“Who were you before the publication of Goodbye, Columbus?” I ask.
“I was nobody,” says Philip Roth.
In the army he had written short stories. Living in Chicago and working toward his master’s while teaching freshman comp, he sold one story to Esquire for the impressive sum of $800. “I made a proposal to myself to come to New York and live on $100 a month.” In 1959, his debut novella was published with a handful of other stories, and it won the National Book Award. Not bad for a twenty-six-year-old nobody.
His subject became Jewish-American life. A student of British literature, he was inspired by Saul Bellow and Bernard Malamud, he told an interviewer recently, “who had taken the Jewish world that was near at hand and turned it into distinctive fiction.” Roth began looking to Newark and his own life for fictional material—eventually leading all readers to wonder, Which is which?
In 1969, Portnoy’s Complaint made Roth into a celebrity and a figure of controversy. The book sold 400,000 copies in hardcover. Using the first-person confessional intimacy of psychoanalysis to unbelt a torrent of sexual urges, Roth made scatological comedy of adolescent longing, forever linking his name to behaviors that betray the stereotype of a nice Jewish boy. The book also became a lens through which too many readers, he thinks, still view his other work.
“If you take out Portnoy’s Complaint, it’s a very different career,” he says.
It was not as if Roth had invented the sexually explicit American novel. That honor belongs to Henry Miller, says the on-and-off college professor, praising Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn and their author as a kind of “Whitman of the twentieth century,” though not as good. Still, Miller “broke the ice.” He found a way to “look straight at sex,” and “not from the point of view of a moralist or a physician.”
Unadorned and unromanticized would be equally good ways to describe Roth’s fluid, unpoetic prose. Although it’s changed over the course of fifty years, one thing that remains constant is his aim “to get as close to the actuality as possible.”
His novels are heavy with the presence of an uncensored self and details unmistakably real. From Roth’s use of his own life as a platform for building characters and his own hometown as a recurring setting to his actual experiences as a son and a husband and, above all, a well-known writer, his fiction tracks his life. And his nonfiction benefits from the modes of storytelling worked out in his fiction. The Philip Roth of Patrimony, a nonfiction book about his dying father, and The Facts, a kind of autobiography that opens cannily with a letter from Roth to his alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman, is indivisible from the Philip Roth of Letting Go and The Professor of Desire and Zuckerman Unbound and so on.
Even as his work expands beyond the boundaries of his own life to engage and reconsider key episodes of American history, Roth’s historical novels “come out of a period I lived through.” I Married a Communist takes on McCarthyism, some of whose victims he knew personally. The Plot Against America rewrites the 1940 election to have FDR losing to Charles Lindbergh, ushering in an era of rabid American anti-Semitism. Nemesis, one of his recent compact novels, revisits the polio epidemic of 1944. Philip Roth’s America is one in which the vivid and the literary are not the enemies of the real and the actual, but their interpreters.
Warm and polite in conversation, Roth is exacting in his comments. Every word seems lit up by an alertness that makes you chary of speaking casually. He is concerned about the future of novel-reading precisely because the activity demands so much attention, attention he thinks our digital-age culture seems less willing to lavish upon the written word and imaginative literature especially.
He has published thirty-one books and has received enough prizes to make a town of Jewish mothers proud: two National Book Awards, two National Book Critics Circle awards, three PEN/Faulkner awards, the PEN/Nabokov award, the PEN/Saul Bellow Award, and the Pulitzer Prize. The Society of American Historians awarded him the James Fenimore Cooper Prize for historical fiction for The Plot Against America. In Britain as well, he has collected numerous literary awards. Several of his novels rank very high in readers’ and critics’ polls of the best twentieth-century fiction. And he is the only living author to have his own edition of Library of America books.
Roth, who started out as a welcome addition to America’s roster of fine Jewish novelists, is now thought of, more simply, as an American great—comic and brooding, a register of his own life, his own people, his own time and place, but also of his own country in the twentieth century and beyond.
By David Skinner
David Skinner is editor of Humanities.