Philip Milton Roth was born in Newark, New Jersey, in 1933, the son of American-born parents and the grandson of European Jews who were part of the nineteenth-century wave of immigration to the United States. He grew up in the city’s lower-middle-class section of Weequahic and was educated in Newark public schools. He later attended Bucknell University, where he received his B.A., and the University of Chicago, where he completed his M. A. and taught English. Afterwards, at both Iowa and Princeton, he taught creative writing, and for many years he taught comparative literature at the University of Pennsylvania. He retired from teaching in 1992.
His first book was Goodbye, Columbus and Five Short Stories (1959), a novella and five stories that use wit, irony, and humor to depict Jewish life in post-war America. The book won him critical recognition, including the National Book Award for fiction, and along with that, condemnation from some within the Jewish community for depicting what they saw as the unflattering side of cotemporary Jewish American experience. His first full-length novel was Letting Go (1962), a Jamesian realistic work that explores many of the societal and ethical issues of the 1950s. This was followed in 1967 by When She Was Good, another novel in the realistic mode that takes as its focus a rare narrative voice in Roth’s fiction: a young Midwestern female.
Photo, by Naomi Savage, on back jacket of When She Was Good (1967)
He is perhaps best known–notoriously so, to many–for his third novel, Portnoy’s Complaint (1969), a wildly comic representation of his middle-class New York Jewish world in the portrait of Alexander Portnoy, whose possessive mother makes him so guilty and insecure that he can seek relief only in elaborate masturbation and sex with forbidden shiksas. For readers of that hilarious novel, eating liver would never be the same (read the book and you’ll understand). Portnoy’s Complaint was not only the New York Time‘s best seller for the year 1969, it also made a celebrity out of Roth. . . an uncomfortable position that he would later fictionalize in such novels as Zuckerman Unbound (1981) and Operation Shylock (1993).
Photo, by Ann Mudge, on inside jacket of Portnoy’s Complaint (1969)
Following the publication of Portnoy’s Complaint, Roth experimented with different comic modes, at times outrageous, as illustrated in the works Our Gang (1971), a parodic attack on Richard Nixon; The Breast (1972), a Kafkaesque rendering of sexual desire; The Great American Novel (1973), a wild satire of both Frank Norris’s novelistic quest and the great American pastime, baseball; and the short story “On the Air.”
In My Life As a Man (1974), Roth not only introduces his most developed protagonist, Nathan Zuckerman, but for the first time his fiction becomes highly self-reflexive and postmodern. One of his most significant literary efforts is the Zuckerman trilogy: The Ghost Writer (1979), Zuckerman Unbound, and The Anatomy Lesson (1983) and wrapped up with a novella epilogue, The Prague Orgy (1985). These novels trace the development of Roth’s alter ego–or alter brain, as Roth has called him–Nathan Zuckerman, from an aspiring young writer to a socially compromised, and psychologically besieged, literary celebrity. In The Counterlife (1986), perhaps his most ambitious and meticulously structured novel, Roth brings a temporarily end to his Zuckerman writings. It is also the first time that the author engages in a sustained examination of the relationship between American and Israeli Jews.
Philip Roth with Milan Kundera, 1980
His next four books–The Facts (1988), Deception (1990), Patrimony (1991), and Operation Shylock–explore the relationship between the lived world and the written world, between “fact” and “fiction.” Through his protagonist in these works, also named Philip Roth, the author questions the genres of autobiography and fiction, and he mischievously encourages the reader to become caught up in this literary game. Of these four books, only one, Deception, is billed as a novel. The other three are subtitled as either an autobiography (The Facts), a memoir or “true story” (Patrimony), or a confession (Operation Shylock). The most elaborate of these, Operation Shylock, is one of Roth’s most ambitious works, leading fellow writer Cynthia Ozick to call it in one of her interviews, “the Great American Jewish Novel” and Roth “the boldest American writer alive.”
Back jacket of Deception (1990). Photograph © Nancy Crampton. All rights reserved.
Roth’s next novel, Sabbath’s Theater (1995), is a return to the outrageous psycho-sexual (and tragicomic) form that entertained and outraged so many in Portnoy’s Complaint. The novel is considered by many to be Roth’s masterpiece. Its “hero,” the over-the-hill puppeteer Mickey Sabbath, is nothing if not a character portrait of transgressive behavior. However in his next three novels, what is called his American Trilogy, Roth relies once again on Nathan Zuckerman as his agent of focus. American Pastoral (1997), I Married a Communist (1998), and The Human Stain (2000) can be read as novels that reflect key moments in late twentieth-century American experience–in the 1960s, 1950s, and 1990s, respectively–and each is chronicled by an older Zuckerman, no longer the mischievous and sexually-adventurous young writer he once was. In this later trilogy, the aged writer has become somewhat of a recluse who devotes himself exclusively to his writing, and through this writing reveals the stories of memorable individuals who, in many ways, represent the social, political, and psychological conflicts that define post-war America.
Receiving honorary doctorate from Harvard University, June 2003
In The Dying Animal (2001), Roth revisits the life of David Kepesh, the protagonist of The Breast and The Professor of Desire (1977). As in the earlier novels, Kepesh is concerned with the erotic side of existence and, as he puts it, “emancipated manhood.” Yet even though its focus in explicitly sexual, this novel, like almost all of Roth’s other works, has as its theme the ways in which individuals–specifically men–live with desire in the larger sense of the word. One of the hallmarks of Roth’s fiction is the ways in which sexual, communal, familial, ethnic, artistic, and political freedoms play themselves out on the field of contemporary existence.
The Plot Against America (2004) takes Roth into fresh literary territory. It is an alternative history whose premise is the 1940 election of Charles A. Lindbergh to the White House. What, Roth asks, would America have been like had the isolationist and anti-Semitic Lindbergh defeated F.D.R., reached a cordial “understanding” with Adolph Hitler, and kept the United States out of the Second World War? Reminiscent of the four works preceding it, the new novel appears to continue the author’s exploration of American identities, national as well as individual, within the contexts of its history. Also, much like the American trilogy preceding it, The Plot Against America focuses on the ways in which history is constructed, showing it to be in many ways a “fiction” much like that we see revealed in the pages of a novel.
Publicity photo for The Plot Against America (2004). Photograph © Nancy Crampton. All rights reserved.
In Everyman (2006), Roth revisits the short novel, or novella, form that he has been exploring in such works as The Breast, Deception, and The Dying Animal. The thematic focus in this novel isn’t so much on death as it is on illness and the role that it plays in our lives. The protagonist is an anonymous “everyman” figure (reminiscent of the medieval drama) who, from his youngest days, feels the effects of the decaying body and where it ultimately leads.
Roth’s Exit Ghost (2007) is supposed to be the last work in which the perennial Nathan Zuckmerman will appear. Unlike his last appearances in the American Trilogy, Nathan is not so much a narrating conduit in Exit Ghost as he is the central participant in its various events. This is reminiscent of the earlier Zuckerman novels, such as The Ghost Writer and The Anatomy Lesson, where Nathan was the point of narrative focus. Roth also revisits many of various characters and themes from the earlier Zuckerman works and once again paints a vivid–and at times, frantic–portrait of the artist as an (old) man.
In his most recent work, Roth continues to work in the novella form. Indignation (2008) once again concerns the topic of death, but this time from the perspective of young college student during the early days of the Korean War. Like much of Roth’s later narratives, Indignation is an exploration of how individuals are held hostage by history and how even the most mundane actions can lead to tragic consequences. The Humbling (2009) is the story of Simon Axler, aging actor who, according to the book’s first sentence, has “lost his magic” and undergoes a professional (as well as a sexual) crisis. His most recent work, Nemesis (2010), is the story of Bucky Cantor who, in 1944, must suffer the polio epidemic’s effects on his Newark community. It wraps up a tetralogy of novellas that is now categorized as “Nemeses: Short Fiction.”
Publicity photo, 2006. Photograph © Nancy Crampton. All rights reserved.
In addition to his novels and short stories, Roth has also proven to be an accomplished essayist. In collections such as Reading Myself and Others (1975) and the more recent Shop Talk (2001), his focus is on the act of writing, both his own and that of other authors. The lengthy interviews that make up Shop Talk first appeared in such publications as the New York Times Book Review, the New York Review of Books, the New Yorker, and the London Review of Books. The pieces themselves are a testament to Roth’s unwavering and ongoing admiration of some of the most significant writers in the last half of the twentieth century. Until 1989 he was the General Editor of the Penguin book series “Writers from the Other Europe,” which he inaugurated in 1974. The series helped to introduce American audiences to, among others, Milan Kundera, Primo Levi, Aharon Appelfeld, and Ivan Klima.
Unlike many prolific novelists, whose productive qualities may tend to wane over time, Roth has demonstrated a unique ability not only to sustain his literary output, but even surpass the scope and talent inherent in his previous writings. The fiction of the past twenty years is arguable his best work, as demonstrated by the succession of awards he received in the 1990s. He has lived in Rome, London, Chicago, and New York. He currently lives in Connecticut.