Remembering Philip Roth, a Giant of American Literature

The writer, who died at the age of 85, was the last of the larger-than-life novelists of the mid-20th century.

Richard Drew / AP

Philip Roth, who died Tuesday night at the age of 85, was at the center of American literature for almost 60 years—a quarter of his country’s history. It has been six years since Roth announced his retirement from writing, and there were surely no more books to come; so why does his death feel so much like a loss, as if readers had been deprived of something? Perhaps it is because Roth was the last of the larger-than-life novelists of the mid-20th century, a reminder of a time when literary excellence and bestsellerdom and celebrity could all go together in one electric package. We still have writers as talented and accomplished as Roth, but no one seems so grand. In mourning him, we are also mourning the fact that literature itself doesn’t matter as much as it once did: It’s hard to imagine any novel, no matter how daring, having the same kind of cultural impact today that Portnoy’s Complaint had in 1969.

Of course, it was the intense personality of Roth’s work that made many readers find him suffocating or toxic. Vivian Gornick was the first to attack his misogyny; David Foster Wallace saw him as an egotistical dinosaur, part of an obsolete pack that included Saul Bellow and John Updike. They weren’t wrong, exactly; it is true that to read Philip Roth was always, at some level, to read about Philip Roth. Whether the character he was writing about bore his own name or those of his alter egos—Nathan Zuckerman, David Kepesh—Roth’s heroes were always his surrogates. They were aggressive, lustful men, who became hyperarticulate as they boiled over. He did not go in for Tolstoyan impersonality or Jamesian nuance; there are many novelistic registers he didn’t touch. But limits are not flaws; they are the contours by which we can recognize a particular writer’s genius.

One of Roth’s late books was titled Indignation, and this emotion was his true muse: Whatever could irritate him inspired him. No American writer has ever ranted like Roth—he learned the technique in part from Louis-Ferdinand Céline, the great French anti-Semite—and it is not always pleasant to be subjected to a rant. But with Roth, it was usually energizing and exciting. Few writers can make the page glow with thoughtful anger the way he did. For all his hatred of parochial moralizing—a constant theme in his work, whether the preaching came from Jews or gentiles, liberals or conservatives—Roth was himself a kind of moralist. The greatest value, for him, was honesty, and he was chiefly honest about the ugliness of desire—which, in a character like Mickey Sabbath from Sabbath’s Theater, is transformed into an inarguable vital force. Roth’s vision of the universe was bleak, especially as he got older and death came into focus for him; this was the great difference between him and a writer with whom he is often bracketed: Saul Bellow, who had a yearning for transcendence. For Roth, life was the body, which was why the body’s claims had to be honored, even when they were selfish and reckless.

Early and late, Jewishness was one of the chief irritations that, like sand in the oyster, produced the pearl of Roth’s fiction. The stories in his first book, Goodbye, Columbus, remain some of the most acute and unanswerable things ever written about, and against, American Jewishness; the rabbis who railed against the book were right to see it as deeply mischievous. But Roth’s faith in America was such that he did not believe it was unsafe for a Jewish writer to be mischievous. In The Ghost Writer, Nathan Zuckerman receives a letter from a hometown grandee, Judge Wapter, berating him for the way he has written about Jews: “If you had been living in Nazi Germany in the ’30s, would you have written such a story?” For Zuckerman, and Roth, the question is gloriously self-refuting: America is not Nazi Germany. The thought that it might have been, or might still be, was Roth’s deepest nightmare, which he brought to life in the best of his late books, The Plot Against America.

At a certain point in Roth’s career—say, with American Pastoral, which came out in 1997, when he was 64—the youthful incendiary began to be walled up inside the great man of letters. He became a figure to give prizes to—all except the Nobel, which he surely deserved if anyone did. In a crowning irony, even the Jewish Theological Seminary gave him an honorary degree, putting the shade of Judge Wapter to rest. But it does Roth a disservice to read him as an established figure, safe inside Library of America covers. He was a dangerous writer, one to wrestle with and argue about, not to calmly praise. For the readers of the future, the books will always be there like sticks of dynamite, ready to blow up complacency and moralism. The books are still alive.