Philip Roth died this week at the age of 85, six years after announcing his retirement from writing. Over the past five decades, the novelist has loomed almost as large in The Atlantic’s pages as he has in the broader world of American letters. His name first appeared in the magazine when an excerpt of his third book, When She Was Good, was published in the November 1966 issue. By that time, Roth was already a known—if not remarkably well-known—figure in American literature. In the introduction to the excerpt, he was referred to as a “distinguished author” and praised for writing “fiction of a quality that brings perspective to truth.”
But Roth was then still in the early stages of his literary career—a career spanning nearly 60 years, over the course of which he produced scores of essays, short stories, and novels, and garnered myriad accolades and awards. In the 50 years since the appearance of that first excerpt, The Atlantic has published three more pieces by Roth and grappled with his powerfully personal, and at times controversial, writing in dozens of reviews, essays, and printed readers’ letters.
In 1969, just three months after Roth’s infamous fourth book, Portnoy’s Complaint, was published, his former graduate-school classmate Theodore Solotaroff recalled some experiences with the increasingly popular young novelist and shared thoughts about his fiction in an essay for the magazine. Solotaroff recalled the strange experience of reading Roth’s autobiography-driven work for the first time after living and studying in the same spaces as him:
It was like sitting down in a movie house and suddenly seeing there on the screen a film about the block on which I had grown up: the details of place, character, incident all intimately familiar and yet new, or at least never appreciated before for their color and interest …
Here was this young semblable of mine, who dragged me off for a good corned beef sandwich or who gave me a push when my car wouldn’t start, and who, somehow, was doing for the much less promising poetry of Newark, New Jersey, what the famous Salinger was doing for that of Central Park West.
Solotaroff was full of praise for Roth’s early writing—for its “sudden sweeping aside of outmoded complexities for the sake of a fresh view of experience”; its “informal tone … as relaxed as conversation, yet terse and fleet and right on the button”; and its “evocative” exploration of themes from his and Roth’s shared background. He was especially enthusiastic about Portnoy’s Complaint, concluding the essay:
It’s a marvelously entertaining book and one that mines a narrow but central vein more deeply than it has ever been done before. You don’t have to be Jewish to be vastly amused and touched and instructed by Portnoy’s Complaint, though it helps. Also you don’t have to know Philip Roth to appreciate the personal triumph that it represents, though that helps, too.
A reader whose letter was published in the June 1969 issue of the magazine was less impressed by Roth or Portnoy’s Complaint than Solotaroff was:
In all of Roth there is more style than content. There is no development, there is no maturity. I can only think of him as a highly stylized sophomore of the 1950s. Until he can show development and growth, manhood and meaning, his writing is equivalent to clinical case histories waiting for the Grand Therapist in the Sky to make it all better.
But in the following decades, other contributors to the magazine, both in articles and letters to the editor, repeatedly praised Roth’s work. In the same period, The Atlantic published two excerpts of Roth’s novel Zuckerman Unbound—titled “In the Bin” and “Look Homeward, Angel,” both in 1981—and an autobiographical essay—“Joe College,” in 1987—none of which is currently available in our digital archives.