Pulitzer Prize winning author Philip Roth returned annually to Lewisburg to reminisce with his favorite Bucknell professor who helped shape him into what one writer called "the voice of his generation."
Roth's novel "Portnoy's Complaint" brought him literary celebrity after its publication in 1969 — nearly two decades before he won the Pulitzer for "American Pastoral" — and he was eventually hailed as one of America's greatest living authors. He died Tuesday of congestive heart failure. He was 85.
Colleagues and authors around Bucknell University, where Roth graduated in 1954, remembered the storyteller Wednesday as inspiring and visionary. Through all the fame, however, he never forgot about the Lewisburg university that helped mold him, especially professor Mildred Martin.
"Philip told me that he returned to Bucknell almost every year in August until Mildred’s death to spend a day or two, and he always stayed with Mildred at her house in Lewisburg," said Bucknell grad Peter Balakian, Bucknell’s only other Pulitzer Prize-winning author. "I had no idea he was so attached to the place — that it was part of his yearly ritual for nearly 40 years, to touch base with Lewisburg."
Current Bucknell English professor Robert Rosenberg said that Roth's work covered nearly every aspect of life and stretched the genre of the American novel.
"As a teacher of Creative Writing at Bucknell, it’s always been inspiring to remind my students that one of America’s greatest novelists sat in these classrooms, lived in these dormitories," Rosenberg said. "It’s been a powerful way of reinforcing that, like Philip Roth, they too might write something that will stand as a legacy, a testament of the times."
In 2008, Roth receive the Stephen W. Taylor Medal, the university's high honor awarded "of those who render extraordinary service to the University," during commencement. Since 1993, the university has offered the Philip Roth Residence in Creative Writing to aspiring writers.
"In the enormous scope of his work – class, politics, religion, family dynamics, the underside of American history – it’s easy to lose track of what made Philip Roth stand out as a writer," Rosenberg said. "For me it’s his sentences, with their winding accumulation of ideas and scholarship, their baroque musicality, their surprises and, always, their hard-won precision. He was a provocative craftsman who wrote towering works of the imagination but at the same time etched every brick in intricate detail."
"He was also a champion of young writers, best epitomized in the support he offered through the Philip Roth Residence at Bucknell, which gave so many talented early novelists and poets the gift of uninterrupted time to finish their first books."
Roth's 1959 debut story collection, "Goodbye, Columbus," earned him the first of two National Book Awards. He would go on to publish 27 novels, two memoirs and several more story collections by the time he publicly retired from writing in 2012. His lifelong themes included sex and desire, health and mortality, and Jewishness and its obligations — arguably his most definitive subject, given the controversy surrounding his earliest works.
"He at once talked about America and American-ness, but filtered it through the history of the 20th century at large," said Aimee Pozorski, an associate professor of English at Central Connecticut State University who had written extensively about Roth.
"He wrote about the American response to the Holocaust, but also about its effects in Israel and Central and Eastern Europe," Pozorski said. "He talked about the spread of, and simultaneous fear of, communism in the U.S. but also considered cultural shifts in Prague during that time. He could write about these international issues because he was truly cosmopolitan, a global citizen who was grounded by American culture."
She called Roth "the voice of his generation."
Andy Ciotola, program manager of Bucknell's Stadler Center for Poetry & Literary Arts said, "Roth helped to define how our culture understands modern suburban life, particularly how it's experienced in the Northeastern metropolitan corridor. But like any great literary artist, his vision is larger than the particularities of time and place. It's fascinating to think that some part of that vision was formed during his years in Lewisburg as a Bucknell undergraduate."
A 2006 survey by the New York Times Book Review of the best books since 1981 found an astonishing six of Roth's novels among the top 22. Well into his senior years, he continued to win the highest laurels of his profession with new, evocative works.
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