‘The Trust of the Reader Is Distrusted by Roth’

How The Atlantic covered the late novelist Philip Roth from 1966 onward—via scathing reader letters, glowing reviews, and personal remembrances

Philip Roth
Joe Tabbacca / AP

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.

A decade after the last of these was printed, Roth published American Pastoral. The novel, which is about a middle-class businessman whose life is upended during Lyndon B. Johnson’s presidency, went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1998. In a review for The Atlantic, Ralph Lombreglia wrote that he “had expected to enjoy” the book, “partly for personal reasons. Its settings happen to be those of my own life.” Like Solotaroff, he approached Roth’s characters—drawn from the novelist’s own hometown and background—from a place of familiarity. But, despite Roth’s “masterly prose” stylings, Lombreglia found the book lacking in the very evocative, informal realism Solotaroff had praised 30 years earlier:

The abstracted treatment of ideas, the weighty, morally serious exposition, result in a novel that holds its material at arm’s length from the reader.

A story has to work as a story before it can work as an allegory. If one accepts the novel’s dramatic premise and then makes a list of seemingly essential scenes, one finds that very few of them are directly portrayed in the book. Roth is perfectly capable of saying “Lights! Camera! Action!,” and on the infrequent occasions when he does, the reader sits up straight, savors the sensation of being in a specific place at a specific moment, and hungrily awaits the drama. And yet many times when a real scene is put on stage for us to witness, it is interrupted by a long, intensely detailed digression. Eventually a miasma of unreality comes to pervade the book.

Looking back on Roth’s long and prolific career in 2012, Joseph O’Neill considered the complex, often combative relationship between the autobiographical and the fictional in the author’s substantial oeuvre:

Roth writes about himself: To know the life is to know the work. Certainly, by using narrators who are nominally Roth or may be easily taken to be his shadows, he may be understood to be inviting such an approach. Also, hasn’t he admitted to being an “autobiographical writer” whose only real beef, in this regard, is with misconceptions surrounding “the autobiographical writer that I am thought to be”? Hasn’t he written of “the facts” as his “way of springing into fiction”? Maybe so; but … I take his fiction at face value, even as the very notion of the face as a site of value is put in question by the “masks, disguises, distortions, and lies” with which Roth imagines actuality …

The trust of the reader is distrusted by Roth. Hence the games he plays with authorial identity and with crossing our lines of decency. It’s as if the only ethically tolerable situation, for Roth the artist, is that of being under permanent accusation—his most diligent accuser being himself. And what is the accusation? That, in breach of the paternal injunction, he is not being good. That he is being bad. But the world is what it is. Philip Roth can rewrite it, can protest it, can serve as our proxy vexatious litigant against the indifferent respondent gods—but he cannot make it otherwise.

“Philip, it’s not your fault,” O’Neill concluded. “You didn’t do it, son.”

Roth’s passing marks the final end of an illustrious literary career—but not of the many conversations that career has provoked, in the pages of The Atlantic and beyond. The time of fresh publications, new excerpts, and first reviews is past forever; but the time of remembering has only just begun.