There were no flowers or tattered paperbacks on the steps of Philip Roth’s childhood home in Newark this morning. The house at 385 Leslie Street, in a former lower-middle-class Jewish enclave that is now pocked with boarded-up storefronts, bore no memorial for the writer who died Tuesday at the age of 85.
Roth will forever be associated with his city of birth in New Jersey, where his celebrated fictional avatars Alexander Portnoy and Nathan Zuckerman also grew up. Those who think of him as a New Yorker likely associate him with uptown Manhattan, where he and Zuckerman would come to live. But when Roth moved to New York in 1958, he lived in the East Village. It was there, in a basement apartment on East 10th Street, where the fledgling writer started his rise to fame, where he had formative experiences that would shape his highly personal novels, and where his work first sparked controversy about his complicated relationship with his Jewish identity.
During his childhood in Newark, Roth considered New York City “far more mythical than Paris or Rome,” but he wasn’t entirely unfamiliar with Manhattan when he moved there at the age of 25. His family had made semiannual excursions to Radio City Music Hall and Chinatown. While Roth went to Weequahic High School, his brother Sandy attended Pratt, sketched “Bowery bums,” and lent Philip copies of A Portrait of the Artist and other books that gave him his “first glimpse of serious modern fiction.” (All quotes are from Roth’s 1988 autobiography, The Facts, unless otherwise noted.)
When it was Roth’s turn to attend college, he transferred from Rutgers to Bucknell University in Pennsylvania, far enough from Newark that he could escape his family’s “overdevotion, overprotection, and oversurveillance.” At Bucknell, he wrote staid stories in which, unlike his later work, “there were no Jews… no Newark, and not a sign of comedy.” In 1955, he got his M.A. in English from the University of Chicago, where he planned to build a proper career as an academic.
In Chicago, Roth struck up a romance with Margaret Martinson Williams, a gentile whose “American Nordic rootedness” and turbulent family life were tantalizingly unlike his own background. Soon enough, the relationship turned into what Roth described as “a running feud focused on my character flaws.” After Houghton Mifflin acquired his debut fiction collection, Goodbye, Columbus, he used the money to move to New York and took an $80-a-month two-room basement apartment on East 10th Street.
The exact address of Roth’s East Village apartment is not easy to determine. In The Facts, he describes it as “placed perfectly—given my taste then for urban color—between the bums panhandling on the Bowery and the baskets of bialys on the tables at Ratner’s.” If we’re to take Roth’s directions literally, the apartment would’ve been somewhere between Second and Fourth Avenues.
Washington Square Park was a 10-minute walk away, but it was the park to the east, Tompkins Square, that attracted Roth:
After a day of writing, I’d either walk over with my own newspaper—or my Commentary or Partisan Review—to an Italian coffee house on Bleecker Street for an espresso or, when it was warm enough, go down to Tompkins Square Park and read awhile on a favorite bench, read and look around and sometimes jot down a note about what I’d been writing that day, feeling very much the satisfactions of a young man on his own in a big city.
The park, “run-down even in those days” but lively with Puerto Rican and Ukrainian immigrants, had a “personal resonance” for Roth, whose grandparents had migrated from Eastern Europe. It was where he “enjoyed my solitude and my pleasant sense of identification with my Americanized family’s immigrant origins,” he wrote.
When he wasn’t basking in solitude at Tompkins, Roth was socializing with the likes of George Plimpton, of the Paris Review, and writers and editors at Harper’s, Esquire, and so on. He had “already established a small reputation in New York,” and was “beginning to enjoy feeling like a writer myself instead of like a freshman-composition teacher who’d written a few short stories on the side.”
As it turned out, Margaret Martinson, Roth’s old flame, also moved to New York City, hoping to break into publishing herself. By Roth’s account, he wasn’t happy when she appeared at his doorstep asking for a place to say: “It occurred to me to abandon the apartment to her—forget my records and my books and the few hundred dollars’ worth of secondhand furniture, and disappear with what remained of my Houghton Mifflin money. But there was a two-year lease on the $80-a-month apartment to which I’d signed my name, there were my parents in New Jersey, whom I spoke to on the phone weekly and who were delighted that I appeared to be permanently settled back East—and there was the promise of my new life in Manhattan.”
Roth would end up sharing that life with Martinson, much to his chagrin. Their “grueling, draining, bewildering quarrels,” partly about his amorous adventures during a stint in Europe, were so fierce that Roth was surprised that “we didn’t end up—one or both of us—maimed or dead.” He continues: “By the beginning of the year in which Goodbye, Columbus was to be published, I was nearly as ripe for hospitalization as she was, my basement apartment having all but become a psychiatric ward with café curtains.”
Roth famously used personal events as fodder for his fiction, hence yesterday’s Onion headline: “Philip Roth Obituary Just Thinly Disguised Version of Author’s Life.” His turbulent marriage— which would end with a bitter legal separation followed by Martinson’s death in a car accident— informed his 1974 novel My Life as a Man. One incident in particular was so close to his lived experience that “probably nothing else in my work more precisely duplicates the autobiographical facts,” Roth wrote.
In February of 1959, Martinson told Roth that she was pregnant. Despite his misgivings about the relationship, he agreed to marry her on the condition that she get an abortion. Two years later, Roth wrote, she would confess that she had faked the results of the pregnancy test by buying urine from “a pregnant black woman she’d inveigled one morning into a tenement hallway across from Tompkins Square Park.” While pretending to be off getting the abortion, she was in fact at a showing of I Want to Live!— the same movie Roth named when he fictionalized the story for My Life as a Man.
Roth admits, in The Facts, that Martinson may have made all of this up; if so, it was only further evidence that she was a “specialist par excellence in the aesthetics of extremist fiction”—the sort of extremist fiction that Roth hadn’t yet started writing. “Not, really, until I began Portnoy’s Complaint would I be able to cut loose with anything approaching her gift for flabbergasting boldness,” he writes, snarkily calling her “the greatest creative writing teacher of them all.”
Though Roth’s fiction was more conservative in those early years, he first sparked controversy while living in the East Village, when one of his first published stories, “Defender of the Faith,” appeared in The New Yorker in March of 1959. Roth has often told the story of stalking a newsstand on 14th Street because he was eager to get his hands on the magazine the moment it was delivered. In The Facts, he says he made three trips to the newsstand. In Roth Unbound, he tells author Claudia Roth Pierpont that it was “about six times.” In 2010, when he recounted the story for NPR’s Fresh Air, the number was even higher: “I kept running out to 14th Street to the magazine stand, saying, ‘You got the New Yorker yet?’ And the guys says, ‘Leave me alone, will you?’ I must have been out there 10 times that day to get it. I was very excited.”
The excitement wore off when the Anti-Defamation League informed Roth they had received complaints that the story, about a World War II soldier who tries to weasel his way out of service by appealing to his sergeant as a fellow Jew, was anti-Semitic. “What is being done to stop this man?” one rabbi wrote in a letter. “Medieval Jews would have known what to do with him.” According to Roth Unbound, Roth managed to smooth things over during a friendly lunch at Ratner’s with the organization’s officer. Nevertheless, in The Facts, he describes the incident as a turning point:
I had no intention as a writer of coming to be known as “controversial” and, in the beginning, had no idea that my stories would prove repugnant to ordinary Jews. I had thought of myself as something of an authority on ordinary Jewish life, with its penchant for self-satire and hyperbolic comedy, and for a long time continued to be bemused privately as I was unyielding publicly when confronted by Jewish challengers.
The early criticism ensured that Roth’s alleged anti-Semitism would “come to pervade the discussion of my work, stimulating me to defend myself in essays and public addresses and, when I decided to take things more aggressively in hand, to strike back at accusations that I had divulged Jewish secrets and vulgarly falsified Jewish lives by upping the ante in Portnoy’s Complaint.” The discussion about whether Roth’s work was good for the Jews continues to this day, as does the conversation about whether he portrayed women in a misogynist manner.
Roth ended up leaving New York in 1959, using money from a Guggenheim Fellowship to live in Rome and later taking jobs at the Iowa Writers Workshop and Princeton University. According to Conversations With Philip Roth, he moved back to East 10th Street in 1964, this time to an apartment that was not considered to be in the East Village (or the Lower East Side, as it had been known in the ’50s). A photo taken in 1965 shows him in his “Greenwich Village apartment” and a National Education Television interview conducted in 1966 signs off from “Philip Roth’s Greenwich Village apartment” as well.
When Portnoy’s Complaint made Roth wealthy in 1969, he moved to the Upper East Side. As an uptowner, he wasn’t exactly nostalgic about his early downtown days. In 1981, he told Esquire:
I lived on the Lower East Side for about six months, quite unhappily: I didn’t like the “literary” scene; I wasn’t interested in the publishing world; I couldn’t master the styles of sexual combat in vogue there in the late fifties; and as I wasn’t employed in merchandising, manufacturing or finance, I didn’t see much reason to stay.
In 1991, he told Molly McQuade that he sometimes wondered why he didn’t just stay in Chicago. “I felt at home in Chicago,” he said. “I’ve never felt at home in New York, and don’t to this day.”