Henry Roth

By Steven G. Kellman
HistoryAccess.com, 2011

Steven G. Kellman is a professor of comparative literature at the University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA). His books include Redemption: The Life of Henry Roth (2005), The Translingual Imagination (2000), and The Self-Begetting Novel (1980). In 2007 he was awarded the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing by the National Book Critics Circle. – H.F.

The Rip Van Winkle of American authors, Henry Roth, reawakened in 1964.

Henry Roth (1906-1995)
(Photo by
New York Times)

His novel Call It Sleep was retrieved that year from the oblivion in which it had languished for thirty years. Published in a new paperback edition and hailed on the front page of the New York Times Book Review as a neglected masterpiece, it quickly ascended the bestseller lists and transformed its obscure author into an unlikely celebrity. Amid the decade’s newfound fascination with all things “ethnic” and, in particular, with American Jewish culture, Roth, a frozen mastodon restored to life, was anointed as an ancestor to Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, and Philip Roth.

Another thirty years later, in 1994, Roth, who had given up the literary life and fled New York to become a duck farmer in rural New England, broke the longest silence of any significant American novelist by publishing his second novel, A Star Shines Over Mt. Morris Park. It was the first volume of an autobiographical tetralogy that he called Mercy of a Rude Stream. Roth had moved from Maine to a trailer park in Albuquerque, New Mexico. In his eighties, depressed by the death of his beloved wife, and suffering from rheumatoid arthritis so severe that lifting a pencil was agony, he managed to tap out 5,000 manuscript pages. Two volumes of the tetralogy, A Star Shines Over Mt. Morris Park and A Diving Rock on the Hudson (1995), were published before his death, at eighty-nine, in 1995. Another two, From Bondage (1996) and Requiem for Harlem (1998), appeared posthumously. An additional novel, An American Type, was carved out of the remaining manuscripts and published in 2010.

Call It Sleep is now widely read, admired, and studied as a classic of immigration fiction, a bold experiment in modernist narrative, and the first major work of American Jewish literature. It received favorable, even ecstatic reviews when it was first published, in 1934, but in the midst of the Depression, readers were not eager to buy a book by an unknown author about the ordeal of a Jewish boy in an immigrant New York slum. The novel’s publisher went bankrupt, and Call It Sleep fell out of print and out of public awareness. Roth, who was living in the Greenwich Village apartment of his mentor and lover, a New York University instructor named Eda Lou Walton, began writing a second novel but abandoned it after about a hundred pages. During a summer residency at the Yaddo artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, New York, he met and fell in love with pianist and composer Muriel Parker. Roth broke with Walton, married Parker, and moved with her to a primitive farmhouse in Maine.

Like almost all of his fiction, Call It Sleep draws directly on Roth’s own life.

Like David Schearl, the protagonist of the novel, Roth was born into a Jewish family in a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire called Galicia. National boundaries have since changed more than once, and Tysmenitz, the town in which he was born in 1906, is now located in Ukraine. When Roth was less than two years old, he and his mother, Leah, traveled in steerage to New York City, part of an unprecedented wave of immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe to the United States. Between 1881, when the assassination of Tsar Alexander II triggered anti-Semitic repression and violence, and 1924, when the isolationist Johnson-Reed Act set stringent new quotas on newcomers from what were considered undesirable parts of the world, more than 28 million people crossed the Atlantic to attempt new identities as Americans. Of these, 2.5 million were, like Leah and Henry Roth, Jews.

Herman Roth had preceded his wife and son to New York the year before, and, reunited, the family initially settled in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn. Three years later, the Roths, now including sister Rose, moved to the Lower East Side, the congested, turbulent neighborhood in Manhattan that served as a decompression chamber for hundreds of thousands of recent arrivals from Eastern Europe. Narrated through the eyes of a sensitive, anxious little boy, Call It Sleep is attentive to physical details of life among the tenements of the Lower East Side, a tumult of conflicting impressions that make it easy for young David to become lost when he wanders just a few blocks away from home and cannot make himself understood to the kindly Irish cop who tries to help him. The book is most remarkable as a cacophonous record of culture clash, one that makes its English into a subtle instrument for rendering the collision of languages, including varied registers of Yiddish, Polish, German, Italian, and English.

Roth denied having read Sigmund Freud before he wrote Call It Sleep, but the powerful Oedipal bond between David and his mother as well as the almost patricidal strife between David and his father Albert suggest parallels if not influences. The tense family drama in the novel draws directly on Roth’s own troubled childhood. Like Herman Roth, Albert Schearl is a surly man embittered by disappointment and mistrustful and resentful of everyone, including and especially his only son. He is one of the most memorable paternal monsters in modern literature.

A coming-of-age story about a hypersensitive Jewish boy who is forced to cope alone with the mysteries of sex, religion, and love, the novel consists of four sections, each of which is defined by a different image: “The Cellar,” “The Picture,” “The Coal,” and “The Rail.” Roth uses stream-of-consciousness to intensify the sense of an unformed mind trying to assimilate the varied sensations that assault it. The family apartment on the crowded Lower East Side is a haven for David, as long as his father is not home and his doting mother can lavish her affections on him. Outside, the clamorous streets of New York threaten the boy. He is frightened and confused by sexual advances from a little girl named Annie and, later, by the attempts of an older Christian boy named Leo to use him to gain access to David’s female cousins in order to “play dirty” with them. At the end of a long, disorienting day that concludes the novel, David, like the reader, faces sensory overload and embraces temporary oblivion, calling it sleep.

Roth joined the Communist Party of the United States shortly after completing Call It Sleep and remained sympathetic to the party line until 1967, when he became disillusioned over Soviet support for the Arab forces fighting Israel during the Six Day War. However, the only negative review that Call It Sleep received appeared in a Marxist publication, the New Masses, which chided the novice author for being too impressionistic and introspective, not committed enough to advancing the cause of the working class. Taking that criticism to heart, Roth began work on a second novel that focused on a proletarian hero from the Midwest who was modeled on a tough factory worker he had come to know. However, despite a book contract with the legendary editor Maxwell Perkins at Scribners, he could not find inspiration in the formulas of socialist realism. He abandoned the project, and also abandoned, for a long time, any ambition to write another novel. One of the reasons that Roth in later years gave for the notorious black hole in his publishing career was that a naïve adherence to Communist dogma diverted him from literary art.

Another reason that he would give was alienation from his Jewish roots. In 1914, when Henry was only eight, Herman Roth moved the family to Irish Harlem, where the boy was victimized by anti-Semitic bullies in the neighborhood. Roth, whose first language was Yiddish, never forgave his father for the trauma of dislocation, and he later attributed his artistic drought to the loss of cultural continuity created by the move. In nostalgic retrospect, he regarded the Lower East Side as a self-contained Jewish universe, and his expulsion from it was traumatic in ways that he could not articulate until many decades later. He proclaimed himself an atheist after his bar mitzvah and later, while attending the City College of New York, moved in with an older Gentile woman, Walton. After ten years with Walton, he married another Gentile, Parker. The rural Maine in which they raised two sons without any Jewish awareness was psychologically far removed from the immigrants’ Lower East Side.

However, in June, 1967, the prospect of Israel’s destruction shocked Roth into re-embracing his ethnic identity. Though not uncritical of Israeli policies, he proclaimed himself a Zionist and seriously considered the possibility of resettling in Tel Aviv. He and his wife in fact moved to Albuquerque, but he became active there in Jewish causes, including the campaign to pressure the Soviet Union to allow its Jews to emigrate. Most significantly, though, a renewed understanding of himself as a Jew inspired him to revive his ambition to write. Picking up where he had left off in 1934 in the closing pages of Call It Sleep, Roth wrote what is essentially an extended sequel to his first novel. Although the name of the main character is changed from David Schearl to Ira Stigman, both are essentially thinly veiled versions of Henry Roth himself.

Beginning with the protagonist’s move to Irish Harlem, the tetralogy Mercy of a Rude Stream repeatedly invokes Jewish themes. The four volumes are narrated by the ailing octogenarian Ira Stigman who, living in Albuquerque, recalls his past, from the move to Harlem until, at age thirty-two, he moves out of Walton’s apartment and in with Parker. Stigman the narrator regrets his younger alter ego’s deracination.

However, the second volume of Mercy of a Rude Stream – titled A Diving Rock on the Hudson – divulges a guilty secret that might have been the decisive factor in Roth’s long silence. Alone at the word processor he personifies as “Ecclesias,” eighty-nine-year-old Stigman, Roth’s surrogate self, exorcises the sordid details of a lengthy, legendary writer’s block that he attributes to alienation….and incest. The first volume of the tetralogy omits any mention of a Stigman sibling, but suddenly a sister who is two years Ira’s junior and is named Minnie sensationally appears in the second volume. He begins sexual relations with Minnie when he is twelve and she ten, and with a first cousin named Stella when she is thirteen and he seventeen. At the conclusion of Mercy of a Rude Stream, even as he panics over the possibility that he has made his cousin pregnant, twenty-one-year-old Stigman is still compulsively, perversely violating her. In a culminating literary confession, the elder Ira broods over his paralyzing guilt and over his compulsion to atone for it. Like A Diving Rock in the Hudson, which derives its title from a moment in which Ira, caught stealing fountain pens, is tempted to drown himself, the rest of Roth’s tetralogy is a document of self-loathing. Its elderly narrator finds many reasons to despise his awkward, erring younger self and welcomes his own imminent demise. Shame is the engine that drives Roth’s final burst of creativity.

Of course, Mercy of a Rude Stream was published as a sequence of novels, and, though many details are drawn from the author’s own life, most of the names have been changed. “This is a work of fiction,” announces the copyright page of Volume 2. “Although some characters were inspired by people whom the author knew, the narrative is not intended in any way to be a depiction of any real events. This novel is certainly not an autobiography, nor should it be taken as such.” Nevertheless, in the final months before Roth’s death, his editor, Robert Weil, anxious to protect his publishing house, St. Martin’s Press, from possible legal liability, videotaped an interview with his author. In it, Roth testifies that, although the acts of incest were less frequent than he portrayed them, he did indeed maintain a sexual relationship with his sister Rose (the prototype of the character named Minnie), starting when she was ten and ending when she was twenty.

If Roth, whose fictional inspiration was almost always autobiographical, were to continue beyond Call It Sleep, he would have to take his protagonist through adolescence. And if he were to be true to his own experience, he would be obliged to confront his own violation of taboos with his sister and his cousin. Roth was not prepared to do that until, in his late eighties and embracing his own extinction, most of the people who could be hurt by his shocking revelations, especially his beloved wife Muriel, were gone. Late in life, Henry Roth, like his author-narrator Ira Stigman, came to understand that he could overcome his creative aridity only by returning to the kindred ordinary Jews whom he sought to transcend and sexually abused. He realized that incest was a symptom of the arrested development that enabled him to devise a child’s-eye masterpiece but obstructed other writing. Stigman attributes his inability to achieve a sexual relationship with a mature woman outside his family to the same cause that prevented him from following up on his youthful novel of prepubescence: “his continued, his prolonged infantilism.”

Suffering from both physical and psychological torment throughout his final decade, Roth was hospitalized for suicidal depression. After his release, he hung an inscription of the Cumaean Sibyl’s pronouncement, “Apothanein Thelo” (I wish to die) as a motto in his study. But the ailing old man realized that only after the work was done could the wish be granted. He felt compelled to finish his painful final writings first.

In 1960, Roth had written a correspondent that: “There is one theme I like above all others, and that is redemption, but I haven’t the fable.” He was able to write Mercy of a Rude Stream because he eventually found the redemptive fable in his own experiences. A quest for redemption provides the fable that denies the discontinuities of a life afflicted with chronic depression. Roth’s fiction affirms that he suffered from self-loathing, but so does his silence. For sixty years, shame kept him from extending his fable beyond the ordeal of a hypersensitive little immigrant boy. Yet it is also the force impelling much of his later fiction, and a quest for continuity is the only thread he found to link a patchy life. So disappointed in himself that he welcomed death, Roth used his later writing to exorcise his revulsion.

From Galicia to New York to Maine to Albuquerque, the arc of Roth’s eighty-nine years was classically Greek in both abomination and cathartic redemption. His final, excruciating effort at expression gave life to his self-loathing, even as it put to rest an old man’s mortal pain.

Roth finished his career, with a posthumous adieu, as dramatically as he began it. “Hello, I must be going,” sings Groucho Marx in Animal Crackers. But it is Roth who is at once salutatorian and valedictorian of modern America.

In the final pages of Mercy of a Rude Stream, a fascinating document of life in the early twentieth century written at the century’s close, Ira is ready to write a novel very like Call It Sleep, the book that initiated one of the most extraordinary careers in American literature. Imagine D.W. Griffith, the inventor of American narrative cinema, abjuring his rough magic shortly after The Birth of a Nation and then, on the verge of ninety and extinction, reemerging to create four extraordinary films to send out the century. File Roth not only with James Joyce and Virginia Woolf but also Don DeLillo and Thomas Pynchon.

In one final, mighty torrent of language, Roth put to rest the monsters that had tormented him for eight decades – the shrieking bastard infant uprooted from his rural homeland and hauled to a distant, raucous metropolis; the runty son in dread of his raging, brutal father; the chubby young Jew skulking through the streets to dodge bigoted neighborhood bullies; the disgraced schoolboy compelled to return purloined fountain pens; the self-loathing adolescent impelled toward furtive, incestuous sex; the coddled novice writer distressed over social injustices he cannot remedy; the old man carrying disgust for a blighted life that might have been different. Palingenesis – rebirth – is one of the recondite words that Roth avidly collected, and painfully re-enacted.

Roth was dead, but his books survived, the weight of their pages a victory over frailty and mortality. Roth opened eyes to terrible shared truths about being human. If readers nod, it is not because they call it sleep. One might as well call it redemption. ●