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for Books and Writers
by Bamber Gascoigne

Henry Roth (1906-1995)


American author, whose best-known work is Call It Sleep (1934), a classic in Jewish-American literature. Critical reactions to the novel were positive, but as a result of the Depression, Roth's publisher went bankrupt and the book disappeared from view. It was reissued in the 1960s and recognized belatedly as an important novel of the 1930s.

"... no one has ever distilled such poetry and wit from the counterpoint between maimed English and the subtle Yiddish of the immigrant. No one has reproduced so sensitively the terror of family life in the imagination of a child caught between two cultures." (Leslie A. Fiedler, in New Essays on Call It Sleep, edited by Hana Wirth-Nesher, 1996, p. 3)

Henry Roth was born in Tysmenicz, Galicia, Austria-Hungary. His father, Chaim, was the son of a distillery manager. In 1907 little Herschel, as Roth was then callead, moved with his mother Leah to New York, where his father was already living. From 1908 to 1910 Roth's Yiddish-speaking family lived in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn and in 1910 they moved to the Lower East Side, "a virtual Jewish mini-state", as Roth later noted, and four years later to East 119th Street in Harlem, an Irish and Italian neighborhood. Steven G. Kellman tells in Redemption: The Life of Henry Roth (2005), that Roth had an incestuous relationship with his sister in his youth. He also seduced his first cousin.

Roth graduated from the De Witt Clinton High Scool in 1924 and received his B.S. in Englist at the City College of New York in 1928. During his college years he started to write. Roth was encouraged by the poet and professor of English literature Eda Lou Walton, 12 years his senior, with whom he lived in her Greenwich Village house.  There he met such writers as Hart Crane and Margaret Mead.

Roth devoted the years from 1929 to 1933 to Call It Sleep. A friend of Professor Walton, David Mandel, backed its publication financially. To Roth's disappointment, upon its appearance it had little impact on the reading public; it sold fewer than two thousand copies, although most rewiews were favorable. When his publisher, Robert O. Ballou, went out of business, the novel went soon out of print and was forgotten. The story recorded six years in the life of a Jewish immigrant boy, a six- to eight-year-old David Schearl, in a New York ghetto just prior to World War I. David is shielded by his loving mother. His life turns in a nightmare when his paranoid, violent father is unable to hold a job. David's father is tormented by his lack of success and he becomes increasingly menacing to the son, and is finally convinced that David is not his son. After he has survived a deathly initiation game, David closes his eyes, with his mother beside him, and "one might as well call it sleep."

Call It Sleep was influenced by James Joyce and T. S. Eliot, and brought among the first an interior monologue into American literature. The reader learns about the world of the immigrants' Lower East Side from the boy's vantage point – David's oedipal conflicts and his encounter of anti-Semitism on the streets, neighborhood gangs of non-Jewish youths, and an early introduction to sex, which terrifies David. Roth used in an extremely impressive way dialect, broken, misspelled English, mispronounced words of the street boys, the dialects of Irish policeman and Italian street sweeper, and the language of David's confused mind.

Like the author himself, David was born in the Austro-Hungarian Empire before he came with his mother to the United States. In Call It Sleep the Jewish emigrant experience did not concern Roth. He focused on the psychological development of his protagonist, Freud's ideas, and the usage of language. Roth had joined the Communist Party in 1933, but found that he could not write his works in the true spirit of class struggle. As a consequence, Call It Sleep was not praised for its adherence to Socialist Realism.

The novel was dismissed by the Marxist weekly New Masses which complained that it's "a pity that so many young writers drawn from the proletariat can make no better use of their working-class experience than as material for introspective and febrile novels." Moreover, the anonymous critic complained that the novel was at least two hundred pages too long. ('Raising Muscovite Ducks and Government Suspicions: Henry Roth and the FBI' by Steven G. Kellman, in Modernism on File: Writers, Artists, and the FBI, 1920-1950, edited by Claire A. Culleton and Karen Leick, 2008, p. 41) As a reply to the reviewer, the literary theorist Kenneth Burke wrote: "The great virtue of Roth's book, to my way of thinking, was in the fluent and civilized way in which he found, on our city streets, the new equivalents of the ancient jungle." ('Introduction' by Hana Wirth-Nesher, in New Essays on Call It Sleep, edited by Hana Wirth-Nesher, 1996, p. 2)

In 1956, Call It Sleep was listed by both Alfred Kazin and Leslie Fiedler in an American Scholar symposium among "The Most Neglected Books of the Past Twenty-five Years."  The book was republished in 1960 in hardcover by a small press, Pageant Books, Inc., the paperback edition by Avon released in 1964 was reviewed on the front page of the New York Review of Books by Irwing Howe. An immediate best-seller, Call It Sleep sold more than a million copies. Mario Materassi, a professor of American literature at the University of Florence, translated the book into Italian in the 1960s. Materassi was Roth's faithful friend and advicer for over thirty years.

Later Roth stated that in addition to political pressures, he suffered from his life with Walton, who was much older than him, and gave him literary and financial support during the Depression. Roth considered that because of this experience he never gained an independence and could never get beyond the level of the talented protége in his writing.

"You're licked. Your wife knows you're licked. She said so long ago, she said when you asked her do you think I'll ever write again, Honestly, what do you think? She said, after weighing the thought: No, I don't think so, hon." (from an unpublished manuscript, New York Times, August 15, 1993)

In 1936, Roth started his second book commissioned by Maxwell Perkins of Scribner's. Perkins paid a $1,000 in advance. Intended to produce a Marxist novel, Roth told about a worker named Dan Loem, who becomes a Communist organizer after losing his arm in a factory accident. According to David Mandel, Roth was "set upon by a squad of union goons and was beaten. He distroyed his manuscript, which was virtually finished at that time." ('Roth, Henry,' in World Authors 1950-1970, edited by John Wakeman, 1975, p. 1232) During the McCarthy years Roth burned his journals and manuscripts that might have contained incriminating information about his leftist friends and himself. Roth's name was on Hoover's Security Index between 1951 and 1955. Except for some short breaks, his writer's block lasted almost 60 years.

Until 1994, Roth published no more novels. During this time he worked in several jobs, among others as a precision metal grinder, mental nurse, poultry farmer, and a private tutor in mathematics and Latin. The short story, 'Petey and Yotsee and Mario,' came out in New Yorker in  July 1956, and two autobiographical pieces appeared in Commentary in 1959-60. A story entitled 'The Surveyor' appeared in the New Yorker in August 1966. "It's the first deliberately objective one I've done in about twenty years, deliberately concocted," Roth wrote in a letter to Mario Materassi. "It's fun, yields perspectives I hadn't anticipated, just as Call It Sleep did, but is awful hard work." (Shifting Landscapes by Henry Roth, 1987, p. 136)

In 1939, Roth married Muriel Parker, a pianist and composer, whom he had met at the Yaddo artists' colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. They had two sons. Muriel became also a teacher, principal of a elementary school. The marriage lasted 51 years – she died in 1990. Since 1946 they lived in Maine and New Mexico. In the late 1960s Roth began writing again and received a grant from the American Academy. He held the D.H. Lawrence Fellowship at the University of New Mexico, living during his tenure on the Frieda Lawrence ranch in Taos. The Roths eventually settled to Albuquerque, New Mexico, where they lived in a converted funeral home.

Roth published in 1987 a collection of short stories. The first volume of his second novel, Mercy of a Rude Stream, came out in 1994. Writing on computer in a modest mobile home, five hours a day, was painful for Roth, who suffered from rheumatoid arthritis. ('Writer, interrupted: The resurrection of Henry Roth' by Jonathan Rosen, The New Yorker, July 24, 2005) The title was taken from Shakespeare's play Henry VIII. Written over many years from 1979 and fusing disparate material, this multivolume work was received with mixed reviews. Roth once stated that the novel is not autobiographical but it had much parallels with his own life. The story is set in the 1920s. Roth's protagonist and alter ego is now called Ira Stigman. His family moves from the Jewish East Side to then an Irish neighborhood at East 114th Street in Harlem – like Roth's. The young Ira has problems with his emerging sexuality – "... couldn't he get it through his thick head that ladies wanted to be laid?" Ira thinks, when he divides his time between Edith Welles, an English professor, and his teen-age cousin Stella. But Ira has also another kind of thoughts, questions such as "What was human life striving after?" and he develops an idea that "if you could put words to what you felt, it was yours."

"Ira wept, numberless times. And he grieved over the lessening pages that brought him nearer the end of his companionship with Jean Valjean -- to the end of the book that he kept under his bed in the little dark bedroom, that he woke up to on Saturday and Sunday as to a precious gift waiting for him to reclaim it. He tarried and reread, dreamed. Hundreds of new words lurked within the pages, unfamiliar words within the hundreds of pages of narrative, and yet they offered no obstacle to understanding..." (from Mercy of a Rude Stream)

In A Diving Rock on the Hudson (1995) Roth used observations from his own life and continued the story of the tortured hero. The narrative follows Ira's school years and his introduction to the literary world. Ira confesses to his computer, Ecclesias, that he started at the age of 14 an incestuous relationship with his younger sister Minnie – it was for him a crucial act to break the boundaries of conventionality. Mary Gordon wrote: "Part of the fascination of A Diving Rock on the Hudson is that it is a deliberately unflattering self-portrait of the garrulity and narcissism of old age. This is something we haven't seen before in literature, and if for no other reason, it is valuable as the speech of a tribe until now silenced." (The New York Times, February 26, 1995) Roth died on October 1995, and the third volume of the intended six-volume series, less autobiographical From Bondage, appeared posthumously in 1996. Roth's last novel, An American Type, mostly about Ira Stigman's bohemian life in the 1930s, was not published until 2010. The 1,900 page manuscript, which Roth wrote with a word processor, was edited by Willing Davidson, who rearranged the material in chronological order.

For further reading: 'The Most Undeservedly Neglected Books of the Past Twenty-five Years' by L. Fiedler and A. Kazin, in American Scholar, 25 (1956); 'Henry Roth's Neglected Masterpiece' by L. Fiedler, in Commentary (1960); 'Roth, Henry,' in World Authors 1950-1970, edited by John Wakeman (1975); Henry Roth by Bonnie Lyons (1976); Studies in American Jewish Literature 5 (1979, special issue on Henry Roth); New Essays on Call It Sleep, edited by Hana Wirth-Nesher (1996); Redemption: The Life of Henry Roth by Steven G. Kellman (2005); 'Call It Sleep' by Jeff Shantz, in American Novel: Volume I: A-F, edited by Abby H.P. Werlock (2006); Belonging and Narrative: a Theory of the American Novel by Laura Bieger (2018) - Other almost forgotten writers from the 1930s who have been found again later: Nathanael West, Daniel Fuchs, Edward Dahlberg, John Peale Bishop, Jack Conroy, Tess Slesinger, Nelson Algren, Meyer Levin, Albert Halper.

Selected works:

  • Call It Sleep, 1934
    - Vaikkapa unta (suom. Seppo Loponen, 1971)
  • Nature's First Green, 1979
  • Shifting Landscape: A Composite, 1925-87, 1987 (edited with an introduction by Mario Materassi)
  • A Star Shines Over Mt. Morris Park, 1994 (Mercy of a Rude Stream, vol. 1)
  • A Diving Rock on the Hudson, 1995 (Mercy of a Rude Stream, vol. 2)
  • From Bondage, 1996 (Mercy of a Rude Stream, vol. 3)
  • Requiem for Harlem, 1997 (Mercy of a Rude Stream, vol. 4)
  • An American Type, 2010 (edited by Willing Davidson)
  • Mercy of a Rude Stream: the Complete Novels, 2014  (volume 1. A Star Shines over Mt. Morris Park; volume 2. A Diving Rock on the Hudson; volume 3. From Bondage; volume 4. Requiem for Harlem)

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