Philip Roth -- Literary Superstar Newark's Weequahic Section Hero

by Nat Bodian

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Newark-born Philip Roth, author of more than a score of successful books, and hailed by the National Book Foundation as "One of America's most acclaimed and inventive authors," grew up in Newark's Weequahic section and was educated in Newark public schools.

He is a two-time winner of the National Book Award, a Pulitzer Prize winner, a recipient of the National Medal of Arts, given in a White House presentation, and has been on the short list for the Nobel Prize in Literature.

He was born March 19, 1933 to Herman and Bess Roth, middle-class American-born Jews, and the grandson of Yiddish-speaking European immigrants who settled in Newark in the 1890s.

My Roth Connection

Philip Roth burst on the American literary scene in 1959 with the publication of his first book, a novella, "Goodbye, Columbus."

It was hailed as "A masterpiece" by Newsweek and for it, Roth was given the 1960 National Book Award.

At the time of his book's publication, Roth was an unknown 26-year old and just nine years beyond his 1950 graduation from Weequahic High School. But it was soon evident that this was an important new writer of explosive wit, and merciless insight and fierce compassion for his characters ... a writer of great promise.

At the time Roth won the National Book Award in 1960, I was in charge of marketing, sales, and promotion for the Hillside-based Baker & Taylor Company, then the nation's largest wholesale supplier of books to bookstores and libraries.

I recall, at that time, I made a special effort to promote "Goodbye, Columbus" to our major bookstore accounts, not only because of its flavorful and familiar Newark locale, but also because the author's father, Herman, and I were both members and acquaintances at the Newark "Y" Health Club at 255 Chancellor Avenue. It was just a few steps away from his author-son's high school, Weequahic High, at No. 279 Chancellor Avenue1.

The senior Roth and I felt a sort of bond at that time as we sat side by side in the "Y" steam room. His son was a recently published author, and I was a book industry marketing professional.

Further, Herman Roth found me a willing listener and he loved to talk about his son's almost instant success as an author, and his pleasure at the attention his son's book was getting at that time2.

Herman Roth, like myself, had lived in Newark through the 1930s and had worked Newark's streets collecting premiums for the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company. He knew the city intimately.

Elevation to Celebrity Status

Although Philip Roth continued to turn out new and favorably received books, he did not achieve super-stardom until ten years after the appearance of "Goodbye, Columbus."

He did it with "Portnoy's Complaint" in 1969. The New York Times described "Portnoy" at that time as "A deliciously funny book, absurd and exuberant, wild and uproarious.

It offered an uninhibited blend of nostalgia for Roth's Weequahic neighborhood with ribald, delirious accounts of sexual adventures.

At the end of 1969, "Portnoy" had sold 3,866,488 copies. It was the year's biggest-selling book and elevated Newarker Roth to celebrity status.

"Portnoy" was an intensely personal novel3 that many readers and reviewers considered as much of a social document and depiction of life in a middle-class Newark Jewish neighborhood (Weequahic) as a work of fiction.

Back to Pop and the "Y"

By the time of Roth's triumph with "Portnoy" the riots in Newark had come and gone. The Chancellor Avenue "Y" building, virtually abandoned after the 1967 riots, had been sold to the Newark Board of Education and become a school annex. The YM-YWHA movement in Newark was dead after nearly a century.

Both Herman Roth and myself had now become members of the Health Club at the Union YMHA at 501 Green Lane.

My last contact with Herman was in 1988 when I was writing a book on book titling and wanted to contact his son about his book titling practices.

However, in the years leading up to Herman Roth's death on October 25, 1989, at the age of 86, I had learned from conversations with him that he and his wife, Bess, enjoyed basking in the glow of their son's literary success and accompanying notoriety, and Philip, always the dutiful son, tried to share as much of it as he could with them.

The senior Roths celebrated their golden wedding anniversary in 1977, the same year their son saw his seventh book published -- "The Professor of Desire." Bess Roth died in 1981 and Herman managed to make a new life without her, engaging a housekeeper/cook to keep his apartment running. He died eight years later.

Father's Death Sparks a Bestseller

Two years after Herman Roth's passing in 1989, son Philip wrote and published an unsentimental portrait of his father's life, his final illness and physical decline from a brain tumor, and the author's close relationship with his father.

The book: "Patrimony: A True Story" was hailed by many critics as one of Roth's best books and became a national bestseller.

In life, Herman had been an insurance salesman for Met Life. In death, he became a literary partner of his son, providing the source material for yet another of his son's award-winning literary triumphs.

"Patrimony" A True Story" won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1992.

The New York Times called "Patrimony" "...a highly moving and beautifully rendered portrait of a father and son."

The Washington Post review said "His father emerges as one of the genuinely indomitable figures in American literature."

Sven Birkirts wrote in the Chicago Tribune: "Roth has looked past all comfort and condolences to find the truth about himself and his father; about death and the fear of it."

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Inside Story Behind Patrimony Dinner Guest

More than five percent of the printed pages in "Patrimony" are related to author Roth's experience while having a Friday night dinner at his father's apartment with a surprise guest -- a Union 'Y' Health Club friend of Herman -- who author Roth said had been invited by his father -- "to tell us his story while we ate our dinner -- particularly to me."

Roth describes the guest in "Patrimony" as a Newarker, "Walter Herrman" who had been a Holocaust survivor of two concentration camps who found success in America and had become a wealthy furrier.

The guest had brought with him a manuscript of a book he had written about his Nazi-era survival.

Roth apparently read portions of the manuscript later and told his father "It's pornography."

Herman responds to his son' "Maybe it'll be a bestseller like Portnoy."

That visit with Roth happed in 1985 when Herman, then a widower for 4 years, had both a housekeeper/cook and a steady lady friend, both of whom were present.

Facts About Visit and Visitor

I am closely familiar with the visit described in "Patrimony" because that 1985 Holocaust author was then, and still is, a friend who had kept me informed about his book while writing it.

He was hurt and incensed with his depiction in Patrimony" and felt the facts on his survival memoir had been sharply distorted, improperly presented, and misrepresented as to its content.

He told me he had given thought to suing Roth, but I assured him there would be no basis for it as a fictitious name was used and his true occupation as jeweler was changed to furrier. Roth had fictionalized the meeting to make it more interesting, and even a bit hilarious.

The Holocaust memoir was subsequently published in the United States in 1996 and its author wrote in my copy "Here is the true story of and about Walter Herrman."

* * *

What His High School Yearbook Said

In Philip Roth's Weequahic High School Yearbook, The Legend, the caption under the photo of the 16-year old Philip says "A boy of real intelligence, combined with wit and common sense."

Little did the writer of the caption in the yearbook know that this former Assistant Editor of the School Annex News would go on to more literary awards than any other American author, including a Pulitzer Prize, and would be on the short list for the Nobel Prize in Literature.

* * *

Newarkers Used as Book Characters

A former Weequahic High classmate recalls that Philip had a gift for taking fragments of several people and weaving them into a fictional but believable character.

It was a popular pastime during Roth's early years as an author for former Weequahic High schoolmates, teachers, neighbors, girlfriends, and relatives to scrutinize his newly-published books to see if they could recognize themselves or someone they knew.

A distant cousin told me for this recollection that Philip Roth had also used relatives as characters in his books.

Further Clues to Roth's Writing Philosophy

For more information about Philip Roth and his personal outlook on "Writing as a Profession," see: "The Joy of Publishing' Fascinating Facts, Anecdotes, Curiosities, and Historic Origins about Books and Authors, Editors and Publishers, Bookmaking and Bookselling" by Nat Bodian. Published 1996 by Open Horizons Publishing Co. (ISBN 0-912411-47-3).

* * *

Roth's Words Given an Accent

In 1999, forty years after its initial publication, Roth's first book, "Goodbye, Columbus", was re-released in audio cassette with Theodore Bikel and Elliott Gould as the readers.

I recall the Library Journal review on the release of the audio cassette. The review praised the excellence of Bikel and Gould in "capturing the characteristics of Jewish-American speech in their accented renditions."

As the locale of the book was largely Newark's Weequahic neighborhood where Roth spent his formative years, I was led to wonder what a "Weequahic accent" sounded like. If any of you recall that cassette, perhaps you can tell me.

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Roth's Novels on the Silver Screen

  1. Goodbye, Columbus (1969 film)

  2. Portnoy's Complaint (1972 film)

  3. The Human Stain (2003 film)

  4. American Pastoral (film announced for 2005)

Roth Novel as Television Adaptation

  1. The Ghost Writer (1984)
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Philip Roth Today

Today, at age 70, after two failed marriages, author Philip Roth lives alone, a veritable recluse, in his 18th century farmhouse in Warren, Connecticut. he spends his days at a writing studio about 60 yards from his house. he also maintains a writers studio on the upper West Side in New York City.


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