Phillip Roth and Iowa

Philip Roth (1933) is one of the most prolific American fiction writers of this century. He published his first book, Goodbye, Columbus, in 1959, at the age of 26, and has written 27 novels, two non-fiction books, and three collections of various writings since. There is almost unanimous consensus by literary critics that Roth’s oeuvre ranks him high in the pantheon of American literature. Proof of that is the Library of America’s definitive edition of Philip Roth’s collected works (2005-2011) as well as two National Book Awards, two National Book Critics Circle awards, three PEN/Faulkner Awards, and a Pulitzer Prize for his 1997 novel, American Pastoral. On March 2, 2011, the author was awarded the 2010 National Humanities Medal Citation.

The only other occupation Roth endeavored in was teaching. He started as instructor in English at the University of Chicago, 1956-1958, and taught creative writing at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop (1960-1962), Princeton University (1962-1964), SUNY Stony Brook, (1966-1967), and the University of Pennsylvania (1967-1980). Since 1988, Roth has been a Distinguished Professor at CUNY Hunter College, New York, NY.

Roth’s Iowa connection

Roth was invited to teach at the Workshop by Paul Engle. Two letters by Roth to Engle, kept at the UI Main Library’s Special Collection, testify to the circumstances in which the writer agreed to come to Iowa. He lived here with his first wife, Margaret Martinson, shortly before their divorce in 1963.

Via di Sant’Eligio 4

Rome, Italy

April 9, 1960

Dear Mr. Engle,

                  Your letter only arrived today, having made the Atlantic crossing by way of HMCo’s New York office, Boston office, then here. I’m afraid that before I can commit myself totally, I should like a little more information about the position. First off, you mention that one class would be a third of the general Fiction Workshop: how many hours teaching exactly does that entail? How many students, approximately, is one responsible to? And, though I realize you cannot as yet be precise about the other classes, can you give me some idea as to what kinds of classes there are in the writing program aside from the Writing Workshop. That is, what else might I be teaching?

                  I should also ask about the salary. It doesn’t seem terribly princely to me either, and, in fact, I was wondering if in the correspondence we had several summers ago, an even larger salary had been offered for this year. I may well be mistaken, but in truth I had been hoping that if you could make an offer of a position, the salary would be more than $5,500. May I ask if the University furnishes any sort of moving allowance? Bu the time I’ve transported my wife, myself, and my belongings from Rome to Iowa City, that not so princely sum will have been reduced several more stations. Is there any chance of your making a larger offer?

                  I do not mean to slow you up at your end, however I did feel it necessary to have the duties and responsibilities of the position a little more clearly in mind. I hope you’ll be able to answer me at the above address as soon as you’re able. I’m sending a copy of this letter on to Iowa also, in case I miss you at the Biltmore.


                  Philip Roth


Via di Sant’Eligio 4

Rome, Italy

June 9, 1960

Dear Mr. Engle,

                  I received confirmation of my appointment, and would appreciate it now if you could just answer a few questions for me.

                  1. When does the semester begin in the Fall? September is going to be a crowded month for us, what with leaving here, getting to New York, subletting our Manhattan apt, etc; so I would like to know the precise date I am due in Iowa.

                  2. Can you keep an eye out for us for a house? I’m not sure whether I made this request in an earlier letter, but if not let me say that we would like a house large enough for the two of us to work separately in, the best thing would be an upstairs and downstairs. It is absolutely essential the there be a study of library or some room when I can work undisturbed. Also, (and here comes the more finicky qualifications, but also, we find, the requirements of our psyches) we don’t care an inch for brand new formaced, low slung modern stuff. If it were old and pleasant—the best in short that a historic state like Iowa can offer—we’d be very pleased. I am willing to pay as much as $125, even a bit higher if it were pleasant, comfortable, etc.

                  3. We shall be leaving Rome on June 22, and traveling to London, were w will be from July 1 to Sept. 1. The address in London is:

                                                                        89 Redington Road, E Flat


                                                                        London NW3, England

If anything should come up about a house, or anything else for that matter, please contact me there after June 22. I am, in truth, a little nervous about arriving on the scene unhoused, and so anything you can do—or any agent you can enlist—on that score will make me worry-free and happy.

                  I look forward to seeing you in September.


                  Philip Roth


About being a professor, Roth made the following admission:

“Not only did I consider university teaching worthwhile, interesting work, but it was clear that [ … ] the instructorship would afford the most opportunity to write: even with three composition sections, each meeting five hours a week, I’d still have as much as half of each day left for myself, and then there’d be quarterly breaks, periodic holidays, and summer vacations.”[1]

A postcard, sent from Connecticut to John Leggett, the Chair of English Department and director of the Workshop after Engle’s resignation, is an interesting testimony of Roth’s personality.

Cornwall Bridge, Connecticut 06754

Sept 2, 1974

Dear John: Was that you—is that you—scribbling illegibly on post cards from 415 S. Summit St? If so, I’m delighted you like the book [My Life as a Man: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1974] so much. I didn’t answer you (whoever you are) because I took off before the book came out and didn’t come back (from Eastern Europe) until the thing had hit the fan and petered away (if I may). It is as you know the best way to face publication. How are you? I heard you were at Boston U? Now I read in Travel and Leisure that you’re writing about Fall in Iowa City. Summit St. has memories for me—some of which got transformed into art collectively under the name of Karen Oakes. When you’re in NYC call (RE 4-4482); I’m there in the middle of each week. Philip

The above is the only correspondence in which Roth mentions his memories of Iowa City.

Roth’s short memoir about Iowa City was published in the December 1962 issue of Esquire magazine under the title IOWA – A Very Far Country Indeed

Letting Go (Random House, 1962) is another Iowa connection for Philip Roth. It is his first full-length novel, published when he was twenty-nine. It opens at The University of Iowa in the fall of 1953. The hero and his friends are graduate students, living in apartments and in married students’ barracks. Coe College, where one student also teaches, and Dubuque Street are named, but Roth concentrates on the lives of his characters rather than on the setting. Newly discharged from the Korean War army, reeling from his mother’s recent death, freed from old attachments, and hungrily seeking others, Gabe Wallach is drawn to Paul Herz, a fellow graduate student in literature, and to Libby, Paul’s moody, intense wife. Gabe’s desire to be connected to the ordered “world of feeling” that he finds in books is first tested vicariously by the anarchy of the Herz’s struggles with responsible adulthood and then by his own eager love affairs. Driven by the desire to live seriously and act generously, Gabe meets an impassable test in the person of Martha Reganhart, a spirited, outspoken, divorced mother of two, a formidable woman who, according to critic James Atlas, is masterfully portrayed with “depth and resonance.” The complex liaison between Gabe and Martha and Gabe’s moral enthusiasm for the trials of others are at the heart of this tragically comic work.

Roth’s irony

One way of summarizing Roth’s fiction is that he used himself as both the main source and as the narrator of his own views of the world. The playfully autobiographical nature of Roth’s work has been its hallmark, with very few exceptions. The author’s ultimate method is irony, elevated to a highly suggestive self-irony. He uses it as a deceptive way to at once reveal and conceal that his characters are reflecting his personality. That is why the facts of his personal life—and, in particular, his relations with women—matter, if one wants to correctly and fully understand his novels. Here are the well-known facts. Roth had two marriages: the first was to Margaret Marthinson, whom he met in Chicago; the second was to Claire Bloom, a famous British movie star. Both marriages were to women elder than him: Marthinson was four years his senior, and Bloom two. Both ended in divorce, in both cases after only four years of living together (1959-1963 and 1990-1995, respectively).

Roth has famously said that his writing has always been about “making fake biography.” Indeed, in an ironic attempt to deflect too much attention upon himself, he has created the surrogate personality of Nathan Zuckerman, the main character in nine of his most important novels. Zuckerman is indeed a Jewish-American author who shot to fame with the publication of a scandalous novel and thus, turned to be one of literature’s great creations, a wise-cracking, bed-hopping trickster who allows his author to keep one step ahead of his readership. Roth has also written three “Kepesh” novels and in four of his novels he, as Roth, is explicitly present.

Roth’s dysfunctional marriage to his first wife, Margaret Martinson, left an important mark on his literary output. Specifically, Martinson is the inspiration for female characters in several of Roth’s novels, including Mary Jane Reed (aka “the Monkey”) in Portnoy’s Complaint, Lucy Nelson in When She Was Good, and Maureen Tarnopol in My Life as a Man.

According to his pseudo-confessional novel, Operation Shylock, Roth suffered a nervous breakdown in the late 1980s as a result of pain-killers prescribed to him after a difficult knee operation. On April 19, 1990, he married long-time companion and English actress, Claire Bloom. In 1994 they separated and in 1996 Bloom published an embarrassing memoir detailing their relationship called Leaving a Doll’s House. It is rumored Roth was infuriated by his unflattering depiction there, and that to exact revenge he caricatured Bloom as the poisonous Eve Frame character in I Married a Communist, a social climber who ruins her husband’s life by writing a tell-all autobiography,

The only overtly autobiographical book by Roth is The Facts: A Novelist’s Autobiography, published in 1988. But even here, where Roth clearly discloses facts of his own life, the attributive “novelist’s” is a way for him to say that this is not the biography of someone who will make full disclosure, for he is a person who sees fiction in real life and, vice versa, turns real life into fiction. Tellingly, the name of Margaret Marthinson in this book is Josephine (Josie) Jensen. Here are some revealing facts from this book, confirming the autobiographical nature of Roth’s novels.

After telling in great detail about how Josie has deceived him into marrying her by claiming a second pregnancy—the first one ended in abortion—that turned out to be a hoax, Roth writes: “The description in My Life as a Man, in the chapter “Marriage à la Mode,” of how Peter Tarnopol is tricked by Maureen Johnson into believing her pregnant parallels almost exactly how I was deceived by Josie in February 1959. Probably nothing else in my work more precisely duplicates the autobiographical fact. Those scenes represent one of the few occasions when I haven’t spontaneously set out to improve on actuality in the interest of being more interesting. I couldn’t have been more interesting—I couldn’t have been as interesting.”[2]

Josie/Margaret had a daughter and … “ … was threatening to stab me to death in my sleep if I should ever attempt to seduce the child, whom in fact I was hoping, literally, to teach to tell time and to read. Needless to say, to this development Dostoevsky might have allowed something more than a mere hundred words. I myself allowed several thousand words to find an apposite, deserving setting for her scenario in the opening section of My Life as a Man, in the chapter “Courting Disaster,” which purports to be Peter Tarnopol’s macabre fictional transmogrification of his own awful-enough “true story.” For me, if not for the reader, that chapter—indeed the novel itself—was meant to demonstrate that my imaginative faculties had managed to outlive the waste of all that youthful strength, that I’d not only survived the consequences of my devastating case of moral simpletonism but finally prevailed over my grotesque deference to what this wretched small-town gentile paranoid defined as my humane, my manly—yes, even my Jewish—duty.”[3]

One of the keys to Roth’s success is his ability to discuss the weightiest of topics—faith, marriage, family—and thus, his work remains a highly serious discussion of man’s tenuous place in an increasingly hostile world. Like so many prophets before him, Roth sees man as a fallen creature. Maleness and Jewishness, but also American-ness, are the red threads that cut across Roth’s entire work. All three are attributes that would portray the author as comprehensively as his novels portray contemporary America. In a tense, brilliant passage  from The Facts, Roth himself does not shy away from this amalgam:

“After Goodbye, Columbus won the 1960 National Book Award for fiction and the Daroff award of the Jewish Book council of America, I was asked to speak on similar themes before college Hillel groups, Jewish community centers, and temples all over the country. […] When I could get away from university teaching, I took up these invitations and appeared before Jewish audiences to talk and to answer questions. […]

In 1962, I accepted an invitation to appear on a panel at Yeshiva University in New York. […] From the start I was suspicious of the flat‐out assertiveness of the Yeshiva symposium title—“The Crisis of Conscience in Minority Writers of Fiction”—and its presumption, as I interpreted it, that the chief cause of dissension over “minority” literature lay not in the social uncertainties of a minority audience but in a profound disturbance in the moral faculties of minority writers. […]

I came East from Iowa with Josie[‐Margaret], and on the evening of the symposium the two of us took a taxi out to Yeshiva with my new Random House editor, Joe Fox […], a gentile […]. Josie was, of course, gentile also, but after our marriage, on her own steam—and against my better judgment, not to mention my secular convictions—she had taken religious instruction from Rabbi Jack Cohen at the Reconstructionist Synagogue in Manhattan and been converted by him to Judaism. […] I saw in her desire to be some sort of simulated Jew yet another distressing collapse of integrity; something very like the self‐hatred with which I had been stigmatized seemed to impel her drive to camouflage the markings of her own small‐tow, Middle Western past. [ … ]

[The] first question[to me] was this: “Mr. Roth, would you write the same stories you’ve written if you were living in Nazi Germany?”—a question that was to turn up some twenty years later in The Ghost Writer, asked of Nathan Zuckerman by Judge Leopold Wapter. Thirty minutes later, I was still being grilled. No response I gave was satisfactory and, when the audience was allowed to take up the challenge, I realized that I was not just opposed but hated. I’ve never forgotten my addled reaction: an undertow of bodily fatigue took hold and began sweeping me away from that auditorium even as I tried to reply coherently to one denunciation after another (for we had by then proceeded beyond interrogation to anathema). My combative instinct, which was not undeveloped, simply withered away and I had actually to suppress a desire to close my eyes and, in my chair at the panelists’ table, with an open microphone only inches from my perspiring face, drift into unconsciousness. […]

In midtown Manhattan later, Josie, Joe, and I went to have something to eat at the Stage Delicatessen, down the street from the hotel where we were staying. I was angry at what I had stupidly let myself in for, I was wretchedly ashamed of my performance, and I was infuriated still by the accusations from the floor. Over my pastrami sandwich no less, I said, “I’ll never write about Jews again.” Equally ridiculously, I thought that I meant it, or at least that I should. I couldn’t see then, fresh from the event, that the most bruising public exchange of my life constituted not the end of my imaginations’ involvement with the Jews, let alone an excommunication, but the real beginning of my thralldom. I had assumed—mostly from evidence of Letting Go—that I had passed beyond the concerns of my collection of apprentice stories and the subjects that had fallen so naturally to me as a beginning writer. Letting Go, about the unanticipated responsibilities of young adulthood far from Jewish New Jersey, seemed to foreshadow the direction in which new preoccupations would not guide me. But the Yeshiva battle, instead of putting me off Jewish fictional subjects for good, demonstrated as nothing had before the full force of aggressive rage that made the issue of Jewish self‐definition and Jewish allegiance so inflammatory. This group whose embrace once had offered me so much security was itself fanatically insecure. How could I conclude otherwise when I was told that every word I wrote was a disgrace, potentially endangering every Jew? Fanatical security, fanatical insecurity—nothing in my entire background could exemplify better than that night did how deeply rooted the Jewish drama was in this duality.

After an experience like mine at Yeshiva, a writer would have had to be no writer at all to go looking elsewhere for something to write about. My humiliation before the Yeshiva belligerents—indeed, the angry Jewish resistance that I aroused virtually from the start—was the luckiest break I could have had. I was branded.”

(Roth, Philip. The Facts: A Novelist’s Autobiography. Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, New York, 1988, p. 124‐130.)



Zuckerman novels:

Zuckerman Bound

The Ghost Writer (1979)

Zuckerman Unbound (1981)

The Anatomy Lesson (1983)

The Prague Orgy (1985)

Other Zuckerman novels

The Counterlife (1986)

American Pastoral (1997)

I Married a Communist (1998)

The Human Stain (2000)

Exit Ghost (2007)

Kepesh novels:

The Breast (1972)

The Professor of Desire (1977)

The Dying Animal (2001)

Roth novels (openly biographical):

My Life As a Man (1974)

Deception: A Novel (1990)

Operation Shylock: A Confession (1993)

The Plot Against America (2004)

Other novels:

Goodbye, Columbus (1959)

Letting Go (1962)

When She Was Good (1967)

Portnoy’s Complaint (1969)

Our Gang (1971)

The Great American Novel (1973)

Sabbath’s Theater (1995)

Late (Short) Novels:

Everyman (2006)

Indignation (2008)

The Humbling (2009)

Nemesis (2010)


The Facts: A Novelist’s Autobiography (1988)

Patrimony: A True Story (1991)


Reading Myself and Others (1976)

A Philip Roth Reader (1980, revised edition 1993)

Shop Talk (2001)

Library of America Editions (edited by Ross Miller):

Novels and Stories 1959-1962 (2005) ISBN 978-1-93108279-2

Novels 1967-1972 (2005) ISBN 978-1-93108280-8

Novels 1973-1977 (2006) ISBN 978-1-93108296-9

Zuckerman Bound: A Trilogy and Epilogue 1979-1985 (2007) ISBN 978-1-59853-011-7

Novels and Other Narratives 1986-1991 (2008) ISBN 978-1-59853-030-8

Novels 1993–1995 (2010) ISBN 978-1-59853-078-0

The American Trilogy 1997-2000 (2011) ISBN 978-1598531039


[1] Roth, Philip. The Facts: A Novelist’s Autobiography. Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, New York, 1988, p. 87

[2] Ibid., p. 107

[3] Ibid., p. 108



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