Biography of Philip Roth, American Novelist, Short-Story Writer

Philip Milton Roth
American writer Philip Milton Roth, in New York City.

 Orjan F. Ellingvag / Getty Images

Philip Roth (March 19, 1933 – May 22, 2018) was an American writer. A vehement anti-nationalist, his work earnestly portrayed the impact national issues have on individuals. Particularly focused on sexuality and Jewish identity in America, Roth was one of the most lauded authors in the 20th century.

Fast Facts: Philip Roth

  • Full Name: Philip Milton Roth
  • Known For: Author of American Pastoral and several novels about sexuality and American Jewish identity
  • Born: March 19, 1933 in Newark, New Jersey
  • Parents: Bess Finkel and Herman Roth
  • Died: May 22, 2018 in New York City, New York
  • Education: Bucknell University, University of Chicago
  • Selected Works: Portnoy’s Complaint, American Pastoral, I Married a Communist
  • Awards and Honors: National Book Award, Pulitzer Prize, PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, Man Booker International Prize for lifetime achievement, National Medal of Arts
  • Spouses: Margaret Martinson Williams, Claire Bloom 
  • Children: none
  • Notable Quote: “Writing for me was a feat of self-preservation.” 

Early Life and Family

Philip Roth was born on March 19, 1933, the second son of Bess Finkel and Herman Roth. The family, including older brother Sanford, lived a solidly middle-class life in Newark, New Jersey. Herman sold insurance for MetLife and struggled against overt anti-Semitism from his superiors.

Philip also dealt with anti-Semitism and bullying from a young age. Yet in baseball, Roth found solace and a camaraderie that extended across religious lines. He attended the mostly Jewish Weequahic High School, which neighborhood boys would often vandalize. However, Roth was committed to helping the disenfranchised and remained an excellent student.

Author Philip Roth in the Park
Philip Roth, author. Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

Roth graduated from Weequahic in 1950 and commuted to Newark to attend Rutgers to study law, but after a year he transferred to Bucknell University to study English. While at the mostly Christian school, Roth got involved with theater and edited the literary magazine. He graduated in 1954 and went off to the University of Chicago for a master’s degree in English. In 1955, he joined the army to beat the draft, but suffered a back injury and was discharged. Roth then went back to the University of Chicago to teach and study for a Ph.D. in English, but left the program after a semester.

In 1959, he met and married the waitress Margaret Martinson Williams, whom he later claimed tricked him into marriage by pretending to be pregnant. In 1963, Roth and Williams separated and he moved back to the East Coast for good.

Early Work and Portnoy’s Complaint (1959-86)

  • Goodbye, Columbus and Five Short Stories (1959)
  • When She Was Good (1967)
  • Portnoy’s Complaint (1969)
  • The Ghost Writer (1979)
  • Zuckerman Unbound (1981)
  • The Anatomy Lesson (1983)
  • The Counterlife (1986)

In 1958, Roth published his first story in The New Yorker, “The Kind of Person I Am.” The story was controversial for its satirical take on Jewish culture and identity, which many rabbis and readers considered anti-Semitic. Yet for this and other publications, he won the Houghton Mifflin Fellowship in 1959, which awarded him the publication of his first book.

1960 National Book Award Winners
1960 National Book Award Winners: Left to right: for poetry, "Life Studies," Robert Lowell; for biography, "James Joyce," Richard Ellmann; and for short novels, "Goodbye Columbus" Philip Roth. Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

Goodbye, Columbus and Five Short Stories won the National Book Award, raising Roth’s readership and profile, yet his fame did not make the release of his first novel, Portnoy’s Complaint, any easier in 1969. A fictionalized sexual autobiography, Portnoy’s Complaint scandalized readers and rabbis for its descriptions of masturbation and conquests, yet the rule-breaking novel became a bestseller.

In 1967, Roth published When She Was Good, his only work with a female narrator; it is accepted as relatively minor and the Time review called her an “ear-jarring bore.” He taught at the University of Pennsylvania up until Portnoy was published, as he received too much attention for his confessional (and potentially autobiographical) style. He then moved to an artists’ colony in upstate New York. In 1970, amid the critical storm following Portnoy, Roth was elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters. In 1976, Roth began living in London for part of the year with actress Claire Bloom, and turned away from many of his American themes. 

While many of Roth’s narrators resembled him and his life, Roth created a true alter-ego with the character of Nathan Zuckerman, who debuted in The Ghost Writer in 1979. The New Yorker serialized the entire novel over two of their summer 1979 issues. Roth followed it with Zuckerman Unbound in 1981 and The Anatomy Lesson in 1983, both starring Zuckerman. 

In The Counterlife, Zuckerman’s heart fails, but he is resuscitated, which precedes Roth’s own physical ailments. In 1987, he had knee surgery and subsequently became addicted to his pain medication, and in 1989, he required emergency bypass surgery, which led to a bout of depression. In 1990, Roth and Bloom married and lived together for four years before divorcing. Bloom published her tell-all memoir in 1996, which critiqued Roth as a domineering misogynist. Roth returned to America and renewed his focus in Americana.

Later Work and American Pastoral (1987-2008)

  • The Facts: A Novelist’s Autobiography (1988)
  • Deception (1990)
  • Patrimony (1991)
  • Operation Shylock: A Confession (1993)
  • Sabbath’s Theater (1995)
  • American Pastoral (1997)
  • I Married a Communist (1998)
  • The Human Stain (2000)
  • The Dying Animal (2001)
  • The Plot Against America (2004)
  • Everyman (2006)
  • Exit Ghost (2007)
  • Indignation (2008)

As an author, Roth seemed uninterested in masking his reality and viewpoint; he wrote about America, Jewish life, history, and sexuality, regardless of the genre designation. In 1988, he wanted to set the record straight and published his autobiography, The Facts, but he continued to write himself into his work after this supposed conclusion. In 1990, he wrote Deception, a novel featuring Philip, an author who writes about another writer. He published a memoir about his father, Patrimony, in 1991, and continued with autobiographical themes with Operation Shylock in 1993. Operation Shylock featured a protagonist named Philip Roth, whose identity was stolen by another man masquerading as Philip Roth. 

The New Yorker serialized sections of Sabbath’s Theater in 1995, and in 1996 it won Roth his second National Book Award.

American Pastoral, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1998, marked the beginning of Roth’s American trilogy, and was followed by I Married a Communist in 1998 and The Human Stain in 2000, which won the 2001 PEN/Faulkner award. An aging Zuckerman narrated all three of the books, grappling with his sexual inadequacies and mortality. Critics drew parallels between Bloom and her memoir and the wife Eve Frame in I Married a Communist.

The 53rd National Book Awards Ceremony
Philip Roth at the 53rd National Book Awards ceremony. FilmMagic / Getty Images

In 2002, Roth received the Gold Medal in Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He published The Plot Against America in 2004, which featured an alternative anti-Jewish American history and focused again on the characters of the Roth family, markedly similar to Roth’s own real family.

In 2005, he became one of a handful of living writers to have his books stocked in the Library of America. And Roth kept writing. Everyman, an anxious novel fixated on death, won the 2007 PEN/Faulkner award and the PEN/Saul Bellow award. Exit Ghost featured the death of Zuckerman after his relationship with a young writer, mirroring Roth’s own relationship with Lisa Halliday. Indignation followed and returned to a Korean War-era American landscape and many of Roth’s earlier themes. This trilogy did not sell as well as the American Pastoral series did.

Literary Style and Themes

Roth regularly and without guile mined his own life for fodder for his fiction. In addition to his concerns with Americana, Jewish identity, and male sexuality, he also wrote to understand the role and responsibilities of an author. By placing himself or his foils into his fiction, he was able to critique his own myopathies and flaws, while supporting the causes and people he held dear.

 Roth was notably influenced by Herman Melville, Henry James, and Sherwood Anderson.

Death

In 2010, Roth unofficially retired from writing, and in 2011, President Obama presented Roth with the National Humanities Medal. That year he also won the Man Booker International Prize for lifetime achievement in fiction. In 2012, Roth formally announced his retirement, although he continued to publish short essays and correspondences in The New Yorker and other publications. In 2012 and 2013, he won the highest civilian honors of Spain and France, respectively.

Obama Confers Nat'l Medal of Arts And Nat'l Humanities Medal To 20 Honorees
U.S. President Barack Obama presents the 2010 National Humanities Medal to novelist Philip Roth during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House, on March 2, 2011 in Washington, D.C. Mark Wilson / Getty Images

Roth lived in the Upper West Side of Manhattan and in his Connecticut farmhouse, where he’d frequently host guests and parties. Roth and Halliday split amicably and he admired her portrayals of him in fiction as accurate. On May 22, 2018, Roth died of congestive heart failure in Manhattan.

Legacy

Many of Roth’s books have been adapted for film, including The Human Stain in 2003. The New York Times Book Review’s 2006 survey of the most important American books in the previous quarter-century included six of Roth’s works on the 22-book list, giving him three times as many as the nearest second. 

Roth influenced creatives in every genre, including Joyce Carol Oates, Linda Grant, and Xan Brooks. Lisa Halliday’s novel Asymmetry includes a fictionalized account of her relationship with Roth.

While Roth himself felt he deserved the Nobel, he remains one of the most lauded literary figures of the 20th century. His New York Times obituary stated that “Mr. Roth was the last of the great white males: the triumvirate of writers—Saul Bellow and John Updike were the others—who towered over American letters in the second half of the 20th century.”

Sources

  • “Biography.” The Philip Roth Society, www.philiprothsociety.org/biography.
  • Brockes, Emma, et al. “'Savagely Funny and Bitingly Honest' – 14 Writers on Their Favourite Philip Roth Novels.” The Guardian, 23 May 2018, www.theguardian.com/books/2018/may/23/savagely-funny-and-bitingly-honest-10-writers-on-their-favourite-philip-roth-novels.
  • Mcgrath, Charles. “Philip Roth, Towering Novelist Who Explored Lust, Jewish Life and America, Dies at 85.” The New York Times, 23 May 2018, www.nytimes.com/2018/05/22/obituaries/philip-roth-dead.html.
  • “Philip Roth.” HMH Books, www.hmhbooks.com/author/Philip-Roth/2241363.
  • “Philip Roth, the Incomparable American Novelist, Has Died at Eighty-Five.” The New Yorker, 23 May 2018, www.newyorker.com/books/double-take/philip-roth-in-the-new-yorker.
  • Pierpont, Claudia Roth. Roth Unbound. Vintage, 2015.
  • Read, Bridget. “Philip Roth, Giant of the American Novel, Is Dead at 85.” Vogue, Vogue, 23 May 2018, www.vogue.com/article/philip-roth-obituary.
  • Remnick, David. “Philip Roth Says Enough.” The New Yorker, 18 June 2017, www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/philip-roth-says-enough.