2018-06-06 / Editorial

Philip Roth’s greatest creation was a character named Philip Roth


Philip Roth at the National Humanities Medal ceremony at the White House, Mar. 2, 2011. Philip Roth at the National Humanities Medal ceremony at the White House, Mar. 2, 2011. AMHERST, Mass.—Philip Roth lent to American literature a singular, unapologetic voice to which nothing was sacred. His fiction critiqued everything from fascism to Jewish bourgeois assimilation to political puritanism to Jewish boyhood to the Israeli- Diaspora dynamic. His early work seemed to be evidence that a Jew could write the great American novel.

When Roth died May 22 at 85, he left to American literature more than 30 books, each one containing a different blend of humor, wit, irreverence, pathos and trenchant social commentary. But he gave us even more than this. He gave American literature an unforgettable character: Himself.

In the mid-20th century, critics such as Irving Howe, Alfred Kazin, Karl Shapiro and others struggled to define the emergent Jewish American literature heralded by the likes of Saul Bellow and Bernard Malamud. If there now existed a Jewish American literature, they asked, who was the Jewish American writer? The Jewish American writer was primarily defined, according to these critics, by a set of tensions: Caught between the past and the future, between Yiddish and English, between tradition and assimilation, between the Old World and the New, between high culture and low culture. For the Jewish American writer, writing was a maddening compulsion, both a form of and a result of Jewish neurosis.

Enter Philip Roth, who not only exemplified this burgeoning writer type but himself built upon these JTA photo by Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images. characterizations, turning the critics’ sketches into a full-color portrait. He achieved this primarily through the use of his writerly alter ego—the Newark-born, University of Chicago-educated Nathan Zuckerman, who shares Roth’s demographics and many of his biographical facts.

Zuckerman, introduced in “The Ghost Writer,” both bears the burden of and the desire to escape the past (whether it be the Holocaust, the experience of first-generation immigrants or the Jewish writers who came before). He is caught in the double bind of being alienated from his Jewishness because of his Americanness and alienated from his Americanness by his Jewishness; he is a hypochondriac obsessed with his own mortality; he is a philanderer who perceives a link between his sexual virility and writerly productivity, and often struggles with both.

Roth’s work goes to great lengths to encourage readers to conflate the real Roth with his fictionalized alter egos. In many cases, he even reinforces this (known as the biographical fallacy) through the very act of seeming to reject it. In “The Anatomy Lesson” and “The Counterlife,” Zuckerman responds to family, friends, acquaintances and literary critics who attack him on the basis that he and his protagonists—especially “Carnovsky,” who bears a close resemblance to Roth’s infamous creation Alexander Portnoy—are one and the same. “The Anatomy Lesson” includes a cutting portrait of one Milton Appel, who writes an essay similar to the one Irving Howe published after the release of “Portnoy’s Complaint” complaining that Roth was “foolish” for trying to escape the claims of Jewish distinctiveness.

Through this and numerous other brilliant metafictional slights of hand (the entire novel of “Operation Shylock,” for instance, in which a narrator named “Philip Roth” confronts someone pretending to be Philip Roth), Roth blurred the lines between himself and the fictionalized versions of himself to such an extent that he turned himself into a literary character. 

Return to top