When He Was Good

"A man who writes a book, thinks himself wiser or wittier than the rest of mankind;
he supposes that he can instruct or amuse them, and the public to whom he appeals must,
after all, be the fudges of his pretensions."

—Samuel Johnson

Philip Roth's first book, a collection of stories called Goodbye Columbus, was a critical smash. Reviewers hailed it as witty, energetic, and accurately detailed; they noted with astonishment that Roth was only 26, and they predicted a distinguished career. Goodbye Columbus earned Roth the National Book Award and a three year stint as writer-in-residence at Princeton.

Goodbye Columbus appeared in 1959. Roth's next book-published three years later—was Letting Go, a 600-page novel that tracks the labored passage from innocence to experience of a self-absorbed and largely unpleasant academic. Letting Go had its admirers, but many critics agreed that it was too long and turgid, and more than a tad pretentious. Roth spent five years sweating over his next novel, When She Was Good (1967), which also did little to increase his readership or reputation. More than one critic noted that When She Was Good-the only Roth novel with an entirely non Jewish cast-was both flat and unconvincing. Jonathan Baumbach, writing for Commonweal, suggested that...

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