Philip Roth, the prolific, often profane, and extraordinarily lyrical writer of American prose whose books—from his National Book Award–winning debut Goodbye, Columbus, to the seminal and divisive Portnoy's Complaint, to the Pulitzer Prize–winning American Pastoral, to 2010's finale, Nemesis—numbered in the thirties, died at a hospital in Manhattan on May 22. The cause, his friend Judith Thurman told the New York Times, was congestive heart failure. He was 85.
Roth, born into a Jewish-American family in a suburb of Newark, N.J., in 1933, began his literary career with a Houghton Mifflin Fellowship. That fellowship would result in the book that would become his first National Book Award winner, the novella-and-stories collection Goodbye, Columbus, in 1959.
In a statement, Bruce Nichols, senior v-p and publisher of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt's trade division, wrote that "America has lost its greatest living writer," adding: "We will be forever proud to have been there at the start, and to have published him for the past three decades. Long after the controversies have quieted, the greatness shines."
And controversies there were. Despite critical acclaim and an NBA, Roth's debut was received spitefully by a number of influential rabbis, who condemned the title novella and one of its stories. Frustrated, Roth claimed he would never write about Jews again.
Instead, he became, along with Saul Bellow and John Updike, one of America's most influential and sought-after authors of the latter half of the 20th Century—during a period in which men dominated the world of letters—in part through his recounting, in turns ribald and bleak, of a particular sort of Jewish-American male experience. Frequently lumped in, critically, with Bellow and another major Jewish-American voice in fiction, Bernard Malamud, Roth chafed at the title.
“The epithet American-Jewish writer has no meaning for me,” he said. “If I’m not an American, I’m nothing.”
That became clearest later in Roth's career with the so-called America Trilogy, made up of the Pulitzer-winning American Pastoral, I Married a Communist, and The Human Stain. Those three deeply-researched historical novels examined, respectively, the Vietnam War, the Communist witch hunts, and political correctness culture and racial relations.
Yet he remained overwhelmingly influenced by Jewishness. His frequent alter-ego, Nathan Zuckerman—who narrated nine of Roth's books, beginning with 1979's The Ghost Writer and ending with 2007's slyly-named Exit Ghost—proved a vehicle through which Roth could explore Jewish-American masculinity, lust, shame and, eventually, old age. And perhaps his most famous book was 1969's groundbreaking-yet-divisive Portnoy's Complaint, which the Times, in its obituary, called "an extended, unhinged monologue, at once filthy and hilarious, by a neurotic young Jewish man trying to break free of his suffocating parents and tormented by a longing to have sex with gentile women, shiksas." And 1995's Sabbath's Theater, another National Book Award winner, examined what PW's reviewer called "a sort of Portnoy for a later generation, gonads miraculously intact, but with an overlay of hard-won wisdom, celebration and regret."
In publishing's history, Roth also has a firm place. He hopped houses a number of times; in addition to HMH, Roth has been published by other presses including Random House and FSG, and, most recently, the Library of America, which reissued his books in collected editions beginning in 2005 and ending in 2017. He was the third of four writers—following Bellow and Eudora Welty, and preceding Ursula K. LeGuin—to have his works collected by the publisher while still living. And Roth's cheekily-named The Great American Novel, now considered one of his lesser works, graced the cover of PW's March 5, 1973, issue, while its deal was the subject of a great amount of speculation in an article titled "Hardbacks, Softbacks, and Greenbacks," published in the May 14, 1973, issue of Publishers Weekly.
In that piece, writer Thomas Weyr attempted to answer the question: "Does hardcover publishing have a future in a decade of paperback and book club supremacy in the marketplace?" It was a moment of hysteria surrounding that issue in the industry; for Roth's part, his split rights for paperback and hardcover between two houses, setting what was, for the time, a scary precedent.
Roth was easily among the most decorated writers in American letters, and held American literature's Triple Crown of awards—he won two National Book Awards, two National Book Critics Circle Awards, and the Pulitzer Prize once—in addition to three PEN/Faulkner awards, the Man Booker International Prize, Library of Congress Creative Achievement Award for Fiction, and the National Humanities Medal. He did not, however, win the Nobel Prize, despite frequent speculation in publishing circles and occasional grumbling on Roth's part—something the media, which loved to portray Roth as a perennial-jilted bride, ate up for years.
Yet Roth himself, knowing full well that the Nobel is rewarded only to a living, working writer, famously gave up writing in 2012—something he claimed, later, was due to what he called a lack of "possession of the mental vitality or the physical fitness needed to mount and sustain a large creative attack of any duration.” As a reminder, or perhaps proof, to himself, he posted a sticky note to his computer.
It read, simply: “The struggle with writing is done.”