Young Philip Roth in the East Village
In 1958, a twenty-five-year-old Philip Roth (March 19, 1933 – May 22, 2018) moved into a basement apartment at 128 East 10th Street in the East Village. The Anglo-Italianate building, which forms the point of the triangular piece of land shaped by Stuyvesant and East 10th Streets, was perfectly situated for Roth, who often visited Ratner’s Restaurant on Second Avenue and 6th Street and Tompkins Square Park just a few blocks further east. He decorated his apartment with records and books and, according to his 1988 autobiography The Facts, “a few hundred dollars’ worth of secondhand furniture.” Living here for the duration of of his two-year lease, Roth published the first of many works that would make him one of the most revered writers of the 20th century.
Roth was born to Herman Roth and Bess Finkel Roth in Newark, New Jersey in 1933. His father, the son of Jewish immigrants from the eastern European region that is now Poland and Ukraine, operated a shoe-store business and then worked as an insurance salesman. Like many young Villagers, Roth’s early adulthood was characterized by stops and starts. He began college at the Newark extension of Rutgers University in 1950, and after a year transferred to Bucknell University, taking him further from home. In 1954, he graduated with a degree in English, then earned his Masters in English from the University of Chicago the following year. After a brief stint serving in the army, Roth returned to the University of Chicago in 1956, teaching freshman composition and working toward his PhD. However, he quickly decided not to continue his doctorate, leaving the program in the first term. Instead, he taught English and briefly reviewed television and film for The New Republic. On the side, he wrote short fiction.
It was then that Roth found himself in the East 10th Street basement, for part of this time living with Margaret Martinson Williams, whom he married in 1959. Roth recalled the love affair as disastrous, depicting many of the couple’s angered encounters in his autobiography. Still, during this period he managed to develop his reputation as a writer, befriending George Plimpton of The Paris Review, Martin Greenberg of Commentary, Robert Silvers of Harper’s, Rust Hills of Esquire, and Aaron Asher of Meridan Books.
On March 14, 1959, The New Yorker published Roth’s story “Defender of the Faith,” a huge milestone for the emerging author. That day, Roth returned to a newsstand on Fourteenth Street again and again, waiting for the magazine to arrive. When it finally showed up, he bought four copies. “I’d open it and close it,” he later remembered, “and look at it from here and look at it from there, and read it, read it and then the words would just blast out of my mind and it all made no sense. It was terribly thrilling.” Much to Roth’s surprise, however, the story was denounced by several influential rabbis, who did not approve of his negative depictions of Jewish characters and themes.
Just under two months later, Roth’s book Goodbye, Columbus and Five Short Stories was published on May 7, 1959 by Houghton Mifflin. The collection, which included “Defender of the Faith,” fueled and prolonged the controversy sparked by the earlier publication. Nonetheless, many critics believed the book signaled the arrival of a new, important writer. Goodbye, Columbus was awarded the National Book Award in 1960 and was adapted as a movie in 1969.
Through all of this, the young Roth was getting to know New York and the neighborhood that surrounded him. Perhaps his most delightful East Village recollections are those of Tompkins Square Park, for which he felt a “sentimental fondness.” In The Facts, his writes:
Tomkins Square Park looked run-down even in those days but was still back then a perfectly safe place, a neighborhood resting spot for the elderly, where they sat in good weather and talked and read their newspapers – more often than not, papers in Ukrainian – and where the local young mothers, many of them very young and Puerto Rican, brought their children to play and run about. After a day of writing, I’d either walk over with my own newspaper – or my Commentary or Partisan Review – to an Italian coffee house on Bleecker Street for an espresso or, when it was warm enough, go down to Tompkins Square Park and read awhile on a favorite bench, read and look around and sometimes jot down a note about what I’d been writing that day, feeling very much the satisfactions of a young man on his own in a big city – to an ex-Newarker, a city far more mythical than Paris or Rome. If I wasn’t as poor as those whose local park this was, I was still scrupulously living on the money that I portioned out to myself each week from the Houghton Mifflin fellowship; with no real desire to live otherwise, I felt perfectly at home loitering unnoticed among these immigrant Americans and their American offspring. I did not think of myself romantically as ‘one of them,’ it wasn’t my style to speak of these people as The People, nor was I doing research – I knew plenty about old-country immigrants without having to study the sociology of Tompkins Square Park regulars. I liked the place as much for its uneventful ordinariness as for the personal resonance that it had for me.
In 1960, Roth left the East Village and served as a visiting lecturer at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop for two years, then becoming a writer-in-residence at Princeton University. According to Conversations With Philip Roth, he moved back to East 10th Street in 1964, but his address at that time is unconfirmed. A photo by artist Inge Morath held in the Yale University Art Gallery Collections shows Roth in his “Greenwich Village apartment,” and a 1966 National Education Television transcript of an interview with Roth states that it was conducted in his “Greenwich Village apartment” as well. According to the Philip Roth Society, the years between 1962 and 1967 were unproductive for Roth, who called it a period of “literary uncertainty.” Nevertheless, by the late 1960s, he had begun teaching at the University of Pennsylvania, where he stayed on the faculty for 11 years.
In the decades that followed, Roth wrote extensively on being an American, a Jew, a writer, a man, and a mortal being. He became a preeminent literary figure of his era, continuing to publish prolifically throughout his life, and winning two National Book Awards, two National Book Critics Circle awards, three PEN/Faulkner Awards, a Pulitzer Prize and the Man Booker International Prize. It is hard to imagine he was ever circling a local newsstand waiting for his big break, or dragging a secondhand chair down East 10th Street, or sitting on a bench in Tompkins Square Park. But sure enough, like so many of our beloved artists and writers, there he was.