The author Philip Roth. by the Forward

Philip Roth’s Legacy, In Their Words

Philip Roth passed away on May 22, 2018, aged 85. For his 85th birthday, on March 19, Talya Zax had collected the thoughts of writers and politicians about Roth’s astonishing achievements. They stand as testament to his work, even on this, sadder, milestone. -Editors

In 1981, Philip Roth gave a now-famous description of his experience of celebrity in an interview with Alain Finkielkraut in Esquire Magazine. “To become a celebrity is to become a brand name,” he said. “There is Ivory soap, Rice Krispies, and Philip Roth. Ivory is the soap that floats; Rice Krispies the breakfast cereal that goes snap-crackle-pop; Philip Roth is the Jew who masturbates with a piece of liver.”

His assessment wasn’t incorrect: Ask the average reader what they most associate with Philip Roth, and their answer is likely to be the certifiably unforgettable scene from “Portnoy’s Complaint” cited by its author as the defining feature of his public persona. Yet on this, Roth’s 85th birthday, it’s worth taking a deeper look at his exalted status in American letters. What earned him that place, and what effect has his literary dominance had on culture, literary and otherwise? For an answer, we turned to the writers and thinkers who have been influenced by or critically evaluated Roth’s work.

1) Zadie Smith

In 2017, Smith delivered the Newark Public Library’s Inaugural Philip Roth Lecture; her remarks were published in her recent essay collection “Feel Free” under the title “The I Who is Not Me.” In her lecture, she focused on Roth’s novel approach to the constraints of authorial identity.

2) David Remnick

In a 2000 New Yorker profile of Roth, Remnick dwelled on Roth’s complicated reception by the American Jewish community. In the midst of that contentious relationship, Remnick writes, “Portnoy’s Complaint” was a thrown gauntlet.

3) Harold Bloom

In a New York Times review of Roth’s “Zuckerman Unbound,” the trilogy of novels centered on Roth’s alter-ego Nathan Zuckerman, Bloom examined the way in which Roth provided a synthesis of two disparate literary traditions.

4) Vivian Gornick

In a 2008 essay for Harper’s, Gornick examined the legacy of Roth, Saul Bellow and their fellow Jewish-American authors whose subject was, more often than not, the odd and infuriating conditions of being a societal outsider. Gornick sees, in “Portnoy’s Complaint,” a somewhat more sinister rebellion than that identified by Smith and Remnick.

5) Michiko Kakutani

Reviewing the 1997 novel “American Pastoral” for The New York Times, Kakutani, like Bloom, saw Roth as working within two veins of literary thought, each intimately connected to Roth’s understanding of Americanness.

6) Adam Gopnik

In a 2017 New Yorker article on Roth’s nonfiction, Gopnik examined the discursive strain within Roth’s fiction, one of the author’s most lastingly influential stylistic choices.

7) Keith Gessen

Gessen, writing in New York Magazine, considered Roth’s significance as the contemporary giant of Jewish-American literature, and the ways in which some members of the Jewish intelligentsia saw his dominance as a death knell for much of Jewish culture.

8) Barack Obama

In 2010, Obama awarded Roth a National Humanities Medal. Yet even before he was elected President, Obama had Roth’s work prominently in his mind. Speaking with Jeffrey Goldberg for The Atlantic in 2008, Obama said that Roth had helped shape his thought about a range of subjects.

Philip Roth’s Legacy, In Their Words

Philip Roth’s Legacy, In Their Words


Talya Zax

Talya Zax

Talya Zax is the Forward’s innovation editor. Contact her at or on Twitter, @TalyaZax.

Philip Roth’s Legacy — From Barack Obama To Zadie Smith

Your Comments

The Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. All readers can browse the comments, and all Forward subscribers can add to the conversation. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Forward requires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not and will be deleted. Egregious commenters or repeat offenders will be banned from commenting. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and the Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Recommend this article

Philip Roth’s Legacy, In Their Words

Thank you!

This article has been sent!