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Remembering Philip Roth, prolific American writer and ‘ruthlessly honest observer’

Philip Roth died Tuesday at age 85. His 1969 novel "Portnoy's Complaint" rocketed him to fame for its raunchy tour of a teenage boy's lustful urges and ensuing guilt. He later focused more deeply on Jewish life, mortality and American history, setting many novels in Newark, New Jersey. We revisit an interview with Roth then William Brangham talks with Max Rudin of Library of America.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Finally tonight, we remember the prolific writer and Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Philip Roth.

    He died yesterday of congestive heart failure at the age of 85. Roth was the author of more than 25 books, and a giant in American literature. His work evolved through several distinct phases, and often featured Roth's fictional alter egos, including his best-known character, Nathan Zuckerman.

    The 1969 novel "Portnoy's Complaint" rocketed him to fame for its raunchy, hilarious depiction of a teenage boy's lustful urges and ensuing guilt. Roth would later focus more deeply on Jewish life, mortality, and American history, often setting his novels in Newark, New Jersey, where Roth grew up.

    During a particularly fruitful period in his 60s, Roth returned to a number of those themes. The accolades and the novels came quickly, including "American Pastoral," "I Married a Communist," and "The Plot Against America."

    In a moment, William Brangham talks with a colleague and collaborator of Roth's.

    But, first, how Roth himself saw his work.

    Jeffrey Brown had the chance to sit down with him for a rare interview back in 2004.

    Here are some excerpts.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    What is it you want to do when you start a novel? What are you trying to do?

  • Philip Roth:

    Get to work. Work.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Get to work?

  • Philip Roth:

    Get to work. Work.

    Without a novel, I'm empty. I'm empty and not very happy. So, when I get to work on a novel, I begin to do what I'm supposed to do. It's a long process. Usually, it takes between two and three years to write a novel for me.

    I don't think about the reader. I think about the book. I think about the — I think about the sentence, I think about the paragraph, I think about the page. I go over it and over it and over it.

    The book begins to make its demands. The demands are intellectual, they're imaginative, they're aesthetic.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    That's interesting, because you're often described as something of a provocateur, sort of throwing out literary bombshells.

    I mean, you get a lot of reaction to your work.

  • Philip Roth:

    I'm a very bad judge of how people will respond to my work, how the general reader will respond to a book.

    And I'm always surprised by the responses that a book elicits.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Many observers have noted this great run of books that you have had over the last, say, 10 years or so.

    What happened?

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Philip Roth:

    What did I eat for breakfast, you mean?

    I don't know. Maybe it's a consequence of age. But I did feel energetic, and I do feel ambitious. And I did the work.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    And what was your ambition to do?

  • Philip Roth:

    To be able to write this kind of book. To be able to broaden the subject, while, at the same time, keeping it a novel, while, at the same time, having the subject enacted by people.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    And broaden the subject, what is the subject?

  • Philip Roth:

    When I came back to live in America in 1989 all the time, I felt enormously energized by being home.

    But, also, I realized I had in front of me a new subject that was an old subject, which was this country, that it was brand-new to me in a strange way, yet I knew all about it because I had been brought up here.

    So, being away for 10 or 12 years produced a — I think a burst of running energy.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    And when you think about now, do you see a different writer, a better writer, a worse writer?

  • Philip Roth:

    Oh, I like to think a better writer. A different writer? Sure.

    You begin with — or I began certainly with an enormously naivete and rawness. You're very raw when you begin. And I don't think I'm — I think I'm only half as naive now.

    And raw — I'm only raw from the hard work. I'm not in the raw in the way a young fellow would be raw.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Some years ago, I know you were involved with Eastern European writers at a time when they were a kind of moral voice against a totalitarian society.

    What do you see as your role or as the role of a writer in our society?

  • Philip Roth:

    Your role is to write as well as you can. You're not advancing social causes, as far as I'm concerned.

    You're not addressing social problems. What you're advancing — there's only one cause you're advancing. That's the cause of literature, which is one of the great lost human causes. So, you do your bit. You do your bit for fiction, for the novel.

  • William Brangham:

    Here the talk now about Roth's life and work is Max Rudin. He's the president of Library of America, a nonprofit that preserves, publishes and celebrates America's greatest writing.

    In 2005, Philip Roth became just the third living writer to have his books enshrined in the Library. Rudin collaborated closely with Roth throughout the years.

    Max Rudin, I'm sorry for the loss of your friend, and obviously sorry for the world, who doesn't get any more of Philip Roth's remarkable works.

    For people who are not familiar with those works, can you just explain to us, what made him so special?

  • Max Rudin:

    Well, I think the first thing to say is the sheer verbal inventiveness and imaginative power of his work.

    He is, you know, nearly unique in American letters in the number of different modes and tones he could write in. He was an amazing literary ventriloquist, from the ironic comedy of the clearly book "Goodbye, Columbus," to the more — the outrageous, kind of stand-up farce of "Portnoy's Complaint," to the more tempered realism of the American Trilogy, and then the chastened, elegy — elegiac tone of the later books.

    It's amazing that one writer could do all that. And I think, you know, looking at his entire career as a whole, 31 books, 51 years, together, it makes one of the most extraordinary literary journeys in American writing.

  • William Brangham:

    Just as you say, he really did at times seem like four or five writers compressed into one. He was so funny. He could write about mortality and sadness so well. He could write about his faith. He really could seem to do it all.

    Did you have a sense from working with him that he was aware of all of these different pots that he could dip into?

  • Max Rudin:

    Everyone who knew him knew of his extraordinary verbal gifts.

    I mean, you know, he not only had it on the page. He had it talking in person. He was extremely funny and extremely intelligent and a warm person.

    I guess the other thing I would say about his work is that, after "Portnoy" especially — and "Portnoy" is the first great breakthrough book. Philip has a couple of different breakthrough books throughout his career, but "Portnoy" really opens the floodgates for the first time.

    And this voice, you know, comes pouring out that — or seems to come pouring out — it's the result of hard work, of course — and it hums with intelligence and, you know, energy and humor on the page.

    And that's what makes him — and humor — and that's what makes him compulsively readable. And I think that's another reason why people have come back to him.

  • William Brangham:

    Does the evolution of his career make sense to you when you look back on it now? Because, if you do look at the younger books, they really are largely about a younger man and his coming to terms with his own sexuality.

    Then they move into a middle age phase, and then very later in his life, they sort of deal with a man growing old and facing his ultimate reckoning.

  • Max Rudin:

    Right.

  • William Brangham:

    Does that trajectory make sense to you?

  • Max Rudin:

    It does.

    I mean, you know, fundamentally, you know, Philip was on kind of two sides at the same time. He was on the side of vitality, you know, of libido and liberation. And it's a '60s theme, you know, the era where his work really, really begins.

    And yet he was also a ruthlessly honest observer of the forces, the historical forces arrayed against that liberation and vitality. And I think, as the work goes on, I mean, that darker side gets explored more and more, you know, the forces of political violence and the war in Vietnam in "American Pastoral," the McCarthy era in "I Married a Communist," and the way a certain era of political correctness could be used as a bludgeon in "Human Stain."

    He's one of the great ironists in our literature, because he was at once in sympathy with the impulses of liberation, and yet understands deeply the forces, as I say, that block that liberation, the forces of fate and history.

  • William Brangham:

    All right, Max Rudin, the Library of America, thank you very much.

  • Max Rudin:

    Thank you so much for asking me.

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