Nancy L. Kourland on American Novelist Philip Roth

Award-winning novelist Philip Roth has created some of literature’s most compelling and memorable characters. Garnering initial fame with the novella Goodbye, Columbus, Roth solidified his place as a bold, humorous writer who could create deep, rich portraits of Jewish-American families.

After earning the National Book Award in 1960, Roth followed Goodbye, Columbus with the controversial and uproarious Portnoy’s Complaint, an explicit, semi-autobiographical novel that chronicles the life of a young Jewish bachelor in New York attempting to find his own identity despite his mother’s neurotic pressures.

Many of Roth’s characters reappear in his stories, either as influential figures in the plot or as stand-ins for the audience. In particular, readers may be familiar with Nathan Zuckerman, a family man and author living in the Weequahic neighborhood of Newark, New Jersey, who has taken on both personae in several novels. In American Pastoral, Zuckerman’s troubled home life is detailed as he and his wife face the possibility that their daughter is a domestic terrorist; in The Human Stain, Zuckerman serves as a reader surrogate, listening to the mysterious and unexpected life story of his neighbor, Coleman Silk, a college professor who has been wrongly accused of using racist terms in front of his students.

Critics have theorized that Roth created Zuckerman as an alter-ego. The fictional author’s novel, Carnovsky, which appears in Zuckerman Unbound, is often seen as a meta version of Portnoy’s Complaint. The character also serves as a vital protagonist in the novels The Ghost Writer, The Anatomy Lesson, and The Prague Orgy. These four books comprise the collection Zuckerman Bound. Other novels featuring the character include The Counterlife, I Married a Communist, and Exit Ghost.

Utilizing his own life for inspiration, Philip Roth also created many characters based on his family and friends. Margaret Martinson, Roth’s first wife, served as the basis for many of his female characters after her death in a car crash in 1968. Martinson’s memory helped Roth create Maureen Tarnopol in My Life as a Man and Lucy Nelson in When She Was Good. 

In addition to his writing career, Philip Roth also taught creative writing at The University of Iowa and Princeton University, as well as comparative literature at the University of Pennsylvania. Roth earned his Bachelor of Arts in English from Bucknell University and a Master of Arts in English Literature at The University of Chicago, where he complemented his studies with a position as an instructor in the school’s writing program. Beyond writing novels, Roth also wrote for The New Republic and served for two years in the United States Army.

Over the course of his career, Philip Roth has accumulated numerous honors from prestigious literary sources. Roth received three PEN/Faulkner Awards for Operation Shylock, The Human Stain, and Everyman, as well as a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for American Pastoral. The Human Stain later also won the United Kingdom’s WH Smith Literary Award for best book of the year. The Plot Against America, which follows several years in the life of the Roth family during the Lindbergh presidency and details the growing forces of anti-Semitism in America, garnered the Sidewise Award for Alternate History and the Society of American Historians’ James Fenimore Cooper Prize for Best Historical Fiction.

About the Author:

Nancy L. Kourland is a  Senior Associate at Rosen & Associates, P.C. In her free time, she enjoys reading classic literature from authors such as Jane Austen and Charles Dickens.