NEW YORK — In the fall of 2012, as the willing subject of one of the most anticipated literary biographies in recent memory, Philip Roth joked that he had surrendered power over his own life to author Blake Bailey.
“I trust you have been getting all the windy emails I’ve been sending you,” Roth wrote to his biographer in correspondence shared by Bailey with The Associated Press. “My whole writing life now revolves around you. Anything to make Blake happy. This is madness.”
Bailey’s “Philip Roth: The Biography” is coming out April 6, 2021, W.W. Norton & Company announced Thursday. Its 880 pages are the finished result of an undertaking that predates not just Roth’s death in 2018, at age 85, but Roth’s retirement from public writing after 2010 and the involvement of Bailey. The book is also the outcome of an intricate relationship between Roth, the relentless son of Jews from Newark, N.J., and Bailey, a Catholic school graduate from Oklahoma City previously known for his acclaimed books on fiction writers Richard Yates, Charles Jackson and John Cheever, whom Roth knew and admired.
Roth’s novels include “American Pastoral,” “Portnoy’s Complaint” and many other works of classic, contentious fiction, and his dystopian “The Plot Against America,” about a fascist U.S. presidency in the 1940s, was adapted into an HBO series that aired this year. He had been thinking of a book about his life since the 1990s, originally asking University of Connecticut professor Ross Miller to be his biographer, for a publication scheduled for release by Harcourt Houghton Mifflin. But Roth and Miller, the nephew of Roth’s friend Arthur Miller, had different ideas for the book and parted ways in 2009.
At the suggestion of fellow literary biographer James Atlas, Bailey got in touch with Roth.
“Why should a gentile from Oklahoma write the biography of Philip Roth?” Bailey remembered Roth asking him.
“I’m not a bisexual alcoholic with an ancient Puritan lineage, but I still managed to write a biography of John Cheever,” Bailey responded.
Biographies of living subjects come in different categories: authorized, in which the subject participates and often has final approval; unauthorized, written without the subject’s cooperation, and those like Bailey’s that land in between.
Bailey began working on the biography in 2012 and received broad access to Roth, to his friends and to Roth’s private papers, including a 295-page rebuttal to an unflattering memoir written by ex-wife Claire Bloom, that will otherwise be destroyed or sealed until 2050. He said that his agreement with Roth was similar to those he had with the literary estates of his previous subjects, all of whom had died before he began biographies of them. Bailey would have full creative control but would allow his manuscript to be vetted for accuracy.