Roth, Philip Milton
ROTH, PHILIP MILTON
ROTH, PHILIP MILTON (1933– ), U.S. novelist. Born in Newark, New Jersey, Roth was educated at Rutgers, Bucknell, and Chicago universities, and taught English at the last from 1955 to 1958. He later took a teaching post in Iowa and was writer-in-residence at Princeton where he specialized in creative writing. He developed his own literary career, publishing stories in various magazines including The New Yorker, Esquire and Commentary. In the latter he published an essay "Writing about Jews" (36 (1963), 446–52). Goodbye, Columbus (1959), a collection of short stories, revealed the stylistic influence of F. Scott Fitzgerald and illustrated Roth's bent for a satirical and incisive portrayal of middle-class American Jews. In his first novel, Letting Go (1962), he transferred his attention to Jewish intellectual circles in U.S. universities. Roth's second novel, When She Was Good (1967), was not favorably received. It was followed by Portnoy's Complaint (1969), a bestseller written in the fashionable vein of "black humor." Here the novelist was brutally satirical in his dissection of the all-devouring Jewish mother. In telling the story of his sexual and other frustrations to his psychoanalyst, the 33-year-old Alexander Portnoy explodes in a cruel, obscene and comic fantasy. As Roth himself predicted, his book aroused a storm of protest in the U.S. but increased his reputation, both at home and abroad.
Roth's fiction also began to develop the character of the novelist Nathan Zuckerman, beginning with The Ghost Writer (1979) and continuing with Zuckerman Unbound (1981), Anatomy Lesson (1983), Zuckerman Bound (1985), The Counterlife (1987), American Pastoral (1997), I Married A Communist (1998), and The Human Stain (2000).
In the early Zuckerman novels, Nathan is a man of hyperbolic contradictions. He longs for success – but he does not wish to be recognized and hounded by fans once his novels are successful. He behaves as an archetypical good boy to his family, then disobeys his father's orders and publishes fiction which puts his family in a bad light. He craves excitement and he craves quietude; he marries intellectual, stable women and then rejects them because they are intellectual and stable. He pursues sexual adventure, but he bitterly resents critical response to his adventures. He writes ribald novels almost exclusively about Jews and cannot understand why the Jewish establishment reacts to him with vocal outrage.
In The Counterlife, Roth finally pulls his protagonist out of "the oepidal swamp" of preoccupation with sex and writing. Within the four parts of the novel, Roth plays with the alternative routes which life-and-art can follow. Areas which Roth has left fallow since the stories in Goodbye Columbus are picked up in The Counterlife, as Roth explores the meaning of contemporary Jewish experience. He articulates an updated argument between various forms of Diaspora and Israeli Judaism, makes them live and breathe and seem like counter-lives indeed.
In the later novels, Zuckerman attains the repose that only pathos brings. He has witnessed the destruction of those he admires. He has been helpless to prevent the catastrophes that engulf them.
Roth's later writing, specifically An American Pastoral, I Married a Communist, and The Human Stain developed a narrative of Jewish acculturation to and recoil from American ideologies that either offered rationales to or promoted the violent self. Intriguingly, this trilogy is reminiscent of the achievement of 19th-century Russian realism, with its focus on the family endowing an individual with political choice and civic culture. In his extraordinary study of modern American life, Roth examined those who were caught up in, or witnesses to, the collision of American myths and a seeming autonomy. The novels move from anti-communist witch hunts to the deadly and childish violence of the 1960s to the rhetoric and power of destructive self-righteousness. Roth's trilogy allows the representatives of such movements to have their voice and, tragically, often to have their way. These works present protagonists whose uneasy lives suggest the compromises they have made – and shall have to make – with contemporary notions of justice, politics, and politically correct rhetoric.
These novels also offer a modern reading of American political tragedy. Roth's protagonists choose what they believe to be a life in the American grain – whether through communism, or through the means of a responsible life, or through adopting an identity that offers security. Nonetheless, their confidence in the achieved present is undermined, if not destroyed, by the consequences of the past. Within these novels, characters discover how Jewishness, the lived social inheritance of Judaism, comports with the American present. With his last novel in this series, The Human Stain, a meditation upon chosen identities that are central to America's understanding of itself (witness The Great Gatsby), Roth suggests that the Jewish intellectual has become a "type," a configuration of personality traits that can be imitated and lived within. Nonetheless, the comic pathos of Jewish neuroses, found for instance in Portnoy's Complaint, is transformed into the tragic destiny of yet another "type": the Jew who cannot elude a chosen self.
A study of contemporary America's affirmation of rightwing ideology retrojected into the past, The Plot Against America (2004) presents a study in alternative history. Roth painfully describes an America with Charles Lindbergh as president, and antisemitism as an official matter of state. The novel has its immediate ancestry in Sinclair Lewis' It Can't Happen Here. Although The Plot Against America ends with relief, Roth's warnings of an American fascism in the making add a dark note to American-Jewish existence.
Clearly, Roth is defining himself as a novelist concerned with the notion of a social good and the good itself. His works swell with implications about the chances for dignity, for compassion, and for justice in contemporary America. The early satire, for example, of Our Gang, is now replaced by novels that set the terms for an understanding of American political literature.
Roth's reflections on his own life can be found in The Facts: A Novelist's Autobiography (1988) and in his study of his father in Patrimony: A True Story (1991).
[Milton Henry Hindus and
Sylvia Barack Fishman /
Lewis Fried (2nd ed.)]
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