Geographic Connection to Pennsylvania: Philadelphia, Philadelphia County
Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winner Philip Roth taught at the University of Pennsylvania.
Awards: Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award
Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winner, Philip Roth attended Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, and taught at the University of Pennsylvania. Read more here.
Editors, Encyclopaedia Britannica. Philip Roth: American Author. Encyclopaedia Britannica website. 23 May 2018. 7 November 2018.
Philip Roth was born in Newark, New Jersey, on March 19, 1933. He was raised by his parents, Herman and Besse Finkel Roth, and grew up in a working-class Jewish neighborhood with his younger brother Sandy. His father was an insurance manager for Austro-Hungarian stock and, along with his wife Besse, was first generation American Jewish. After attending Weequahic High School and graduating at the age of 16, Roth decided to rebel against his Jewish society and to attend college. He enrolled at Newark College of Rutgers University in 1950.
A year later, Roth transferred to Bucknell University, where he would become a member of Phi Beta Kappa and earn his BA in English. While attending college, Roth became concerned with issues with public and private subjects, such as genocide, war, problems with modern democracies, family life, an individuals' inner turmoil, and writers' imaginations. He decided to spend his life discussing these issues. In 1955, Roth went on to earn his MA at the University of Chicago. He spent a few months in the United States army, but he was discharged early because of a back injury.
Roth went on to write, and his personal life changed when he met Margaret Martinson Williams. The couple married in 1959, but were separated in 1963. Margaret died in a car accident five years later. Roth did not marry again until 1990. The year he married Margaret was also the year Roth published his first work, Goodbye, Columbus and Five Short Stories. This story was about achieving social status in Jewish society, and it earned Roth the National Book Award and the Jewish Book Council of America's Daroff Award. The book gave him success and went on to become a movie, but left Roth's audience accusing him of being anti-Semitic.
In 1960, Roth decided to teach at the Writer's Workshop at the University of Iowa and, two years later, he became a writer-in-residence at Princeton University. He resigned later to become a full-time author, but began teaching again at the State University of New York at Stony Brook in 1964 and at the University of Pennsylvania in 1969. The turning point of his career came in 1969 with the publication of Portnoy's Complaint (1969) and the successful movie version of Goodbye, Columbus. Portnoy's Complaint, the story of the young boy Alexander Portnoy yearning for freedom from the laws of his youth, became a number one best-seller. Despite the book's success, many readers found it to be offensive and pornographic because of its sexual references. Roth, however, believed he was successful in addressing Jewish critics who attacked him for anti-Semitism and non-Jewish critics who attacked his obscenity.
Roth continued to write contemporary works addressing issues of modern society, but this did not come without a price. Critics continued to accuse Roth of anti-Semitism and obscenity as well as degradation of women and repetitiveness of theme. Philip retaliated with The Great American Novel, his 1973 work addressing the American novel and how authors use fantasy and fiction to capture contemporary society's confusions. In this work, Roth wrote an outlandish story about a character named Smitty who is falsely accused of being a Communist by members of his baseball team. While defending himself in court, Smitty tells the Chairman, "I refuse to apologize or explain or verify any remarks I have ever made to anyone over the telephone, face to face, in my sleep, in my cups, or in my solitude." The autobiographical element is shown here because Roth is clearly speaking to the critics accusing him of being anti-Semitic and, as author Irving Howe put it, a "self-hating Jew." Roth was able to retaliate in this work, however, claiming that "truth is stranger than fiction, but stranger still are lies." Eight years later, he continued to address his critics with his 1981 novel Zuckerman Unbound. The storyline shows the heavy toll that being famous takes, as well as Roth's explanation and defense against those who believe him to be an "enemy of the Jewish world" rather than a hard-working writer.
The controversial author went on to write novels that both did and did not address the issues he was constantly scrutinized for. In 1987, The Counterlife addressed post-Holocaust anti-Semitism with the character Nathan Zuckerman's desire to understand the Jewish ethnic self. Zuckerman was the protagonist in many of Roth's works. Author Derek Parker Royal said that "of all Philip Roth's novels, The Counterlife is perhaps his most pivotal." Roth wrote some non-controversial works after marrying actress Claire Bloom on April 29, 1990. The couple's partnership did not last, but Roth's writing did. In 1998, Roth won the Pulitzer Prize for American Pastoral, the story of Zuckerman remembering his neighbor, Levov, as the Jewish boy who observes and lives his fantasy of the Gentile hero.
His work, The Plot against America, explores what might have happened if Charles Lindbergh, an aviation hero and anti-Semitic politician, would have been elected president in 1940 instead of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Some of Roth's additional works include Exit Ghost (2007), Indignation (2008), and The Humbling (2009). In Exit Ghost, Roth once again returns to the protagonist Nathan Zuckerman. In this novel, Zuckerman is 71 years old and suffering from prostate cancer. Literary critic Brad Hooper comments on Roth's incorporation of themes of aging and coming to terms with the end of one's life. Hooper writes, "This novel of renewal inevitably becomes a tale of acceptance of one's irreversible descent into oblivion. In Indignation, which some critics view not as significant as his his major novels, Roth writes about Markie, an adolescent protagonist, who is a Jewish boy from New Jersey. Markie struggles as he comes of age, grappling with all the times he's been cruelly wronged by others, eventually becoming self-destructive and dying in the Korean War. Critic Robert Hanks explains the themes Roth draws upon in his review: "Indignation is at bottom a fable, with a message about arbitrariness: however careful we are, whatever pains we take, we cannot guard against the selfishness and stupidity or others, the rigidity of institutions, our own pride and self-love.
Roth explains his viewpoint of his profession as a writer over the years to Martin Krasnik, an interviewer for the Guardian. "In my life I have had, in total, a couple of months of these completely wonderful days as a writer, and that is enough, Roth said. You know, it's a choice to be occupied with literature, like everything else is a choice. But you quickly identify with the profession. And that's the first nail in the coffin. Then you struggle across the decades to make your work better, to make it a bit different, to do it again and to prove to yourself that you can do it."
Roth continued to write and make his mark as one of the greatest authors of his time. His honors included a visit the White House in 2011, where former President Barack Obama presented him with the National Humanities Medal; a Man Booker International Prize (2011); a National Medal of Arts (1998) presented to him my former president Bill Clinton; and other awards.
On Tuesday, May 22, 2018, Philip Roth died of congestive heart failure in a Manhattan hospital at the age of 85, according to The New York Times' Charles McGrath.
Jewish History and Identity
Goodbye, Columbus and Five Short Stories. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1959.
The Counterlife. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1987.
The Great American Novel. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1973.
The Ghost Writer. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1979.
Zuckerman Unbound. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1981.
Our Gang. New York: Random House, 1971.
Operation Shylock: A Confession. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1993.
The Human Stain. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2000.
The Plot against America. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2004.
Portnoy's Complaint. New York: Random House, 1969.