Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Happy Birthday Philip Roth!

On this day in history, March 19th, the American literary icon Philip Roth was born. I wanted to learn a little more about the man whose books have filled so many of my reading hours, so I used Oxford Reference Online which led me to the Oxford Encyclopedia of American Literature. The following excerpt, by William H. Pritchard, is just a small portion of the fascinating biography you can find in the Oxford Encylopedia of American Literature. Happy Birthday Mr. Roth!

Philip Roth’s literary career is extra-ordinary in a number of ways other than its continued production of surprising, vital, imaginative works. It began when his first book, Goodbye, Columbus, a novella and five stories, won the National Book Award for 1959; it reached a peak of notoriety ten years later when Portnoy’s Complaint became not only a best-seller but also a portent of the decay of American youth. (Students now came to college, declared Vice President Spiro T. Agnew, with pot and Portnoy secreted in their suitcases.) The career’s most recent stage, beginning in 1993, shows a writer in his seventh decade who brought out no less than six novels, all of them distinctive, three of them possible examples of masterwork. At his seventieth birthday in March 2003, he stood as a writer who has exhibited astonishing staying power, but also one who has deepened, extended, and invariably transformed himself.

It is not easy to name the qualities that most distinguish Roth’s work as a novelist. He has from first to latest shown a strong intelligence, fearsomely articulate in its ability to formulate positions, then argue with them by way of moving on to new ones just as temporary as the one abandoned. Everyone testifies to, even if they disagree about its ultimate value, his comic wit, often darkly sardonic but always incorrigibly playful. He has said that “Sheer Playfulness and Deadly Seriousness are my closest friends,” and it may be said of him (as Robert Frost liked to say about himself) that he is never more serious than when joking. Roth’s brand of serious play has been notably engaged in exploring, often in increasingly transgressive ways, the erotic life of American men and women in heterosexual relations that are usually combative, to say the least. One must speak also of what to some readers may seem nebulous: the auditory satisfactions of Roth’s narrative voices, whose lucidity and rhythmic movement are unsurpassed. Finally, and extending this remark about movement to the career as a whole, one notes with pleasure the way in which any book of his has succeeded its predecessor in a manner always surprising, yet somehow, upon thinking about it, inevitable. To describe the dynamic of that succession over the course of forty-four years is the burden of this account.

Early Life and Education
Roth was born 19 March 1933, the second son of Herman and Bess Finkel Roth; his older brother, Alexander, would become a commercial artist. His father was assistant district manager in the Essex, New Jersey, office of Metropolitan Life Insurance; his mother, as we might assume from Roth’s characterization of her in his autobiographical The Facts (1988), was a devoted housewife (the Yiddish word is balabusta). The Roths lived in the Weequahic section of Newark, a predominantly Jewish enclave celebrated in the first chapter of The Facts, “Safe at Home.” Such safety and rooted affection for family and friends marked Roth’s adolescence and young manhood, especially affection for his male compatriots and their shared conversations about life. In The Facts the mother of one of his school friends remarks, many years later, that she had never again seen anything like “the feeling there was among you boys”—to which Roth adds, “I told her, altogether truthfully, that I haven’t either.” A financial setback made it impossible for Herman Roth to assume the cost of Philip’s education at an elite college, so in 1950 he enrolled in the Newark branch of Rutgers University; then, his father’s fortunes having improved, in 1951 at Bucknell College in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania.

There he led an active literary and journalistic life (described well in the “Joe College” chapter of The Facts), graduated magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa, and, in 1954, published his first story in The Chicago Review. After taking an M.A. at the University of Chicago (1955), Roth enlisted in the army but was discharged a year later with a back injury. He returned briefly to Chicago as a Ph.D. candidate before deciding to forsake academic distinction and pursue his career as a writer. Accordingly, he published further stories in such magazines as The Paris Review, Commentary, and The New Yorker, while turning out a number of entertaining commentaries on television for The New Republic. Some of his stories received awards and were gathered together in Goodbye, Columbus, whose success more or less coincided with the beginning of a disastrous marriage to Margaret Martinson Williams, a divorced mother of two. Roth published his first novel, Letting Go, in 1962; moved to New York City; separated from his wife; taught at Princeton and the University of Pennsylvania; and spent five years in psychoanalysis. His second novel, When She Was Good (1967), emerged at the end of those difficult years, and his estranged wife was killed in an automobile accident the following year. These are a few events in the landscape of “early Roth,” in which the young writer established himself as someone to be taken seriously…

Decades after it was first published, Goodbye, Columbus was reissued by the Modern Library, and Roth provided a short introduction describing the kind of literary creation he had been engaged in back then. The young man who had left the provincial enclosures of Jewish family life in northern New Jersey for a world of “intellectual consequence” in literature and criticism, was not content merely to reject and mock the life from which he had been liberated. His art in the stories was rather to “reimagine as a species of folk fiction” stories “that somehow stretched over the bones of the folktale a skin of satiric social comedy—what not that long before had been the undifferentiated everydayness of Jewish life along the route of Newark’s Number 14 Clinton Place bus.” So “the desire to repudiate and the desire to cling” were both given voice in Roth‘s art, an art similar to—though he does not make the comparison—Joyce’s in his early book of stories, Dubliners. But there was nothing comparable in the critical reception of Dubliners to the plaudits that greeted Goodbye, Columbus. Novelists and critics of established weight—Saul Bellow, Irving Howe, and Alfred Kazin—saluted and admired the way Roth had portrayed with exactitude the postwar Jewish-American upper middle class as observed in Newark and environs; a slightly younger critic, Leslie Fiedler, himself a son of Newark, testified that Roth had brought back to him his own childhood in that city. These critics, all of them Jewish, were dealing with Roth not merely as an individual talent but as a significant voice in Jewish-American fiction.

Recent Comments

There are currently no comments.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *