Philip Roth

The American author Philip Roth (born 1933) used his Jewish upbringing and his college days for the basis of many of his novels and other works.

Roth used his experiences in growing up in the Weequahic section of Newark, New Jersey, and his days as a college student in Rutgers and Bucknell as material for many of his works. He also employed his own writings and the public, and critical reaction to them, as the focus of much of his later material. For example, in two of his novels, Zuckerman Unbound (1981) and The Anatomy Lesson (1983), Roth expended thousands of words on the question of whether the novel he may be best known for, Portnoy's Complaint (1969), could be considered anti-Semitic.

Roth's critics found elements in his writing that reminded them of Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer, J.D. Salinger, and Bernard Malamud. He introduced Franz Kafka as a character in his essay-story "Looking at Kafka," in which he had the Czech writer coming to Newark to be his Hebrew teacher at the age of nine. In Professor of Desire (1977) Roth's character David Kepesh journeys to Prague to visit Kafka's home and discuss him with a Czech professor who is devoted to Melville. Henry James' Portrait of a Lady becomes a point at issue with the hero of Letting Go (1962) and the woman he is involved with, and The Breast (1972) concerns the overnight change of a professor of literature into a six-foot mammary gland, recalling Gogol's The Nose and Kafka's The Metamorphosis.

Born in 1933 to Herman Roth, an insurance salesman, and the former Bess Finkel, the writer grew up in a Jewish neighborhood in Newark, the city that was to serve as the home of the protagonist of his highly successful Goodbye, Columbus (1959), for which he won the National Book Award when he was only 26 and which was later made into a film. It is the story of a poor young Jewish man from Newark, Rutgers, who has an affair with a wealthy young Jewish woman from the nearby New Jersey suburbs. The romance ends because of their differences in values. Alfred Kazin compared Roth's observations of the ways of the rich in this novella to F. Scott Fitzgerald's. Saul Bellow called him a virtuoso, and Irving Howe wrote that he had achieved the kind of a voice writers strive a lifetime to find. However, in "Philip Roth Revisited" (Commentary, 1972), Howe wrote a stinging assessment of the writer's works up to that point, declaring that he thought well of only one of his stories, "Defender of the Faith," which appeared with four other short stories in the Goodbye, Columbus collection. Later, in The Anatomy Lesson, Roth, through his alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman, describes an attack on his work by a Jewish intellectual whom critic Joseph Epstein names as Howe.

It was when he wrote of the suffocating restrictions of his Jewish youth in Newark in his best-selling Portnoy's Complaint that Roth leaped into public and critical scrutiny. He was praised for having written an amusing sex novel in the fashion of Henry Miller. It was described as hilariously lewd, capable of making the reader laugh out loud, although not without its touching moments. But, it had its detractors as well. Some found it obscene and revolting, declaring it pictured Jewish life in a degrading manner. Others thought it was a novel that led nowhere. Irving Howe, one of the major challengers to the value of Roth's work, said that "the cruelest thing anyone can do with Portnoy's Complaint is to read it twice." Later critics said that both of Roth's popular works, Goodbye, Columbus and Portnoy's Complaint, seemed somewhat dated by the end of the 1980s.

Many of the characters in his novels suggest Roth himself. In My Life as a Man (1970), which some critics hold as one of his best works, he depicts a novelist, Peter Tarnopol, recounting the sexual adventures of his fictional alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman, who will return as the author of Carnovsky, a sensational best-seller about sexual liberation that seems like Portnoy's Complaint. The Roth Tarnopol-Zuckerman character reappears in the Zuckerman trilogy— The Ghost Writer (1978), Zuckerman Unbound, and The Anatomy Lesson—as the hero confronts the relationship between life and literature and experiences the joys and sorrows of fame.

Not all of Roth's novels follow the theme of the male Jewish writer at work. In When She Was Good (1967) his main character is a Protestant female, and the novel is set in the Midwest. Our Gang (1971) is a political satire of the early 1970s opening with a quote from then President Richard Nixon that "the unborn have rights" that are "recognized in law, recognized even in principles expounded by the United Nations." Roth goes on to have his main character, whom he calls Tricky, argue that he "could have done the popular thing and come out against the sanctity of human life," but he decided to risk losing a second term by defending the rights of the unborn.

When Roth published The Facts: A Novelist's Autobiography in 1988, some of his readers though that the facts of his life might be here separated from the fiction he had been creating. But the form of the work helps to leave the issue in doubt. Roth begins by writing a letter to Nathan Zuckerman, hero of The Counterlife (1986) and so many of his previous novels, asking him for his candid opinion of the book. Then, 160 pages later, Zuckerman responds. He tells him not to publish it and, instead of trying to "accurately" report on the life of Philip Roth, to continue writing about Zuckerman. In Deception (1990) he challenged both reader and critic to decide what was fiction and what was autobiographical, when the male character (Philip) complains to the woman in the novel, "I write fiction and I'm told it's autobiography. I write autobiography and I'm told it's fiction, so since I'm so dim and they're so smart, let them decide."

Other major works published during the 1990's included: Patrimony (1991), a story about his 86-year-old father's struggle with an incurable brain tumor, received the National Book Critics Circle Award; Operation Shylock: A Confession (1993), winner of the 1994 Pen/Faulkner Award for Fiction and Time magazine's Best American Novel award; Sabbath's Theater (1995), National Book Award for Fiction; and American Pastoral (1997) an account of the effect that the Vietnam War had on the family of Seymour (Swede) Levov, a high school hero the fictional Zuckerman.


Further Reading on Philip Roth

For additional information on Philip Roth from critics, including Roth himself, see Philip Roth, Reading Myself and Others (1975); Martin Green, "Introduction" in A Philip Roth Reader (1980); Sanford Pinsker, "Zuckerman's Success," Mainstream (December 1981); Julian Webb, "Nathan Agonistes," The Spectator (March 3, 1984); Joseph Epstein, "What Does Philip Roth Want?" in Plausible Prejudices: Essays on American Writing (1985); Jonathan Brent, "What Facts? A Talk With Philip Roth," and Justin Kaplan, "Play It Again, Nathan," both The New York Times (September 25, 1988); and Fay Weldon, "Talk Before Sex and Talk After Sex," the New York Times (March 11, 1990). Murray Baumgarten and Barbara Gottfried provided a critical review of major works in Understanding Philip Roth (1990, Columbia Univ Press).