Jewish American novelist Philip Roth, possibly the most representative artist of the post-WW2 Jewish-American community—for which he was both praised and vilified—died in Manhattan on Tuesday at the age of 85 from congestive heart failure, The New York Times reported. Roth was born only a short Path train away, in Newark, New Jersey.
Philip Milton Roth was the second child of Bess (née Finkel) and Herman Roth, an insurance broker. His parents were first-generation Americans from Galicia, Poland. He graduated in 1950 from Newark’s Weequahic High School, which provided the background to Roth’s highly acclaimed “Portnoy’s Complaint.” The book identifies Weequahic High School by name, as well as local landmarks such as the Empire Burlesque, the Weequahic Diner, the Newark Museum and Irvington Park.
Roth’s work first appeared in print in Chicago Review in 1954 when he was studying, and later teaching, at the University of Chicago. His first book, “Goodbye, Columbus,” and Five Short Stories, won the National Book Award in 1960, after which Roth published two novels, “Letting Go” and “When She Was Good.” His fourth novel and most controversial novel, “Portnoy’s Complaint,” published in 1969, turned Roth into a commercial as well as critical success.
In the 1970s, Roth experimented with political satire, and eventually created his alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman, who appeared in Roth’s novels and novellas starting in 1979. “Sabbath’s Theater” won Roth his second National Book Award in 1995. In 1997, “American Pastoral,” the first volume of his second Zuckerman trilogy, explored the life of Newark star athlete Swede Levov, whose teenage daughter becomes a domestic terrorist during the late 1960s. The book won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. “I Married a Communist” (1998) focuses on the McCarthy era; “The Human Stain” examines identity politics in the 1990s.
In “The Plot Against America” (2004), Roth returns to his childhood years in Newark in the 1940s, in an alternative history where pro-Nazi aviator hero Charles Lindbergh is elected US president and negotiates an understanding with Hitler’s Nazi Germany, launching an anti-Jewish American program.
Roth’s novel “Everyman,” a meditation on illness, aging, desire, and death, was published in May 2006, earning him a third PEN/Faulkner Award – the only person so honored. “Exit Ghost,” the last Nathan Zuckerman novel, was released in 2007. “Indignation,” Roth’s 29th book, was published on September 16, 2008. Set in 1951, during the Korean War, it follows Marcus Messner’s departure from Newark to Ohio’s Winesburg College, where he begins his sophomore year.
Roth’s 30th book, “The Humbling,” was published in 2009. Roth’s 31st book, “Nemesis,” was published in 2010. The book’s notes suggest “Nemesis” is the last in a series of four short novels, which includes “Everyman,” “Indignation,” and “The Humbling.”
Roth married his first wife, Margaret Martinson, in 1959, in Chicago. They separated in 1963, and Martinson’s died in a car crash in 1968, which left a lasting impression on Roth’s literary work. In 1990, Roth married his longtime companion, English actress Claire Bloom. In 1994 they separated, and Bloom published a memoir, “Leaving a Doll’s House,” that was “unflattering” to Roth.
Roth was an atheist, who once told The Guardian: “I’m exactly the opposite of religious, I’m anti-religious. I find religious people hideous. I hate the religious lies. It’s all a big lie.”
He’ll get to find out all about it right about… now.