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Philip Roth

March 19 is the birthday of novelist Philip Roth.  Born in Newark, New Jersey, in 1933, he grew up in a crowded Jewish neighborhood where he was fascinated with the conversations of his neighbors. 

"In warm weather, people sat on the stoops and on beach chairs in the driveways.  [At night] you'd be sweating, trying to sleep, and you'd hear them, you'd hear their conversation all the time, and it would be very comforting."

Early in his life, he rebelled against his background and Jewish society.  "Newark [was] the battleground...between the European family of immigrants...who clung to the rigorous orthodoxy and the [American] children who wanted to be rid of all that because they sensed immediately that it was useless in this society."

Following high school, Roth left Newark to attend college in Pennsylvania, where he hoped to find "the rest of America."  Afterwards, he enrolled in the University of Chicago to study English literature.  It was while he was there that he began writing short stories, some of which he published in small literary journals.

In 1959, he published his story, "Defender of the Faith," about a selfish, conniving Jew, in The New Yorker magazine.  Roth recalls the elation: "I'd open it and close it, and look at it from here and look at it from there, and read it, read it and then the words would just blast out of my mind and it all made no sense.  It was terribly thrilling." 

But not everyone was thrilled.  His editors told him that the magazine was receiving hundreds of letters from angry Jewish readers.  The Anti-Defamation League protested the story.  Roth tried to roll with the punches.

He published his first book, a collection of short stories called Goodbye Columbus, in 1959.  It received good reviews and won several awards.  But several years later, while speaking at a university in New York, his audience once again turned on him, accusing him of writing anti-Semitic literature.  When he tried to leave, the crowd closed in, and he barely escaped unscathed.  Later he said, "I'll never write about Jews again."

He tried living up to that mantra with the 1967 release of When She Was God, but he claimed that the book was no fun to write.  He finally concluded that he couldn't give up writing about his background.  And, if he was going to insult people everywhere, he might as well set out to write a book that was as offensive as possible. 

He had recently begun psychoanalysis, and he decided to write the book from the point-of-view of a patient on the analyst's couch.  The result, Portnoy's Complaint (1969), became a blistering success.  Written from the viewpoint of Alexander Portnoy, it marked a turning point in the author's career.  In the book, Roth's character, Alexander Portnoy, confesses to his psychiatrist, "What I'm saying, Doctor, is that I don't seem to stick my dick up these girls, as much as I stick it up their backgrounds - as though through fucking I will discover America.  Conquer America - maybe that's more like it.  Columbus, Captain Smith, Governor Winthorp, General Washington - now Portnoy."

Portnoy continues with his puberty-ridden obsession with masturbation and his relationship with Sophie, his over-possessive mother.  "Then came adolescence - half my waking life spent locked behind the bathroom door, firing my wad down the toilet bowl, or into the soiled clothes in the laundry hamper, or splat, up against the medicine-chest mirror, before which I stood in my dropped drawers so I could see how it looked coming out."

Many readers found the book offensive and even pornographic because of its sexual references.  Roth's presentation of Jewish Motherhood again got him into trouble with his Jewish readers.  Portnoy describing his mother: "She was so deeply imbedded in my consciousness that for the first year of school I seem to have believed that each of my teachers was my mother in disguise." 

The book, despite--or perhaps because of--its controversy, was one of the best sellers of the 1960s.  With it, Roth was successful, too.  He had succeeded into goading Jewish critics, who attacked him for his portrayal of Jews, and non-Jewish critics, who criticized him for his obscenity. 

"I cannot and do not live in the world of discretion, not as a writer, anyway," he said.  "I would prefer to, I assure you—it would make life easier.  But discretion is, unfortunately, not for novelists."

Roth has gone on to write many more novels, most of them narrated by a fictional writer named Nathan Zuckerman, including American Pastoral (1997), I Married a Communist (1998), and The Human Stain (2000).  His most recent novel is The Dying Animal (2001).  He has many more in the works.  He once said, "The road to hell is paved with works-in-progress."

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