American Literature Philip Roth
Benjamin Railton
  • LAST REVIEWED: 21 March 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 May 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0112


In his more than five decades of publication and notoriety, Philip Roth (b. 1933) has produced an extensive and noteworthy body of work consisting of more than thirty books that collectively occupy a central and likely permanent place in a number of literary and scholarly categories: postwar fiction; Jewish American writing; black humor and satire; autobiographical and meta-fictional engagements with the art of fiction; reflections on growing up Jewish in America; on American identity at the end of the 20th century; on gender and sex in the feminist and post-feminist eras; and on aging and the end of life. From his late 1950s works to his apparently final early-21st-century writings, Roth has consistently produced works that address those themes and questions in a style both compelling and controversial, funny and frustrating, poetic and pornographic, often in the same moments and for the same reasons. His satirical and critical lens has turned both inward at his own identity (particularly through the recurring, autobiographical character Nathan Zuckerman) and outward at the foibles and flaws of Jewish and American families, communities, and cultures. Of his more than thirty published works, a handful of novels have received the most critical attention: Goodbye, Columbus (1959), his debut collection; Portnoy’s Complaint (1969), which truly launched Roth’s career; The Great American Novel (1973), a sprawling and less successful work that nonetheless demanded a response to its title; and American Pastoral (1997), I Married a Communist (1998), and The Human Stain (2000), the “American Trilogy” that (along with the subsequent The Plot Against America [2004]) represented Roth’s triumphant reemergence and cemented his status. Yet each of Roth’s more “minor” works has also received its scholarly responses, as have his career-long stylistic choices and engagements with those central themes and questions. With his announced retirement from writing in the fall of 2012, and with an authorized biography being commissioned, scholarly studies of Roth, and the many literary genres and cultural conversations to which he has contributed, will likely only increase in the years to come.

General Overviews

While Roth scholars have tended to focus on specific works and/or particular themes, in recent years more have begun producing overarching analyses of his career. (That trend will likely continue now that Roth has announced his retirement from writing, and this section will be updated as it does.) Many of these overviews have linked their analyses of Roth’s writings directly to engagement with his biography and identity, as do Gooblar 2011 and Shostak 2004; Shostak 2004 makes particularly extensive use of the materials in the Library of Congress’ Philip Roth collection. Nadel 2011 goes even further toward biographical connections but is also helpfully divided into summary sections on each of Roth’s books and so is a strong resource for undergraduates. Baumgarten and Gottfried 1990, Wade 1996, Royal 2005, Hayes 2014, and Kaplan 2015 similarly analyze Roth’s publications book by book and offer useful starting points for further investigation. Milowitz 2000 reads Roth’s career (in both his fiction and nonfiction works) as influenced less by his individual life and more by a crucial historical event, the Holocaust. Searles 1992 provides a corollary to such overviews, collecting and framing Roth’s own thoughts on many of his works and themes. The essays, reviews, and other materials in Philip Roth Studies illustrate current work and trends in the field.

  • Baumgarten, Murray, and Barbara Gottfried. Understanding Philip Roth. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1990.

    Similar to Wade 1996, a book-by-book guide to key issues and questions in each of Roth’s works; includes a chapter on his nonfiction. Very useful starting point for undergraduate research.

  • Gooblar, David. The Major Phases of Philip Roth. London: Continuum, 2011.

    A mostly literary critical overview, but does argue for an overall “inward-outward” dynamic in Roth’s fiction—a vacillation between more biographical and more historical/cultural concerns. Analytical timeline at start helpfully frames the chapters and arguments.

  • Hayes, Patrick. Philip Roth: Fiction and Power. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199689125.001.0001

    Analyzes Roth’s life, career, and works for the insights about the human condition they provide.

  • Kaplan, Brett Ashley. Jewish Anxiety and the Novels of Philip Roth. New York: Bloomsbury, 2015.

    Uses Roth’s career as a whole to analyze psychological, cultural, and historical issues facing the Jewish people.

  • Milowitz, Steven. Philip Roth Considered: The Concentrationary Universe of the American Writer. New York: Garland, 2000.

    Argues for the Holocaust as the defining and structuring theme of Roth’s novels and his works of nonfiction. Preface and works cited section helpfully situate this reading in other scholarly takes on Roth’s Jewishness and on his body of work. See also Jewish Identity.

  • Nadel, Ira Bruce. Critical Companion to Philip Roth: A Literary Reference to His Life and Work. New York: Facts on File, 2011.

    More of an encyclopedia or factual reference, and thus a strong resource for undergraduate research. Extended biographical section and clear, summative chapters on each of Roth’s works.

  • Philip Roth Studies.

    A semiannual journal published since 2005 by the Philip Roth Society. Features peer-reviewed essays, book reviews, thematic special issues, and an annual bibliography compiled by executive editor Derek Parker Royal.

  • Royal, Derek Parker, ed. Philip Roth: New Perspectives on an American Author. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2005.

    A very thorough collection, featuring at least one scholarly essay focused on each of Roth’s major works and the key stages of his career.

  • Searles, George J., ed. Conversations with Philip Roth. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1992.

    A collection of nearly forty interviews and first-person pieces, from Roth’s 1950s starting points through the early 1990s. Clearly framed and introduced by the editor.

  • Shostak, Debra. Philip Roth: Countertexts, Counterlives. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2004.

    Mixes literary and biographical (and psychological) analyses of Roth’s works, career, and life. Makes the most extensive use to date of the Philip Roth Collection at the Library of Congress.

  • Wade, Stephen. Imagination in Transit: The Fiction of Philip Roth. Sheffield, UK: Sheffield Academic Press, 1996.

    Similar to Baumgarten and Gottfried 1990, a book-by-book analysis; focuses only on the novels and includes the 1990s works Deception and Operation Shylock.

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