(CNN) — Philip Roth, a fearless novelist who wrote about Jewish life and male sexual identity, died Tuesday night at a hospital in New York.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning author was 85.
Roth died of congestive heart failure surrounded by close friends and family, his friend Judith Thurman said. Visitors in his final days came from all walks of life, from writers and lifelong friends to people he helped and inspired along the way.
“He was an incredibly generous person. Always very exigent, and he held you to a very high standard — and he held himself to an even higher standard,” Thurman said. “He was, in my opinion, a very great writer and a very great man.”
Roth was one of America’s most prolific and controversial 20th-century novelists, with a career that spanned decades and more than two dozen books. In addition to a Pulitzer for fiction writing, he won other top literary honors, including National Book Awards and PEN/Faulkner Awards.
“From the beginning of his long and celebrated career, Philip Roth’s fiction has often explored the human need to demolish, to challenge, to oppose, to pull apart,” the Pulitzer committee said when it awarded him the prize two decades ago for “American Pastoral.”
No more writing
In 2012, Roth announced that his most recent novel, “Nemesis,” published two years earlier about a polio outbreak in New Jersey, would be his last. He made the decision after he reread all his books.
“I decided that I was done with fiction,” he said at the time. “I don’t want to read any more of it, write any more of it, and I don’t even want to talk about it anymore. … I no longer feel this dedication to write what I have experienced my whole life.”
After he stopped writing, he spent his free time reading, swimming and meeting friends.
“He was such a driven perfectionist, so when he felt his power ebbing, he wanted to quit at the top of his game, and he did,” Thurman said.
Roth never failed to provoke. His many controversial works included “Goodbye, Columbus and Five Short Stories,” “The Plot Against America,” “Everyman,” “Portnoy’s Complaint” and “I Married a Communist.”
He rose to fame after the 1959 publication of “Goodbye, Columbus,” which earned him the National Book Award.
A decade later, “Portnoy’s Complaint” created a sensation with its explicit description of a young man’s sexuality and his use of masturbation to free himself from a strict Jewish upbringing.
In a 2014 essay for The New York Times, Roth described his thoughts after rereading what was his fourth book.
“Rereading ‘Portnoy’s Complaint’ 45 years on, I am shocked and pleased: shocked that I could have been so reckless, pleased that I was so reckless,” he wrote. “I certainly didn’t understand while at work that henceforth I was never to be free of this psychoanalytic patient I was calling Alexander Portnoy — indeed, that I was on the brink of swapping my identity for his.”
Roth described the protagonist as a “man possessed by dangerous sensations, nasty opinions, savage grievances, sinister feelings and … stalked by the implacable presence of lust.”
Jacques Berlinerblau, a professor and director of the Jewish civilization program at Georgetown University in Washington, described the author’s voice as authentic and unusual.
“Roth spoke of male sexual desire in ways that were unprecedented and shocking in his breakthrough 1969 work, ‘Portnoy’s Complaint’ and other novels like … ‘Sabbath’s Theater,’ ” Berlinerblau said.
However, he said, Roth wrote about male sexual desire in ways some considered misogynistic.
“Some wonder if his work will survive in the #MeToo era,” said Berlinerblau, who’s taught a class on the author.
“Yet his enduring legacy to American fiction will be his mastery of what is known as ‘metafiction.’ Philip Roth wrote fictions about the writing of fiction. His central protagonist was often a novelist, one who seemed to resemble Philip Roth greatly. Many writers employ this technique, but none did so with as much commercial and critical success as Roth.”
Military and teaching
Roth was born in Newark, New Jersey, on March 19, 1933. He briefly attended the Newark branch of Rutgers University before he transferred to Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, to discover “the rest of America,” according to the Philip Roth Society. He earned his master’s degree from the University of Chicago in 1955.
Following graduation, he enlisted in the Army but was discharged after he suffered a back injury. He returned to his Chicago alma mater, where he was an English instructor while he wrote fiction.
A few years later, his first book was published.
Roth’s death comes a little over a week after that of Tom Wolfe, another literary giant. Wolfe, an innovative journalist and author of masterpieces such as “The Bonfire of the Vanities” and “The Right Stuff,” died May 14 at 88.