THE PASSING OF PHILIP ROTH
Philip Roth’s Newark roots inspired a lifetime of extraordinary storytelling
By Brad Parks with Ted Sherman | For NJ Advance Media
Philip Roth spent just 17 years in Newark, growing up in a succession of rental homes in its Weequahic section, where he came of age along the shopkeepers, bookies and schoolboys who filled its neighborhoods.
It was enough to inspire a lifetime of stories and fuel a literary career that ranks among the all-time greats.
Roth, who died Tuesday night at 85, set the majority of his novels in the city of his birth, in places familiar to thousands of New Jersey residents who grew up there with him, snacking at Syds, cruising down Chancellor Avenue, idolizing an athlete named Swede.
More than any American writer, Roth located second and third generation Jewish Americans at the center of our nation’s transformation from urban rituals to suburban life and the discontents therein, observed the late Clement Price, a historian at Rutgers Newark, of Roth. “His is an essential voice on what it meant to be a Jewish American at a time when Jews, and indeed other ethnics, were on their way to becoming white,” Price said.
During the final years of his life, Roth was widely considered America’s premier living novelist. He was certainly its most decorated, having won nearly every major prize in literature, including the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award (twice), and the PEN/Faulkner Award (three times). Only the Nobel eluded his grasp. “He is without doubt the greatest novelist writing in English today,” author and critic Linda Grant once said. “There are times when his prose just ignites and roars into life like a match to a boiler.”
He created that fire while living an almost ascetic existence in northwestern Connecticut, writing with a discipline that became legendary in literary circles. He rose early each day and walked to a small writing studio some 50 yards from his house, a cottage with a fireplace, a computer — on which he wrote standing up, due to back pain — and little else.
There, he often spent 10 hours a day writing. He broke for a walk in the afternoon, then would return in the evening. Divorced twice, he lived alone. With no one to entertain, writing consumed him. He wrote (28 as of 2008) novels — including nine that featured the quasi-autobiographical character of Nathan Zuckerman — and remained prolific well into his later years, eschewing any notion of retirement until he was nearly 80, when he said he had stopped writing.
“To tell you the truth, I’m done,” he said.
“Philip was always on the job,” said Ross Miller, his biographer and one of Roth’s few close friends. “He looked at everything differently than an ordinary person, literally experiencing life in a novelistic level of detail. It was really astonishing to be with him sometimes when you realized everything that was happening to him was being stored for later use.” He challenged the literary notion that the main character of a book had to be likeable, inasmuch as his characters were inevitably deplorable: Sex fiends, deviants, liars, cheaters.
Roth himself was not always viewed as the most likeable of men, at least not to outsiders. He was often dismissive of his public. He was not one for book tours or signing autographs, the kind of things other authors do to patronize their fans. He seldom granted interviews.
Mostly, he wanted his work to let it speak for itself. It came at a cost — through the years, Roth’s critics accused him of being anti-woman or anti-Semitic. Roth responded in his own way: For years, he kept a drawing next to his workspace depicting a pipe-smoking critic, stabbed and bleeding.
Still, his genius was widely recognized in literary circles. In 2006, the New York Times Book Review sent several hundred letters to prominent writers, critics and editors asking them to name “the single best work of American fiction published in the last 25 years.” Seven of Roth’s books were among the top finalists. “If we had asked for the single best writer of fiction over the past 25 years,” the accompanying article noted, “(Roth) would have won.”
His Newark roots
By the itinerant standards of Newark, a city that was home to successive waves of immigrants, the Roth family had roots here, having first arrived in the 1890s. The second of two boys, Roth was born March 19, 1933. His mother, Bess, was a homemaker. His father, Herman, first had a failed shoe store, then sold insurance for Metropolitan Life. “The stories he brought back — it was great training to be a writer,” Roth once said of his father. “He brought the city into the house. He’d talk about where he’d been and the people he met. He was a very good storyteller.”
Roth spent most of his formative years on or near Chancellor Avenue, which he later referred to as “the big, unclogged artery of my life.” It was a place full of characters to fill a burgeoning writer’s imagination — the shop owners, the hustlers, the numbers runners — and Roth described an idyllic childhood spent with other children in the neighborhood, playing sports, shooting craps, and bragging about sexual exploits.
As a student, he displayed considerable aptitude, skipping two grades. He attended Weequahic High School, then considered among the finest secondary schools in the nation. Still, his homeroom teacher remembered Roth’s interests lying outside textbooks. “He was very eager for experience, especially sexual,” recalled his high school teacher Robert Lowenstein in 2008, when he was 100 years old. “He was very interested in the girls.”
Roth was only 16 when he graduated, and his parents did not want to send him away to college immediately. So he spent a year working at the department stores downtown, attending classes at Rutgers-Newark. He then transferred to Bucknell University in rural Lewisburg, Pa., with a primarily white, upper middle class student body.
Roth found the school’s homogeneity stifling, though he found — or, at least, later imagined — angst underneath the seemingly placid surface, a theme that would late be found throughout his work. He graduated magna cum laude in 1954, then earned a master’s degree from the University of Chicago in 1956. After graduation, he got a job at the university teaching writing. But it was as a practitioner of the craft he first earned fame.
An angry backlash
The short story was called “Defender of the Faith,” and it was published in the New Yorker in 1959. The story featured a protagonist who was obsessed by wealth and did not mind conniving to get it. He was also Jewish.
That combination — and the implication that Roth was forwarding the stereotype of the money-grubbing Jew — set off a spectacular reaction, most of it negative. The magazine received letters from Jewish readers by the sack full. Rabbis blasted Roth in their sermons. The Anti-Defamation League formally protested it. There was positive feedback as well: The story was included in a collection called “Goodbye Columbus,” which won the National Book Award in 1960, when Roth was still just 26, making him something of an instant sensation in literary circles.
Nevertheless, the backlash — in particular, a panel at Yeshiva University where he withstood withering attacks from students — seemed to scare Roth off writing about Jewish subjects for a time. His first novels, “Letting Go” and “When She Was Good” delved far less into Judaic themes.
But that didn’t seem to change his reputation. So, figuring he couldn’t please his Jewish critics, Roth wrote “Portnoy’s Complaint,” an outrageous monologue, set on a psychiatrist’s couch, from a Jewish protagonist who recounted his sexual frustration and his fondness for masturbation — most memorably into a piece of liver that was supposed to be the Portnoy family dinner.
Published in 1969 and set against the backdrop of the sexual revolution, it was a sensation, selling more than 400,000 hardcover copies and turning Roth into a celebrity. It was also fodder for comics — Portnoy became shorthand for sexual deviance — and even fellow authors. Jacqueline Susann, who wrote Valley of the Dolls, once joked she would like to meet Roth but, “I don’t think I’d shake his hand.”
The response stunned Roth, who hated the attention. “I felt visible and exposed. Somebody who had just ready Portnoy’s Complaint’ would come up to me and say, I don’t eat liver anymore,’” Roth once told The New Yorker. “It was funny the first seven thousand times I heard it.”
During the early 1970s, Roth left New York City, seeking the solitude of rural Connecticut. “The reaction to Portnoy really determined the trajectory of his career,” said Derek Parker Royal, president of the Philip Roth Society. “That was the No. 1 selling book for all of 1969, which is unheard of for a literary novel, and it really make him a celebrity. Those experiences really shaped the rest of his career. I don’t think we would have had Roth we know today were it not for Portnoy’s Complaint.”
Finding himself as a novelist
Roth followed Portnoy with a period of experimentation, during which he recovered from Portnoy and began finding himself as a novelist. In “Our Gang” (1971) he caricatured President Richard Nixon. “The Breast” (1972) was considered a nod to Kafka. In “The Great American Novel” (1973) — a farcical work narrated by “Word Smith” — he tackled both literature and baseball. “My Life as a Man” (1974) was among the first of his quasi-biographical novels. It also introduced a character named Nathan Zuckerman, although the first true Zuckerman novel — “The Ghost Writer” — appeared in 1979. Like Roth, Zuckerman was a Jewish man born in New Jersey in 1933. Like Roth, Zuckerman was a celebrity author who wrote an explosive and sometimes vulgar novel that delved into sexual themes — Zuckerman’s was called Carnovsky.
In 1990, he and Bloom married. For Roth, it was a second marriage — his first ended in divorce in 1962. This one lasted only four years. After the divorce, Bloom wrote “Leaving a Doll’s House,” an unflattering portrait of Roth as a self-centered, crotchety, mean-spirited and utterly vain man who suffered illness as if no one had ever been sicker. Roth countered in “I Married a Communist” by creating the character Eve Frame, an evil, anti-semitic Jewish woman who seeks to destroy Ira Ringold, the main character.
Despite the private upheaval, Roth kept churning out top-rate fiction throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s. Although the question of when Roth hit his prime is fodder for a debate among his fans, many critics say it began with “The Counterlife” in 1986 and continued through “The Human Stain” in 2000.
“Philip was on an ascending line for a 14- or 15-year period where all his does is write these great books,” said Miller, the biographer. It’s really one of the most remarkable runs in the history of American literature.” The run included what is perhaps his most critically acclaimed work, “Sabbath’s Theater” in 1995, and his most popular, the Pulitzer prize-winning “American Pastoral” in 1997.
In many ways, the books, while both tragedies, stand as opposites of one another. “Sabbath’s Theater,” which centers around an adulterous puppeteer who is so miserable and filled with hate he can’t bring himself to commit suicide, is perhaps Roth’s darkest work.
“American Pastoral,” describes the life of Swede Lavov, a star high school athlete — based loosely on Weequahic alumnus Seymour “Swede” Masin — who becomes a successful businessman but is ultimately undone when his teenage daughter blows up a post office as a protest of the Vietnam War. In classic Roth fashion, Sabbath is too pessimistic to die while Lavov is too optimistic to live.
Back to the city
Through it all, Roth’s settings and characters kept returning to New Jersey in general, and Newark in particular.
His 2004 “The Plot Against America,” was a speculative history novel in which a boy named Philip must grow up in Newark under an anti-Semitic and isolationist , Nazi-allied regime led by famed flyer Charles Lindbergh, which some later viewed as eerily prophetic of Donald Trump.
“It’s precisely the tragic dimension of the city’s that’s brought the city back so strongly into my fiction,” Roth once said. “How could I fail to be engaged as a novelist by all that’s been destroyed and lost in that one place on Earth that I know most intimately?”
Roth himself came back to the city on occasion, to speak at the library or to accept another honor. In 2005, then-Mayor Sharpe James unveiled a plaque renaming the corner where he once lived, “Philip Roth Plaza.”
Genuinely touched, Roth — who had recently been spurned by the Swedish-based Nobel Prize for literature — told the crowd, “Today, Newark is my Stockholm and that plaque is my prize.”
As Roth aged, so did his characters. Even Zuckerman, his old standby, suffered from prostate cancer and impotence. Roth’s 2006 novel, “Everyman,” was one long chronicle of the character’s illnesses — including detailed descriptions of several procedures Roth had undergone himself. Roth started writing the book the day after attending his longtime friend and contemporary Saul Bellow’s funeral.
“Old age isn’t a battle,” he wrote. “It’s a massacre.” Still, he remained relevant an even inspiring to a subsequent generations — and not just writers. “Those recent books just knocked me on my ass,” Bruce Springsteen told the Times of London in 2007. “To be in his sixties, making work that is so strong, so full of revelations about love and emotional pain, that’s the way to live your artistic life. Sustain, sustain, sustain.”
Roth often said that he’d like to start a novel that would take the rest of his life to finish, then hand it in just before he died — all so he wouldn’t have to bear the agony of starting over again. “The work is difficult in the beginning,” he once said. “It’s also difficult in the middle and difficult in the end. Nevertheless, Roth admitted, “Without a novel, I’m empty and not very happy.”
He wrote often of death and dying — other than sex and Judaism, they were arguably his favorite topic. In “Dying Animal,” Roth wrote, “one is immortal for as long as one lives.”
But perhaps his favorite quote on the subject was not one he wrote. It came from the 16th century mortality play “Everyman” — from which he borrowed the title of his 2006 work — where one of the characters mourns:
“Oh death, thou comest when I had thee least in mind.”