FIRST EDITION, SIGNED TWICE ON TITLE-PAGE AND FLYLEAF AND EXTENSIVELY ANNOTATED on the flyleaf, half-title, and title-page, with some 170 words in Roth’s hand. “On my re-reading ‘Portnoy’s Complaint’ at 80,” he says, “I am shocked and pleased—shocked that I could have been so reckless, pleased that I should have been so reckless…” Further annotations go into great detail about his emotional, intellectual and artistic motives in writing Portnoy: “An early book, driven by high-spirits, happiness, & the liberating spirit of those times.” He mentions “the crucial scene in the book,” the Heshie scene, which is not about masturbation “but brutality.” His notes make for a fascinating, moving and deeply revealing commentary on this iconic American book.
Portnoy’s appearance in 1969 unleashed a furious storm of criticism and censorship. Self-appointed moral guardians denounced its sexually explicit language. Jewish groups protested what they saw as an unflattering portrayal by one of their own (Roth seems to answer those attacks here in an annotation quoting Mark Twain’s jibe: “The Jews are members of the human race. Worse than that I cannot say about them.”) Some librarians refused to stock the work on their shelves. And there was this 1971 exchange in the White House between Richard Nixon and H.R. Haldeman (after the recent publication of Roth’s Our Gang):
HALDEMAN: But Philip Roth is a very big author, so he’s got…
NIXON: What is he? What is he?
HALDEMAN: He wrote Goodbye, Columbus, which became a very big movie, which got him some notoriety. But then his big thing is Portnoy’s Complaint, which is the most obscene, pornographic book of all time.”
Portnoy came up for discussion in the White House 40 years later, when Barack Obama presented Roth the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and asked, “How many young people have learned to think by reading the exploits of Portnoy and his complaints?” Millions. But while the scandal of its reception may have helped its rise up the best-seller charts, the work has endured because of its expression of what Roth here in his annotations calls “my theme—impurity. The impurity of the human compound.”
ROTH, Philip (b. 1933). Portnoy’s Complaint. New York: Random House, 1969. 8o. Original navy blue cloth, gilt; dust jacket.