hermione Lee:
While Roth's fiction has strong autobiographical influences, it also incorporates social commentary and political satire, most obviously in Our Gang and Operation Shylock. From the 1990s on Roth's fiction often combined autobiographical elements with retrospective dramatizations of postwar American life. Roth described American Pastoral and the two following novels as a loosely connected "American trilogy". Each of these novels treats aspects of the postwar era against the backdrop of the nostalgically remembered Jewish-American childhood of Nathan Zuckerman, in which the experience of life on the American home front during the Second World War features prominently.
In much of Roth's fiction, the 1940s, comprising Roth's and Zuckerman's childhood, mark a high point of American idealism and social cohesion. A more satirical treatment of the patriotism and idealism of the war years is evident in Roth's comic novels, such as Portnoy's Complaint and Sabbath's Theater. In The Plot Against America, the alternate history of the war years dramatizes the prevalence of anti-Semitism and racism in America at the time, despite the promotion of increasingly influential anti-racist ideals during the war. In his fiction, Roth portrayed the 1940s, and the New Deal era of the 1930s that preceded it, as a heroic phase in American history. A sense of frustration with social and political developments in the United States since the 1940s is palpable in the American trilogy and Exit Ghost, but had already been present in Roth's earlier works that contained political and social satire, such as Our Gang and The Great American Novel. Writing about the latter, Hermione Lee points to the sense of disillusionment with "the American Dream" in Roth's fiction: "The mythic words on which Roth's generation was brought up—winning, patriotism, gamesmanship—are desanctified; greed, fear, racism, and political ambition are disclosed as the motive forces behind the 'all-American ideals'."
Although Roth's writings often explored the Jewish experience in America, Roth rejected being labeled a Jewish-American writer. “It’s not a question that interests me. I know exactly what it means to be Jewish and it’s really not interesting,” he told the Guardian newspaper in 2005. “I’m an American.”
While at Chicago, Roth met the novelist Saul Bellow, as well as Margaret Martinson in 1956, who became his first wife in 1959. Their separation in 1963, and Martinson's subsequent death in a car crash in 1968, left a lasting mark on Roth's literary output. Martinson was the inspiration for female characters in several of Roth's novels, including Lucy Nelson in When She Was Good and Maureen Tarnopol in My Life as a Man. The pseudo-confessional novel Operation Shylock (1993) and other works draw on a post-operative breakdown and Roth's experience of the temporary side effects of the sedative Halcion (triazolam), prescribed post-operatively in the 1980s.
Roth was an atheist who once said, "When the whole world doesn't believe in God, it'll be a great place." He also said during an interview with The Guardian: "I'm exactly the opposite of religious, I'm anti-religious. I find religious people hideous. I hate the religious lies. It's all a big lie," and "It's not a neurotic thing, but the miserable record of religion—I don't even want to talk about it. It's not interesting to talk about the sheep referred to as believers. When I write, I'm alone. It's filled with fear and loneliness and anxiety—and I never needed religion to save me."
In 1990, Roth married his longtime companion, English actress Claire Bloom, with whom he had been living since 1976. In 1994 they divorced, and in 1996 Bloom published a memoir, Leaving a Doll's House, that depicted Roth as a misogynist and control freak. Some critics have detected parallels between Bloom and the character Eve Frame in Roth's I Married a Communist (1998).
Death, burial, and legacy
Roth died at a Manhattan hospital of congestive heart failure on May 22, 2018, at the age of 85.
Roth was buried at the Bard College Cemetery in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, where in 1999 he taught a class. He had originally planned to be buried next to his parents at the Gomel Chesed Cemetery in Newark, but changed his mind about 15 years before his death, in order to be close to his friend the novelist Norman Manea. Roth expressly banned any religious rituals from his funeral service, though it was noted that only one day after his burial a pebble had been placed on top of his tombstone in accordance with Jewish tradition.
Among the admirers of Roth's work is the singer songwriter, fellow New Jersey native, and acclaimed celebrant of the state's culture, Bruce Springsteen. Roth read the musician's autobiography Born to Run and Springsteen read Roth's American Pastoral, I Married A Communist, and The Human Stain. Springsteen said of Roth's work: "I'll tell you, those three recent books by Philip Roth just knocked me on my ass... To be in his sixties making work that is so strong, so full of revelations about love and emotional pain, that's the way to live your artistic life. Sustain, sustain, sustain."
List of works
Awards and nominations
Two of Roth's works won the National Book Award for Fiction; four others were finalists. Two won National Book Critics Circle awards; again, another five were finalists. He has also won three PEN/Faulkner Awards (Operation Shylock, The Human Stain, and Everyman) and a Pulitzer Prize for his 1997 novel, American Pastoral. In 2001, The Human Stain was awarded the United Kingdom's WH Smith Literary Award for the best book of the year. In 2002, he was awarded the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. Literary critic Harold Bloom has named him as one of the four major American novelists still at work, along with Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, and Cormac McCarthy. His 2004 novel The Plot Against America won the Sidewise Award for Alternate History in 2005 as well as the Society of American Historians’ James Fenimore Cooper Prize. Roth was also awarded the United Kingdom's WH Smith Literary Award for the best book of the year, an award Roth has received twice. He was honored in his hometown in October 2005 when then-mayor Sharpe James presided over the unveiling of a street sign in Roth's name on the corner of Summit and Keer Avenues where Roth lived for much of his childhood, a setting prominent in The Plot Against America. A plaque on the house where the Roths lived was also unveiled. In May 2006, he was given the PEN/Nabokov Award, and in 2007 he was awarded the PEN/Faulkner award for Everyman, making him the award's only three-time winner. In April 2007, he was chosen as the recipient of the first PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction.
The May 21, 2006 issue of The New York Times Book Review announced the results of a letter that was sent to what the publication described as "a couple of hundred prominent writers, critics, editors and other literary sages, asking them to please identify 'the single best work of American fiction published in the last 25 years.'" Six of Roth's novels were among the 22 selected: American Pastoral, The Counterlife, Operation Shylock, Sabbath's Theater, The Human Stain, and The Plot Against America. The accompanying essay, written by critic A.O. Scott, stated, "If we had asked for the single best writer of fiction of the past 25 years, [Roth] would have won." In 2009, he was awarded the Welt-Literaturpreis of the German newspaper Die Welt.
Roth was awarded the 42nd Edward MacDowell Medal by the MacDowell Colony in 2001.
Roth was awarded the 2010 National Humanities Medal by U.S. President Barack Obama in the East Room of the White House on March 2, 2011.
In May 2011, Roth was awarded the Man Booker International Prize for lifetime achievement in fiction on the world stage, the fourth winner of the biennial prize. One of the judges, Carmen Callil, a publisher of the feminist Virago house, withdrew in protest, referring to Roth's work as "Emperor's clothes". She said "he goes on and on and on about the same subject in almost every single book. It's as though he's sitting on your face and you can't breathe ... I don’t rate him as a writer at all ...". Observers quickly noted that Callil had a conflict of interest, having published a book by Claire Bloom (Roth's ex-wife) that criticized Roth and lambasted their marriage. In response, one of the two other Booker judges, Rick Gekoski, remarked:
In 2012 he received the Prince of Asturias Award for literature. On March 19, 2013, Roth's 80th birthday was celebrated in public ceremonies at the Newark Museum.
Eight of Philip Roth's novels and short stories have been adapted as films: Goodbye, Columbus; Portnoy's Complaint; The Human Stain; The Dying Animal, adapted as Elegy; The Humbling; Indignation; and American Pastoral. In addition, The Ghost Writer was adapted for television in 1984. In 2014, filmmaker Alex Ross Perry made Listen Up Philip, which was influenced by Roth's art.
Further reading and literary criticism