I’ll come right out and say that I’ve only read one Philip Roth book, Indignation, too many years ago to remember the details. (I was also too callow to really “get it” all.) Still, I was smart enough then to know that Philip Roth was for a lot of people the voice of their generation. And I’m smart enough now to know that his death on May 22, marks the end of an era of incredibly productive literary giants, such as John Updike, Saul Bellow and Norman Mailer, all with strong ties to the Northeast. It’s true that Roth had his flaws and his critics (especially for his depiction of women and his characters’ attitudes toward them), but it’s also true that he was one of the greatest and most fecund American writers of the 20th century. “There are many notable things about Roth’s fiction,” says Robert Boyers, professor of English at Skidmore College and founder and editor of the literary journal Salmagundi. Boyers isn’t just familiar with Roth; he got to meet the famed author a couple of times, and even reviewed Roth’s American Pastoral for The New Republic. “For one, he wrote great sentences, sentences that made those of us who are writers want to take out our pens and jot them down,” says Boyers. Roth’s style, his technique were certainly impeccable, but in terms of content, the best-selling novelist often pushed the limits of critical and literary sensibilities. Some criticized his oeuvre as being too vulgar or inappropriate for the novel form. “Though he had it in him to be tender and to create vulnerable characters, he could also be lacerating and brutally frank, in ways that made him anathema to many readers who think that writers should always be nice and kind.”
Born in Newark, NJ, in 1933, Roth based many of his novels on his life in his hometown, inserting the semi-autobiographical character, Nathan Zuckerman, as a protagonist in a number of his works. In the portrayal and psychological probing of Nathan and his other characters, Roth is absolutely unflinching. He first rose to prominence with his fourth book, Portnoy’s Complaint, a novel in the form of a confessional-monologue told to the psychoanalyst of the main character, Alexander Portnoy. Published in 1969, the book stirred up a hornet’s nest of controversy for its lurid depictions of sexual activities and taboos, including a masturbation scene involving a piece of raw liver (and you thought American Pie was original). But Roth is perhaps best known for his 1997 work American Pastoral, which details the dissolution of the upper-middle-class life of the main character Seymour “Swede” Levov during the political and social tumult of Lyndon B. Johnson’s years as president. For many who lived through that time, American Pastoral is as emblematic of the turmoil of the 1960s as Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are a-Changin’.” It went on to win Roth a Pulitzer Prize.
Still, Roth wasn’t without critics or detractors. Many of his novels are dominated by a sex-obsessed, masculine perspective that has been criticized as toxic and even misogynistic. Literary scholar Mary Allen once said that Roth had an “enormous rage and disappointment with womankind.” Allen and others refer to Roth’s depiction of turbulent marriages and far less than flattering portraits of his female characters.
Philip Roth left behind a controversial and densely complicated legacy (as well as a staggering output). However you feel about his books or characters, Roth created a vivid world that reflected the desires, insecurities, phobias and manias of one of America’s most fascinating generations. Only time will tell if future generations find Roth equally fascinating. I know I do.