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Writers Remember Philip Roth: ‘The Planet Weighs So Much Less Without His Words’

Yesterday, at the age of 85, Philip Roth passed away.

Roth was a titan of American letters, but his influence spread past his native shores. His death made headlines across the world, and his obituary appeared on the front page of Le Monde, France’s pre-eminent newspaper. But the most touching tributes to the decorated novelist, who fearlessly chronicled the contradictions and absurdities of Jewish American life, came from those who learned their crafts from him. The Forward is publishing a series of essays on Roth’s impact, with entries from Anne Roiphe, Jennifer Gilmore and more. Read segments of the tributes to Roth from outside our pages, below.

1) Mary Karr

Karr, a poet and memoirist who was friends with Roth, posted a photo of him from last summer — in a hammock, with an iPhone, natch — to Twitter. “From his joyful last summer….the planet weighs so much less without his words exhaled across it,” she wrote.

2) Adam Kirsch

Writing in The Atlantic, Kirsch reflected on Roth’s unique stature within the last century of literature. “We still have writers as talented and accomplished as Roth, but no one seems so grand,” Kirsh wrote. “In mourning him, we are also mourning the fact that literature itself doesn’t matter as much as it once did: It’s hard to imagine any novel, no matter how daring, having the same kind of cultural impact today that ‘Portnoy’s Complaint’ had in 1969.”

3) Sloane Crosley

Crosley, writing on Twitter, was one of several authors to honor Roth as she thought he might wish to be honored.

4) Jeet Heer

For The New Republic, Heer dwelled on the remarkably synthetic quality of Roth’s genius.

“What liberated Roth was popular culture. As a boy he had been an avid radio listener and as an adult he got to see the birth of modern stand-up comedy in Chicago, where Nichols and May, along with Lenny Bruce, were inventing a new form of stage humor based on the interplay of voices (cerebral, sex-obsessed, and often inflected with the language of therapy). It was Roth’s genius to realize that the language of stand-up comedy could reinvigorate literary fiction.”

5) Pamela Paul

Paul, editor of The New York Times Book Review, remembered Roth’s dedicated interest in the literary future. He’d recently contacted her to advocate for coverage of an upcoming book; her followers on Twitter immediately demanded she let us know which book, exactly, it is.

6) Dwight Garner

Garner, a Times book critic, found an apt way to describe the impact of Roth’s death. “One might as well come out and say it: The death of Philip Roth marks, in its way, the end of a cultural era as definitively as the death of Pablo Picasso did in 1973,” he wrote. Garner went on to determine what, exactly, made Roth such an unquestionably decisive force in global culture.

“His work had more rage, more wit, more lust, more talk, more crosscurrents of thought and emotion, more turning over of the universals of existence (in his case, Jewish-American existence), as if tending meat over a fire, than any writer of his time.”

7) Ruth Franklin

Franklin, a book critic for Harper’s and The New Yorker, shared a string of thoughts on Roth’s passing.

8) The New Yorker

The New Yorker published a compendium of both its coverage of Roth and Roth’s appearances in its pages. “His great subjects,” the article’s unnamed authors wrote, “as Claudia Roth Pierpont wrote in this magazine, in 2006, included ‘the Jewish family, sex, American ideals, the betrayal of American ideals, political zealotry, personal identity,” and “the human body (usually male) in its strength, its frailty, and its often ridiculous need.’”

“Just last summer, The New Yorker published Roth’s piece on American identity, and on his love of American place names: ‘The pleasurable sort of sentiment aroused by the mere mention of Spartanburg, Santa Cruz, or the Nantucket Light, as well as unassuming Skunktown Plain, or Lost Mule Flat, or the titillatingly named Little French Lick.’”


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