American novelist Philip Roth has died at the age of 85.
The news was first announced Tuesday night (May 22) by the New Yorker—to which Roth was a frequent contributor—citing close friends of the writer.
Roth is perhaps best known for his depictions of Jewish American life, for example in the novel Portnoy’s Complaint and his 1959 short story Defender of the Faith published in the New Yorker (paywall), for which Roth was “vilified as a self-hating Jew and a traitor to his people,” the magazine wrote in a 2014 essay (paywall). Roth spent much time defending himself at various Jewish institutions in the years after the essay’s publication, according to the New York Review of Books.
Roth retired from writing in 2012, but by no means fell into obscurity—indeed, his seemingly prescient imaginations of American politics only gained traction with the advent of Donald Trump’s administration, particularly his 2004 novel The Plot Against America, which tells the story of aviator and Nazi sympathizer Charles Lindbergh’s victory against Franklin Roosevelt in the 1940 presidential elections. In an interview with the New York Times (paywall) earlier this year, Roth denied the parallels between Lindbergh and Trump because of their “difference in stature.” While Lindbergh, despite his right-wing ideology, deserved credit for his “extraordinary” feats in aviation, “Trump, by comparison, is a massive fraud, the evil sum of his deficiencies, devoid of everything but the hollow ideology of a megalomaniac,” Roth said. The Plot Against America is currently being adapted for television by The Wire creator David Simon.
Born in New Jersey in 1933, Roth is considered one of the great American male writers of the 20th century along with authors such as John Updike, Norman Mailer, and Saul Bellow. Bellow, a fellow North American Jew, and Roth in particular had a close friendship, recorded in letters written over the course of decades. Unlike Bellow, however, the greatest of the literary prizes, the Nobel, eluded Roth. Whether or when Roth would be awarded the prize was a frequent topic of discussion (paywall) among literary enthusiasts, especially as Roth entered his 80s and had seemingly won everything else, including a Pulitzer and a Man Booker International Prize.
Earlier this year, fans once again surmised whether the Nobel Prize might finally go to Roth this year—that is until the Swedish Academy, which selects the winners, decided to cancel this year’s literature prize due to a sexual harassment scandal. Two prizes will be announced next year to compensate for this year’s cancelation, and Roth enthusiasts had reportedly been hoping (paywall) that the author might be honored then (the Academy does not posthumously award prizes). Roth, however, firmly represents a generation of male literary greats who, in the current social climate, are coming under criticism for their literary chauvinism and misogyny. Were he still alive, the odds would probably have grown longer for Roth.
Correction: The article was updated to reflect that the Swedish Academy does not award Nobel prizes posthumously.