clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Philip Roth has died. He was one of America’s most important and complicated literary figures.

The Pulitzer-winning author of American Pastoral, Portnoy’s Complaint, and many others was 85.

Bob Peterson/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

Novelist Philip Roth, widely considered one of the most important figures in modern American literature, died on Tuesday night in Manhattan at age 85.

Born in Newark, New Jersey, in 1933, Roth was one of the most celebrated authors of his generation, with awards that included two National Book Awards, two National Book Critics Circle Awards, the Man Booker Prize, three PEN/Faulkner Awards, and the 1998 Pulitzer Prize for American Pastoral.

Roth was known for his lusty, often startlingly frank male narrators as well as his exploration of Jewish identity and anti-Semitism in America. His fourth and most controversial novel, 1969’s Portnoy’s Complaint, rocked the literary world. As the feminist critic Vivian Gornick wrote in a 2008 essay on Roth and Saul Bellow, “it was not only the rushing force of the prose, but the shock of Portnoy’s deracinated explicitness — its adoration of the unbridled, the anti-social, the passionately infantile at the heart of things — that fed exuberantly into the spirit of the times.”

Those characteristics continued to mark Roth’s work, which encompasses both misogyny and what Gornick characterizes as “woman-hating” alongside vibrant observations and characterizations of masculinity and a swiftly changing America in the 20th century.

Asked by the New York Times in January about his views on the #MeToo movement and the highly publicized cases of sexual harassment allegations against powerful men, Roth cited the characters he’d created and said, “None of the more extreme conduct I have been reading about in the newspapers lately has astonished me.”

Obama Confers Nat'l Medal of Arts And Nat'l Humanities Medal To 20 Honorees
Roth receives the National Humanities Medal from President Barack Obama in 2011.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Often his novels blur the lines between fiction and nonfiction and between him and his characters. One character in particular, an alter ego whom Roth named Nathan Zuckerman, appears in or narrates nine of Roth’s novels, stretching from 1979’s The Ghost Writer to 2007’s Exit Ghost.

Rothalso liked to play with the line between real and imagined history; in 2004’s The Plot Against America, FDR is defeated in the 1940 presidential election by Charles Lindbergh, and Roth (as his own fictional narrator) tells of a growing anti-Semitism and Nazi infiltration of America under the Lindbergh administration.

The Nobel Prize continued to elude Roth throughout his career, with some noting that the Nobel Committee’s decision to not to award anyone the prize for literature in 2018 may have been his last chance. They were right. But despite never achieving that honor, Roth leaves behind a complex legacy and a towering body of work. Roth himself, unsurprisingly, may have given his own best remembrance of his half-century career in the New York Times interview:

Exhilaration and groaning. Frustration and freedom. Inspiration and uncertainty. Abundance and emptiness. Blazing forth and muddling through. The day-by-day repertoire of oscillating dualities that any talent withstands — and tremendous solitude, too. And the silence: 50 years in a room silent as the bottom of a pool, eking out, when all went well, my minimum daily allowance of usable prose.