Why Philip Roth, Why Now?

Mar 14, 2023
Dimitris Passas

NOTE: This article is a republication- Source: Literary Hub.

When Philip Roth died in 2018, media was saturated with coverage, testimonials and commemorations of the writer, and rightfully so. A towering voice in American letters for more than half a century, Roth had delighted, entertained and provoked readers with his complex portraits of characters chafing against the constraints of expectation and convention, infusing each of his books with humor, wit, moral seriousness and social hypotheticals that feel eerily prescient today—about the relationship between our private lives and the public interest; on our attitudes toward sex, race, faith, and Jewish identity in particular; the limits of speech, religious transgression, political correctness, outrage, shame, betrayal, loyalty and our relentless obsession with prestige.

No aspect of behavior was spared his withering gaze—everything and everyone were fair game. Including Roth. 1959’s “Defender of the Faith,” an early Roth story about a Jewish Army sergeant and the Jewish draftee who repeatedly seeks favors from his superior, was received with both acclaim and outrage upon its publication, prompting accusations of anti-Semitism. As was “Epstein,” the story of a 60-year-old adulterer caught having an affair with his neighbor. And worse was yet to come.

Thinly veiled racism, misogynistic depictions of women—these and similar charges dogged Roth from book to book. And yet, Roth’s willingness to wrestle with our worst impulses and his ability to transform what he viewed as our most human imperfections into art blew the doors off what was possible in fiction for a generation of writers and readers.

Again and again Roth was taken to task by his critics, and again and again he turned those criticisms around to remind us that the most “ruthless antagonist” tended, in the end, to be oneself. “It is difficult, if not impossible,” he pushed back in a Commentary Magazine column responding to critics in 1963, “to explain to some of the people claiming to have felt my teeth sinking in, that in many instances they haven’t been bitten at all.”

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