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An agent provocateur of literary fiction, Philip Roth captivated and scandalized America with his salacious novel Portnoy's Complaint in 1969 and went on to enjoy a prolific career mercilessly deconstructing both the tradeoffs of achieving the American Dream and its dissolution. The New Jersey-born Roth published his first stories while at the University of Chicago and garnered national attention in 1959 with the novella Goodbye, Columbus. But it would be his fourth outing a decade later, Portnoy's Complaint, that would set tongues wagging with its frank, funny portrayal of a young Jewish man rebelling against the conditioned guilt of his culture via rampant autoeroticism and sexual adventures with goyim. In the 1970s, Roth introduced a fictive doppelganger, Zuckerman, who would wearily bear Roth's own struggles with fame, meaning and mortality in a series of novels that extended through his career. He returned often to his Newark roots, both with unorthodox memoirs The Facts and Patrimony and novels interweaving himself (and alternatively Zuckerman) with a rotation of fictional versions of real people, as in his Pulitzer-winning 1997 novel American Pastoral and his ominous 2004 imagining of a...
An agent provocateur of literary fiction, Philip Roth captivated and scandalized America with his salacious novel Portnoy's Complaint in 1969 and went on to enjoy a prolific career mercilessly deconstructing both the tradeoffs of achieving the American Dream and its dissolution. The New Jersey-born Roth published his first stories while at the University of Chicago and garnered national attention in 1959 with the novella Goodbye, Columbus. But it would be his fourth outing a decade later, Portnoy's Complaint, that would set tongues wagging with its frank, funny portrayal of a young Jewish man rebelling against the conditioned guilt of his culture via rampant autoeroticism and sexual adventures with goyim. In the 1970s, Roth introduced a fictive doppelganger, Zuckerman, who would wearily bear Roth's own struggles with fame, meaning and mortality in a series of novels that extended through his career. He returned often to his Newark roots, both with unorthodox memoirs The Facts and Patrimony and novels interweaving himself (and alternatively Zuckerman) with a rotation of fictional versions of real people, as in his Pulitzer-winning 1997 novel American Pastoral and his ominous 2004 imagining of a Nazified U.S., The Plot Against America. He retired Zuckerman in 2007 with the novel Exit Ghost. A winner of nearly every literary accolade available, Roth not only brought the internecine debates of Jewish identity into the mainstream, he made himself a veritable novelist laureate of the U.S. and along the way pushed the very boundaries of his medium.
He was born Philip Milton Roth on March 19, 1933, in Newark, NJ, the second son of first-generation Jewish Americans Bess and Herman Roth, the latter an insurance salesman. He grew up in Newark's Weequahic neighborhood and, though largely insulated from such bigotry by his multiethnic surroundings, Philip became attuned to anti-Semitism by listening with his father to the incendiary broadcasts of right-wing radio preacher Father Charles Coughlin. After graduating Weequahic High School, Roth matriculated at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, PA, where he majored in English. He went on to do a year of post-grad studies at the University of Chicago, where he earned a master's in English. He began writing short stories and saw his first, "The Day it Snowed," published in 1954 in the Chicago Review. Also during his Chicago days, he met and began a long-term relationship with Margaret Martinson. After securing his MA in 1955, he was conscripted into the U.S. Army. It proved a short hitch after Roth sustained a severe back injury. Discharged, he returned to UC, where he taught undergrad classes, worked on a PhD and continued to submit stories.
After selling Esquire a story for a princely $800, he abandoned the PhD and moved to New York, vowing to take a shot at writing professionally and live on $100 a month. Ensuing years saw his stories printed in Harper's and The Paris Review, and, in 1959, he landed his first story in the pages of the prestigious New Yorker, accompanied by his first bout of controversy. "Defender of the Faith" revolved around Jewish G.I.s and how they maintained ethnic identity in the U.S. Army, but it included one character who leveraged his Hebraic bona fides toward selfish ends and cushier duties. The characterization drew fusillades of anger from Jewish institutions and rabbis seeing it as advancing their most dreaded stereotype, the "scheming Jew." The episode set the stage for another challenge to conventions: the publication of his first book, Goodbye, Columbus and Five Short Stories, mere months later. It reprinted "Defender," while its titular novella followed a working-class-bred college grad's summer romance with the daughter of a well-heeled Jewish family and growing discomfiture with the hollow trappings of her family's assimilation into bourgeois America. In addition to literary plaudits, Columbus earned him the National Book Award for fiction but drew more accusations of peddling Jewish stereotypes and a cavalier iconoclasm towards aspects of Jewish-American culture.
Also in 1959, Roth and Martinson married, which Roth later inferred Martinson tricked him into doing by buying urine from a pregnant woman to submit for her own pregnancy test. The tempestuous union ended in 1963, and Roth based the protagonist of his 1967 novel When She was Good on her. It depicted a Midwestern puritan whose relentless attempts to fix the flaws of the men in her life yields calamity. In 1969, Roth vaulted from author to literary phenomenon with the publication of Portnoy's Complaint. He again tore into staid conventions and riled more conservative readers via a protagonist aggressively rebelling against engrained guilt and propriety sown by his archetypal Jewish mother - if not generations thereof - in a way that would most scandalize them: libertine sexual mores and adventurous canoodling with "shiksas."The New York Times review suggested Roth "has finally come up with the existentially quintessential form for any American-Jewish tale bearing - or baring - guilt [via] a deliciously funny book, absurd and exuberant, wild and uproarious the very novel that every American-Jewish writer has been trying to write in one guise or another since the end of World War II - then it may very well be what is called a masterpiece."
The book became a runaway bestseller, moving 400,000 copies in hardcover alone. Adding to the Roth phenomenon, Paramount that year scored a hit with a film adaptation of Goodbye, Columbus, which starred Richard Benjamin and Ali McGraw in her screen debut. Benjamin again would take the lead role in a film adaptation of Roth's work with the Warner Bros. release of "Portnoy's Complaint" in 1972, but it notoriously failed to measure up to the book. Roth ventured into new turf in 1971 with a vicious political satire of Nixon and conservative politics, Our Gang, the first of a prolific run in which he cranked out nearly a book a year. Roth began a relationship in 1975 with English actor Claire Bloom. With his 1974 outing, My Life as a Man, Roth went meta by unveiling a recurring character in his books, Nathan Zuckerman, a Newark-born Jewish writer who was, in his first iteration, the creation of another writer. Zuckerman moved into spotlight as the protagonist of five successive works, starting with 1979's The Ghost Writer, which began what became known as the Zuckerman Bound trilogy, along with Zuckerman Unbound and The Anatomy Lesson - following Zuckerman as he transcended his early aspirations to be a writer and juggled substance with the pitfalls of fame. Zuckerman returned in the 1985 novella The Prague Orgy, fashioned as an epilogue to the trilogy, and the next year's The Counterlife, which cast focus on Zuckerman's more buttoned-down brother Henry and their difficult relationship.
Roth suspended Zuckerman and took center-stage himself both via nonfiction, with 1988's The Facts, an ostensible autobiography framed in correspondences between Roth and Zuckerman, and 1991's Patrimony, a memoir celebrating his father amid his decline; and fiction, with Deception, in which Roth and an Englishwoman share their stories as they prepare to tryst. Roth and Bloom wed in 1990. Bloom appeared by name alongside his eponymous protagonist in his next novel, Operation Shylock, the tale of the fictive Roth's journey to Israel around the trial of real-life Ukrainian war criminal John Demjanjuk. The book drew raves for more intricately than ever walking the post-modernist line between storyteller and story. The Roth/Bloom marriage ended acrimoniously in 1993 and precipitated a tell-all book by Bloom in which she aired Roth's troublesome health history, vanities and eccentricities. Roth earned another National Book Award in 1995 for Sabbath Theater, the tale of an out-of-work, debauched puppeteer in the throes of a mid-life crisis. Zuckerman cropped up again in 1997, but only as the narrator of American Pastoral. Zuckerman told the tale of his idol in high school, "Swede" Levov, a star athlete at Weequahic High who went on to seemingly attain the American Dream, only to see it shattered in the violent roil of the '60s. It won Roth the Pulitzer Prize.
He returned to Newark of bygone eras with more straight-narrative works. In 1998, he waded into the McCarthy era with I Married a Communist, which stirred controversy for its rendering a dithery English actress character with eerie similarities to Bloom, who fingers her protagonist lover as a Red. And with 2004's The Plot Against America, Roth composed an alternate history imagining the plight of his own family and American Jewry after the 1940 election of pro-Nazi Charles Lindbergh. Zuckerman recurred to voice Roth's grappling with mortality in a rural Massachusetts cloister - reflecting Roth's own Connecticut retreat - in 2000's The Human Stain and for a final time, according to the author, in 2007's Exit Ghost. Filmmaker Robert Benton made The Human Stain into a film, released in 2003, with Anthony Hopkins playing Zuckerman and co-starring Nicole Kidman. With The Dying Animal - also later adapted as the 2008 film "Elegy" - and a prolific run of ruminative novellas, Roth's work increasingly coped with the fragility of the human condition, and he took a final historic journey to Newark in 2010's Nemesis. In 2012, Roth said publicly he would no longer produce fiction, while a year later, his legacy was celebrated with Will Karel's documentary, "Philip Roth: Unmasked."
By Matthew Grimm
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