Philip Roth, an influential novelist who won two National Book Awards and the Pulitzer Prize, has died at the age of 85.
The prolific writer died in a New York City hospital of congestive heart failure on Tuesday, his literary agent Andrew Wylie told the Associated Press.
Roth was the author of dozens of novels including Portnoy’s Complaint, American Pastoral and Goodbye, Columbus. Roth was frequently identified as being a writer interested in Jewish identity, as well as lust, the American Dream and male anxiety. He also was one of the most decorated writers of his generation, having won the Pulitzer, two National Book Critics Circle Awards, a Man Booker International Prize and three PEN/Faulkner awards.
Born in Newark, N.J. — a state that would appear often as a setting in his fiction — Roth grew up in a Jewish, middle-class family and attended Rutgers University before transferring to Bucknell University and doing a stint in the U.S. Army. After receiving a master’s in English literature from the University of Chicago, Roth published his first story in the New Yorker in 1958 and achieved his first measure of fame with the publication of his debut short story collection, Goodbye, Columbus, in 1959. (A film, starring Love Story‘s Ali MacGraw and Richard Benjamin, would be released 10 years later.)
Roth’s first novel, Letting Go, was published in 1962 and he soon rocketed to fame (and, for some, infamy) with his third novel, Portnoy’s Complaint, in 1969. Called “one of the dirtiest books ever published” by the New Yorker, Portnoy’s Complaint was frank about sex, angered some Jewish leaders and was a commercial hit, later spawning a 1972 film adaptation starring — again — Benjamin, as well as Karen Black and Lee Grant.
With 1979’s The Ghost Writer, Roth introduced readers to a recurring character named Nathan Zuckerman, who would also appear in Zuckerman Unbound, The Anatomy Lesson, The Prague Orgy, The Counterlife, American Pastoral, I Married a Communist, The Human Stain and Exit Ghost. Zuckerman’s resemblance to the author prompted some speculation that these books were semiautobiographical, though Roth swatted away those assertions when asked.
Roth won a Pulitzer in 1997 for American Pastoral, which was adapted in 2016 to the big screen by Ewan McGregor, who played a father whose daughter becomes a terrorist in the 1960s. Roth’s books have been popular with filmmakers: His 2000 book The Human Stain was adapted just three years later into a Robert Benton film starring Anthony Hopkins and Nicole Kidman; 2008’s Penelope Cruz and Ben Kingsley vehicle Elegy was an adaptation of Roth’s 2001 novel The Dying Animal; the Al Pacino-Greta Gerwig movie The Humbling was based on Roth’s 2009 book of the same name; and 2016’s Indignation pulled its story from Roth’s 2008 novel.
Roth became the first novelist to win three PEN/Faulkner awards after the publication of Everyman in 2006, and in 2011 he won the Man Booker International Prize after the publication of his 2010 novel Nemesis.
“His imagination has not only recast our idea of Jewish identity, it has also reanimated fiction, and not just American fiction, generally,” the chair of the judges of the prize announced at the time. “His career is remarkable in that he starts at such a high level, and keeps getting better. In his 50s and 60s, when most novelists are in decline, he wrote a string of novels of the highest, enduring quality. Indeed, his most recent, Nemesis, is as fresh, memorable and alive with feeling as anything he has written. His is an astonishing achievement.”
Roth announced he was retiring from writing in 2012, though he remained a figure of fascination to the media, which occasionally earned a few minutes with him for a profile, and New Yorkers, who occasionally saw him out and about. He famously offered one writer who had just published his first book this advice, as chronicled in The Paris Review: “I would quit while you’re ahead. Really, it’s an awful field. Just torture. Awful. You write and write, and you have to throw almost all of it away because it’s not any good. I would say just stop now. You don’t want to do this to yourself. That’s my advice to you.”