NEW YORK (CBS News) — Philip Roth, the novelist who won virtually every prize short of the Nobel and became the post-World War II American voice chronicling Jewish-American life, family, politics and male sexual desire, has died. He was 85.
His death was confirmed by his literary agent, Andrew Wylie, late Tuesday. Roth died of congestive heart failure at 10:30 Tuesday evening, Wylie said via email.
Roth was one of the great male writers of post-war America, along with Saul Bellow and John Updike. His 1998 novel “American Pastoral” won the Pulitzer Prize and his first book, 1960’s “Goodbye Columbus” won the National Book Award. He won his second National Book Award in 1995 with “Sabbath’s Theater.” He was also the recipient of three PEN/Faulkner Awards and the Man Booker International Prize. He was one of only three American writers (after Bellow and Eudora Welty) to have his books enshrined in the Library of America while still living, according to The New York Times.
It was “Portnoy’s Complaint,” nearly 10 years after “Goodbye Columbus,” that made Roth a household name. “Portnoy’s Complaint” scandalized American audiences with its frank discussions of masturbation and male sexual desires, a recurring theme for Roth.
“Sex is important,” Roth told CBS “Sunday Morning” in 2010. “And sex plays a big part in people’s lives. Plays a huge part in their imaginations. Plays a huge part in their fantasies. And therefore, it’s a subject for writing.”
He insisted his own parents were not the basis for protagonist Portnoy’s infamous, unlikable parents. He told “Sunday Morning” that just before the book was published, he took his parents out to lunch to prepare them for all the controversy that he confidently predicted would soon swirl around them and their son, the writer.
Roth recounts that years later, his father, a successful insurance salesman, told him: “‘You know what happened when we got in the taxi cab?’ ‘What,’ I said. He said, ‘Your mother began to cry. And she said, ‘He has delusions of grandeur!'”
Roth grew up in Newark, the site of many of his books. Although he told “Sunday Morning” he didn’t have a “religious bone in my body,” most of his characters were Jews. He explained “if I grew up in Minneapolis, I would’ve written about the people in Minneapolis. I grew up in the southwest corner of Newark, New Jersey. And there were mostly Jews.”
Roth said he believed he first became a writer in college. “I began to write very bad, very sensitive stories,” he said. “And I wrote those through college.”
He published his first story in The New Yorker in 1958. Another story appearing in the magazine a year later, “Defending the Faith,” was condemned by rabbis and the Anti-Defamation League. A group of influential rabbis also denounced his first book, “Goodbye Columbus.”
“His sin was simple: he’d had the audacity to write about a Jewish kid as being flawed,” wrote David Remnick in a 2000 New Yorker profile of Roth. “He had violated the tribal code on Jewish self-exposure.”
He told “Sunday Morning” he didn’t believe in God and said “when the whole world doesn’t believe in God, it’ll be a great place.”
Roth published two novels in the 1960s, which he considered “apprentice work,” before “Portnoy’s Complaint.” Written as an extended monologue by a neurotic Jewish man talking to his therapist, The New Yorker described it as “one of the dirtiest books ever published.” It received mixed reviews, earned him condemnation from the Jewish community, became a bestseller but also changed the course of American literature.
His ex-wife, Claire Bloom, described him in her memoir as “a hostile man” and claimed he didn’t even like women. Roth refused to comment on her claims to “Sunday Morning,” saying “I don’t want to comment on libels.”
In the 1970s, Roth began writing about his alter ego, a writer named Nathan Zuckerman. Zuckerman makes his first appearance in 1974’s “My Life as a Man,” but is not fully examined until 1979’s “The Ghost Writer.” In all, Zuckerman appears in 10 Roth books, including the American trilogy of “American Pastoral,” “I Married a Communist” and “The Human Stain.” In 2007, Roth killed off Zuckerman, who was by then 71, incontinent and impotent, in “Exit Ghost.”
Roth himself retired in 2012 after publishing more than 20 books over half a century. The last line of his last book, “Nemesis,” ended simply, “He seemed to us invincible.”
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