Roth, Philip Milton

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ROTH, Philip Milton

(b. 19 March 1933 in Newark, New Jersey), award-winning author of Goodbye, Columbus, Portnoy's Complaint, a series of novels about the fictional character Nathan Zuckerman, and other controversial works of literature that are vehicles for his trademark satire and comic genius.

The son of Herman Roth, an insurance salesman, and Bess (Finkel) Roth, a homemaker, Roth and his older brother grew up in a working-class, first-generation Jewish neighborhood in Newark. An intelligent, observant boy, Roth realized early in his life that his father carried a special burden as an employee of Metropolitan Life: as a Jew, he would never be allowed to rise as high as middle management in the company hierarchy. This notion that American Jews could be set apart and discriminated against resulted in a lifetime of novels, short stories, and essays that touch on what sets American Jews apart from other citizens and how the American dream promised by the dominant culture has affected American Jews.

Roth attended Weequahic High School, which had a predominantly Jewish student body. By the time he graduated in 1950, he was already wondering what he, coming from a comfortable but insular Jewish neighborhood, would be able to do in a society that seemed determined to limit the possibilities for Jews to experience success. Also by then, he had become a "secular Jew," meaning that he was culturally Jewish but not a believer in the Jewish faith.

Roth attended Rutgers University, Newark Campus from 1950 to 1951. He transferred to Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, in 1951. There he edited a literary magazine and began writing satires. In 1954 he graduated magna cum laude, receiving a B.A. in English. He then went to the University of Chicago, where he earned an M.A. in 1955. Although he liked Chicago, he enlisted in the U.S. Army and was assigned to Washington, D.C.; he served only one year instead of the usual two for enlistees because he hurt his back while on duty and was unable to perform physical tasks.

In 1956 Roth returned to the University of Chicago to teach freshman composition courses and to work toward earning a Ph.D. in English. After taking a few courses toward the degree, he lost interest and decided to focus on his writing. His first professional publication was the short story "The Day It Snowed," which appeared in the Chicago Review in 1956.

Roth left Chicago in 1958 to travel in Europe. During that year Houghton Mifflin gave him a fellowship of $8,000 for the manuscript of Goodbye, Columbus, and Five Short Stories (1959). The novella Goodbye, Columbus is a satirical account of the relationship between Brenda Patimkin, a spoiled, rich girl, and Neil Klugman, a working-class man from Newark. The novella comically portrays Brenda as a crass, selfish materialist, and her family, as uncultured fools. Reviewers in general admired Roth's style and narrative pacing, although some objected to his not portraying the Patimkins in an establishment-approved manner. Perhaps, as Roth speculated, the novel, made up of what he considered to be apprentice stories, would have passed from view after only brief controversy had it not received the 1960 National Book Award for literature and a very disputed 1960 Daroff Award from the Jewish Book Council of America. In 1960 Roth went to Rome on a Guggenheim fellowship, so he was out of the United States when the storm of controversy over Goodbye, Columbus began to reach its frantic heights. Roth was stunned by the storm of protest that followed; there were many people, he discovered, who fervently hated him because of the book, and he was labeled an anti-Semite. As far as he was concerned, he had done little more than write about what he knew.

In 1959 Roth married Margaret Martinson Williams, called "Josie," a divorcee with two absent children who was four years older than he. Roth maintained that she was a madwoman who was constantly on the verge of suicide or murder, and he began hiding the kitchen knives in the garage. His life during the 1960s was largely preoccupied with coping with the continuing accusations of anti-Semitism and his bizarre relationship with his wife.

Returning from Rome, Roth taught writing at the University of Iowa from 1960 to 1962. By the end of his teaching stint in Iowa, Roth's marriage had become intolerable, with anger on both sides, and in 1963 he and his wife separated. He wanted a divorce, but the law was such that he could only receive a legal separation, and he had to pay half his income to his wife. He later called this "court-ordered robbery." During this period Roth formed a close relationship with May Aldridge, and they were almost inseparable for five years. She came from a well-to-do background with tastes suited to the upper class, but she and Roth shared political views about the Vietnam War and President Lyndon B. Johnson. Moreover, she possessed a healing warmth that Roth welcomed.

In 1962 his first full-length novel, Letting Go, was published. It drew on his experiences at the University of Chicago, presenting a Jewish professor dealing with moral quandaries. Critics greeted it with modest reviews; they admired Roth's ability to convey meaningful details of modern life. Even so, some reviewers criticized it as another example of anti-Semitism because of Roth's portrayal of the professor as a weak character. In 1962 Roth, along with Pietro di Donato and Ralph Ellison, was invited to Yeshiva University in New York to participate in a symposium. From the beginning of the event, Roth was the focus of attention, first fielding loaded questions from the moderator and then hostile polemics from members of the audience who indicated that they despised him. Roth handled himself adequately but was breaking down when Ellison interrupted and defended Roth's work as a universal expression of ethnic minorities coping with a sometimes inhospitable national culture. Roth left the gathering vowing never to write about Jews again. It was a turning point in his career.

Roth later recalled that from that point forward he decided to defy those who hated him and write deliberately controversial books that included characters who were Jews. In the meantime, his anger over his estranged wife's legal hold over him was blighting his life. In an effort to distance himself emotionally from the anguish he was suffering, he wrote a book about his first wife, When She Was Good. The protagonist Lucy Nelson lives in a small town. Her angry, manipulative behavior estranges her from her neighbors, and eventually, she freezes to death during one of her senseless moments of rage. The novel can be read as Roth's revenge fantasy, but the motivation for Nelson's death emerges naturally from the narrative. The book was published in 1967.

In May 1968 Josie Roth was killed in an automobile accident in New York's Central Park. The news was liberating for Roth, and he relished feeling free. Strangely, he ended his happy relationship with Aldridge; he later wrote that he just wanted to be free of personal entanglements. By 1976 Roth had once again become involved with a woman, the British actress Claire Bloom, whom he married in 1990. They divorced in 1994.

Random House gave Roth a $250,000 advance for Portnoy's Complaint in 1968. In 1969 the motion picture Goodbye, Columbus, starring Ali McGraw and Richard Benjamin, was released to both critical and popular acclaim. That same year, Portnoy's Complaint appeared. It was deliberately controversial, and in it Roth found the sardonic, authorial voice that is typical of his writings. Roth himself regarded Portnoy's Complaint as his first mature novel.

In Portnoy's Complaint, Roth experimented with narrative structure and sexual themes. A young man, Alexander Portnoy, gives a confessional to a psychiatrist. The long, sometimes rambling narrative tells of Alexander's oppressive relationship with his mother, his desire for sexual promiscuity, and detailed accounts of his masturbating, both as an act of defiance against social convention and as a release from the pressures of family and society. The masturbation scenes shocked some readers, who considered the novel pornographic, but that was exactly the effect Roth wanted. The portrait of a sexually oppressed young Jew with a symbolically castrating mother was condemned as anti-Semitic. Yet the novel is funny, and its language sparkles. As decades passed, the novel became historically important as an example of the changing literary landscape in the United States in the 1960s and 1970s, a fine character study, and an investigation of sexual repression. The novel sold almost 400,000 hardbound copies, with the royalties providing Roth with the freedom he needed to focus on his writing.

In the postmodern novel The Breast (1972), Roth further developed his ideas about sexual identity. As he grew older, his writing became ever more focused on the psychology of his characters. In 1995 Roth received the National Book Award for fiction for Sabbath's Theater; in 1998 he received the Pulitzer Prize for fiction for American Pastoral.

Roth is among the most popular writers who started their careers in the 1950s, and he has been remarkably consistent in writing great works that command respect for their brilliant characterization and their insights into the human condition. Although he never fully escaped the accusation of being anti-Semitic, his candid portrayal of the experience of being Jewish in America eventually garnered respect rather than notoriety. By the 1990s Roth had earned a place in the pantheon of great American authors.

Roth's The Facts: A Novelist's Autobiography (1988) covers his life up to 1970. Roth's Patrimony: A True Story (1991) is a splendid account of the life of Roth's father. Claire Bloom's autobiographical Leaving a Doll's House (1996) includes an account of her relationship with Roth. Paul Gray's "Philip Roth: He Has Delighted and Infuriated Readers for Four Decades," Time (9 July 2001), assesses Roth's literary stature at the turn of the twentieth century.

Kirk H. Beetz