As anyone who has ever taught freshman composition for any length of time can tell you, there is always one bright-eyed, eager young freshman who wants to write about some author’s entire career. In a five-page paper no less. You try to let them down gently, saying that, in order to do their subject justice, they would have to spend years on research and writing and revising, and it would have to be the length of a book.
Happily, Claudia Roth Pierpont has done just that in Roth Unbound: A Writer and His Books (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2013) her examination of the life and work of Philip Roth, America’s uncrowned (as yet) Nobel laureate. Insightful and erudite, yet never overly academic in tone, this work is perfect for the reader who, having heard about Roth without yet reading any of his work, has formed some opinion of him as a writer and as a man based only on hearsay and rumor. Ms. Pierpont does not “prettify” Roth’s work or its subject matter, but, instead, places it firmly within its cultural context and social milieu.
Scholars may be disappointed that she does not explore any of his uncollected early work, or into the dichotomy between his public avowals of atheism and his agnostic yet spiritually sensitive (and almost always carnal) protagonists who often embody the core values of Judaic philosophy without the external trappings or avowals of faith far better than lesser characters who publicly and overtly proclaim their devotion to it.
Instead, however, Ms. Pierpont presents Roth’s career unvarnished, both in the creative process and the public reception. We have a chance to see Mr. Roth and the forces that shaped both him and his career. The distance between the present and Roth’s early work gives Pierpont a critical perspective that seems to lessen only slightly as her explorations of the work and its cultural impact move closer to the current day, but that is to be expected with any such exploration of a contemporary writer’s work.
For anyone with even a passing interest in the most influential American writer of the second half of the twentieth century (and the first decade of the twenty-first), this book will stimulate an interest in reading his work again, or, for those who have not yet discovered his work, for the first time.
Jamie Brown, author of Sakura (Best Book of Verse 2013 Delaware Press Association), Constructing Fiction,Conventional Heresies, and Freeholder, publishes books from The Broadkill River Press and chapbooks from The Broadkill Press. He is a poet, author (fiction-and-nonfiction), an award-winning playwright, critic, and teacher (George Washington University, Georgetown University, the Smithsonian, University of Delaware), and former Poetry Critic for The Washington Times.