Checking Roth into The Library


For some years, Philip Roth had been on The Library of America’s list of 20th-century authors we hoped and planned some day to publish. Our nonprofit series had only recently broached the post-World War II era, with editions of James Baldwin, Eudora Welty, and the early novels of Saul Bellow, among others. As we moved more decidedly into the field of writers who launched careers in the 1950s and 1960s, Roth, looming large on the literary landscape, was a natural and obvious choice. The fact that unlike most of our authors he is still alive was not really an issue. The question for us always is whether, given The Library of America's commitment to keeping all our books in print, the writer's work has earned a permanent place in the American literary canon. This generally doesn't happen until after a writer's death, hence the fact that few living writers have been published in the series.

The idea of publishing Roth sooner rather than later was first raised in conversations between The Library of America and Roth’s literary agent, Andrew Wylie. The Wylie Agency, as it happens, had Saul Bellow as a client, and with The Library of America’s Bellow edition satisfactorily under way, we began exploring possible new collaborations. When Roth’s name was mentioned, we all seized on it. The timing offered some real advantages. For one thing, Ross Miller, a literature professor at the University of Connecticut and longtime friend of Roth’s whom we all agreed was the ideal scholar to edit the project, was about to be named as Roth’s biographer, with full access to his manuscripts and personal papers. Miller’s plan was to read systematically through the fiction with Roth—a kind of reading group of two—while prompting him to talk about the personal, cultural, and literary context of each work. We realized this would provide the perfect opportunity for Miller to establish authoritative texts for Library of America as he proceeded, checking with Roth with any questions about variant readings.

The timing seemed favorable for other reasons as well. American Pastoral, I Married a Communist, and The Human Stain had redefined Roth’s literary ambitions, revised his literary reputation, and raised his stature—in the process placing the early work that made his reputation in a potentially new light. It’s always The Library of America’s hope that intelligent publishing will not only make works widely available but also inspire renewed consideration and appreciation. Both readers and reviewers, we thought, would be spurred by the achievement of the American Trilogy to take stock, to look back over that mountain to the earlier, outrageously funny, and often scandalous work that is one of the great literary legacies of the cultural ferment of the 1960s. If nothing else, by allowing earlier literary performances to be viewed through the lens of the very different later ones, it would have the salutary effect of reminding readers of the artifice behind literary personae—that, if it stills needs saying, the author of Portnoy was not an autobiographer but a skilled ventriloquist whose modes happened to embrace a stunningly deceptive imitation of confessional rant.

As it turned out, the timing of publication had commercial advantages as well, although they were unanticipated. While the first two volumes were in preparation, The Plot Against America put Philip Roth back on the bestseller lists for the first time since Portnoy. Lucky us. The Library of America Roth edition would debut in the same season as the paperback edition of Plot, which could be counted on to give it a significant boost in bookstore display space and online promotion. Perhaps readers who were discovering Roth for the first time would go on to explore how resonant Plot is with the early books: with the class and ethnic assimilation themes of Goodbye, Columbus, the political fear and rage of Our Gang, and the sense of dislocation in American culture that informs Portnoy—even as its mode, political drama, allows him to recast the mid-twentieth-century Jewish family from a satiric into a heroic mold.

Surprisingly, for an author once so controversial, the announcement of The Library of America edition has received considerable praise and acceptance. The few naysayers don’t object to Portnoy or the stories in Goodbye Columbus, the books that got Roth in trouble the first time around. Instead they question the comprehensiveness of the approach, the inclusion of such uncharacteristic works as Letting Go and When She Was Good. Why include those? Apart from the fact that both these books have much to recommend them, the answer is that for authors that The Library of America deems major, our approach has always been to collect the complete work—because a complete and authoritative set of the writings of all major American authors should be permanently available to readers. Our readers want to see how the writers who have defined us found their central voice: how the full-throatedness of Augie March emerged from Dangling Man and The Victim, both books in many ways more expected, more characteristic of their literary time and place; or Moby-Dick from Typee, Omoo, and Mardi; or The Sound and the Fury from Mosquitoes and Soldiers’ Pay. Many of these early books, like Roth’s, represent imaginative directions that proved in hindsight to be dead ends. Why are they in The Library of America? The monumental literary achievement that followed makes them interesting; they help us appreciate the surprise and mystery of literary greatness.

A comprehensive collected uniform edition of a modern writer—and this has been true since from the first: in England, the Magnum Opus Edition of Walter Scott and in America, George Putnam’s Authorized Edition of Washington Irving—is more than a series of texts and codices. It is an event, and an event of a special sort, an event that makes a claim of classic status. This is why the other question raised about The Library of America edition—why is it necessary at all when the books are generally available in paperback?—is beside the point. Book reviewers understand the claim and will respond, it is hoped, differently than they do to single works. J. D. McClatchy, editor of Knopf’s 2001 collected James Merrill, has observed that until that volume appeared, Merrill, rather like Proust, was often treated as a lightweight, a dilettante and social butterfly, his personality given more attention than the stature of his writing: “Reviewers tend to read a writer’s latest book as either an advance on or retreat from the last book....When a collected appears—this was certainly the case with James Merrill’s—early work is scrutinized and revalued, and the Writer becomes an Author.... In almost every instance, a Collected Edition shifts the burden from writer to work.” There is obvious application to Philip Roth, a writer who, to quote Peter de Vries, in courting the Goddess of Fame met up with the bitch Publicity.

The crucial point is that from the publisher’s—and if he’s still alive, the author’s—point of view, this bid for classic status is a wager, and depends on the reading public being persuaded that the author is a modern classic who deserves to be collected, read, and kept on home library shelves next to Shakespeare and the Bible. Harold Bloom has called Roth “the finest artist among American writers since William Faulkner and Henry James. There’s the endless variety of modes he works in. His style, his stance, his point of view.” In terms of the size and scope of Roth’s work, his creative staying power, his ability periodically to open up new imaginative directions in his writing, James’ career is an apt comparison (14 volumes and counting to Roth’s eventual eight). When we approached Roth with the idea of a collected definitive edition, we had James’ monumental New York Edition on our minds. Scribner was the publisher of that set, and in order to ensure new material to advertise and to distinguish the collected from the separately published trade editions, that publishing house famously persuaded James to write new prefaces. Of this labor, James would eventually write to William Dean Howells: “What a monstrously and brutally stupid race is the avid and purblind one of Publishers, who never seem dimly to guess that authors can’t to advantage be worked like ice-cream freezers or mowing-machines.” Never agree to write prefaces to your old books, James advised Howells: “I found mine—of much scanter number—an almost insurmountable grind toward the end.”

Despite this cautionary tale, a commercial rationale similar to Scribner’s led us to ask Philip Roth if he would contribute new prefaces for his forthcoming Library of America collected edition. He declined, possibly fearing, as James protested to his English publisher Frederick Macmillan, that it would make “every other remunerative labour impossible, & block my whole way” for “out-&-out ‘creative’ work.” We persisted, persuaded that Roth’s refusal had to do with qualms about the complex ironies in his work, the hall-of-mirrors doublings between author and narrating personae. “Philip Roth wouldn’t have to write them,” we urged. “Nathan Zuckerman could.” This earned well-merited silence.

Each new volume published in The Library of America seems to set up electric currents running to early books in the series, elective affinities between sometimes very disparate writers. What complex field will Roth establish? Bloom cites Faulkner and James, others invoke Bellow, and there are obvious parallels with all three writers in sheer verbal inventiveness and imaginative force. I suspect though that ultimately the current will run further and deeper, and that a writer whose work has returned repeatedly to the morality, and immorality, of the imagination, and to the ambiguous uses of fiction, will be found to be talking across the centuries to Hawthorne, Melville, and other post-Puritan writers who rang deep and fascinating changes on the ironic and inevitable entanglements of literature and life.