|Joe Peeples||Roth, Philip: Portnoy's Complaint|
|Assignment 1: Bibliographic Description|
|1. First Edition Publication Information||Philip Roth. Portnoy’s Complaint. New York: Random House, 1969.
Published in 1969 by Random House, Inc., in New York, and simultaneously by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto.
Copyright 1967, 1968, 1969 by Philip Roth (some sections of the book were previously published in slightly different form in Esquire, New American Review, and Partisan Review).
|2. First Edition in Cloth, Paper, or Both?||First edition is published in trade cloth binding.
First paperback edition is 1970, Bantam Books.
|3. Image of Cover Art||A13191060509104736.jpg|
|4. Pagination||144 leaves, pp.  [1-3] 4-274 |
|5. Edited and/or Introduced?||The book is not edited or introduced by anyone. However, the book does begin with a fictional epigraph, written in the style of an entry in a reference guide of psychological disorders and neuroses, replete with phonetic/diacritical pronunciation guide and a cross-reference to the scholarly article attributed as the origination of the term “Portnoy’s Complaint” (the article citation is also fictional: “Spielvogel, O. ‘The Puzzled Penis,’ Internationale Zeitschrift fur Psychoanalyse, Vol. XXIV p. 909”). The epigraph defines “Portnoy’s Complaint” as: “A disorder in which strongly-felt ethical and altruistic impulses are perpetually warring with extreme sexual longings, often of a perverse nature.”
This epigraph is also printed on the dust jacket’s front inside flap.
|6. Illustrated?||The book is not illustrated. The book also contains very few other graphic ornaments: a small horizontal rule ornament (46 mm long) above the title on the two half-title pages (the fifth unnumbered front matter page and implied page 1), a larger version of the same horizontal ornament (62 mm long) below the title on the full title page (seventh unnumbered front matter page), and an oversized block capital “S” (height is four lines of body text, about 17 mm) at the beginning of the first line of the first chapter. (All subsequent chapters begin with normal-sized text.)|
|8. General Appearance||Pages are approximately 5.5 x 8.25 inches, with 1 inch top margins, 1 inch outside side margins, 0.75 inch inside side margins, and 1.25 inch bottom margins.
Typeface is a fairly large and easily readable Roman font (size 101R), and line-spacing also allows for easy readability, with a comfortable 2-4 mm between each line. The text of each page has a height of 30 lines of text.
|10. Description of Paper||Paper is white, smooth, presumably acid-free wove paper. It appears to be of high-quality, semi-heavy stock. Paper is in very good condition, showing only slight yellowing overall and very limited darker yellowing (about 2 mm wide) along side edges.
Side edges are deckle edges, and the side edge of many individual pages also appears slightly uneven in a steady undulating pattern, almost as if perforated. Top and bottom edges are straight, though some pages have slightly ragged bottom edges (possibly due to wear and tear). Top edges are almost always uniformly straight, while alignment of bottom edges is occasionally irregular, so that some pages are as much as 2-4 mm shorter than others. Top edges are gilt with dusky red ink.
|11. Description of Binding||The book is bound in dark navy cloth with gold stamp on front cover and spine; the book also includes a dust jacket (yellow with red and black lettering). Stamping on front cover consists only of a small (18 mm x 21 mm) monogram stamp of author’s initials, “PR,” set off-center in the lower right corner. Stamping on spine consists of, from top to bottom: title, author’s full name, and publisher’s colophon (a small house), and name of publisher (all three textual items in all-caps). Title is printed vertically down the spine; author name and publisher name are printed horizontally across the spine. A stamped double-bar separates title from author name, and another separates author name from publisher colophon and name.
Pages are gathered into nine separate signatures that are stitched together with red and white stitching; signatures have been glued together along the spine where the outermost pages in each signature adjoin. The first and ninth signatures are also similarly glued to the endpapers, which are also glued to the cardboard cover pieces and other binding elements.
|12. Title Page Transcription||Recto:
PORTNOY’S | COMPLAINT | [horizontal rule ornament] | PHILIP ROTH | RANDOM HOUSE – NEW YORK [publisher’s colophon]
All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. Published in the United States by Random House, Inc., New York, and simultaneously in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto.
Lines from “Leda and the Swan” from Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats are reprinted with permission of The Macmillan Company. Copyright 1928 by The Macmillan Company, renewed © 1956 by Georgie Yeats.
Sections of this book have appeared in slightly different form in Esquire, New American Review, and Partisan Review.
Manufactured in the United States of America by the Haddon Craftsmen, Inc., Scranton, Penn.
Designed by Carl Weiss
|14. Manuscript Holdings||The Library of Congress holds a complete collection of Philip Roth’s papers, including the manuscript of Portnoy’s Complaint.|
|15. Other||Dust jacket:
Front cover of dust jacket features title (black) and author’s name (red) in large type, set against yellow background.
Front inside flap of dust jacket features price of book ($6.95), title and author name (small reproduction of front cover), and fictional psychological reference definition of “Portnoy’s Complaint” that is also printed within the text as an epigraph.
Rear inside flap of dust jacket features black-and-white author photo (credited to Ann Mudge) and other credits: “JACKET DESIGNED BY PAUL BACON / Random House, Inc., New York, N.Y. 10022 / PUBLISHERS OF THE RANDOM HOUSE / DICTIONARY OF THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE: / the Unabridged and College Editions, / The Modern Library and Vintage Books / PRINTED IN U.S.A.” The rear flap also includes a small “2/69” in the lower left corner; this probably indicates the month/year of publication, since the “About the Author” page in back matter (second page of unnumbered back matter) is dated February 1969.
Rear exterior cover of dust jacket features laudatory blurbs for Roth’s previous novels: Goodbye Columbus (1959 – blurbs by Saul Bellow and Alfred Kazin), Letting Go (1962 – blurbs by Elizabeth Hardwick and Stanley Edgar Hyman), and When She Was Good (1967 – blurbs by F. W. Dupee and R. V. Cassill).
|Assignment 2: Publication History|
|1. Other Editions:||At the book’s initial publication, Random House offered a regular first edition of Portnoy’s Complaint (list price $6.95) and a “limited, signed edition” ($15.00). As far as can be determined, there were no actual differences between the regular edition and the limited edition other than the author’s signature; technically, then, there was only one Random House “edition” of the novel.|
|4. First Edition printings or impressions?||There were definitely at least seven print runs for the first edition of Portnoy’s Complaint, and there were probably several more. The first print run was, according to Publishers’ Weekly, an ambitious, “whopping 100,000 copies,” which quickly sold out and was followed within a week of the novel’s February 21, 1969 publication date by a second and third run of 50,000 copies each. Although the first edition copy of the book examined for this project confirms that there was a fourth print run, its exact volume is undetermined.
Because the total volume in print for the first edition (hardcover) has been established as 450,000, there were probably several more print runs beyond the seven that can be determined for this project.
|5. Editions from other publishers?|
|6. Last date in print?||The latest printed version of |
|7. Total copies sold?||Total sales, as of 1975: 3,866,488 copies (combined 447,188 hardback and 3,419,300 paperback).|
|8. Sales by year?||1969 Sales: 418,000 copies sold.
Publishers’ Weekly reports that, according to Dick Krinsley of Random House, “275,000 copies were sold only two days after pub date.”
|9. Advertising copy:||New York Times three-quaters-page advertisement, upper right of page 41, on February 21, 1969 (official pub date):
Today you can get Portnoy’s Complaint [very large white stylized letters against black background]
Portnoy’s Complaint (port’-noiz kem-plant’) n. A disorder in which strongly-felt ethical and altruistic impulses are perpetually warring with extreme sexual longings, often of a perverse nature.
Portnoy’s Complaint [large black stylized letters]
1st Printing 150,000 copies
$6.95, now at your bookstore, RANDOM HOUSE [publisher’s colophon]
|11. Other promotion?||Publishers’ Weekly’s “Forecast” on December 30, 1968, for Portnoy’s Complaint predicts a “[m]assive campaign” for promoting the book, though otherwise the archive of PW does not yield many further details on how exactly Random House promoted the novel. (In fact, Random House did not advertise Portnoy’s Complaint at all in PW, neither before its publication nor in the year afterwards.)
Likewise in several major newspapers (New York Times; Chicago Tribune; Washington Post, Times Herald), print advertising is surprisingly sparse until the novel’s actual pub date. Apparently, the excitement and anticipation over the novel was generated from extended feature articles in wide-audience magazines such as Life and Time, as well as Roth’s proven success as a young literary talent with Goodbye, Columbus (National Book Award Winner, 1960) and other novels and short stories. Previously published sections of the novel also gave readers an advance look into the novel as it was being constructed in 1967 and 1968.
Advertisements for the movie version of Roth’s Goodbye, Columbus (1969) cross-promoted Portnoy’s Complaint: “Based on the novel by Philip Roth (author of ‘Portnoy’s Complaint’)”, etc.
|12. Performances in other media?||Film, 1972: Portnoy’s Complaint. Directed and co-written (with Roth) by Ernest Lehman. 101 minutes. Starring Richard Benjamin, Karen Black, Lee Grant, and Jack Somack. Produced by Chenault Productions Inc. Distributed by Warner Brothers.
Rights to the film were secured by Random House as part of the initial contract deal. Roth received $350,000 for the movie rights (in addition to his $250,000 advance for the novel itself).
Audiobook, 1999. Portnoy’s Complaint. Caedmon Audio. Unabridged, performed by Ron Silver. 6 cassettes, 8 hours and 30 minutes. Release coincided with 30th anniversary of book’s original publication.
|13. Translations?||Finnish: Portnoyn tauti. 1969, 1971, 1972, 1976, 1986.
Publication: Porvoo ; Hki : WS, 1969
Description: 269 s.
Trans. Pentti Saarikoski
Publication: Hki : Suuri suomalainen kirjakerho, 1971, 1972
Description: 268 (1) s.
Trans. Pentti Saarikoski and Matti Salo.
Publication: Porvoo ; Helsinki : WSOY, 1976
Description: 259 s.
Trans. Pentti Saarikoski
Publication: Porvoo ; Hki ; Juva : WSOY, 1985
Description: 259 s. ; 20 cm.
Trans. Pentti Saarikoski
Norwegian: Portnoys besværlige liv. (Trans. Herbert Svenkerud.) 1969.
Publication: Oslo : Cappelens Forlag
Description: 284 p. ; 22 cm.
German: Portnoys Beschwerden. (Trans. Kai Molvig.) 1970.
Publication: Hamburg : Rowohlt
Description: 251 p. ; 20 cm.
Japanese: Portnoy no human. (Trans. Miyamoto Yokichi.) 1971.
Publication: Tokyo : Shueisha
Description: 296 p. ; 20 cm.
Chinese: Yi ge xin li bian tai zhe di zi shu. (Trans. Li Xiangting.) 1971, (Trans. Li Xiangting and Feilipu Luozi zhu) 1977.
Publication: Taibei : Li zhi chu ban she
Description: 2, 1, 282 p. ; 19 cm.
Hebrew: Mah meik al Portnoy. (Trans. Filip Rot.) 1972.
Publication: Tel Aviv : Schocken
Description: 227 p. ; 22 cm.
Dutch: Portnoy's klacht. (Trans. Else Hoog.) 1976, 1983.
Publication: Amsterdam : Meulenhoff
Description: 279 p. ; 20 cm.
Spanish: El lamento de Portnoy. (Trans. Adolfo Martin.) 1980, 1997.
Publication: Barcelona : Bruguera, 1980
Description: 253 p. ; 18 cm.
Publication: Madrid : Alfaguara, 1997
Description: 280 p. ; 18 cm.
Portuguese: Complexo de Portnoy. (Trans. Cezar Tozzi.) 1986.
Publication: Rio de Janeiro : Rio Gráfica
Description: 208 p. ; 19 cm.
Portuguese: O complexo de Portnoy. (Trans. Paulo Henriques Britto.) 2004 (Paperback).
Publication: São Paulo : Companhia das Letras
Description: 261 p. ; 21 cm.
Polish: Kompleks Portnoya. (Trans. Anna Kolysxko.) 1986, 1994, 2002.
Publication: Krakow : Wydawnictwo Literackie, 1986
Description: 265 p. ; 20 cm.
Publication: Warszawa : DA CAPO, 1994
Description: 235 p. ; 21 cm.
Publication: Poznán : Zysk i S-ka Wyd., 2002
Description: 236 p. ; 19 cm.
French: Portnoy et son complexe. (Trans. Henri Robillot.) 1993.
Publication: [Paris] : Gallimard
Description: 373 p. ; 18 cm.
Russian: Bolezn’ Portnogo; Professor zhelaniia; Proshchai, Kolambus. (Trans. Filip Rot.) 1994.
Publication: Moskva : BiMo ; Vil’nius : Polina
Description: 508 p. ; 21 cm.
Single-volume compilation includes Portnoy’s Complaint, Professor of Desire, and Goodbye, Columbus
Italian: Lamento di Portnoy. (Trans. Roberto C. Sonaglia.) 2000.
Publication: Torino : Einaudi
Description: 228 p. ; 20 cm.
Hungarian: A Portnoy-kór. (Trans. Nemes Anna.) 2004.
Publication: Budapest : Európa Könyvkiadó
Description: 265 p. ; 19 cm.
|14. Serialization?||Sections of Portnoy’s Complaint were previously published in Esquire, Partisan Review, and New American Review, as follows:.
|15. Sequels or Prequels?||N/A.|
|Assignment 3: Brief Biography|
|Philip Milton Roth, indisputably one of the most famous and critically lauded American authors, was born March 19, 1933, in Newark, New Jersey. His parents were Herman and Bess Roth (née Finkel). Although there is some occupational resemblance between Roth’s father and the fictional Portnoy’s father (both were insurance managers), Roth’s true account of his parents’ (and especially his father’s) influence is found in the non-fictional memoir Patrimony: A True Story (1991). Roth grew up in the Weeqhahic neighborhood of Newark, a working class and predominantly Jewish neighborhood known for its excellent public schools. The lasting effect of Weeqhahic during Roth’s formative years can be seen in many of Roth’s fictions, including especially the nostalgia and fondness for the Jewish enclave that pervades his 1997 novel American Pastoral, which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1998. Roth, as well as his fictional alter ego Nathan Zuckerman (who narrates American Pastoral), graduated from Weequahic High School in 1950.
Much of Roth’s fiction displays a deep engagement with serious literature, initiated in his undergraduate education at Rutgers University (1950-51) and Bucknell University (1951-54), where he majored in English. While at Bucknell, he helped found and edit the literary journal Et cetera, in which his first published short story (“Philosophy, Or Something Like That”) appeared in May 1952. Two years later in 1954 he achieved his first publication in a national journal with his short story “The Day It Snowed” in the Chicago Review (Fall 1954). After graduating magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa from Bucknell, Roth wasted no time in earning a master’s degree in English from University of Chicago in 1955, and following a brief stint in the Army he returned to academe to pursue a doctorate at University of Chicago in 1957.
Within the same year, however, Roth withdrew from graduate study and, with the financial support of several prestigious fellowships, completed his first book of fiction, Goodbye, Columbus, and Five Short Stories. Published in 1959 by Houghton Mifflin when he was only 26 years old, the collection of novella and stories was extremely successful, garnering the National Book Award in 1960 and a movie adaptation eventually produced in 1969 by Paramount Studios. Following the success of Goodbye, Columbus, Roth supported himself by teaching at the University of Iowa and Princeton while writing and publishing his first two novels, Letting Go (1962) and When She Was Good (1967), until the enormous commercial success of Portnoy’s Complaint in 1969 made Roth a literary celebrity and allowed him to pursue a full-time writing career. (As noted in the “Publication and Performance History” section of this database entry, before a single copy of the book was sold, Roth pocketed a cool $600,000 from Portnoy: $250,000 as an author’s advance and $350,000 for movie rights.)
Portnoy’s Complaint was a stylistic departure for Roth, as his first two novels and early short fiction display a dedication to a nuanced, realist aesthetic often likened by critics to that of Henry James. Portnoy and his next three novels (Our Gang , The Breast , and The Great American Novel ) all function in a comic and/or absurdist mode, sometimes referred to as Roth’s “shtick.” With My Life As a Man (1974), Roth’s fiction develops a sustained metafictional quality; in introducing his famous protagonist Nathan Zuckerman (a Jewish American novelist whose life and career parallels Roth’s), Roth blurs the line between fiction and reality. Zuckerman returns in four more novels in the 1980s and 1990s, though Roth’s later work as a whole moves beyond metafictional experimentation.
Throughout all of his early and later fiction, Roth’s work is defined by a sharp, sometimes caustic satirical critique of middle-class Jewish American life, and as early as the publication of Goodbye, Columbus and continuing even into the twenty-first century, Roth has been reviled by Jewish readers and religious leaders as a traitor to Jewish life and culture. Roth’s defenders among the Jewish literary community, however, are just as numerous and vehement in their admiration for the creativity and vitality that Roth brings to his questionings of Jewish traditions and assumptions. Roth’s later works (such as American Pastoral , I Married a Communist , The Human Stain , and The Plot Against America ), while still inherently engaged with Jewish life in America, also posit critiques of American culture and history at large.
As of April 2006, Philip Roth resides in Connecticut and can be contacted via his literary agent: c/o Jeffrey Posternak, The Wylie Agency, 250 West 57th Street; New York, New York 10107. Roth's papers reside in the Library of Congress; he has made at least two major deposits to the Library, first in 1969 and then an additional 16,000 documents in 1993.
For a full publication history (as of April 2006), see “Supplementary Materials.”
The Library of Congress Webpage. Accessed April 3, 2006.
The Philip Roth Society Webpage. Accessed April 4, 2006. http://orgs.tamu-commerce.edu/rothsoc/index.htm
Accessed through Galenet’s Literature Resource Center:
|One of the most prevalent – and contested – themes in the contemporary reception of Portnoy’s Complaint is the novel’s Jewishness. Among favorable reviews of the novel, reviewers were split as to how much the question of Jewishness was central to its success as a work of art. On one hand, several reviewers note that Portnoy had reinvigorated or redefined the “American Jewish novel genre” made popular by authors such as Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, Stanley Elkin, Bruce Friedman, and others who explored the mores of Jewish life in mid-century America.
Christopher Lehmann-Haupt in The New York Times writes that Portnoy is “a technical masterpiece that succeeds in 274 pages in bringing the genre of the so-called Jewish novel (whose various practitioners have more or less dominated the literary scene for the last two decades) to an end and a new point of departure.” Josh Greenfield, also writing for The New York Times, gives the novel similar accolades: “If viewed as the apotheosis of a genre, the culmination of a fictional quest – and it is, I think, as I’ve tried to say, the very novel that every American-Jewish writer has been trying to write in one guise or another since the end of World War II – then it may very well be what is called a masterpiece.”
Ironically, much more common among positive reviews was the contention that Portnoy’s literary greatness transcends religious, ethnic, and cultural distinctions of “Jewishness,” so that, in the words of Geoffrey Wolff in The Washington Post, Times Herald, “This is more than a book about Jews. Roth has composed what for me is the most important book of my generation.” These reviews tended to paint Alexander Portnoy as a modern everyman wrestling with universal themes. For example, interpreting the novel “will inevitably be more concerned with what the Jewish hero has in common with all humankind than with what separates him and identifies him as a Jew” (Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, New York Times).
Perhaps the most prosy version of this reading is found, in some ways unsurprisingly, in The Yale Review’s extensive review by Patricia Meyer Spacks: “the suffering and the comedy of Alexander Portnoy are the suffering and the comedy of modern man, who seeks and finds explanations for his plight but is unable to resolve it, whose understanding is as limited as his sense of possibility, who is forced to the analyst to make sense of his experience.” Interestingly, Time Magazine’s review rejects the most widely identified themes in the novel in favor of a more existential reading: “Although sex, psychoanalysis and Jewishness form the content of the novel, they are not its subject. The book is about absurdity.”
Negative reviews also commented on Jewishness, such as Robert Kirsch’s scathing review in The Los Angeles Times in which, in addition to naming the novel “the sickest book of the year or perhaps the decade,” the reviewer argues that Roth “seems as devoid of understanding of Jewish tradition and history as it is possible to be. For Roth is no authentic Jew (to use Sartre’s phrase) and neither is Portnoy.”
Other negative reviews were more generally caustic and inflammatory, such as the Virginia Quarterly Review pooh-poohing the novel’s literary merits with, “So corrosive and coprophilic a recital cannot of itself easily qualify as literature.” Kingsley Amis, writing for Harper’s, takes a more measured approach, meeting the novel’s cultural critique halfway and challenging Roth to give more credit to the psychological and historical motivations of his caricatured Jewish parent characters: “if Jewish mothers are so unbearable, what makes them like that? Well: perhaps something to do with the position of women in Jewish society, in particular with how their men behave toward them.”
Somewhat surprisingly, though most of the contemporary reviews comment in some way or another on Portnoy’s excessive sexual content, they tend not to dwell on the subject too much. Most reviewers keenly interpret the sexual unrestraint more as bold literary method than sheer sensationalism, as does the reviewer for The London Times Literary Supplement (TLS): “If this were just the old masochistic spiral of sexual degradation, these confessions to a psychoanalyst . . . might verge on pornography. Does not ‘Portnoy’, the very name, seem some self-inflicted anagram of “P. Roth” and “pornoy”? Yet it is the comedy which is triumphant – a peculiarly Jewish comedy on the borderlines of fantasy and despair, exhibitionism and strongly felt ethical impulses, sexual lust and overriding feelings of shame.”
Even among negative reviews, sex was not much of a sticking point in their critiques; more general literary quality tended to be the primary criterion. For example, Kirsch in The Los Angeles Times calls the book “a masturbatory fantasy within a masturbatory fantasy, undistinguished by anything except a morbid self-concern,” but most of his review centers on decrying flaws such as Roth’s literary unoriginality and sour self-loathing. Similarly, J. Mitchell Morse in The Hudson Review denigrates Roth as a writer lacking in originality and conviction, complaining that “Alex Portnoy himself is nothing but a collection of contemporary clichés” and that “Philip Roth has the disease of masochistic conformity. He is a servile entertainer.”
OTHER BOOK REVIEWS, NOT CITED (incomplete list):
|Both Philip Roth in general and Portnoy’s Complaint in particular have received critical and scholarly attention well beyond Portnoy’s late-1960s/early-1970s moment. Roth has been the subject of at least 24 book-length studies spanning his career, and dozens – if not hundreds – of book chapters and scholarly articles have been published on Roth. “Portnoy’s Complaint” appears in the titles of at least two dozen of these book chapters and articles, and likely a handful more exist that are about the novel but do not include the novel’s title in their own titles.
Although the scholarly output on Portnoy seems mostly concentrated around the 1970s and 80s, the novel continues to compel scholarly attention throughout the subsequent decades as well. An entire book-length collection of essays devoted to Portnoy’s Complaint appeared in 2004 (Portnoy’s Complaint: Modern Critical Interpretations, edited by Harold Bloom), attesting to the sustained critical attention the novel has received throughout the 35 years following its publication.
Although scholars continue to analyze the novel along familiar lines of American Jewish identity, sexual liberation, and psychoanalysis and Oedipal conflict, other trends in scholarship on the book have emerged such as comic fiction and specifically Jewish humor writing, as well as cultural studies and popular culture.
For an extensive bibliography of critical works on Roth’s writings, see the Philip Roth Society’s website:
|Note: Hyperlinked book titles in this essay will access each book's entry in the 20th-Century American Bestsellers database in a new browser window.
Though it is easy to attribute the success of Portnoy’s Complaint to the rage of controversy that surrounded its reception, the trends of bestselling fiction and nonfiction in the late 1960s show that Roth’s novel appealed to a reading public that was already very interested and seriously engaged with issues like the sexual revolution and Jewish-American cultural identity. Portnoy was remarkably well positioned in the era’s book-selling market, and while the hysteria over its transgressive content no doubt provoked widespread interest that contributed to its impressive sales in 1969, the novel’s reviews and its lasting legacy within scholarly criticism indicate that readers found it to be much more than just a dirty little book or one of the many “guilty pleasures” that found their ways onto the bestseller charts.
The novel’s excessive and uncensored sexual content is, arguably, the feature that most attracted readers’ attention and challenged their notions of propriety. Only seventeen pages into the novel, we encounter an entire chapter entitled “Whacking Off,” filled with Alexander Portnoy’s vivid recounting of his adolescent masturbatory rites and fantasies. In fact, autoeroticism persists as one of the novel’s primary themes, as a subsequent chapter, entitled “Cunt Crazy,” begins arrestingly with Alex’s question, “Did I mention that when I was fifteen I took it out of my pants and whacked off on the 107 bus from New York?” (Roth 78). Alex also describes his non-masturbatory sex experiences in great, unrefined detail, freely using three- and four-letter words and avoiding erotic euphemism whenever possible.
Perhaps the language that Roth employs in Portnoy pushes the expectations found in other “literary” (i.e., not intently pornographic) fiction’s treatment of sex, but a quick survey of the many “sexy” bestsellers from the mid- to late-1960s indicates that readers could not have been too scandalized by a novel that focuses so much on sex. For example, in 1969, Portnoy shared the bestseller stage with four other sex novels: Jacqueline Susann’s The Love Machine, Harold Robbins’ The Inheritors, Irving Wallace’s The Seven Minutes, and most interestingly, the suburban sex romp Naked Came the Stranger, attributed to the pseudonymous Penelope Ashe but in fact written by a group of journalists as a parody of the ubiquitous trashy suburban sex novel. The previous year saw two bestsellers notable for their sexiness, both written by established literary authors: John Updike’s Couples and Gore Vidal’s Myra Breckinridge. Furthermore, amid the nonfiction lists, human sexual behavior proved to be a bestselling topic, from Masters and Johnston’s clinical report Human Sexual Response (1966) to the more end-user-friendly Everything You Wanted to Know about Sex but Were Afraid to Ask by David Reuben (1970).
Clearly, sex was on the minds of many American readers at this time, and one thing that distinguishes Portnoy’s Complaint from many other “sex novels” both on and off the bestseller lists of the times is the fact that the sex in Portnoy is rarely actually sexy. Portnoy’s sexual exploits are sometimes comic, sometimes disturbing, and often a combination of both, as in his description of a ménage à trois:
“I can best describe the state I subsequently entered as one of unrelieved busy-ness. Boy was I busy! I mean there was just so much to do. You go here and I’ll go there – okay, now you go here and I’ll go there – all right, now she goes down that way, while I head up this way, and you sort of half turn around on this . . . . Then I got up, went into the bathroom, and, you’ll all be happy to know, regurgitated my dinner. My kishkas, Mother – threw them right up into the toilet bowl. Isn’t that a good boy?” (Roth 137-8).
The abundant sex scenes and references in the novel rarely seem to be gratifying for the reader, even when they do happen to be gratifying for Portnoy, indicating that more is happening in this book than the prurient appeal of, say, Susann’s The Love Machine. As a contemporaneous reviewer in the London Times Literary Supplement noted, “If this were just the old masochistic spiral of sexual degradation, these confessions to a psychoanalyst . . . might verge on pornography. . . . Yet it is the comedy which is triumphant – a peculiarly Jewish comedy on the borderlines of fantasy and despair, exhibitionism and strongly felt ethical impulses, sexual lust and overriding feelings of shame” (“Who needs dreams?” 405). Portnoy’s Complaint is unquestionably a dirty book, but its excessive vulgarity and explicit sex scenes belie the novel’s very earnest concern with how sexuality, ethnicity, and cultural identity intersect in ways that are potentially damaging to the human spirit. As its reception history shows, many other contemporaneous reviewers rushed to support a similarly open-minded, judicious reading of the novel’s thematic content, urging readers to approach Portnoy’s Complaint as a critical intervention in American and Jewish-American culture, rather than just faddish fiction.
Roth’s interrogation of Jewish-American identity in Portnoy’s Complaint was also well anticipated, based on the trends of bestselling fiction in the years preceding its release. In fact, from its inception with Goodbye, Columbus in 1959, Roth’s nascent literary success had been founded on its critical stance toward Jewish-American middle-class culture. During the decade between Goodbye, Columbus and Portnoy, the genre of the “Jewish-American novel” definitely came into its own, with Saul Bellow’s Herzog setting the standard in terms of popularity and the gravity of its examination of contemporary Jewish life in the United States (the novel held the #3 spot for two years running, in 1964 and 1965). Indeed, in contemporaneous reviews, Portnoy’s Complaint was often compared with the monolithic Herzog, the latter usually representing the ultimate standard of the serious Jewish novel of ideas that Portnoy failed to approximate. (In a curiously culinary condemnation, Anatole Broyard in The New Republic went so far as to liken Herzog to “the ultimate halvah of the Jewish intellectual” while Alexander Portnoy represented “a real (matzoh) ballsy guy” (21).) Several other classics in Jewish-American fiction followed Herzog’s success in the late 1960s, all of whose authors Roth was compared with at one point or another: Bernard Malamud’s The Fixer (1966), Stephen Birmingham’s Our Crowd (1967), and Chaim Potok’s The Chosen (1967) and The Promise (1969).
The success of these and many other Jewish-American novels testifies to the reading public’s sustained engagement with many of the same ethnic and cultural issues that Portnoy’s Complaint continues to work through, albeit in its own radical and uncompromising manner. It seems fair to assume, then, that plenty of the 418,000 copies of Portnoy sold in 1969 (as well as the millions of paperback reprints in later years) were no doubt purchased – and read, reviewed, and re-interpreted in scholarly articles – by serious readers with a critical interest in charting the development of Jewish-American literary arts, not just feckless sensationalists looking for the latest thrill or scandal.
Of course, despite the fact that Portnoy sold like hotcakes, many members of the Jewish-American community simply weren’t buying Roth’s harsh critique of Jewish life. Writing in Commentary, the cultural opinion magazine published by the American Jewish Committee, reviewer Peter Shaw discusses how Roth’s use of Jewish stereotypes (which, of course, the entire Portnoy family represents) fails to combat anti-Semitism in American culture:
Roth’s Jewish characters are an illustration of his theory that for the Jews to deal with their enemies, “it is necessary to unlearn certain responses to them.” The “new response,” presumably, must be comically to exaggerate the anti-Semitic stereotype in order to dissolve it in laughter. This is extremely clever, of course – except that it is hopeless . . . . [S]ince anti-Semitism is itself only apparently a response to actual Jewish behavior, no alteration in behavior – not separatism, assimilation, accommodation, nor defiance, as the “un-Jewish” Israelis have learned – has ever been able to affect it significantly. Not even art can eliminate it. (79)
Shaw identifies the vexed relationship between Roth’s fiction and the fight against anti-Semitism in the twentieth century, declaring that Roth’s use of Jewish caricatures in Portnoy’s Complaint – even if only to reveal such stereotypes’ inherent fallacies and thereby transcend such uncritical thinking – nonetheless is harmful toward the Jewish community: “if he has not decidedly been bad for the Jews, he has decidedly been bad to them” (79).
Shaw’s response to Portnoy is perhaps one of the more nuanced negative reactions of Roth’s criticism of Jewishness, especially compared to critic Irving Howe’s condemnations of Roth as a “self-hating Jew” in his response to Goodbye, Columbus and his excoriating 1972 review in Commentary of Roth’s early career, accusing Roth “of being a vulgarian, of reducing his characters to objects of easy derision” (“Philip Roth” para. 7). Throughout the Jewish community, Roth has had both his detractors and his supporters, but both parties can agree that Roth’s contribution to Jewish-American fiction in the later twentieth century has without a doubt dealt a devastating blow, for better or for worse. The bombshell that Portnoy’s Complaint dropped in 1969 represents, to some, the point of aesthetic exhaustion of the possibilities of the “genre of the so-called Jewish novel” and “a new point of departure” for Jewish-American (and simply American) fiction (Lehmann-Haupt 39). Others, of course, see the novel as nothing less than incontrovertible evidence of the “bankruptcy of imagination and vision” in Jewish-American letters (Kirsch 34).
Portnoy’s Complaint’s comic irreverence toward both sexual prudery and Jewish-American traditionalism appealed to the deep-seated interests of a serious reading public turning to current fiction as a way of making sense of the seismic social upheaval that the 1960s represented. Granted, the scandal surrounding the novel’s boundary-challenging excesses definitely attracted plenty of other less “serious” readers whose purchasing decisions were obviously more influenced by the book’s controversy than its cultural critique. Witness the following bookseller’s dispatch in the “Currents” section of the April 28, 1969 issue of Publishers’ Weekly:
Writes Jim Matthews of the Book Nook, Clayton, Missouri: “A woman customer, obviously flustered, rang us up to inquire, ‘Do you have any copies of “Pornography’s Complaint?”’ Discreetly, we replied that we did.” (40)
It would be difficult – if not impossible – to determine to what precise degree Portnoy’s Complaint’s unprecedented commercial success in 1969 was thanks to such misinformed, scandal-driven consumers as this nameless Midwestern woman, versus the more sophisticated readers who found in Roth’s novel an intelligent, biting satire of sexuality, ethnicity, and religion in contemporary America. However, the continued commercial and critical success of the book long after its much-ballyhooed burst onto the literary scene, as well as evidence from the trends in bestsellers in the 1960s, all show that Portnoy’s Complaint was much more than just a sensational bestseller; Roth’s revolutionary novel fulfilled – and continues to fulfill – readers’ needs and desires to hear a resounding, redefining voice that rebels against repression and societal restraint.
|Author photo from dust jacket of Portnoy's Complaint.||S1img191060509104826.jpg|
|Full Publication History for Philip Roth's Fiction
(as of April 2006)
Goodbye, Columbus and Five Short Stories. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1959.
Letting Go. New York: Random House, 1962.
When She Was Good. New York: Random House, 1967.
Portnoy's Complaint. New York: Random House, 1969.
Our Gang. New York: Random House, 1971.
The Breast. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1972.
The Great American Novel. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1973.
My Life as a Man. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1974.
The Professor of Desire. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1977.
The Ghost Writer. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1979.
A Philip Roth Reader. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1980.
Zuckerman Unbound. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1981.
The Anatomy Lesson. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1983.
Zuckerman Bound: A Trilogy and Epilogue. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1985.
The Counterlife. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1986.
The Facts: A Novelist's Autobiography. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1988.
Deception: A Novel. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1990.
Patrimony: A True Story. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1991.
Operation Shylock: A Confession. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1993.
Sabbath's Theater. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1995.
The Prague Orgy. New York: Vintage, 1996.
American Pastoral. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997.
I Married a Communist. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1998.
The Human Stain. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2000.
The Dying Animal. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2001.
The Plot Against America: A Novel. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2004.
Source: Philip Roth Society Webpage. Accessed April 5, 2006. http://orgs.tamu-commerce.edu/rothsoc/writings.htm
Graduate School of Library and Information Science
Maintained by firstname.lastname@example.org