Ian Thomson, reviewing the book Roth Unbound: A Writer and his Books by Claudia Roth Pierpoint, notes the thread through Roth’s oeuvre is “the theme of America and the vagaries of American Jewish life.”
Of particular interest have been the reactions to Roth’s thinly-veiled, autobiographical fiction by other Jews:
Philip Roth, the last of the Great American Novelists, was born in 1933 in New Jersey. His parents, Herman and Bess Roth, were “Americans from day one”, Roth recalled, yet they retained something of their forebears’ Polish-Galician and Russian- Jewish identity. Philip and his older brother, Sandy, were provided with Hebrew instruction and went to synagogue for the most important festivals. Roth as an adult may have regarded his Jewishness as an “irrelevance”, yet he was unavoidably shaped by it, and by the experience of being Jewish in America. His scabrous novel of sexual yearning and death, Sabbath’s Theater (1995), is suffused with a memory of the pogroms and derision inflicted on Jews in the Russian Pale in the 19th century.
In Roth Unbound, a smoothly readable hybrid of biography and criticism, Claudia Roth Pierpont (no relation) considers Roth’s awkward relationship with the American Jewish establishment. His first book of stories, Goodbye, Columbus, published in 1959, brought accusations of Jewish self-hatred and even anti-Semitism. “What is being done to silence this man?” a New York rabbi demanded to know of the 26-year-old New Jersey author. Roth’s third and most famous early novel, Portnoy’s Complaint (1969), told of the sexually repressed Alexander Portnoy and the recreational use he makes of (among other things) raw liver. “When had so much dirty Jewish laundry ever been displayed before so many Gentiles?” Pierpont asks. Roth was now not merely famous, but notorious.