Roth, Philip

Roth, Philip (Philip Milton Roth), 1933–2018, American author, one of the most important novelists of the 20th cent., b. Newark, N.J., B.A. Bucknell Univ., 1954, M.A. Univ. of Chicago, 1955. His writings, noted for their dark humor, irony, and themes of Jewish identity, rebellion, and male sexuality, deal largely with middle-class Jewish-American life. He explored these mainly through the use of protagonists who were stand-ins for himself. In nine of his novels, doppelgänger Nathan Zuckerman stands in for the author; in three, the more academic David Kapesh fills the role; in others, “Philip Roth” appears as a character or the narrator. His hometown of Newark also frequently figures in his work.

Roth, who published 27 novels, two memoirs, and several story collections, gained his initial literary reputation with the short-story collection Good-bye Columbus (1959, National Book Award). Portnoy's Complaint (1969), a psychiatrist-couch monologue by a young, insecure, and hilariously articulate Jewish man who describes his life, notably his possessive mother, his erotic fascination with blonde Gentile girls, and his masturbatory exploits, was Roth's break-out, best-selling novel and is still probably his most famous book. It has been widely acclaimed a comic masterpiece. Other novels include The Breast (1972), The Great American Novel (1973), My Life as a Man (1974), The Ghost Writer (1979) Zuckerman Unbound (1981), Zuckerman Bound (1985), The Counterlife (1987), The Facts (1988), Operation Shylock (1993), Sabbath's Theater (1995, National Book Award), his American historical trilogy consisting of American Pastoral (1997; Pulitzer Prize), I Married a Communist (1998), and The Human Stain (2000), The Plot against America (2004), Exit Ghost (2007), Indignation (2008), The Humbling (2009), and Nemesis (2010). Patrimony: A True Story (1991) is nonfiction memoir of his father's death.

His flood of late novels, which frequently portray American life in the last decades of the 20th cent. with a mixture of comedy and savagery, were often imaginative amalgams of autobiography and fiction. Several of Roth's later fictional works, notably The Human Stain, The Dying Animal (2001), Everyman (2006), Exit Ghost (2007, with an elderly, mentally and sexually diminished Zuckerman), and The Humbling (2009), treat end-of-life themes—remembrance and regret, the last sparks of sexual desire, the ills and sorrows of the failing body and mind, and mortality. Roth was awarded the Man Booker International Prize in 2011.

See his essays in Reading Myself and Others (1985) and his The Facts: A Novelist's Autobiography (1988); G. J. Searles, ed., Conversations with Philip Roth (1992); studies by S. Pinsker (1975), A. Z. Milbauer and D. G. Watson, ed. (1988), J. L. Halio (1992), A. Cooper (1996), S. Milowitz (2000), M. Shechner (2003), D. Shostak (2004), G. Welsch (2005), J. L. Halio and B. Siegel, ed. (2005), D. P. Royal, ed. (2005), and C. R. Pierpont (2013).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2024, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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