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Philip Roth, famed Jewish-American author, dies at 85

Philip Roth, the author who shook up the norms and narrative of Jewish teens in a rapidly changing time in American society, died on May 22 at the age of 85.

Philip Roth
Philip Roth

Philip Roth, the author who shook up the norms and narrative of Jewish teens in a rapidly changing time in American society, died on May 22 at the age of 85.

Roth was born in Newark, N.J., on March 19, 1933. (That state figures prominently in certain works, particularly Portnoy’s Complaint.) His parents, Herman and Bess Roth, were second-generation Jewish Americans whose families came from Eastern Europe. Roth came of age in the years following the end of World War II and the Holocaust, which had a profound effect on his thinking, and eventually, his writing.

Roth graduated from Bucknell University with a bachelor’s degree in English, and then went on to graduate school at the University of Chicago, where he earned a master’s degree in English. He eventually taught writing at some of the most prestigious colleges in the country, including the esteemed creative writing program at the University of Iowa, Princeton University and the University of Pennsylvania.

His very first book, Goodbye, Columbus and Five Short Stories, won the National Book Award in 1960. However, he is probably best known for Portnoy’s Complaint, a 1969 novel that astonished many in the Jewish world with its dark yet comedic tones, references to religion, and sexual connotations and exploration, and that launched him into a fame that would follow him throughout his career. Portnoy’s Complaint has been ranked by several different lists as one of the top 100 English-language novels of the 20th century.

Other well-known works, many of which won him accolades, include Sabbath’s Theater (which won him a second National Book Award), American Pastoral (which earned him the Pulitzer Prize for fiction), I Married a Communist, The Human Stain and The Plot Against America.

In all, he wrote more than 30 novels and short stories.

Roth married twice—first to Margaret Martinson in 1956. They separated in 1963, though she died five years later in a car accident. He married Claire Bloom in 1990, though they separated four years later. Roth incorporated experiences from those relationships into his work, as well as a range of Jewish themes and characters, despite his embracing an atheist perspective.

He had no children.

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