Philip Roth

Philip Roth (1933) is one of the most prolific American fiction writers of this century. He published his first book, Goodbye, Columbus, in 1959, at the age of 26, and has written 27 novels, two non-fiction books, and three collections of various writings since. There is almost unanimous consensus by literary critics that Roth’s oeuvre ranks him high in the pantheon of American literature. Proof of that is the Library of America's definitive edition of Philip Roth's collected works (2005-2011) as well as two National Book Awards, two National Book Critics Circle awards, three PEN/Faulkner Awards, and a Pulitzer Prize for his 1997 novel, American Pastoral. On March 2, 2011, the author was awarded the 2010 National Humanities Medal Citation.

The only other occupation in which Roth endeavored was teaching. He started as instructor in English at the University of Chicago, 1956-1958, and taught creative writing at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop (1960-1962), Princeton University (1962-1964), SUNY Stony Brook, (1966-1967), and the University of Pennsylvania (1967-1980). Since 1988, Roth has been a Distinguished Professor at CUNY Hunter College, New York, NY.

Roth’s Iowa connection

Roth was invited to teach at the Iowa Writers' Workshop by Paul Engle. Two letters by Roth to Engle, kept at the UI Main Library’s Special Collection, testify to the circumstances in which the writer agreed to come to Iowa.

Via di Sant’Eligio 4

Rome, Italy

April 9, 1960

 

Dear Mr. Engle,

                Your letter only arrived today, having made the Atlantic crossing by way of HMCo’s New York office, Boston office, then here. I’m afraid that before I can commit myself totally, I should like a little more information about the position. First off, you mention that one class would be a third of the general Fiction Workshop: how many hours teaching exactly does that entail? How many students, approximately, is one responsible to? And, though I realize you cannot as yet be precise about the other classes, can you give me some idea as to what kinds of classes there are in the writing program aside from the Writing Workshop. That is, what else might I be teaching?

                I should also ask about the salary. It doesn’t seem terribly princely to me either, and, in fact, I was wondering if in the correspondence we had several summers ago, an even larger salary had been offered for this year. I may well be mistaken, but in truth I had been hoping that if you could make an offer of a position, the salary would be more than $5,500. May I ask if the University furnishes any sort of moving allowance? Bu the time I’ve transported my wife, myself, and my belongings from Rome to Iowa City, that not so princely sum will have been reduced several more stations. Is there any chance of your making a larger offer?

                I do not mean to slow you up at your end, however I did feel it necessary to have the duties and responsibilities of the position a little more clearly in mind. I hope you’ll be able to answer me at the above address as soon as you’re able. I’m sending a copy of this letter on to Iowa also, in case I miss you at the Biltmore.

                Sincerely,

                Philip Roth

 

 

 

Via di Sant’Eligio 4

Rome, Italy

June 9, 1960

 

Dear Mr. Engle,

                I received confirmation of my appointment, and would appreciate it now if you could just answer a few questions for me.

                1. When does the semester begin in the Fall? September is going to be a crowded month for us, what with leaving here, getting to New York, subletting our Manhattan apt, etc; so I would like to know the precise date I am due in Iowa.

                2. Can you keep an eye out for us for a house? I’m not sure whether I made this request in an earlier letter, but if not let me say that we would like a house large enough for the two of us to work separately in, the best thing would be an upstairs and downstairs. It is absolutely essential the there be a study of library or some room when I can work undisturbed. Also, (and here comes the more finicky qualifications, but also, we find, the requirements of our psyches) we don’t care an inch for brand new formaced, low slung modern stuff. If it were old and pleasant—the best in short that a historic state like Iowa can offer—we’d be very pleased. I am willing to pay as much as $125, even a bit higher if it were pleasant, comfortable, etc.

                3. We shall be leaving Rome on June 22, and traveling to London, where we will be from July 1 to Sept. 1. The address in London is:

                                                                89 Redington Road, E Flat

                                                                Hampstead

                                                                London NW3, England

If anything should come up about a house, or anything else for that matter, please contact me there after June 22. I am, in truth, a little nervous about arriving on the scene unhoused, and so anything you can do—or any agent you can enlist—on that score will make me worry-free and happy.

                I look forward to seeing you in September.

                Best,

                Philip Roth

 

 

 

About being a professor, Roth made the following admission:

 

“Not only did I consider university teaching worthwhile, interesting work, but it was clear that [ … ] the instructorship would afford the most opportunity to write: even with three composition sections, each meeting five hours a week, I’d still have as much as half of each day left for myself, and then there’d be quarterly breaks, periodic holidays, and summer vacations.”[fn]Roth, Philip. The Facts: A Novelist’s Autobiography. Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, New York, 1988, p. 87[/fn]

 

A postcard, sent from Connecticut to John Leggett, the Chair of UI English Department and director of the Workshop after Engle’s resignation, is an interesting testimony of Roth’s personality.

 

Cornwall Bridge, Connecticut 06754

Sept 2, 1974

 

Dear John: Was that you—is that you—scribbling illegibly on post cards from 415 S. Summit St? If so, I’m delighted you like the book [My Life as a Man: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1974] so much. I didn’t answer you (whoever you are) because I took off before the book came out and didn’t come back (from Eastern Europe) until the thing had hit the fan and petered away (if I may). It is as you know the best way to face publication. How are you? I heard you were at Boston U? Now I read in Travel and Leisure that you’re writing about Fall in Iowa City. Summit St. has memories for me—some of which got transformed into art collectively under the name of Karen Oakes. When you’re in NYC call (RE 4-4482); I’m there in the middle of each week. Philip

After returning East at the end of his teaching stint at Iowa, Roth published a long piece about Iowa City titled “Iowa – A Very Far Country Indeed” in Esquire, December 1962.

"I set off for Iowa City expecting it to be Kansas. Not that I had been to Kansas: I had only a simple vision of an America without cities, trees, or hills, which I called Kansas. I was, of course, wrong. There are hills, there are thicknesses, there is color. The hills rolled gently, and the color, by the late spring, is fierce; as a friend says, things get so green it is as though the ground has eaten something that didn't agree with it. The red barns, the pigs, the cows, and corn creep right up to the tract houses at the edge of town, and the town itself is not an ugly one. In fact, it is a pleasant experience to enter Iowa City at night, from the West, and to look across the Iowa River at what is called the Old Capitol building, upon whose columns and dome spotlights play from the surrounding University buildings. Four Doric columns stand at the entrance portico on the East and West, and on the river side there is a low, graceful balustrade; from its landscaped base a long lawn slopes down toward the water. Entering Iowa City, or, better, standing in the evening on the foot bridge that crosses the river and divides the town and campus in two, you have the feeling that you are in an environment in which men I agree that one of the sources of pleasure is beauty." Read the article (PDF).

Letting Go (Random House, 1962) is another Iowa connection for Philip Roth. It is his first full-length novel, published when he was twenty-nine. It opens at The University of Iowa in the fall of 1953. The hero and his friends are graduate students, living in apartments and in married students' barracks. Coe College, where one student also teaches, and Dubuque Street are named. Newly discharged from the Korean War army, reeling from his mother's recent death, freed from old attachments, and hungrily seeking others, Gabe Wallach is drawn to Paul Herz, a fellow graduate student in literature, and to Libby, Paul's moody, intense wife. Gabe's desire to be connected to the ordered "world of feeling" that he finds in books is first tested vicariously by the anarchy of the Herz’s struggles with responsible adulthood and then by his own eager love affairs. Driven by the desire to live seriously and act generously, Gabe meets an impassable test in the person of Martha Reganhart, a spirited, outspoken, divorced mother of two, a formidable woman who, according to critic James Atlas, is masterfully portrayed with "depth and resonance." The complex liaison between Gabe and Martha and Gabe's moral enthusiasm for the trials of others are at the heart of this tragically comic work.

Bibliography

 

Zuckerman novels:

Zuckerman Bound

The Ghost Writer (1979)

Zuckerman Unbound (1981)

The Anatomy Lesson (1983)

The Prague Orgy (1985)

Other Zuckerman novels

The Counterlife (1986)

American Pastoral (1997)

I Married a Communist (1998)

The Human Stain (2000)

Exit Ghost (2007)

 

Kepesh novels:

The Breast (1972)

The Professor of Desire (1977)

The Dying Animal (2001)

 

Roth novels (openly biographical):

My Life As a Man (1974)

Deception: A Novel (1990)

Operation Shylock: A Confession (1993)

The Plot Against America (2004)

 

Other novels:

Goodbye, Columbus (1959)

Letting Go (1962)

When She Was Good (1967)

Portnoy's Complaint (1969)

Our Gang (1971)

The Great American Novel (1973)

Sabbath's Theater (1995)

 

Late (Short) Novels:

Everyman (2006)

Indignation (2008)

The Humbling (2009)

Nemesis (2010)

 

Nonfiction:

The Facts: A Novelist's Autobiography (1988)

Patrimony: A True Story (1991)

 

Collections:

Reading Myself and Others (1976)

A Philip Roth Reader (1980, revised edition 1993)

Shop Talk (2001)

 

Library of America Editions (edited by Ross Miller):

Novels and Stories 1959-1962 (2005) ISBN 978-1-93108279-2

Novels 1967-1972 (2005) ISBN 978-1-93108280-8

Novels 1973-1977 (2006) ISBN 978-1-93108296-9

Zuckerman Bound: A Trilogy and Epilogue 1979-1985 (2007) ISBN 978-1-59853-011-7

Novels and Other Narratives 1986-1991 (2008) ISBN 978-1-59853-030-8

Novels 1993–1995 (2010) ISBN 978-1-59853-078-0

The American Trilogy 1997-2000 (2011) ISBN 978-1598531039

 

Text: Zlatko Anguelov

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