The death of Philip Roth on Tuesday (May 22) removes one of the great names from the living giants of American letters. In fact, many consider him to be the last of those giants, and they may well be right.
Obituaries in the New York Times, Washington Post, and many other publications have praised and analyzed his work. Some have included Roth’s great critics, speaking their minds about the inadequacies of his work.
Roth had three great interlocking themes in his work: the sexual drive of males (some males, not all); Jews and Jewishness in America; and American and Americanism. His fourth theme — or maybe it was just a device — was himself. He loved taking part in his own novels, playing with his and the reader’s imagination about whom he was really writing about.
Roth didn’t mind making his readers uncomfortable, and he ran into some of the consequences of that early in his career. In 1962, at a Yeshiva University symposium where he was a guest author, he was denounced repeatedly by questioners for a story he included in Goodbye, Columbus. The confrontation almost became physical when Roth tried to leave at the end of the program and was surrounded by shouting students.
The confrontation — fully described here: Roths visit to YU changed career — was a seminal event in Roth’s development of a writer and led him to view his own Jewishness more critically than he had ever done.
If you were (or are) disturbed by Roth’s work, you should read Matthew Rosza‘s article in Salon.com (On hating and loving Philip Roth: How I learned to appreciate the book that repulsed me | Salon.com). Rosza doesn’t particularly like Roth either but understands the value of his work.
Roth’s clear, precise prose and his honesty about himself, his work, and his view of the world made him one of the era’s great writers.
RIP, Philip Roth.
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