Near the beginning of Philip Roth’s 2000 novel The Human Stain, narrator Nathan Zuckerman contemplates the unlikely tattoo worn by classics professor Coleman Silk, forced out of his job on false charges of racism. The words “U.S. Navy” are “inscribed between the hooklike arms of a shadowy little anchor.... A tiny symbol, if one were needed, of all the million circumstances of the other fellow’s life, of that blizzard of details that constitute the confusion of human biography—a tiny symbol to remind me of why our understanding of people must always be at best slightly wrong.” It’s a basic reminder about human complexity but also a poke at readers and critics holding the view that Roth’s fictional narrators—from Zuckerman to Portnoy to Kepish to a meta-“Philip Roth” in 1990’s Deception—are stand-ins for the author himself, and that the public image of Roth from interviews and gossip sheets conveys his entire measure. But was anyone ever going to get Philip Roth completely right? Many thought that if someone could, it would be the esteemed literary biographer Blake Bailey, especially with the extensive and intimate access Roth granted him in the years before his death. Yet with both the highly anticipated arrival of Bailey’s Philip Roth: The Biography and what’s transpired since, it’s actually harder to know what to think—about either’s life.
By way of recap: after much advance publicity, W. W. Norton released Bailey’s Roth biography in April to great fanfare. It was the culmination of a project that began years ago, when Roth retired from writing and, after dismissing several hopefuls, anointed Bailey—the self-described “gentile from Oklahoma”—as his official biographer. The expectations, critical and commercial, were high. Bailey had already authored well-received biographies on Richard Yates and John Cheever, and now here he was with a book—the book—on Roth, one of the most towering figures in American literature after World War II. The early reviews were mostly glowing, the author interviews mostly fawning, the book itself immediately best-selling. Yes, there were some murmurs of dissent: Bailey seemed more interested in Roth’s already well-chronicled personal dramas than in his work. He seemed to be taking sides with his subject on various disputed matters and settling scores on Roth’s behalf. He seemed, even, to be in posthumous, casually misogynistic cahoots with Roth, biographer and subject figuratively yukking it up over female anatomy and tales of sexual conquest. But these were largely swept aside by the tidal wave of praise, which reached its height with Cynthia Ozick’s paean on the front page of the New York Times Book Review.
Then it all came crashing down. Bailey was accused by multiple women of grooming them when they were adolescent students of his, one also charging that years later he sexually assaulted her. Next came a rape allegation from a woman who said that Bailey attacked her at the home of a mutual acquaintance in 2015. The scandal was sudden and spiraling, and three weeks after Philip Roth: The Biography was released, Norton announced it would discontinue its printing (though the book has remained available for purchase at Amazon and elsewhere) and donate proceeds to organizations fighting sexual abuse. In May, Skyhorse Press—which has made a name for itself by taking on “canceled” books like Woody Allen’s 2020 autobiography, Apropos of Nothing—picked up the title, ensuring that it will have a paperback run. Whether people will read it is another question. Bailey is now considered toxic; the biography and Roth have suffered by association. But at least people will still have the chance to read the book if they want, and so decide for themselves what to make of things.