Philip Roth Biographer Finds ‘Essential Decency’ at Newark-Born Author’s Core

The long-awaited biography, which writer Blake Bailey says delves beyond Roth's controversies, hit shelves April 6.

philip roth biography blake bailey

Blake Bailey Courtesy of Nancy Crampton

Philip Roth was never one to shy away from controversy.

He was called a self-hating Jew after his first book (1959’s Goodbye, Columbus) and a pervert after Portnoy’s Complaint a decade later.

Roth’s golden years brought international acclaim and guided tours of his old Newark stomping grounds—but also accusations of hostility toward women.

“What may surprise readers,” says Blake Bailey, author of the long-awaited Philip Roth: The Biography, “is Philip’s essential decency amid the occasional bad behavior.”

Before Roth died in May 2018, Bailey was granted complete access to Weequahic High School’s most famous grad.

“I still have to pinch myself,” says Bailey, whose previous bios explored literary lions like John Cheever and Richard Yates. His Roth biography is out April 6 from W.W. Norton.

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Roth introduced Bailey as his official biographer in 2012, with these oft-quoted directions: “Don’t try to rehabilitate me. Just make me interesting.”

Amidst the daunting research, there were special moments, such as when Bailey mentioned a Roth novel he had yet to read.

“[Roth] was giving me a tour of his Connecticut house, and he pointed to the attic, where he keeps various editions of his work. He said, ‘Why don’t you run up there and get yourself a copy.’ ”

Bailey, who grew up in Oklahoma City, was a Roth fan from an early age.

“I’d read a little over half of his books when I became his biographer. By the end, I’d read every book multiple times. Certain books…I reread every other year or so.”

For Jersey readers new to Roth, Bailey recommends The Plot Against America (2004) and Nemesis (2010), “both of which have a lot of Newark and Weequahic in them.”

Keep an eye out for an exclusive excerpt from the biography in our May 2021 issue.

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