Brow Beat

Novelist Philip Roth Has Died at 85

Novelist Philip Roth.
Philip Roth in New York, 2010.
Reuters/Eric Thayer

Novelist Philip Roth has died at the age of 85, the New Yorker reports. Roth, one of the great chroniclers of American Jewish life, twice won the National Book Award for fiction, first for his 1959 debut Goodbye, Columbus, and again in 1995 for Sabbath’s Theater; in 1997, he won a Pulitzer Prize in Fiction for his novel American Pastoral. In 2010, he was awarded a National Humanities Medal, and in 2011, he won a Man Booker International Prize for lifetime achievement.

Roth hailed from Newark, New Jersey, the setting for many of his novels, and studied English literature at Bucknell University and the University of Chicago. His first book, Goodbye, Columbus, was a critical success, but it was his fourth book, Portnoy’s Complaint, that brought him widespread fame. Many of his works have been adapted for film, most recently 2016’s American Pastoral. He was married twice, first to Margaret Martinson Williams and later to the actress Claire Bloom.

Roth publicly retired from writing in 2012, after publishing his 24th novel, Nemesis.
In 2014, in an interview with the BBC Roth billed as “absolutely my last appearance on any stage ever,” he discussed his decision to stop writing:

I had reached the end. There was nothing more for me to write about. I was fearful that I’d have nothing to do. I was terrified, in fact, but I knew there was no sense continuing. I was not going to get any better. And why get worse? And so … I set out upon the great task of doing nothing.

But those weren’t his last words on the subject. In a 2018 interview with the New York Times, Roth was asked what he remembered about his writing career:

Exhilaration and groaning. Frustration and freedom. Inspiration and uncertainty. Abundance and emptiness. Blazing forth and muddling through. The day-by-day repertoire of oscillating dualities that any talent withstands—and tremendous solitude, too. And the silence: 50 years in a room silent as the bottom of a pool, eking out, when all went well, my minimum daily allowance of usable prose.