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Philip Roth s impressive body of fiction has attracted widespread critical acclaim. Combining comedy and social criticism, Roth draws heavily upon his Jewish-American upbringing and his life as a successful author to explore such concerns as the search for self-identity, conflicts between traditional and contemporary moral values, and the relationship between fiction and reality.
Though critics have sometimes attacked Roth s work as anti-Semitic or vulgar, he is generally considered one of the most important American novelists of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Pursuit of Higher Education
Philip Roth was born on March 19, 1933, in a working-class neighborhood in Newark, New Jersey. His parents were Jewish immigrants Bess (Finkel) Roth and Herman Roth, an insurance agent who rose to become a company manager. Early experiences from Philip Roth s old neighborhood would shape much of his writing throughout his life. Four years before his birth, in 1929, the U.S. economy crumbled. Stock values plummeted, and banks began to fail, triggering the Great Depression. People lost their life savings and many lost their homes. At the same time, unemployment skyrocketed, leaving one out of every four workers without a job by 1932. A destitute spirit pervaded the nation, and people s thoughts focused on surviving day by day. Beginning in his adolescence, Roth experienced the slightly more prosperous times of World War II. By 1945, when the war ended, the U.S. economy was growing. The government supported a housing boom and unemployment insurance to protect people from falling into the poverty experienced during the Great Depression. In this more hopeful and confident culture, Roth began to look beyond the provincial existence of his hometown in Newark.
After high school, Roth attended the Newark branch of Rutgers University in 1950, but he transferred to Bucknell University in Pennsylvania in 1951, where he performed in plays and edited the literary magazine before graduating magna cum laude in 1954 with a Bachelor of Arts in English. He then went on to obtain a master’s degree in English from the University of Chicago in 1955. After serving in the U.S. Army for a few months, until his discharge due to a back injury, he returned to the University of Chicago in 1956 and began taking doctoral-candidate courses as well as teaching and writing stories.
Middle-Class Jewish Life in Fiction
By 1957, Roth had published several short stories that centered on middle-class American Jewish life. In 1959, at age twenty-six, he published his first book, Goodbye, Columbus, and Five Short Stories. The title piece, about two Jewish college students from different socioeconomic circumstances, questioned Jewish family and social relationships. The work earned high acclaim but its share of criticism, as well, for what was seen as anti-Semitic character portrayals—depictions of Jewish characters that were perceived as negative. Decidedly, Roth never shied from showing both positive and negative behavior associated with the Jewish-American community.
Roth is credited with propelling Jewish-American fiction into the realm of popular culture with his 1969 novel, Portnoy’s Complaint. In this work, main character Alexander Portnoy gives a profane, guilt-ridden confession to a silent psychoanalyst, Dr. Spielvogel. Decrying his Jewish upbringing, Portnoy wrestles with his conflicting relationship with his mother, obsession with non-Jewish women, and sexual fetishes. He yearns to free himself from the restrictions of his cultural background. Following the book’s publication, scholars and Jewish-Americans again labeled Roth an anti-Semite. They objected to what they considered Roth’s degrading treatment of Jewish life and to the novel’s sexually explicit content. However, Portnoy’s Complaint also won praise for its ethnic humor, clever dialogue, and psychological insight. It remains Roth’s best-known work to date.
Fiction and Reality: The Zuckerman Saga
In much of his work, Roth explores the relationship between fiction and reality. As such, many of Roth’s characters serve as a confessional for his own thoughts and experiences. In 1979, Roth began a series of novels based on the character Nathan Zuckerman. The first in the series, The Ghost Writer (1979), contains Roth’s angst transferred to a fictional persona, Zuckerman—his alter ego. The series begins with Zuckerman as a very young, very vulnerable writer who discovers that life and art have a strange, interpenetrating relationship. As the protagonist continues on the path to best-selling author, he faces challenges along the way that mirror those faced by Roth himself.
In 1987, Roth won the National Book Critics Circle Award and National Jewish Book Award for his novel The Counter life (1986), a continuation of the Zuckerman saga and an examination of the relationship between fact and fiction. In 1997 Roth revived his alter ego in American Pastoral, for which he received the Pulitzer Prize for fiction the following year. In this novel, Zuckerman is an aging prostate-cancer survivor looking back at his idyllic childhood in a Newark that promised prosperity and the good life for its immigrant class and their future generations.
Known to be an extremely private man, Roth uncharacteristically displayed his personal relations in print for all to see in his 1998 Zuckerman tale, I Married a Communist. Roth had begun living with actress Claire Bloom in 1976, and they married in 1990. After their divorce in 1994, Bloom included some unflattering details about their relationship in her memoir, Leaving a Doll’s House (1996). She told of Roth’s mental breakdowns in 1988 and 1993 that left him close to suicide. When Roth released I Married a Communist, commentators speculated that Roth wrote the book to tell his side of the story.
Zuckerman returns again in The Human Stain (2000). In this novel, Zuckerman exiles himself to New England. He plays a more passive agent this time, as he listens to the twisting tales of an acquaintance, Coleman Silk. A seventy-one-year-old Zuckerman emerges from his eleven-year self-imposed exile in Exit Ghost (2007). It shows Zuckerman facing twists in life and still grappling with his identity.
With a career that spans fifty years, Roth remains a prolific and relevant writer. His 2004 political fable The Plot Against America presents an alternative history of America in which Hitler’s allies control the White House and fascism rules. The story is told from the perspective of what would seem to be a young Philip Roth. The seven-year-old narrator, Phil, is the son of Bess and Herman, a Jewish-American couple struggling to support a family in a Newark, New Jersey neighborhood. He watches in fear as the country degrades into an anti-Jewish, oppressive dictatorship.
In his 2006 Everyman, an unnamed protagonist confronts the loneliness of growing old, despair over the loss of his sexual vitality, and anguish over how he has shattered the lives of those who love him. In 2008, Roth’s Indignation seems to tell the tale of what could have happened in his life had he not been a writer and instead faced a string of bad luck. In this way, Roth continues to share the inner workings of his psyche with readers today.
Works in Literary Context
Roth has established himself among the leading contemporary American authors through his careful scrutiny and biting satire directed at post-World War II America. He is often discussed in the company of other Jewish-American authors Saul Bellow and Bernard Malamud, as well as earlier, non-Jewish writers, including Anton Chekhov and Henry James. However, Roth has most notably been described as a modern-day Franz Kafka. Kafka, often considered one of the founders of modern literature, created protagonists clearly based on himself. In the same way, Roth’s characters often represent himself in some way.
Nearly all of Roth’s fiction is concerned in some way with expressing the Jewish-American experience. The importance of his childhood memories of growing up in a first-generation Jewish community first became evident in Goodbye, Columbus, and Five Short Stories. The story examines the relationship between Neil Klugman, a lower-middle-class Newark native, and Brenda Patimkin, a product of the growing postwar class of wealthy Jews.
Conflict and repression as part of Jewish identity are highlighted themes in many of Roth’s books, including Portnoy’s Complaint. In that tale, a young Jewish man’s infatuation with non-Jewish girls and his constant state of war with his overbearing mother constitute the plot. The place of Jews in America is also a key component in his alternative-history novel The Plot Against America ,in which American Jews are subjected to a fate not far removed from European Jews in the 1940s. In his works, from Goodbye, Columbus through Portnoy’s Complaint and the Nathan Zuckerman novels, Roth has continued to explore Jewish family life in the city and the conflicted characters that it creates.
Through most of his work, Roth employs ridicule and humor to create his own brand of satire. Roth’s exaggerations, as well as his anger and ridicule, are intended to criticize and correct. Satire can be relatively mild—an ironic look at something that is strange or not entirely deserving of admiration. Or it can be a full-force condemnation of an evil, with just a bit of humor. Roth’s work covers the entire range. He targets the Northeastern Jewish middle-class world of his background, the Midwest and its WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) inhabitants, academia, literary criticism, and the government and related political nightmares. Portnoy’s Complaint is Roth’s most famous satire, especially notable for its portrayal of the Jewish mother character, Sophie Portnoy.
Works in Critical Context
Roth has received much of his criticism from those who feel his characters elicit anti-Semitism from non-Jewish readers. However, it is generally agreed that Philip Roth possesses a firm grasp of the nuances of the spoken word, of the details of everyday things, and of the absurdities that can transform the crises of human life into hilarious comedy.
After the publication of his first novel Goodbye, Columbus in 1959, critics reacted heatedly to his portrayal of Jewish-American life. It is for his humor and satire that Roth sometimes gets in trouble with his readers, particularly when he considers Jews. As Ted Solotaroff notes in ”American Jewish Writers: On Edge Once More,” most of Roth’s stories in Goodbye, Columbus ”are devoted to an aggressive and astute exposure … of Jewish ethnocentrism [and] self-righteousness that his young protagonists are trying to escape.” That Roth is turned off by bad taste, hypocrisy, stupidity and ignorance, snobbery of the wealthy, and other universally acknowledged evils is not admissible in defense, according to some of his critics.
Supporters point out that Roth’s protagonists are in revolt against the American middle class as much as against a specifically Jewish lifestyle. They are just as alienated and just as critical wherever they find themselves. This fact of universal negativity is often found irrelevant by critics, and Roth’s pointed portrayal of Jewish-American characters and lifestyles is seen as inexcusably negative.
Roth’s depiction of the title character of Portnoy’s Complaint, Alex Portnoy, stirred a great deal of controversy in social and religious circles. Portnoy’s frustration with his situation is manifested in his frequent masturbation, which is described in graphic detail by Roth. Furthermore, the author’s continuing satiric examination of Jewish-American life sparked further debate within that ethnic and religious community. American writer and critic Marya Mannes went so far as to call Portnoy the most disagreeable bastard who ever lived.” But, by and large, academic responses were more typical. Here, for example, is a representative sampling from Lois G. Gordon’s “Portnoy’s Complaint: Coming of Age in Jersey City”: ”The theme of the book [is] tension between the public and private man, between consciousness and unconscious motivation, between the adult ideal one strives for and the childhood fantasy.”
While some commentators view Roth’s work as anti-Semitic, perverse, or self-indulgent, others laud Roth’s skill at rendering dialect. They praise his exuberance and inventiveness, and his outrageous sense of humor. John N. McDaniel remarks: ”No other living writer has so rigorously and actively attempted to describe the destructive element of experience in American life—the absurdities and banalities that impinge upon self-realization.”
- McDaniel, John N. The Eiction of Philip Roth. Haddonfield, N.J.: Haddonfield House, 1974.
- Safer, Elaine B. Mocking the Age: The Later Novels of Philip Roth. Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press, 2006.
- Gordon, Lois G. Portnoy’s Complaint: Coming of Age in Jersey City.” Literature & Psychology no. 19 (1969).
- Mannes, Marya. A Dissent from Marya Mannes.” Saturday Review (February 1969).
- Finney, Brian. Roth’s Counterlife: Destabilizing the Facts. Retrieved November 7, 2008, from http://www.csulb.edu/ ~-bhfinney/Roth.html.
- Gray, Paul. Novelist: Philip Roth. Retrieved November 7, 2008, from http://www.cnn.com/SPECIALS/ 2001/americasbest/pro.proth.html.
- The Library of Congress. Great Depression and World War II1929-1945. Accessed November 13, 2008, from http://memory.loc.gov/learn/features/timeline/depwwii/depress/depress.html.
- Metcalf, Stephen. Zuckerman Unbound. Accessed November 13, 2008, from http://www.slate.com/id/2176969/pagenum/all/.
- Partisan Review. Born Again. Accessed November 13, 1008, from http://www.bu.edu/partisanreview/archive/2000/4/webb.html.
- Hellman, David. Review: Philip Roth’s ‘Exit Ghost.’.Accessed November 13, 2008, from http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2007/10/07/RVBRS4R7B.DTL.
- Berman, Paul. The Plot Against America. Accessed November 13, 2008, from http://www.nytimes. com/2004/10/03/books/review/03BERMAN.html?ex=1254456000&en=b407dc 3a06c7 e743& ei=5090&partner= rssuserland.
- Solotaroff, Ted. American-Jewish Writers on Edge Once More. Accessed December 2,2008, from http://query. nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=940DE1DE1238 F93BA25751 C1A96E948260&sec=&spon=&page wanted=
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