Philip (Milton) Roth Biography
Nationality: American. Born: Newark, New Jersey, 1933. Education: Weequahic High School, New Jersey; Newark College, Rutgers University, 1950-51; Bucknell University, Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, 1951-54; A.B. 1954 (Phi Beta Kappa); University of Chicago, 1954-55, M.A. 1955. Military Service: Served in the United States Army, 1955-56. Career: Instructor in English, University of Chicago, 1956-58; visiting writer, University of Iowa, Iowa City, 1960-62; writer-in-residence, Princeton University, New Jersey, 1962-64; visiting writer, State University of New York, Stony Brook, 1966, 1967, and University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, 1967-80. Since 1988 Distinguished Professor, Hunter College, New York. General editor, Writers from the Other Europe series, Penguin, publishers, London, 1975-80. Member of the Corporation of Yaddo, Saratoga Springs, New York. Awards: Houghton Mifflin literary fellowship, 1959; Guggenheim fellowship, 1959; National Book Award, 1960, 1995, for Sabbath's Theater ; Daroff award, 1960; American Academy grant, 1960; O Henry award, 1960; Ford Foundation grant, for drama, 1965; Rockefeller fellowship, 1966; National Book Critics Circle award, 1988, for The Counterlife, 1992, for Patrimony; National Jewish Book award, 1988; PEN-Faulkner award, 1993, for Operation Shylock ; National Medal of Arts, 1998; Pulitzer prize, 1998, for American Pastoral; Jewish Book Council Lifetime Achievement Award, 1999 Honorary degrees: Bucknell University, 1979; Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, 1985; Rutgers University, New Brunswick, New Jersey, 1987; Columbia University, New York, 1987. Member: American Academy, 1970.
Letting Go. New York, Random House, and London, Deutsch, 1962.
When She Was Good. New York, Random House, and London, Cape, 1967.
Portnoy's Complaint. New York, Random House, and London, Cape, 1969.
Our Gang (Starring Tricky and His Friends). New York, RandomHouse, and London, Cape, 1971.
The Breast. New York, Holt Rinehart, 1972; London, Cape, 1973; revised edition in A Philip Roth Reader, 1980.
The Great American Novel. New York, Holt Rinehart, and London, Cape, 1973.
My Life as a Man. New York, Holt Rinehart, and London, Cape, 1974.
The Professor of Desire. New York, Farrar Straus, 1977; London, Cape, 1978.
The Ghost Writer. New York, Farrar Straus, and London, Cape, 1979.
Zuckerman Unbound. New York, Farrar Straus, and London, Cape, 1981.
The Anatomy Lesson. New York, Farrar Straus, 1983; London, Cape, 1984.
The Prague Orgy. London, Cape, 1985.
Zuckerman Bound (includes The Prague Orgy). New York, FarrarStraus, 1985.
The Counterlife. New York, Farrar Straus, and London, Cape, 1987.
Deception. New York, Simon and Schuster, and London, Cape, 1990.
Operation Shylock: A Confession. New York, Simon and Schuster, and London, Cape, 1993.
Sabbath's Theater. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1995.
American Pastoral. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1997.
I Married a Communist. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1998.
The Human Stain. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 2000.
Goodbye, Columbus, and Five Short Stories. Boston, HoughtonMifflin, and London, Deutsch, 1959.
Penguin Modern Stories 3, with others. London, Penguin, 1969.
Novotny's Pain. Los Angeles, Sylvester and Orphanos, 1980.
Uncollected Short Stories
"Philosophy, or Something Like That" May 1952, "The Box of Truths" October 1952, "The Fence" May 1953, "Armando and the Frauds" October 1953, and "The Final Delivery of Mr. Thorn" May 1954, all in Et Cetera (Lewisburg, Pennsylvania). "The Day It Snowed," in Chicago Review, Fall 1954. "The Contest for Aaron Gold," in Epoch (Ithaca, New York), Fall 1955.
"Heard Melodies Are Sweeter," in Esquire (New York), August 1958.
"Expect the Vandals," in Esquire (New York), December 1958. "The Love Vessel," in Dial (New York), Fall 1959. "Good Girl," in Cosmopolitan (New York), May 1960.
"The Mistaken," in American Judaism (New York), Fall 1960.
"Psychoanalytic Special," in Esquire (New York), November 1963.
"On the Air," in New American Review 10, edited by TheodoreSolotaroff. New York, New American Library, 1970.
"Smart Money," in New Yorker, 2 February 1981.
"His Mistress's Voice," in Partisan Review (Boston), vol. 53, no. 2, 1986.
The Ghost Writer, with Tristram Powell, from the novel by Roth, 1983.
Reading Myself and Others. New York, Farrar Straus, and London, Cape, 1975; revised edition, London, Penguin, 1985.
A Philip Roth Reader. New York, Farrar Straus, 1980; London, Cape, 1981.
The Facts: A Novelist's Autobiography. New York, Farrar Straus, 1988; London, Cape, 1989.
Patrimony: A True Story. New York, Simon and Schuster, andLondon, Cape, 1991.
Conversations with Philip Roth, edited by George J. Searles. Jackson, University Press of Mississippi, 1992.
The Conversion of the Jews (for children). Mankato, Minnesota, Creative Education, 1993.
A Philip Roth Reader. London, Vintage, 1993.
Philip Roth: A Bibliography by Bernard F. Rodgers, Jr., Metuchen, New Jersey, Scarecrow Press, 1974; revised edition, 1984.
Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.
Bernard Malamud and Philip Roth: A Critical Essay by Glenn Meeter, Grand Rapids, Michigan, Eerdmans, 1968; "The Journey of Philip Roth" by Theodore Solotaroff, in The Red Hot Vacuum, New York, Atheneum, 1970; The Fiction of Philip Roth by John N. McDaniel, Haddonfield, New Jersey, Haddonfield House, 1974; The Comedy That "Hoits": An Essay on the Fiction of Philip Roth by Sanford Pinsker, Columbia, University of Missouri Press, 1975, and Critical Essays on Philip Roth edited by Pinsker, Boston, Twayne, 1982; Philip Roth by Bernard F. Rodgers, Jr., Boston, Twayne, 1978; "Jewish Writers" by Mark Shechner, in The Harvard Guide to Contemporary American Writing edited by Daniel Hoffman, Cambridge, Massachusetts, Harvard University Press, 1979; introduction by Martin Green to A Philip Roth Reader, New York, Farrar Straus, 1980, London, Cape, 1981; Philip Roth by Judith Paterson Jones and Guinevera A. Nance, New York, Ungar, 1981; Philip Roth by Hermione Lee, London, Methuen, 1982; Reading Philip Roth edited by A.Z. Milbauer and D.G. Watson, London, Macmillan, 1988; Understanding Philip Roth by Murray Baumgarten and Barbara Gottfried, Columbia, University of South Carolina Press, 1990; Philip Roth Revisited by Jay L. Halio, New York, Twayne, 1992; Comic Sense: Reading Robert Coover, Stanley Elkin, Philip Roth by Thomas Pughe, Basel, Birkhäuser, 1994; Beyond Despair: Three Lectures and a Conversation with Philip Roth by Aharon Appelfeld, translated by Jeffrey M. Green, New York, Fromm International, 1994; Philip Roth and the Jews by Alan Cooper, Albany, State University of New York Press, 1996; Text/Countertext: Postmodern Paranoia in Samuel Beckett, Doris Lessing, and Philip Roth by Marie A. Danziger, New York, P. Lang, 1996.
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In the title of one of the best essays on Philip Roth, Alfred Kazin used the word "toughminded." This quality pervades his novels, stories, and essays. Roth's unsparing portraits of Jews too adept at scheming and compromise have upset rabbis and Jewish organizations. His frank acknowledgment of such unmentionables as abortion, masturbation, and sexual calisthenics has alarmed some, but these irate—usually unliterary—responses seem only to have fueled his writing.
Roth has been most at ease with Jewish characters and settings. His ear is especially sensitive to the verbal rhythm and pulse beat of the second-generation American Jew who has recently abandoned the inner city for the suburbs. The stories in Roth's first book, Goodbye, Columbus, are almost all concerned with confrontations between Jews of radically different persuasions and temperaments. Thus Neil Klugman, in the title story, confronts the Jewish society of Short Hills, as represented by Brenda Patimkin and her family, where "fruit grew in their refrigerator and sporting goods dropped from their trees!" Neil's wrong-side-of-the-track Judaism fails to make the proper concessions and adjustments. In "Eli, The Fanatic" the assimilated Jews of another suburban community, Woodenton, employ the lawyer Eli Peck to force a Yeshivah to move elsewhere or at least to "modernize." We see a skillful confrontation between the Talmudic logic of the Yeshivah's headmaster and the more worldly logic of Eli. Eli ends by donning the Hasidic garb of one of the Yeshivah instructors—which suggests to his fellow Jews of Woodenton the return of an earlier nervous breakdown. Jew is also pitted against Jew in "The Conversion of the Jews," This time the questioning Jewish schoolboy Ozzie Freedman forces embarrassing ideological concessions from Rabbi Binder and the Jewish establishment when he threatens to jump from the roof of the synagogue. The stories in Goodbye, Columbus are brilliantly irreverent.
Roth's heterodoxy continues into his first novel, Letting Go, He enlarges the focus here to include not only the idiosyncrasies of the Jewish community but also of university faculties, charlatan abortionists, and ill-suited love relationships. Very little is left out. Gabe Wallach's "I" controls the early parts of the novel; then it recedes into a kind of background first-person and finally turns into a more respectably detached third-person. Wallach is the intruder who keeps moving in and out of delicate situations—always avoiding complete involvement—and so this changing of narrative focus is especially apt. He defines his position early in the novel: "It was beginning to seem that toward those for whom I felt no strong sentiment, I gravitated; where sentiment existed, I ran." Wallach's years as a graduate student at the University of Iowa and as an instructor at the University of Chicago offer a rejection of his eastern seaboard Jewish background (born in New York, educated at Harvard). The first words of the novel are the deathbed letter of Gabe Wallach's mother. This letter, inadvertently tucked between the pages of his copy of James's Portrait of a Lady, starts Gabe off on the midwestern pilgrimage which involves the series of precarious relationships with Libby and Paul Herz and with Martha Reganhart. The terribly flawed Herz marriage somehow survives Gabe's "meddling"; in fact, it is strengthened by the adoption of a child and by a spirited assertion of Judaism. Gabe Wallach's love affair with Martha Reganhart fares less well. Gabe speaks of himself in a final letter to Libby as an "indecisive man" who had had but "one decisive moment."
Roth also places his next novel, When She Was Good, in the midwest—this time a midwest without Jews. The texture of his writing changes markedly; it seems to flatten out, to become, as Theodore Solotaroff suggests, "a language of scrupulous banality." The midwestern Protestantism which underlies the novel is threatened only by an adolescent flirtation with the Catholic Church by the heroine Lucy Nelson; this is lightly dismissed as "all that Catholic hocus-pocus." Lucy's intolerance and uncomfortable moral provincialism manage to get in the way of her own marriage and that of her parents. She cannot put up with her husband's rather puerile brashness and incompetence or with her father's alcoholism.
Just as Roth was able to capture the special quality of the conversation of both first and second generation American Jews in Goodbye, Columbus and Letting Go, so in When She Was Good he manages handsomely with the cliché-ridden language of Main Street.
Portnoy's Complaint is a return, with a vengeance, to Roth's earlier manner. It seems to come out of the best pages of Goodbye, Columbus and Letting Go. Roth has settled here on all the things he knows how to do best, especially in his creation of the urban Jewish family with the mother at its moral center. Portnoy's Complaint is the staccato confession of Alexander Portnoy to his psychiatrist Dr. Spielvogel (who makes another appearance in My Life As a Man) in heavily free associative prose.
The novel begins with a section entitled "The Most Unforgettable Character I've Met"; the reference is to Sophie Portnoy who dominates not only the family but also the "confessions" of her son. (She is in part anticipated by Aunt Gladys in "Goodbye, Columbus" and Paul Herz's mother in Letting Go.) She characteristically pushes to the background her perpetually constipated and henpecked husband and her pathetically unendowed daughter. The confrontation is between mother and son. The fiercely aggressive, domineering mother seems to win out since it is the son who does the confessing from the analyst's couch. Alex, however, gains some measure of revenge through sieges of masturbation in his youth and through affairs with gentiles (shiksas) in his more mature years. He masterfully uncovers chinks in his Jewish mother's armor by taunting her with his conquest of Christian girls and by abusing the family rabbi, but always at the expense of his own too active feelings of guilt. Everything in this novel, it would seem, "can be traced to the bonds obtaining in the mother-child relationship." Jewish mothers, in the past few years, have presented a challenge to some of the best American Jewish novelists, like Wallace Markfield, Bruce Jay Friedman, and Herbert Gold. Probably the most realized and convincing of all is Sophie Portnoy.
Roth's versatility is very much in evidence in Our Gang (Starring Tricky and His Friends), he seems able to manage the rhetoric of political corruption quite as easily as the language of the Jewish urban dweller who has recently retreated to the suburbs. In Our Gang Roth takes on a formidable adversary, the Nixon administration: he carried a certain Trick E. Dixon from a press conference, an underground meeting with his "coaches;" an address to his "fellow Americans," to an election speech—following his assassination—to his "fellow Fallen" in Hell. This speech ends with the revealing sentence: "And let there be no mistake about it: if I am elected Devil, I intend to see Evil triumph in the end; I intend to see that our children, and our children's children, need never know the terrible scourge of Righteousness and Peace." Passages from Swift and Orwell appropriately serve as epigraphs for this novel.
The Breast, in certain ways, marks a return to Portnoy's Complaint. One might think of this novella—with its college professor narrator, David Alan Kepesh, who turns into a female breast—as a working out of certain fantasies suggested by Portnoy with some help from Kafka, Gogol, and Swift. The bookish hero cannot resist likening his peculiar condition to that of Kafka's Gregor Samsa who awakens to discover that he has turned into a huge bug or to that of Gogol's Kovalyov who awakens to find that he is missing his nose; he makes reference also to Swift's "self-satisfied Houyhnhnms" and to "Gulliver among the Brobdingnags," in which country "the king's maidservants had him walk out on their nipples for the fun of it."
The Great American Novel seems to have little in common with the previous fiction. This baseball novel is Roth's contributions to a genre that has already attracted several other American Jewish writers, including Bernard Malamud and Mark Harris. It is filled with oblique references to a wide variety of literary works. Thus it begins with the sentence, "Call me Smitty." A sensational pitcher goes under the name Gil Gamesh. American literature and baseball are occasionally brought together in uneasy confrontation; they make for strange bedfellows. This mock-heroic tone reinforces the sense of caricature and pastiche which runs through the novel. Roth holds up the myth of the Great American Novel to the same ridicule as the myth of the Great American Pastime.
My Life As a Man fits snugly into place in the main line of Philip Roth's development. The Jewish ingredients are less pronounced here than in Goodbye, Columbus, Letting Go, and Portnoy's Complaint, yet the ambience is unmistakably the same. The writer-hero of the novel, Peter Tarnopol, has much in common with Gabe Wallach, Alexander Portnoy, and David Alan Kepesh. Indeed he has the same bookish tendencies as Kepesh. Roth offers a clever variation on the novel-within-the-novel device as he prefaces the main part of his work, "My True Story" (Tarnopol's sustained confessional), with two of his protagonist's short stories. The "useful fictions," as Roth calls these stories, have a great deal to do with Tarnopol's "true story"; truth and fiction, it would seem, are ultimately interchangeable. My Life As a Man reveals Roth in his dual roles as novelist and critic. The narrative strategy allows for a good deal of theorizing about the nature of novel-writing and a certain amount of literary criticism.
The Professor of Desire and The Ghost Writer, both first-person novels, borrow as narrators characters who appeared in the earlier fiction. The Professor of Desire, like The Breast, is told by David Kepesh while Nathan Zuckerman, the central presence in the "Useful Fictions" section of My Life As a Man, narrates The Ghost Writer. The Professor of Desire offers an elaborate unfolding of Kepesh's wanderjahre in the years preceding his metamorphosis. The restless narrative starts and ends in the Catskills—the Jewish still point of the novel. The itinerary is dotted with literary and amorous "excavations." Since his graduate school days at Stanford, Kepesh has been working intermittently on a book about romantic disillusionment in Chekhov's stories. A real and imagined Kafka occupies a central position in the Prague interlude. The amorous is even more in evidence than the literary, as Kepesh makes his way from a succession of girl friends, to a marriage and divorce, finally to a rather idyllic relationship with Claire Ovington.
The literary and the amorous are also strongly evident in The Ghost Writer. The novel turns about an odd triangular relationship, involving the narrator, Zuckerman, the renowned writer E.I. Lonoff, and a young lady who has served a kind of apprenticeship (literary and perhaps also sexual) at Lonoff's feet, Amy Bellette. Zuckerman, a youthful author, arrives at Lonoff's house at the beginning of this short novel, in retreat from his cloying Jewish parents and his Newark childhood. He is an onlooker, in much the same way as Styron's narrator in Sophie's Choice, as he tries to unravel the complications of a situation that couples the erotic with the literary. With some help from Henry James's The Middle Years and other literary texts, Zuckerman weaves a complex mosaic which turns Amy Bellette into the author of The Diary of Anne Frank. The mythological machinery he invents here is in a sense his work of art: the gesture which will make him worthy of becoming Lonoff's "spiritual son" and perhaps eventually Amy's sexual partner. In The Ghost Writer Roth seems to have moved his familiar literary baggage to a new setting, rural New England; with the change has come a minimizing of the ethnically Jewish world of the early fiction in favor of a broader Judaeo-Christian canvas.
The Ghost Writer can probably be read, as several reviewers have suggested, as being something of a roman à clef: with Zuckerman taking on many aspects of the young Roth, halfway through his first book, Goodbye, Columbus, looking for a Jewish literary patron and finding him in Lonoff, who is probably a composite figure with a heady dose of Bernard Malamud and a suspicion of Isaac Bashevis Singer and Isaac Babel. One can continue this kind of reading with Zuckerman Unbound, which takes place in 1969, thirteen years after the events of The Ghost Writer. Nathan Zuckerman, who has abdicated his role as narrator in this third-person novel, has just published a controversial best-seller, Carnovsky, which bears an uncanny resemblance to Roth's 1969 Portnoy's Complaint. (This title may offer an oblique reminder of I.J. Singer's The Family Carnovsky which, in its translation from the Yiddish, also appeared in 1969).
Zuckerman Unbound concerns the aftermath of this event as Zuckerman spends much of his time coping with the bittersweet smell of post-Carnovsky success, disentangling himself from his creature Gilbert Carnovsky, picking up the pieces of his most recent broken marriage. We see him during a variety of encounters: with his agent, his answering service, a beautiful Irish actress, members of his family, and a curious interloper named Alvin Pepler (who takes on the role of his "double" or "secret sharer"). If the novel has an epiphany it occurs toward the end when Zuckerman flies to Miami to witness the death of his father, only to hear him pronounce, as his dying word, "bastard"—unmistakably directed at his author son. Nathan's desperate litany in the final paragraph sums up the futility: "You are no longer any man's son, you are no longer some good woman's husband, you are no longer your brother's brother, and you don't come from anywhere anymore, either."
The Anatomy Lesson sounds an even more wrenching note of despair. Zuckerman, now forty years old, is unable to write and is forced to wear an orthopedic collar to support his neck; psychic pain combines with physical pain to make his life unbearable. The only reprieve is offered by the visits of four women who "exercise" (also exorcise) him on a "playmat." The central text in The Anatomy Lesson is probably Mann's The Magic Mountain, which one of the woman reads to him; it serves something of the same purpose as The Middle Years did in The Ghost Writer. Alvin Pepler was a haunting presence throughout Zuckerman Unbound, but nothing quite as terrifying and obsessive as the literary critic Milton Appel proves to be here. (In another flirtation with the possibilities of roman à clef, Roth has modeled Appel after Irving Howe who had singularly harsh things to say about his work, including the devastating comment, in a December 1972 Commentary article, "Philip Roth Reconsidered," that the cruelest thing would be to read Portnoy's Complaint twice.)
Zuckerman finally decides to renegotiate the circumstances of his life, as he leaves New York for Chicago: "By nightfall his career as a writer would be officially over and the future as a physician underway." The closest he gets to a medical career is a long stay at a university hospital, first as patient, then as patient accompanying interns on their monotonous rounds.
Zuckerman Bound contains the three Zuckerman novels, now declared to be a trilogy, and an epilogue, the novella-length The Prague Orgy. This postlude offers segments from Zuckerman's notebooks, one from New York, dated 11 January 1976, the other two from Prague, dated February 4 and 5 of the same year. A seemingly revitalized Zuckerman leaves New York for Prague to recover the unpublished Yiddish stories of a certain Sisovsky, the father of a Czech writer he meets in New York; we are told that "this is not the Yiddish of Sholem Aleichem. This is the Yiddish of Flaubert," Zuckerman does finally gain possession of this material only to have it confiscated before he leaves Prague. This failed mission seems to be linked to Kafka at every turn. The author of "The Metamorphosis," for example, makes an intriguing appearance: " As Nathan Zuckerman awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a sweeper of floors in a railway café " (Roth's italics). This is not only the twentieth-century Prague of Kafka revisited but also perhaps the sixteenth-century Prague of the golem—the creation of the Maharal, Rabbi Jehuda Loew—who was to save the Jews from Czech atrocities. One can agree with Harold Bloom who sees The Prague Orgy as something of a summa, "a kind of coda to all his [Roth's] fiction so far."
Roth's Zuckermania continues into The Counterlife, which critics were quick to characterize as Roth's first serious flirtation with metafiction. David Denby expressed this as well as anybody when he spoke of Roth's having "abandoned narrative solidity altogether, reviving characters supposedly dead, allowing characters to review their fictional representation, folding fictions within fictions, becoming, in fact, an earnest writer of 'metafiction."' Nathan Zuckerman and his brother Henry dominate the narrative which restlessly moves across the globe, with stops in New Jersey, Israel, and England. Among other unlikely occurrences, we see both Henry and Nathan returning from the dead after unsuccessful encounters with open-heart surgery. Toward the end of the novel, Nathan receives a long letter from his beloved Maria, which begins: "I'm leaving. I've left. I'm leaving you and I'm leaving the book … I know characters rebelling against their author has been done before …"
The Facts completes the task started by The Counterlife and emphatically brings Roth onto the postmodern scene, especially in the sense that distinctions between fact and fiction no longer apply. Roth brackets the memoir part of his narrative—five chapters and a prologue of seeming "factual" autobiography—with epistolary exchanges between himself and Nathan Zuckerman. Zuckerman's thiryfive-page letter, which concludes The Facts, is filled with the rebelliousness of the character turning on the author, a more realized example of the species than Maria's letter in The Counterlife. Nathan questions the nature of Roth's enterprise in postmodern language: "With autobiography there's always another text, a countertext, if you will, to the one presented. It's probably the most manipulative of all literary forms." In The Facts, fact and fiction seem to rub up against each other, blurring distinctions between the two.
Deception relies entirely on dialogue, dialogue rendered through quotation marks rather than Joycean dashes. We listen in on a babel of voices—often recycling material from the earlier novels—which allow the erotic to mingle freely with the aesthetic. One of the unnumbered, untitled chapters begins: "'This is the situation. Zuckerman, my character, dies. His young biographer is having lunch with somebody, and he's talking about his difficulties getting started with the book."' The biographer's craft is discussed for several pages as fact and fiction once again seem to be on a collision course: "The Lonoff book turned out to be a critical biography, Between Worlds, The Life of E.I. Lonoff. The tentative title of the Zuckerman book is Improvisations on a Self …"
Deception seems to thrive on trompe l'oeil effects. The author himself enters the frame of his novel and makes a number of revealing statements, such as "'I write fiction and I'm told it's autobiography, I write autobiography and I'm told it's fiction …"' Or this metafictional insertion: "'I have been imagining myself, outside of my novel, having a love affair with a character inside my novel."'
The Counterlife, The Facts, and Deception form a curious trilogy of artistic dissent. The presence of Nathan Zuckerman in all three makes one feel that he has emphatically replaced all those earlier literary alter egos, such as Gabe Wallach, Peter Tarnopol, and David Alan Kepesh.
The mid-to late 1990s saw a shower of novels and awards attending the apogee of Roth's career. In Sabbath's Theater, his portrayal of Mickey Sabbath, a failed theater owner and misanthrope almost worthy of Moliere, won Roth a National Book Award. American Pastoral exceeded its predecessors in all respects, a fact measured by its winning a Pulitzer: in this, perhaps Roth's greatest work, the unravelling of America in the mid-twentieth century takes on a highly personal dimension in the personae of the mild-mannered Swede Levov and his troubled daughter Merry. Much of the imagery in the earlier part of the book is as peaceful as the title suggests, and this makes the confrontation with the hatred, violence, and militancy of the 1960s all the more painful. Overcome by radical fervor—a fervor for which Roth has no sympathy, given the fact that it is turned against the very nation that nurtured their parents—Merry and her friends plant a bomb that kills an innocent man. Thus Swede and his family are forced "out of the longed-for American pastoral and into everything that is its antithesis and its enemy—into the fury, the violence and the desperation of the counter-pastoral—into the American berserk."
Here Roth has almost completely transcended the narrow ethnic confines of his earlier work. His characters happen to be Jewish in the same sense that Dostoyevsky's happen to be Russian: it is the world the author knows, and ethnic or national identity is integral to that world, but the message belongs to a much wider audience. After American Pastoral, Roth faltered with I Married a Communist, a book guilty of an unpardonable sin—it was boring—but he more than redeemed himself with The Human Stain, a work that proved the author as inventive and as capable of surprises as he has ever been.
—Melvin J. Friedman,
updated by Judson Knight