Roger Rosenblatt's Lifelong Literary Odyssey

In his early 60s, with a distinguished career in hand, Mr. Rosenblatt wasn’t about to rest on his laurels
Roger Rosenblatt enjoyed a relaxing moment under the watchful eye of his labradoodle, Molly. Mark Segal

Southampton College’s summer writing conference had been in play for several years when, in 2002, it vaulted into national prominence with a visiting faculty that included Frank McCourt, Billy Collins, Margaret Atwood, E.L. Doctorow, Jules Feiffer, Nora Ephron, John Guare, and Roger Rosenblatt.

At that time, Mr. Rosenblatt was an essayist for Time magazine and “The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour” on PBS, and had been a columnist for The Washington Post, literary editor and columnist for The New Republic, and a Harvard professor. Nonetheless, in his early 60s, with a distinguished career in hand, Mr. Rosenblatt wasn’t about to rest on his laurels. That writing conference marked a significant turning point in his creative life.

“It was very simple,” he said, sitting in the sunny kitchen of his house in Quogue, the table littered with books, printouts, and handwritten notes. “I was watching Atwood and Doctorow and Collins read. We always went to one another’s readings. I was a writer, but in a journalistic context. I wasn’t on the literary totem pole then, much less high up on it. I realized these people had been doing what they wanted to do their whole lives, and I had not. That was when I had my almost instantaneous conversion. I came home and told my wife, Ginny, that I’ll find a pleasant and nondestructive way to leave my other jobs.”

Four years later he published his first novel, “Lapham Rising,” and, since then, with the exception of “two or three essays for the Times book review,” he has written books exclusively. “I can’t even think in the short form anymore,” he said. “And this is a guy who used to write something new every week.”

Mr. Rosenblatt was born and raised in New York City’s Gramercy Park neighborhood. “I grew up in a world where writers were prized,” he said, citing Stephen Crane, Edith Wharton, Henry James, Oscar Wilde, Nathanael West, and O. Henry as past inhabitants of the neighborhood.

“I was aware of the atmosphere of the park. I imagined Melville, crushed, walking around the park, thinking nothing had come of his life. All the reviewers hated ‘Moby-Dick,’ they thought he was worthless. Even ‘Billy Budd’ wasn’t published until 20 years after his death. His figure, above all, stayed with me as a kid.”

Mr. Rosenblatt owned up to being a terrible student in high school, “and a great disappointment to my father, who had worked his way up from the Lower East Side to Gramercy Park and thought, ‘Here I provided all these advantages for my wastrel son, who seems to want only to play sports and be with girls.’ Which was true.”

He was nonetheless accepted to New York University, but it wasn’t until his junior year there that “the gear caught. A teacher named Mallory accepted me into an honors program I wasn’t qualified for, but I figured if he had this faith in me, then maybe I should do some work. I started to become a student. The trouble was, I became too good a student.”

After graduation, he entered the doctoral program in English at Harvard, earned his Ph.D., and, by 25, was director of Harvard’s freshman writing department. Four years later he became the youngest house master in the university’s history.

“I lost sight of being a writer,” he said. “It’s funny how you can lose track of your life. I certainly did. Having a Ph.D. and being a respectable professor of English was a reasonable ambition, but it wasn’t mine. I wasn’t that interested in being a teacher, and I was never interested in being a scholar. I didn’t really turn toward writing until my mid-30s.”

His time at Harvard had an unexpected consequence. While in Washington, D.C., he ran into Martin Peretz, whom he had known when both were professors in Cambridge. “Marty says to me, ‘Roger, I just bought The New Republic.’ I thought he had just purchased a copy of the magazine. Slow me then realized he had bought the whole thing. I don’t think he knew anybody else who spoke English, much less knew how to read and write it, so he hired me as the literary editor.”

Mr. Rosenblatt left The New Republic to go to The Washington Post and left The Post to go to Time. Robert MacNeil and Jim Lehrer of “The MacNeil/Lehrer Report” had read his essays in Time and asked if he wanted to write for television. “I remember Gore Vidal said, ‘Never turn down sex or television.’ That seemed wise to me, so I said yes. First it was just my voice, but then, when they decided my face wouldn’t frighten children, I went on the air. I did that for 23 years.”

“Lapham Rising,” his first novel, lampooned the Hamptons with hilarious acuity, and “Beet,” his second, took on academia, which is not surprising given his tenure at Southampton College during its troubled twilight years. “I had fun doing ‘Lapham Rising,’ ” he said.

“My most recent book, ‘Thomas Murphy,’ which is coming out in January, is the first serious novel I’ve written. Murphy is a funny character, but the book has a serious subject. Satire is actually easier to write, because you only have to achieve one thing, which is to make fun of something. In a real novel you have to do a lot of things, and I wanted to see if I could. It was a great pleasure to write.”

He has written four nonfiction books since forsaking the short form. “Making Toast,” which developed from an essay in The New Yorker, followed the sudden and unexpected death of his daughter, Amy, in 2007 at the age of 38, after which he and his wife spent most of the next seven and a half years living primarily in Bethesda, Md., with their son-inlaw and grandchildren.

“ ‘Making Toast’ was important to write as a kind of memorial and something the grandchildren would have when they’re adults, so they can look back on that time and know who their mother was and who they were then.” While they no longer live in Maryland — “our son-in-law wanted a life back, and we wanted a life back” — they visit frequently.

Mr. Rosenblatt, who had taken a writing professorship at Southampton College in 1994, when it was still a branch of Long Island University, recalled when Long Island University finally sold the Southampton campus. He and his colleagues were in limbo until Stony Brook University, “like an angel descending, said, ‘We want you,’ meaning not just me but the department.” Shirley Kenny, then president of Stony Brook, knew the writing department, which had been neglected by L.I.U., was worth a great deal and promised Mr. Rosenblatt and Richard Reeves, the head of the department, to support it and make it grow.

“She was as good as her word. I must tell you, we built a doozy of a department.” The M.F.A. program now has 100 students, selected from 1,000 applicants. “Around my table the other day were graduates of Vassar, Princeton, Yale — not that the schools really matter. What matters is that those places are interested in us.”

“The other thing that’s heartening is why they’re doing it. Here is a world that is so competitive financially, so hard on young people, and here are 100 people, plus those at Iowa and N.Y.U. and Columbia, all good writing programs, saying, ‘We want art, that’s all we want to do.’ I always say to them, ‘Welcome to the world of poverty, rejection, and humiliation.’ They know what they’ve bought into, and that makes it a double pleasure to teach them.”

Mr. Rosenblatt first came to the East End as a child. During the summers, his father, a physician, used to take the family to the Tucker Mill Inn, a resort built in 1896 by Grosvenor Atterbury and situated in the Shinnecock Hills. In defiance of probability, the inn later served as the administration building for Southampton College. “So I first knew the place as a hotel. I saw Tennessee Williams there when I was a kid.”

When he and his wife were first married and raising a family, the East End “was always a part of the summer. Then the offer came from L.I.U. We had always wanted to move out here, but we could never afford East Hampton, and I also didn’t want to have that long a drive if I was going back and forth to the city. Our daughter said, ‘Why don’t you look at Quogue? It’s as boring as you are.’ ” They purchased the house where they now live in 1994.

Next Thursday, Mr. Rosenblatt will receive the 2015 Kenyon Review Award for Literary Achievement at the Four Seasons restaurant in New York City. Previous recipients include Ian McEwan, Joyce Carol Oates, Richard Ford, Doctorow, Atwood, Elie Wiesel, and Umberto Eco, among others he has joined on the literary totem pole.