Philip Roth died

Philip Roth, one of America’s most famous living authors, is no longer living: he died yesterday in Manhattan of congestive heart failure at age 85.  From the New York Times eulogy:

Mr. Roth was the last of the great white males: the triumvirate of writers — Saul Bellow and John Updike were the others — who towered over American letters in the second half of the 20th century. Outliving both and borne aloft by an extraordinary second wind, Mr. Roth wrote more novels than either of them. In 2005 he became only the third living writer (after Bellow and Eudora Welty) to have his books enshrined in the Library of America.

To be honest, I wasn’t a big fan, though I did enjoy Goodbye, Columbus, and Portnoy’s Complaint (who can forget the liver scene?). I tried one or two of his later books, but couldn’t get into them, though I know many others who read him religiously.

The Times goes on at length about Portnoy’s Complaint, published in 1969 when I was a sophomore in college:

After the separation [from his wife Margaret Williams], Mr. Roth moved back East and began work on “Portnoy’s Complaint,” the novel for which he may be best known and which surely set a record for most masturbation scenes per page. It was a breakthrough not just for Mr. Roth but for American letters, which had never known anything like it: an extended, unhinged monologue, at once filthy and hilarious, by a neurotic young Jewish man trying to break free of his suffocating parents and tormented by a longing to have sex with gentile women, shiksas.

The book was “an experiment in verbal exuberance,” Mr. Roth said, and it deliberately broke all the rules.

The novel, published in 1969, became a best seller but received mixed reviews. Josh Greenfeld, writing in The New York Times Book Review, called it “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.” On the other hand, Irving Howe (on whom Mr. Roth later modeled the pompous, stuffy critic Milton Appel in “The Anatomy Lesson”) wrote in a lengthy takedown in 1972, “The cruelest thing anyone can do with ‘Portnoy’s Complaint’ is read it twice.”

And once again the rabbis complained. Gershom Scholem, the great kabbalah scholar, declared that the book was more harmful to Jews than “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.”

Give me a break! Seriously! It may have polluted some Jewish dinners, but that’s about it. For a young secular Jew like me, the book was an eye-opener.


NYT caption: “Mr. Roth at Princeton in 1964. He wrote more than 30 books, often exploring male sexuality and Jewish American life.CreditSam Falk/The New York Times”


  1. Eli Siegel
    Posted May 23, 2018 at 7:45 am | Permalink

    As a person who grew up in Newark and graduated from Weequahic High School I am saddened by his death. I prefer some of his later work such as ‘American Pastoral.’

    • Merilee
      Posted May 23, 2018 at 9:06 am | Permalink

      American Pastoral and The Human Stain are my favorites.

      • ploubere
        Posted May 23, 2018 at 11:40 am | Permalink

        Yes, I liked Human Stain. There was a movie adaptation in 2003 with Anthony Hopkins and Nicole Kidman. Only middling reviews though.

  2. Ken Kukec
    Posted May 23, 2018 at 8:41 am | Permalink

    Fitting in a sense, I suppose, that Roth and Tom Wolfe departed in tandem. They were, for a while at least, the primary antagonists in a battle over the merits of realistic social fiction.

    In the early 1960s, Roth published a piece in Commentary Magazine declaring that fiction writers could no longer keep pace with the circus of American life by creating realistic fiction — that real-life characters like Roy Cohn and his “friend” David Schine beggared the fiction writer’s imagination.

    Wolfe, for his part, published his own manifesto, “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast”, claiming that modern American fiction writers were beggaring their own imaginations by not avidly partaking of the American circus, by instead concentrating on small, cloistered, interior-driven novels — novels like Portnoy’s Complain and The Breast and Goodbye, Columbus. (Wolfe then set about attempting to prove his point by writing Bonfire of the Vanities.)

    No small irony, I’ve always thought, that Roth had a great Indian-summer run later in his career writing large-scale realistic social fiction, albeit in a historical setting (or, as in the case of The Plot Against America in a counterfactual historical setting) — and, further irony, that some of it, like I Married a Communist and American Pastoral, was set in the very age of Roy Cohn that Roth had eschewed writing about back when it was still the present.

    For those of us who read Roth religiously, it’s a bitter disappointment that, for all the many awards bestowed upon him, he was deprived the richly-deserved Nobel prize he reportedly longed for. (I knew he had no shot once the Nobel committee gave one to Dylan — an American Jew a decade Roth’s junior — since Roth wouldn’t live long enough for the prize to make its way back around again.)

    Roth was a giant. We won’t see his like again.

    (Philip Roth, if I’m not mistaken, attended grad school at the University of Chicago. One of his early, pre-Portnoy, novels, Letting Go was set in and around the U of C campus.)

    • ploubere
      Posted May 23, 2018 at 11:44 am | Permalink

      Yes, there was a running battle between Wolfe and Updike for a while, as I recall. I suppose Roth would have been on Wolfe’s side in that argument.

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted May 23, 2018 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

        Yeah, Updike and Wolfe had an outright literary feud. Far as I know, Roth didn’t weigh in on it (and if he did, I missed it), but I suspect if he had, he’d’ve taken Updike’s side — the side of the writers against the “mere entertainer” (though that’s just a guess).

        Speaking of Updike, he’s the writer whose career most closely parallels Roth’s. Born a year apart, both were part of the “Silent Generation” that came of age after World War 2; both published their first novels in the late 1950s; and both were liberated by “the Sixties” to write about heretofore taboo topics, particularly of a carnal nature. Both also hit full stride by returning time and again to the same character — Updike with his Rabbit tetralogy, Roth with the two trilogies narrated by Nathan Zuckerman.

        Word for word, Updike wrote the most glorious sentences of any American novelist of the second half of the 20th century. But I personally prefer Roth’s more muscular prose — and with Roth, it wasn’t just muscle, but bone and marrow, and sinew and hide. Reading him could be like taking a tour of one of those Newark kosher butcher shops he was so wont to describe. 🙂

        Sorry to carry on like this, but these are guys who occupy a pretty substantial place in my mental landscape.

        • Steve Pollard
          Posted May 23, 2018 at 4:34 pm | Permalink

          Don’t be sorry. Some of us Brits also enjoy both these writers, and I appreciate your comments. Please go on!

          Apart from Portnoy, I didn’t read much Roth before the late novels of his great Indian summer. They have made me want to go back to some of the earlier ones, maybe (especially?) the Zuckerman books. What would you recommend?

          As for Updike, I read “Rabbit, Run” as a teenager – I still have my Penguin paperback of 1965, costing 4/-, or 20p/35c today – and was hooked at once. A flawed but great writer; and, as you say, a beautiful stylist.

          • Steve Pollard
            Posted May 23, 2018 at 4:36 pm | Permalink

            Whoops, not 35c; more like 28c.

          • Ken Kukec
            Posted May 23, 2018 at 5:20 pm | Permalink

            Of the original Zuckerman books, I’d recommend Zuckerman Unbound and The Anatomy Lesson. (The first in the series, The Ghost Writer, is a more slender volume, but also very good.)

            One of my favorite Roth books is The Great American Novel, ostensibly about American baseball during WW2 (when the major leagues were depleted by so many players’ serving in the armed forces), but about so much more. It’s narrated by a sportswriter, “Smitty,” who’s given to health-endangering bouts of alliteration. 🙂

            • Steve Pollard
              Posted May 23, 2018 at 5:21 pm | Permalink

              Thanks, noted!

  3. Barry Lyons
    Posted May 23, 2018 at 8:46 am | Permalink

    “Sabbath’s Theater” is my favorite Roth novel. I just posted this on Twitter:

  4. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted May 23, 2018 at 12:02 pm | Permalink

    I haven’t read much of Roth, though I did once ride in an elevator with him.

    I only saw the film version of “The Human Stain” but was extremely impressed with it!!!

    I chiefly associate him with my prudish (and elderly spinster) 9th grade English teacher who during the first week of class was telling us what were or were not acceptable book reports. NO science-fiction OR books with sexual themes. I’m not sure why she overtly brought up “Portnoy’s Complaint”. It may have been due to her teaching at a predominantly Jewish public high school and her awareness than many locals were reading it. “You may NOT do a book report on Portnoy’s complaint. Oh, yes! I read it. The first 10 pages!! Sheer filth!!”

    That same English teacher taught mostly the same required reading as the other teacher (“Red Badge of Courage” etc.) except that other teacher was teaching Ray Bradbury’s “The Martian Chronicles” which Miss F refused to teach on the grounds that all science-fiction was trash. In 1999, Gabriel Garcia Marquez declared the two best American novels of the 20th century to be Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” and RB’s “The Martian Chronicles”. Miss F had long passed away by then.

  5. bric
    Posted May 23, 2018 at 2:15 pm | Permalink

    Roth’s alternative Nixon speech

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