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Philip Roth

Philip Roth

Philip Roth (March 19, 1933 – May 22, 2018) was an award-winning and controversial American novelist. He often drew criticism for his explicit exploration of sexuality and critiques of materialistic culture. Philip Roth's books explored American identity through his Jewish middle-class upbringing in a rapidly suburbanizing post-World War II America.

Philip Roth: Biography

Philip Roth was born March 19, 1933, and raised in the Newark, New Jersey neighborhood of Weequahic. He attended Weequahic High School, just a few blocks away from his home, graduating around 1950. Roth grew up immersed in the Jewish middle class. His novels frequently feature middle-class Jewish Americans and local landmarks from his neighborhood. As a child, he felt insulated and protected from the rest of the world. However, he experienced occasional anti-Semitic bullying from adjacent non-Jewish neighborhood kids while on summer vacations.

Philip Roth, Philip Roth portrait, StudysmarterFig. 1 - Many of Philip Roth's novels explored his identity as a Jewish American.

After studying for a year at Rutgers University in Newark, Roth transferred to Bucknell University in Pennsylvania. He hoped to escape the bubble of his hometown. Instead, he found that the Christian community there was as insular as his hometown.

While at Bucknell, he was the editor of the school’s literary magazine and graduated with a degree in English in 1954. In 1955, he earned a Master's in English from the University of Chicago and worked as an English composition instructor. He began to write short stories and published his first work of fiction, Goodbye, Columbus and Five Short Stories (1959), winning the National Book Award in 1960.

His first full-length novel, Letting Go (1962), garnered much less critical success. The next five years would be his least productive. Roth had a disruptive marriage that ended in divorce. He joined the army but was discharged due to a back injury. During this time, he saw a psychoanalyst, and this experience became the narrative framework of future works, such as Portnoy’s Complaint (1969), where the story is told through psychoanalysis sessions.

Philip Roth died at the age of 85 due to congestive heart failure.

Philip Roth: Family

The family unit was a major recurring theme throughout Roth’s work.

Roth is one of two children and his older brother Sandy, a budding artist, inspired him. His brother Sandy’s artistic ambitions showed Roth that pursuing unconventional aspirations, such as being a writer, were valid career options. Herman and Bess, his parents, were both second-generation Americans. His father’s parents came from Austrian Galicia, and his mother’s from Ukraine. His father worked as a successful insurance salesman despite the anti-Semitic prejudice of his workplace.

Philip Roth, map of Austria Hungary Galicia, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Roth's parent's emigrated from Austrian Galicia, a region in southeastern Poland and western Ukraine.

Roth’s work explores Jewish identity and community. Often his protagonists are of Jewish descent, coming from working-class and middle-class upbringings.

Philip Roth: Books

Roth is known for having a prolific and sustained career output, writing over thirty novels. He regularly published reviews and short stories in literary periodicals. Below are his most significant works.

Goodbye, Columbus and Five Short Stories (1959)

This novella was Roth’s first and break-out work. It follows the story of working-class kids who climb out of their poor Jewish immigrant backgrounds into professional careers. The protagonist has a summer romance with a woman above his social class. It won the National Book Award in 1960. Reviews criticized Roth for being anti-Semitic due to his critique of the upper-class Jewish American cultural values, which he presented as overly consumerist. Positive reviews noted this work as a sign of an eminent, great novelist.

Portnoy’s Complaint (1969)

After a couple of follow-up novels, which were minor successes, Portnoy’s Complaint thrust Roth into the national spotlight. It became an instant bestseller. Roth was overwhelmed with his new-found celebrity and temporarily moved to upstate New York to live in an artist’s commune.

The story established many trademarks of Roth. The main character, approaching his mid-thirties, is a very sexually active young Jewish man who’s doted on by his mom. The narrative is explicit in his sexual experiences, revealed through therapy sessions with a psychoanalyst.

Philip Roth, Church Weequahic Newark New Jersey, StudySmarterFig. 3 - Weequahic landmarks, such as this church, feature in Roth's novels.

My Life as a Man (1974)

This novel is known for launching the recurring fictional character Nathan Zuckerman, an alter ego of Roth.

After publishing three books featuring Zuckerman, the trilogy was collected into a volume titled Zuckerman Bound: A Trilogy and an Epilogue (1985) in which Roth adds a new epilogue. Roth created more Zuckerman novels and admitted they were semi-autobiographical, a character who grapples with his identity as a Jewish artist.

Sabbath’s Theater (1995)

Sabbath’s Theater follows the main character Mickey Sabbath, a middle-aged retired puppeteer who lives like a young bachelor. The story follows his sexual exploits as he relishes being perceived as an elderly deviant. While it received mixed reviews from critics, it was a Pulitzer Prize finalist and garnered the National Book Award in 1995.

The Plot Against America (2004)

An alternative history novel, The Plot Against America imagines a world where outspoken Nazi sympathizer Charles Lindbergh wins the presidency against Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The result is a further marginalization of the American Jewish community. The main character and his family are all named after Roth and his parents. The narrative unfolds through the eyes of a child, exploring the theme of intergenerational trauma inspired by Roth’s own anti-Semitic experiences.

Alternative history: a genre of narrative that imagines a new and different history that usually deviates from a real and major historical moment.

Philip Roth: Awards

Philip Roth is one of the most critically acclaimed writers of his generation. Roth won nearly all the major literary awards in the 1990s.

Goodbye, Columbus and Sabbath’s Theater both won the National Book Award in 1960 and 1965 respectively, while Sabbath’s Theater was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. American Pastoral (1997) also won the Pulitzer Prize. Roth won three PEN/Faulkner awards for Operation Shylock (1993), The Human Stain (2000), and Everyman (2006). In 2001, he received the first Franz Kafka prize.

The only major award to elude him was the Nobel Prize. Roth was granted many lifetime achievement awards and honorary degrees from prestigious institutions such as Harvard, Rutgers, and Columbia Universities.

Philip Roth: Quotes

Below are quotes from some of Roth’s most notable works.

It was, in fact, as though the hundred and eighty feet that the suburbs rose in altitude above Newark brought one closer to heaven, for the sun itself became bigger, lower, and rounder, and soon I was driving past long lawns which seemed to be twirling water on themselves, and past houses where no one sat on stoops, where lights were on but no windows open, for those inside, refusing to share the very texture of life with those of us outside, regulated with a dial the amounts of moisture that were allowed access to their skin.”

(Goodbye, Columbus, Ch. 1)

Much of Roth’s literature is concerned with class differences within the American Jewish community. Within a couple of generations, Jewish immigrants were able to build businesses and careers, providing more opportunities for their children. Roth grew up middle class and experienced the differences between the working class and the upper class as well. The protagonist is describing the sharp contrast between his working-class neighborhood and that of his new lover, who resides in an upper-class neighborhood.

I am marked like a road map from head to toe with my repressions. You can travel the length and breadth of my body over superhighways of shame and inhibition and fear.”

(Portnoy's Complaint)

A recurring theme of Roth’s works is the line between desire and inhibition. He felt deeply embedded in his middle-class upbringing and its corresponding propriety. Writing was an outlet for the tension between doing what was expected of him versus exploring taboo curiosities. The main character is expressing how deep his repression is recorded in his body. All at once, he feels at odds with his mother’s desire for him to be a good boy and his intense desire to explore his sexual inclinations. Shame and fear are what allow his repressed feelings to move throughout his body so quickly. This quote is part of a rambling diatribe addressed to his mother while he speaks to his psychoanalyst.

All families go through a lot. A family is both peace and war. We’re going through a little war right now."

(The Plot Against America, Ch. 2)

Community and family identity are other recurring themes throughout Roth’s works. In The Plot Against America, the protagonist's family is trying to reconcile their American identity with their Jewish community. They’re proud to be Americans, yet in this alternative history novel, America is quickly becoming more anti-Semitic by marginalizing the Jewish community with openly bigoted behavior. Some Jewish families respond by doubling down on their patriotism and creating tension with other members of the community, which is a result of their choice to embrace assimilation at the expense of their Jewish identity.

Philip Roth - Key takeaways

  • Philip Roth was a multiple literary award-winning and controversial novelist.
  • His novels explore American Jewish identity, community, and sexuality.
  • Roth's first work, Goodbye, Columbus established him as an eminent writer.
  • Portnoy's Complaint was Roth's first instant bestseller that turned him into a celebrity overnight.
  • Roth's writing is celebrated and acknowledged by numerous literary awards, including two Pultizer Prizes, two National Book Awards, and three PEN/Faulkner awards.

Frequently Asked Questions about Philip Roth

Philip Roth was an award-winning American novelist who was known for his novels addressing controversial topics such as explicit sexuality and critiques of materialistic culture.

Philip Roth was a controversial novelist who won nearly all the most prestigious literary awards, such Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award twice each, along with three PEN/Faulkner Awards.

Philip Roth wrote novels that featured Jewish American middle-class identity, critiques of materialism, and explicit explorations of sexuality.

Philip Roth lived in the historically Jewish neighborhood of Weequahic in Newark, New Jersey.

Philip Roth died at the age of 85 due to congestive heart failure.

Final Philip Roth Quiz

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Who was Philip Roth?

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He was an award-winning and controversial American novelist. 

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What topics did Philip Roth write about? 

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sexuality

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Philip Roth's books explored

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American identity through his Jewish middle-class upbringing

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Philip Roth was born 

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March 19, 1933

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Roth's novels frequently feature 

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middle-class Jewish Americans 

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Roth's first published fiction was

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Goodbye, Columbus

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Portnoy's Complaint turned Roth into a

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celebrity

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Roth's immigrant roots includes

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Austrian Galicia

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Portnoy's Complaint tells its story through the framework of

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psychoanalysis sessions

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My Life as a Man is famous for launching

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the fictional character and alter ego Nathan Zuckerman

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Sabbath’s Theater was awarded Roth's 

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second National Book Award

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What genre is The Plot Against America?

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Alternative History

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What is the basic premise of The Plot Against America?

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The Plot Against America imagines a world where outspoken Nazi sympathizer Charles Lindbergh wins the presidency against Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

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Roth won the first ever

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Franz Kafka prize

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How did Philip Roth die?

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Congestive heart failure

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Which president does Charles Lindbergh defeat in the 1940 election? 

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Franklin Roosevelt 

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The Plot Against America is an example of which genre?

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Alternative history

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In which city does the Roth family live? 

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Newark 

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What is the name of the conservative Rabbi who promotes Lindbergh's agenda? 

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Rabbi Bengelsdorf

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What is the name of the government agency designed to assimilate young Jewish boys into American culture? 

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Office of American Absorption

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Philip's cousin, Alvin, volunteers for which army? 

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Canada

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Which member of the Roth family begins to believe Lindbergh's propaganda? 

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Sandy 

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Lindbergh attempts to break up Jewish communities using which law? 

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Homestead 42 Act

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Which Jewish journalist runs for the presidency against Lindbergh? 

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Walter Winchell 

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During a visit to ____________, the Roth family experience their first case of anti-Semitic treatment. 

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Washington D.C. 

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In reality, Charles Lindbergh was a key figure in the _______________ movement. 

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America First 

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