Roth was born and raised in Newark, New Jersey, the oldest child of first generation Jewish-American parents of Galician descent. After graduating from high school at the age of 16, Roth went on to attend Bucknell University, earning a degree in English. He then pursued graduate studies at the University of Chicago, receiving a M.A. in English literature and then working briefly as an instructor in the university's writing program.
It was during his Chicago stay that Roth met the novelist Saul Bellow, who briefly became his mentor, and Margaret Martinson, who eventually became his first wife. Though the two would separate in 1963, and Martinson would die in a car crash in 1968, Roth's dysfunctional marriage to her left an important mark on his literary output. Specifically, Martinson is the inspiration for female characters in several of Roth's novels, including Mary Jane Reed (aka "the Monkey") in Portnoy's Complaint.
Between the end of his studies and the publication of his first book in 1959, Roth served 2 years in the army and then wrote short fiction and criticism for various magazines, including movie reviews for The New Republic. His first novella, When She Was Good; it was not until the publication of his third novel, Portnoy's Complaint in 1969 that Roth enjoyed widespread commercial and critical success.
During the 1970s Roth experimented in various modes, from the political satire The Breast. By the end of the decade, though, Roth had created his Nathan Zuckerman alter-ego. In the series of highly self-referential novels that have followed since, Zuckerman almost always appears as either the main character or at least as an interlocuter. The number of books published during this period as well as the prestigious awards several of them have won lead many to consider it the most productive in Roth's career.
Events in Roth's personal life during the same time, though, were more mixed. According to his pseudo-confessional novel, I Married a Communist.
Philip Roth is inarguably the most decorated writer of his era: three of his works of fiction have won the National Book Award; two others were finalists. Two have won the National Book Critic's Circle Award; another two were finalists. He has also won two PEN/Faulkner Awards and a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. In 2002, he was awarded the National Book Foundation's Award for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. Most remarkably, four of his last six novels have either won or been named finalists for one or more of America's four most prestigious literary awards, a phenomenal achievement for a writer now entering his seventh decade. Literary critic Harold Bloom has named him as one of the four major American novelists still at work, along with Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, and Cormac McCarthy. In early 2004, the Philip Roth Society announced publication of the Philip Roth Studies journal. The inaugural issue will be released in fall 2004.
Philip Roth currently lives alone in the Connecticut countryside