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Philip Roth Giant of American Literature Dies

Philip Roth. Obama Confers Nat'l Medal of Arts/ Getty

 

Philip Roth, the American Jewish novelist, and one of the pre-eminent figure in 20th century literature died on Tuesday night of congestive heart. His death was confirmed by a close friend, Judith Thurman, The New York Times reported.

The 85 years-old often blackly comic author work included three magisterial novels “American Pastoral” (1997), “I Married a Communist”(1998) and “The Human Stain” (2000), came to be known as the American Trilogy.

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With the Pulitzer, the National Book Critics Circle award, Man Booker International award, twice National Book Award and three times the PEN/Faulkner Award, Philip Roth became one of the most awarded American writers of his time.

Short story collection Goodbye, Columbus (1959) marked Roth’s first success for which he received the U.S. National Book Award for Fiction. His breakout in 1969 with novel “Portnoy’s Complaint” drew some concern that Portnoy’s graphic sexual desires would light an anti-Semites wave. Not to forget another character in many of his novels, Nathan Zuckerman, Roth’s type of alter ego, upset many Jews. Roth, however, demurred to be defined as an American Jewish writer.

After decades as leading literary lights, incurred from Jewish family life, sex, and American ideals, the Jewish anger was eclipsed by acclaim. The Jewish community embraced Roth over his long career. Three of his books were honored with the American Jewish Book Award, and in 1998 he won the Jewish Book Council’s Lifetime Literary Achievement Award.

 

His novel, “The Plot Against America,” (2004) imagines an alternative history in which Franklin D. Roosevelt is defeated in the presidential election of 1940 by the pro-Nazi demagogue Charles Lindbergh.

This novel was much discussed in 2016 as a prescient look at the populist tides that would sweep Donald Trump into the White House over the more conventional Democrat.

In 2014, the writer whose works were once denounced as profane and even self-hating was honored by one of American Jewry’s sacred citadels when The Jewish Theological Seminary, Conservative Judaism’s flagship educational institution, awarded Roth an honorary doctorate at its commencement ceremony.

“From enfant terrible to elder statesman. Time heals all wounds,” Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles remarked to JTA via email at the time.

In 2012, Roth announced that he would not be writing more books. Two years later, he said that he was done with public appearances.

The seminary’s chancellor, Arnold Eisen, himself a sociologist, called Roth the “greatest sociologist on American Jewish life, without a doubt.”

In an interview, Eisen noted his admiration for the Roth novels that examined the relationship between Israel and the Diaspora, such as “The Counterlife” and “Operation Shylock,” as well as works that explored the American scene, like “The Human Stain” and “American Pastoral.”

“We are a community that treasures someone who holds up such a penetrating and insightful mirror to who we are and reveals the dilemmas and contradictions and aspirations of the community,” Eisen said. “We are grateful for the mirror even if not everything you see in it is easy.”

Many in the 1950s and 1960s, when Roth emerged from his cherished Jewish Weequahic neighborhood of Newark, New Jersey to wide acclaim with his first collection, “Goodbye, Columbus,” found it hard to embrace Roth.

“What is being done to silence this man?” an American rabbi asked in a 1963 letter to the Anti-Defamation League.

In one notorious incident, Roth was shaken by a hostile reception he received at a 1962 literary symposium at New York’s Yeshiva University. Recalling being shouted at by hostile students after the event, Roth vowed to “never write about Jews again” — a promise, of course, that he did not keep.

“There is a certain amount of poetic justice, an aesthetically satisfying irony, in Philip Roth’s beginning his career with a brouhaha at Yeshiva University and ending it with an honorary doctorate from the Jewish Theological Seminary — an honor perhaps more significant than the Nobel Prize that eludes him,” Michael Kramer, associate professor of literature at Israel’s Bar-Ilan University, wrote in an email to JTA in 2014. “Would Roth himself have imagined such a plot? His endings tend to the tragic.”

The president of the Philip Roth Society, Aimee Pozorski, once said of Roth, “From the very beginning of his career, he has been deeply invested in representing the lives and fates of Jewish youth.”

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JTA contributed to this report

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