Philip Roth, Pulitzer Prize-Winning American Pastoral Novelist, Dies at 85
Philip Roth, the Pulitzer Prize winning novelist known for books like American Pastoral, The Human Stain and Goodbye, Columbus, died on Tuesday, multiple outlets report. He was 85.
Fellow writer and close friend Judith Thurman told The New York Times and CNN that Roth had died in a New York City hospital of congestive heart failure. Andrew Wylie, Roth’s literary agent, echoed the cause of death to the Associated Press.
“He was an incredibly generous person. Always very exigent, and he held you to a very high standard — and he held himself to an even higher standard,” Thurman told CNN, adding that friends and family surrounded him during his final hours. “He was, in my opinion, a very great writer and a very great man.”
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Roth produced over 30 books in a career that spanned nearly seven decades.
“His vision is agony teetering on the edge of hysterical laughter,” one of his author friends, William Styron, told PEOPLE in 1983. Roth’s ability to startle readers, Styron said at the time, showed the power and range of his writing: “Writers who concentrate on pleasing all the time don’t have much ultimate impact. One of the functions of an author is to arouse.”
In addition to his Pulitzer Prize for fiction (given in 1998 for American Pastoral), Roth won numerous other top literary achievements, including two National Book Awards, three PEN/Faulkner prizes and two National Book Critics Circle honors.
Born and raised in New Jersey as the younger of two sons, his father, Herman — a manager for the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company — often took Philip and his older brother, Sandy, to watch a minor-league baseball team, the Newark Bears, and the sport became a consuming passion in the Roth household. “I played all the time,” he recalled to PEOPLE.
It wasn’t until Roth attended Bucknell University, where he edited the literary magazine, that he showed an equal obsession with writing. By the time Roth reached the University of Chicago as a graduate student in English literature, he had become a talented short story writer.
His first National Book Award, for Goodbye, Columbus and Five Short Stories, came in 1960 when he was just 27 years old. The prize provided the momentum for a career of writing and teaching at schools including the University of Iowa, Princeton, the University of Pennsylvania, and Hunter College.
“I must always have a quiet place in which to write, but I find that I enjoy teaching,” he told PEOPLE. “I can imagine nothing more wonderful than to sit in a room with 20 bright students for three hours and discuss books. It also forces me to read a book a week, which is good discipline.”
Roth would be catapulted to international success with the publication of his controversial 1969 novel, Portnoy’s Complaint.
“I felt I was at the center of a strange storm,” Roth told PEOPLE. “But my intention was not to create an uproar, it was to write my book. If you want to do something to ‘them’ out there, you go into another line of business. You throw bombs. Or you’re Sammy Davis Jr. and you go out onstage and jump around.”
The backlash didn’t stop him. “My work was never as controversial as they said it was,” Roth told PEOPLE in 1991.
Standout novels Sabbath’s Theater (1995), I Married a Communist (1998), The Human Stain (2000), The Dying Animal (2001), and The Plot Against America (2004) followed suit.
American Pastoral, written after Roth had returned from living in London for 11 years, combined his love for sports as a child with the personalities he met in his native New Jersey.
Roth’s final book would be 2010’s Nemesis, about a polio outbreak in New Jersey. In 2012, he announced the book would be his last, CNN reported, telling the outlet, “I decided that I was done with fiction. I don’t want to read any more of it, write any more of it, and I don’t even want to talk about it anymore. … I no longer feel this dedication to write what I have experienced my whole life.”
On Tuesday, as news of his death spread, many stars spoke out about Roth’s legacy.
“Haven’t grasped the words yet to explain Roth’s influence, which I feel everywhere from my writing to my dating,” Lena Dunham wrote on Twitter. “We are so lucky for the stack of books he left us with. Rest In Peace, sweet prince of Newark.”