Philip Roth was born in Newark, New Jersey, and grew up in its Weequahic neighborhood. He is the second child of Bess (nee Finkel) and Herman Roth, an insurance broker. His family was Jewish, and his parents were first-generation Americans, whose families were from Galicia. He graduated from Newark's Weequahic High School in or around 1950. "It has provided the focus for the fiction of Philip Roth, the novelist who evokes his era at Weequahic High School in the highly acclaimed Portnoy's Complaint.... Besides identifying Weequahic High School by name, the novel specifies such sites as the Empire Burlesque, the Weequahic Diner, the Newark Museum and Irvington Park, all local landmarks that helped shape the youth of the real Roth and the fictional Portnoy, both graduates of Weequahic class of '50." The Weequahic Yearbook (1950) describes Roth as "A boy of real intelligence, combined with wit and common sense." Roth was known as a comedian during his time at school. Roth attended Bucknell University, earning a degree in English. He pursued graduate studies at the University of Chicago, where he received an M.A. in English literature in 1955 and worked briefly as an instructor in the university's writing program. Roth taught creative writing at the University of Iowa and Princeton University. He continued his academic career at the University of Pennsylvania, where he taught comparative literature before retiring from teaching in 1991.
While at Chicago, Roth met the novelist Saul Bellow, as well as Margaret Martinson in 1956, who became his first wife in 1959. Their separation in 1963, along with Martinson's death in a car crash in 1968, left a lasting mark on Roth's literary output. Specifically, Martinson was the inspiration for female characters in several of Roth's novels, including Lucy Nelson in When She Was Good, and Maureen Tarnopol in My Life as a Man. Between the end of his studies and the publication of his first book in 1959, Roth served two years in the United States Army and then wrote short fiction and criticism for various magazines, including movie reviews for The New Republic. Events in Roth's personal life have occasionally been the subject of media scrutiny. A post-operative breakdown mentioned in the pseudo-confessional novel Operation Shylock (1993) and others drew on Roth's experience of the temporary side-effects of the sedative halcion (triazolam), prescribed post-operatively in the 1980s. (It was subsequently discovered that unfavorable studies had been suppressed by triazolam's manufacturer, Upjohn, which showed the drug carried a high risk of causing short term psychiatric disturbance. When this became known, the drug was banned in some countries and its withdrawal due to high risk and poor clinical benefit was also discussed in the United States.)
On his religious views, Roth is an atheist, stating: "When the whole world doesn't believe in God, it'll be a great place." He also said during an interview to The Guardian: "I'm exactly the opposite of religious, I'm anti-religious. I find religious people hideous. I hate the religious lies. It's all a big lie." and "It's not a neurotic thing, but the miserable record of religion. I don't even want to talk about it, it's not interesting to talk about the sheep referred to as believers. When I write, I'm alone. It's filled with fear and loneliness and anxiety - and I never needed religion to save me."
In 1990, Roth married his long-time companion, English actress Claire Bloom. In 1994 they separated, and in 1996 Bloom published a memoir, Leaving a Doll's House, which described the couple's marriage in detail, much of which was unflattering to Roth. Certain aspects of I Married a Communist have been regarded by critics as veiled rebuttals to accusations put forth in Bloom's memoir.
Roth's first book, Goodbye, Columbus and Five Short Stories, won the National Book Award in 1960, and afterwards he published two novels, Letting Go and When She Was Good. The publication of his fourth novel, Portnoy's Complaint, in 1969 gave Roth widespread commercial and critical success. During the 1970s Roth experimented in various modes, from the political satire Our Gang to the Kafkaesque The Breast. By the end of the decade Roth had created his alter ego Nathan Zuckerman. In a series of highly self-referential novels and novellas that followed between 1979 and 1986, Zuckerman appeared as either the main character or an interlocutor.
Sabbath's Theater (1995) may have Roth's most lecherous protagonist, Mickey Sabbath, a disgraced former puppeteer; it won his second National Book Award. In complete contrast, American Pastoral (1997), the first volume of his so-called second Zuckerman trilogy, focuses on the life of virtuous Newark star athlete Swede Levov and the tragedy that befalls him when Levov's teenage daughter is transformed into a domestic terrorist during the late 1960s; it won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. I Married a Communist (1998) focuses on the McCarthy era. The Human Stain examines identity politics in 1990s America. The Dying Animal (2001) is a short novel about eros and death that revisits literary professor David Kepesh, protagonist of two 1970s works, The Breast and The Professor of Desire. In The Plot Against America (2004), Roth imagines an alternative American history in which Charles Lindbergh, aviator hero and isolationist, is elected U.S. president in 1940, and the U.S. negotiates an understanding with Hitler's Nazi Germany and embarks on its own program of anti-Semitism.
Roth's novel Everyman, a meditation on illness, aging, desire, and death, was published in May 2006. For Everyman Roth won his third PEN/Faulkner Award, making him the only person so honored. Exit Ghost, which again features Nathan Zuckerman, was released in October 2007. According to the book's publisher, it is the last Zuckerman novel. Indignation, Roth's 29th book, was published on September 16, 2008. Set in 1951, during the Korean War, it follows Marcus Messner's departure from Newark to Ohio's Winesburg College, where he begins his sophomore year. In 2009, Roth's 30th book The Humbling was published, which told the story of the last performances of Simon Axler, a celebrated stage actor. Roth’s 31st book, Nemesis, was published on October 5, 2010. According to the book's notes, Nemesis is the final in a series of four "short novels," which also included Everyman, Indignation and The Humbling.
In October 2009, during an interview with Tina Brown of The Daily Beast website to promote The Humbling, Roth considered the future of literature and its place in society, stating his belief that within 25 years the reading of novels will be regarded as a "cultic" activity:
I was being optimistic about 25 years really. I think it's going to be cultic. I think always people will be reading them but it will be a small group of people. Maybe more people than now read Latin poetry, but somewhere in that range... To read a novel requires a certain amount of concentration, focus, devotion to the reading. If you read a novel in more than two weeks you don't read the novel really. So I think that kind of concentration and focus and attentiveness is hard to come by—it's hard to find huge numbers of people, large numbers of people, significant numbers of people, who have those qualities[.]
When asked his opinion on the emergence of digital books and e-books as possibly replacing printed copy, Roth was equally negative and downbeat about the prospect:
The book can't compete with the screen. It couldn't compete [in the] beginning with the movie screen. It couldn't compete with the television screen, and it can't compete with the computer screen... Now we have all those screens, so against all those screens a book couldn't measure up.
This interview is not the first time that Roth has expressed pessimism over the future of the novel and its significance in recent years. Talking to the Observer's Robert McCrum in 2001, he said that "I'm not good at finding 'encouraging' features in American culture. I doubt that aesthetic literacy has much of a future here." In October 2012, in an interview with the French magazine Les Inrockuptibles, Roth announced that he would be retiring from being an author and confirmed subsequently in Le Monde that he would no longer publish any fiction. In May 2014, Roth claimed in an interview with Alan Yentob for the BBC that "this is my last appearance on television, my absolutely last appearance on any stage anywhere."
Much of Roth's fiction revolves around semi-autobiographical themes, while self-consciously and playfully addressing the perils of establishing connections between the author Philip Roth and his fictional lives and voices. Examples of this close relationship between the author's life and his characters include narrators and protagonists such as David Kepesh and Nathan Zuckerman or even the character "Philip Roth", who appears in The Plot Against America and of whom there are two in Operation Shylock. Critic Jacques Berlinerblau noted in The Chronicle of Higher Education that these fictional voices create a complex and deceptive experience for readers, deceiving readers into different degrees of "knowing" Roth. In Roth's fiction, the question of authorship is intertwined with the theme of the idealistic, secular Jewish-American son who attempts to distance himself from Jewish customs and traditions, and from what he perceives as the at times suffocating influence of parents, rabbis, and other community leaders. Roth's fiction has been described by critics as pervaded by "a kind of alienation that is enlivened and exacerbated by what binds it".
Roth's first work, Goodbye, Columbus, featured his irreverent humor of the life of middle-class Jewish Americans, and was met by controversy among reviewers, who were highly polarized in their judgments; one reviewer criticized it as infused with a sense of self-loathing. In response, Roth, in his 1963 essay "Writing About Jews" (collected in Reading Myself and Others), maintained that he wanted to explore the conflict between the call to Jewish solidarity and his desire to be free to question the values and morals of middle-class Jewish Americans uncertain of their identities in an era of cultural assimilation and upward social mobility:
The cry 'Watch out for the goyim!' at times seems more the expression of an unconscious wish than of a warning: Oh that they were out there, so that we could be together here! A rumor of persecution, a taste of exile, might even bring with it the old world of feelings and habits—something to replace the new world of social accessibility and moral indifference, the world which tempts all our promiscuous instincts, and where one cannot always figure out what a Jew is that a Christian is not.
In Roth's fiction, the exploration of "promiscuous instincts" within the context of Jewish-American lives, mainly from a male viewpoint, plays an important role. In the words of critic Hermione Lee:
Philip Roth's fiction strains to shed the burden of Jewish traditions and proscriptions. ... The liberated Jewish consciousness, let loose into the disintegration of the American Dream, finds itself deracinated and homeless. American society and politics, by the late sixties, are a grotesque travesty of what Jewish immigrants had traveled towards: liberty, peace, security, a decent liberal democracy.
While Roth's fiction has strong autobiographical influences, it has also incorporated social commentary and political satire, most obviously in Our Gang and Operation Shylock. Since the 1990s, Roth's fiction has often combined autobiographical elements with retrospective dramatizations of postwar American life. Roth has described American Pastoral and the two following novels as a loosely connected "American trilogy". Each of these novels treats aspects of the postwar era against the backdrop of the nostalgically remembered Jewish-American childhood of Nathan Zuckerman, in which the experience of life on the American home front during the Second World War features prominently.
In much of Roth's fiction, the 1940s, comprising Roth's and Zuckerman's childhood, mark a high point of American idealism and social cohesion. A more satirical treatment of the patriotism and idealism of the war years is evident in Roth's comic novels, such as Portnoy's Complaint and Sabbath's Theater. In The Plot Against America, the alternate history of the war years dramatizes the prevalence of anti-Semitism and racism in America at the time, despite the promotion of increasingly influential anti-racist ideals during the war. In his fiction, Roth portrayed the 1940s, and the New Deal era of the 1930s that preceded it, as a heroic phase in American history. A sense of frustration with social and political developments in the US since the 1940s is palpable in the American trilogy and Exit Ghost, but had already been present in Roth's earlier works that contained political and social satire, such as Our Gang and The Great American Novel. Writing about the latter novel, Hermione Lee points to the sense of disillusionment with "the American Dream" in Roth's fiction: "The mythic words on which Roth's generation was brought up—winning, patriotism, gamesmanship—are desanctified; greed, fear, racism, and political ambition are disclosed as the motive forces behind the 'all-American ideals'."
Two of Roth's works have won the National Book Award for Fiction; four others were finalists. Two have won National Book Critics Circle awards; again, another five were finalists. He has also won three PEN/Faulkner Awards (Operation Shylock, The Human Stain, and Everyman) and a Pulitzer Prize for his 1997 novel, American Pastoral. In 2001, The Human Stain was awarded the United Kingdom's WH Smith Literary Award for the best book of the year. In 2002, he was awarded the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. Literary critic Harold Bloom has named him as one of the four major American novelists still at work, along with Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, and Cormac McCarthy. His 2004 novel The Plot Against America won the Sidewise Award for Alternate History in 2005 as well as the Society of American Historians’ James Fenimore Cooper Prize. Roth was also awarded the United Kingdom's WH Smith Literary Award for the best book of the year, an award Roth has received twice. He was honored in his hometown in October 2005 when then-mayor Sharpe James presided over the unveiling of a street sign in Roth's name on the corner of Summit and Keer Avenues where Roth lived for much of his childhood, a setting prominent in The Plot Against America. A plaque on the house where the Roths lived was also unveiled. In May 2006, he was given the PEN/Nabokov Award, and in 2007 he was awarded the PEN/Faulkner award for Everyman, making him the award's only three-time winner. In April 2007, he was chosen as the recipient of the first PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction.
The May 21, 2006 issue of The New York Times Book Review announced the results of a letter that was sent to what the publication described as "a couple of hundred prominent writers, critics, editors and other literary sages, asking them to please identify 'the single best work of American fiction published in the last 25 years.'" Six of Roth's novels were in the 22 selected: American Pastoral, The Counterlife, Operation Shylock, Sabbath's Theater, The Human Stain, and The Plot Against America. The accompanying essay, written by critic A.O. Scott, stated, "If we had asked for the single best writer of fiction of the past 25 years, [Roth] would have won." In 2009, he was awarded the Welt-Literaturpreis of the German newspaper Die Welt.
Roth was awarded the 2010 National Humanities Medal by U.S. President Barack Obama in the East Room of the White House on March 2, 2011.
In May 2011, Roth was awarded the Man Booker International Prize for lifetime achievement in fiction on the world stage, the fourth winner of the biennial prize. One of the judges, Carmen Callil, a publisher of the feminist Virago house, withdrew in protest, referring to Roth's work as "Emperor's clothes". She said "he goes on and on and on about the same subject in almost every single book. It's as though he's sitting on your face and you can't breathe ... I don’t rate him as a writer at all ..." Observers quickly noted that Callil had a conflict of interest, having published a book by Claire Bloom (Roth's ex-wife) which had criticized Roth and lambasted their marriage together. In response, one of the two other Booker judges, Rick Gekoski, remarked:
In 1959 he writes Goodbye, Columbus and it's a masterpiece, magnificent. Fifty-one years later he's 78 years old and he writes Nemesis and it is so wonderful, such a terrific novel ... Tell me one other writer who 50 years apart writes masterpieces ... If you look at the trajectory of the average novel writer, there is a learning period, then a period of high achievement, then the talent runs out and in middle age they start slowly to decline. People say why aren't Martin [Amis] and Julian [Barnes] getting on the Booker prize shortlist, but that's what happens in middle age. Philip Roth, though, gets better and better in middle age. In the 1990s he was almost incapable of not writing a masterpiece—The Human Stain, The Plot Against America, I Married a Communist. He was 65–70 years old, what the hell's he doing writing that well?
In 2012 he received the "Prince of Asturias prize" for literature.
On March 19, 2013, Roth's 80th birthday was celebrated in public ceremonies at the Newark Museum.
Six of Philip Roth's novels and short stories have been adapted as films: Goodbye, Columbus; Portnoy's Complaint; The Human Stain; The Dying Animal, which was adapted as the movie Elegy; The Humbling; and the upcoming Indignation and American Pastoral. In addition, The Ghost Writer was adapted for television in 1984. In 2014 young filmmaker Alex Ross Perry made a movie "Listen Up Philip", which was influenced by Roth's art.