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Roth, the Patient as a Nice Jewish Boy

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This is a guest post by Sofia Zamora Morales. Sofia is a 2024 Kluge Center spring and summer intern, where she worked with Kluge Fellow Andrew Dean and J. Franklin Jameson Fellow in American History Hardeep Dhillon. She is currently pursuing a BS in Politics, Philosophy and Economics from Northeastern University as an Honors student. 

Philip Roth’s 1969 novel “Portnoy’s Complaint” is among the best-known American works of fiction since World War II. It not only broke records but also scandalized readers with its unapologetically explicit nature. It was listed a ‘prohibited import’ in Australia, while author and actor Jacqueline Susann said on the Tonight Show that she thinks Philip Roth is a fine writer, “but I wouldn’t want to shake his hand.”1

In “Portnoy’s Complaint” its protagonist, Alexander Portnoy, retells the story of his life to a therapist with all the details of sexuality, guilt, neurosis, and family drama. In this continuous monologue, we get a glimpse into a psychoanalytic session, a monologue following his teen years into adulthood where Portnoy’s big problem is that he lives, he says, “in the middle of a Jewish joke.”

The frenetic energy of the novel might lead readers to believe that Roth wrote it in that same fashion; in one breath, like spilling his guts to a therapist. The papers in the Philip Roth archives in the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress, though, narrate another story, one of a writer who searched over five years for a literary voice that would be all his own.2 Sometimes the writing was labored, sometimes it came in a rush, but throughout Roth was committed to finding the right way to structure this unusual story.

Portnoy’s journey can be traced back to 1964. The name Alexander Portnoy and pieces of his story surfaced in abandoned works like “The Last Jew” in 1964 and “The Nice Jewish Boy” or “Masochist Extravaganza” in 1966. There is a note by Roth in the latter folder that suggests its abandoned narrative was later incorporated to a draft of the first chapter of the novel, “The Most Unforgettable Character I’ve Met.”3

It would take almost three years from “The Last Jew” to reach the first recognizable draft of “Portnoy’s Complaint,” which Roth began on January 15th, 1967. Here called “Portrait of the Artist as a Nice Jewish Boy”, the novel is narrated by Robert, a 30-something-year-old Princeton professor married to Sarah Abbott Maulsby. Robert recounts his childhood in Newark, NJ with his parents and the upstairs neighbors in their multi-family house, the Portnoy’s. Jack Portnoy was their youngest child and died in the war when Robert was only 11 years old.4 Jack’s legacy stays in Robert’s memory until well into his adulthood.

For all the distance between this first draft of “Portnoy” and the final version, there are still some glimpses of what would become the published work – although in a rather different form. Robert has the same conversation as Alex Portnoy with his sister, when he refuses to change clothes to go the temple for Rosh Hashanah. Later in the draft, Robert remarks about his mother and her lack of embarrassment while changing clothes in front of him, mirroring Portnoy’s dynamic with his mom. These materials and other materials later become “A Jewish Patient Begins His Analysis” and background for “The Jewish Blues.”4

Sections of what became “Portnoy” were first published in 1967 in several magazines.1 After “Portrait of the Artist as a Nice Jewish Boy”, Roth drafted “A Jewish Patient Begins his Analysis” (undated in the archives). A later note left by Roth suggests the material was part of “The Most Unforgettable Character I Have Ever Met” – a section of the novel published in Esquire Magazine in April 1967.5 In the summer of the same year, “Whacking Off” was published in the high-brow literary journal Partisan Review. This section was not fully developed until later in the year, fall 1967, when Roth wrote a draft called “A Jewish Patient Dreams of his Own Salvation.” Even this draft was still some distance from the novel, however – in this version it has elements of a monologue or play with stage directions.6 The last piece before “Whacking Off” takes its final form as the second chapter of the novel, is a draft titled “My Son the Patient”, which, though undated, likely follows from the monologue version of the story, post-fall 1967. The first labeled draft in January 1967 is the predecessor of “The Jewish Blues,” the third chapter of the novel. An undated draft titled “The Rise and Fall of his Testicles” is the first labeled draft of the section. Roth titled its iteration “The Jewish Blues.”7 A published version of the section was then showcased in the New American Review, edited by Roth’s friend Ted Solotaroff, in September 1967.

One of the discarded sections in the archives is titled “I’m Pregnant”, in which Alexander Portnoy experiences an episode very similar to one that Roth repeatedly describes in relation to his then estranged wife Margaret Martinson.8 This storyline was then developed in “My Life as a Man” (1974) and Roth’s 1988 autobiographical narrative, “The Facts.”

A number of draft chapters did not make it into the published version. Roth discarded sections with titles such as “Oedipus the King”, “Sarah Abbott Maulsby”, “Abie’s Irish Rose”, and “The Shiksa Bag.” Elements of these stories, though, were incorporated into the novel and weaved into the bigger sections – even if the full storylines were abandoned.9

The final form of “Portnoy’s Complaint” was still in flux even relatively close to its publication date in January 1969. Roth completed the novel in the period immediately following the sudden death of Martinson in a car crash, on May 10, 1968.10 A week after her death, having arranged and attended her funeral, he left for Yaddo, a famed writer’s retreat. As Ira Nadel writes in a biography, Roth revised the last two chapters of his draft on the bus ride north. While in the Library of Congress the drafts for these last two chapters are undated, Roth must have completed nearly final versions of them before May 17, 1968.

At Yaddo, Roth finally brought his years-long creative process to its conclusion. Between May 17 and 29, he reworked his various drafts to create what are called in the Library’s archive “nearly final drafts”. On Roth’s last day at Yaddo, his editor at the time, Joe Fox, announced to Random House Publishing that Roth would have his new novel ready within the week. Roth then sent the drafts to Fox on June 2nd, 1968.11 In those 12 days at Yaddo, “Portnoy’s Complaint” took its nearly final form.

After the book came out, ten years on from the controversy associated with “Goodbye, Columbus,” Roth would find himself yet again at the center of public notoriety. Over time, the story of the book’s reception – and the author’s experience of becoming a kind of celebrity – would become part of Roth’s fiction itself. Roth’s most famous character (after Alexander Portnoy, perhaps), is Nathan Zuckerman, a character whose life story mirrors Roth’s. This Zuckerman once published a book by the name of “Carnovsky,” a notorious work of fiction, obsessed with the carnal side of life – which sounds much like “Portnoy’s Complaint.

Over the five years of “Portnoy’s” emergence, we see a creative intelligence both stalled and newly possible. The unique tone of the book – the whining of a young Jewish man caught between his moral integrity and his overwhelming desire – took years to develop. False endings, unfinished chapters, edits from his friends, and extensive research into Freud – as well as brochures on the workings of the City Government of New York – are just some of the pieces of the extensive puzzle. It is the manic and frenetic tone of “Portnoy” that draws in readers with its bawdy jokes, and endless monologue. The story in the archives evidences the many years of effort and fine-tuning that it takes to write a work of this nature. That feeling of effortlessness is what takes the most effort of all.


[1] Nadel, I. B. (2021). Philip Roth: A counterlife of (pp. 203-204). Oxford University Press. & Remnick, D. (2000, May 15). The fierceness of Philip Roth. The New Yorker.

[2] Saul, S. (2021, June 4). Rough: A journey into the drafts of Portnoy’s Complaint. Post45.

[3] Library of Congress, Philip Roth Papers. The Last Jew. Box 129, Folders 4 and 5; Nice Jewish Boy. Box 155 Folder 3

[4] Library of Congress, Philip Roth Papers. Portrait of the Artist as a Nice Jewish Boy. Box 183, Folder 2. For pages with anecdotes in the published version of the novel, see pages 109a and 123 in the manuscript.

[5] Library of Congress, Philip Roth Papers. A Jewish Patient Begins his Analysis. Box 183, Folder 6

[6] Library of Congress, Philip Roth Papers. A Jewish Patient Dreams of his Own Salvation. Box 183, Folder 7

[7] Library of Congress, Philip Roth Papers. The Rise and Fall of his Testicles. Box 183, Folder 8

[8] Library of Congress, Philip Roth Papers. I’m Pregnant. Box 183, Folder 4

[9] Library of Congress, Philip Roth Papers. Discarded sections. Box 183, Folder 5

[10] Nadel, I. B. (2021). Philip Roth: A counterlife (pp.193).Oxford University Press.

[11] Bailey, B. (2021). Philip Roth: The biography (pp. 304). Norton & Company, Incorporated, W. W.


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