When Henry Roth died in 1995 his name had recently been in the news due to the publication of the first two volumes of a six volume novel sequence. What had caused much of the interest was the fact that these books marked Roth's reappearance as a novelist after a sixty year break. His first book Call it Sleep had been published in 1934, but Roth then slipped into virtual silence as a writer, with the exception of a few short stories and other prose pieces which appeared in magazines. Call it Sleep was rediscovered in 1964 and gained both critical and popular acclaim, but few people thought that Roth was likely to produce any more major works of fiction. That he should start to publish novels again when he was almost 90 seemed incredible.
Roth's death may have affected the plans to publish the six novels on an annual basis, starting in 1994. It would seem that the third is ready for publication, but the rest may need some skilful editing before they can be put into print. Roth and his editors were working on them when he died, and his absence will obviously delay the process of editing.
Who was Henry Roth and why was there such a long gap between books? He was born in 1906 in what is now part of the Ukraine. He was the son of Jewish parents who brought him to America when he was two years old. The family lived in Brooklyn, the Lower East Side of New York (once described by Roth as "a virtual Jewish mini-State") and finally, an area of Harlem which was then largely populated by Irish and Italian immigrants. The final move was a significant one for Roth, bringing a sense of isolation and alienation which he had never felt on the Lower East Side. In later life he said: "Had I stayed there on the Lower East Side I'm sure I would have been a lot happier and I might have been a Rabbi - who knows? Or a good zoologist, had a happy Jewish family .... the point was I'd have rather been happy, no matter what, instead of this tormented life that I've lived."
It is the early New York years, roughly 1910 to 1914 when the family went to Harlem, which are dealt with in Call it Sleep and which tell the story of David Schearl, who is sensitive, smart and easily disturbed. He is close to his mother, but afraid of his father, a moody, sometimes violent man. Thomas J. Farraro, in a book about the immigrant experience as it is expressed in American novels, neatly summarizes the basic situation in Call it Sleep: " a lone male child terrified of sex yet driven to an increasingly hallucinatory probing of his parents' troubled sexuality; the father economically and culturally disenfranchised prone to impotence and a compensatory paternal rage, feeling increasingly isolated from wife and child; the mother betrayed in her marriage, turning vengefully to the affection of the son, exposing him to the ultimate divergence of his awakening desire and her growing need." And in a significant passage in the book Roth describes David's distance from his father: "As far back as he could remember , this was the first time that he had ever gone anywhere alone with his father and already he felt desolated, stirred with dismal forebodings, longing desperately for his mother. His father was so silent and so remote that he felt as though he were alone even at his side. What if his father should abandon him, leave him in some lonely street. The thoughts sent shudders of horror through his body. No! No! He couldn't do that!"
It's not my intention to deal with Call it Sleep in detail. The book is impressionistic and my main aim is to give an impression of it. What it deals with, in addition to David's feelings about his parents is his response to the world he experiences outside the home. There is a passage where Roth describes the move to the Lower East Side and what David finds there:
There is, of course, a highly autobiographical element in Roth's fiction, but it should not be assumed that he was writing autobiography in Call it Sleep. Roth was selective. In real life he had a sister but in the book, to quote Roth, she
Call it Sleep, as I've already noted, covers only a few of Roth's childhood years. His biographical years show that after completing High School he entered the City College of New York, one of the few places where a Jewish student with little or no money could study for a degree. His intention was to study biology and then possibly work in that line or as a zoologist but two significant things happened while he was a CCNY. He wrote a piece for an English class which his tutor thought so good that he recommended it for publication in the college magazine. Roth, it ought to be said, was an avid reader as a child, with the public library serving almost as a refuge from the pressures of home and the streets, and he had a natural understanding of how a piece of writing can be structured and what it is required to do. It's interesting to read the story Impressions of a Plumber which was based on Roth's experiences working as a plumber's mate during the summer of 1924 and was an attempt to capture the rhythms of the working day and the speech patterns of the various characters. Roth phonetised what the people said so as to show the vibrancy and variety of language in New York and to stress how the immigrants used English in their own way. He used this technique again in Call it Sleep though in the novel the family appear to speak "pure" English when they are conversing in Yiddish. This was a stylistic gambit, designed by Roth to heighten the clash in David's mind between the language he heard at home and that heard on the streets. Impressions of a Plumber is valuable, too, in terms of what it says about Roth's attitude towards work, bosses, and the capitalist system. It does not have any direct political comment, other than a brief reference to how workers view the boss, but its proletarian subject matter would not have been unwelcome in left wing circles.
The second major event in Roth's life around this time was his meeting with Eda Lou Walton, a lecturer at New York University who had some standing as a minor poet and hostess of a literary salon which included Hart Crane, Leonie Adams, and Louise Bogan. Roth's A Diving Rock on the Hudson, the second volume of Mercy of a Rude Stream (his six volume work), covers Roth's initial encounters with Walton and has a scene where he attends a poetry reading given by Leonie Adams. The third part, when it appears, will presumably tell the story of how Roth had an affair with Walton, a woman twelve years his senior, and moved into her apartment in Greenwich Village, which had the effect of almost cutting him off from his family whilst at the same time introducing him to the world of the avant-garde in politics and art. It was during the years that he lived with Walton that he wrote Call it Sleep, which was heavily influenced by his reading of James Joyce's Ulysses. When asked what he thought he had gained from Joyce, he replied:
Roth had joined the Communist Party in 1933, an act which he later described as "a sentimental thing," and when Call it Sleep was published in 1934 it was attacked by some left-wing critics who saw its impressionistic view of urban life as lacking in political commitment and failing to correspond to the social realism expected of proletarian literature. Early in 1935 the Communist Party cultural magazine The New Masses, printed a review which ended by saying: "It is 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." But although some literary historians have suggested that left wing reaction to Roth's book was totally hostile, the records indicate otherwise. Several readers wrote to protest about the review, and the noted critic Edwin Seaver came to the novel's defence, saying: "What better use could Roth have made of his working class experience as a child than to have shown honestly and exactly what that experience consisted of?" And another Communist party publication The Daily Worker printed a favourable review of Call it Sleep by Alfred Hayes, then a young left wing poet and later a talented novelist. It would seem, too, that the novel did not sell badly by the standards of the time, 1934 being one of the worst of the Depression years in the United States. But the economic situation did work against Roth and his publisher went bankrupt, with the result that Call it Sleep was soon forgotten by all but a few of its admirers.
The ideological atmosphere of the 1930's did have its effect on Roth as he admitted many years later:
He planned a novel which would have a central character based on someone he'd met who seemed to represent the sort of proletarian hero liked by the party, and he did complete over 100 pages of this book and was given an advance against it by the noted publishers Scribner's. But it was never finished and, in Roth's own words, "After that came the block."
Some accounts tend to suggest that Roth stopped writing altogether once Call it Sleep was completed, but as mentioned above, he did begin work on his "proletarian novel", and some of what he wrote was published in a magazine in 1936. He also published stories in the New Yorker in 1939 and 1940, and one or two other short pieces also appeared, including a curious 1937 piece for The New Masses. Called Where my Sympathy Lies it was an expression of support for Stalin and said of the Moscow trials.
Roth went on to attack Trotsky and Trotskyism and referred to it as "A sure way to paralyse all our efforts for a united front against fascism." Of course, Roth wasn't alone in his views and in a 1985 interview admitted how wrong he'd been:
If and when the appropriate volume of Mercy of a Rude Stream is published it will be interesting to see how Roth deals with this phase of his life. He did once refer in an interview to burning the original manuscript of his proletarian novel, together with some valuable journals, during the McCarthy period because he thought they contained self-incriminating political material. As far as I know, he was never subjected to FBI harassment in the 1940's and 1950's, nor was he ever called before any sort of committee investigating political activities and allegiances. But the nervousness about it was clearly there.
Roth made a break with the Communist party in the late 1930s, around the same time that he left Eda Lou Walton, and it is from this period that his almost total disappearance from the literary scene can be marked. He had met Muriel Parker in 1938 at Yaddo, a retreat for artists, writers and musicians, and married her in 1939. She gave up a promising musical career and became a school teacher and Roth took to a succession of jobs, including being a machinist, teacher, forest fighter, plumber's assistant, and insane asylum attendant. In 1953 he bought some ducks and geese and started a business in Maine selling feathers and preparing carcasses for the table. He remained there until the 1964 publication of Call it Sleep brought some unwelcome publicity but also the money to travel and eventually settle in New Mexico. He began writing again in earnest in the 1960's - a story which was excerpted from a novel he was working on was published in the New Yorker - but it was only in 1980 that he began to put together the first volume of Mercy of a Rude Stream.
Obviously, the "facts" of Roth's life do inform his fiction, but it may be that Mercy of a Rude Stream is more factual than Call it Sleep. The earlier work does have accurate descriptions of New York ghetto life in the early part of the century, but its stylistic devices act against it being a realistic novel. Like Joyce's Ulysses it stands as a single, highly idiosyncratic and almost unrepeatable achievement, something Roth perhaps knew in his heart and which might explain why he felt frustrated about proceeding any further. Mercy of a Rude Stream does have some self-consciously experimental aspects - there is a running commentary by an ageing author who ruminates throughout the book about his past and present problems and sometimes engages in a dialogue with his computer - but they are the least interesting parts and the value of the writing lies in its vivid descriptions of the past and the way in which it evokes what it was like to be alive and engaged in certain activities (childhood, schooling, work, intellectual adventures, sexual strivings, etc.) at specific times. The writing is often almost pleasingly "old-fashioned" in the sense of the language being direct and without any pretension, and I was occasionally reminded of the kind of novels produced by James T. Farrell (does anyone read him these days?) which are fascinating social documents and aim to record things exactly as they were. As I was reading the two published volumes of Mercy of a Rude Stream I was also looking at Metropolitan Lives, a book about the painters of the so-called Ashcan School (John Sloan, George Bellows, Everett Shinn, etc.) and realizing how accurate were Roth's descriptions of New York. And the vividness of the pictures he paints of the ghetto slums were confirmed for me when I referred to the writings and photographs of the great reformer Jacob Riis. It's unfair to compare Mercy of a Rude Stream to Call it Sleep, even if they are linked by more than their subject matter and author, and it deserves instead to be put alongside other major works of the Jewish experience in America, such as Abraham Cahan's The Rise of David Levinsky and Michael Gold's Jews Without Money. And that is to rate it highly. Henry Roth may have written only one book, Call it Sleep, which deserves to be called a major work but there is much in his other writings worthy of admiration.
Call it Sleep was originally published in 1934. It was published in this country in 1963 by Michael Joseph in a hardback edition which has a useful introduction by Walter Allen. Various editions have appeared here and in America since then, and it is currently in print as a Penguin paperback.
A Star Shines Over Mount Morris Park and A Diving Rock on the Hudson, the first two volumes of Mercy of a Rude Stream, were published in 1994 and 1995 respectively by Weidenfeld and Nicolson.
Shifting Landscape is a collection of short stories and other prose and is linked with a commentary and excerpts from interviews. It is an extremely valuable book from the point of view of providing a backcloth for the novels. It was published in 1995 by Weidenfeld and Nicolson.
Thomas J. Farraro's Ethnic Passages: Literary Immigrants in 20th Century America was published in 1993 by the University of Chicago Press. It has some interesting comments on Roth's Call it Sleep. A discussion of the controversy in left wing circles when the book was first published can be found in James M. Murphy's The Proletarian Moment: The Controversy Over Leftism in Literature, published in 1991 by the University of Illinois Press.
Abraham Cahan's The Rise of David Levinksy has been in print in a Penguin edition in recent times, and Michael Gold's Jews Without Money in an edition from Carroll and Graf, New York, published in 1984. James T. Farrell is known today mostly for his Studs Lonigan Trilogy which is occasionally reprinted. His other novels and short stories, which are admittedly of variable quality but can be good, are now all out of print.
Metropolitan Lives: The Ashcan Artists and their New York by Rebecca Zurier, Robert W. Snyder, and Virginia M. Mecklenburg, was published by Norton in. 1995.
As a coda to Jim Burns' essay we add the Prologue to Mercy of a Rude Stream Vol 3 From Bondage which illustrates Roth's "running commentary by an ageing author who ruminates throughout the book about his past and present problems and sometimes engages in a dialogue with his computer"
This is the first paperback publication* of Henry Roth's novel, Call It Sleep. It seems to me a remarkable book, one of the best novels of our time. I thought so when I first read it, more or less by chance, a few months after its initial publication in New York in December 1934. It remained extraordinarily vivid in my memory; but until recently, no one I met, American or British, seemed to have heard of it, much less to have read it, and it was not until 1956, in Professor Rideout's The Radical Novel in the United States, that I came across any reference to it in a critical work. That year, however, was a turning point in the book's history: it was named twice— by Alfred Kazin and Leslie A. Fiedler—in a symposium, "The Most Neglected Books of the Past 25 Years," that appeared in the American Scholar. Since then, both Kazin and Fiedler have written about it at length elsewhere, Fiedler notably in his book Love and Death in the American Novel; and during the past few years its stature has been increasingly recognized and acclaimed in the United States. It was reissued in New York in 1960, and reading it again in that edition more than confirmed my early opinion of it: I found it even more impressive than I had remembered it.
The history of Call It Sleep, then, is seemingly a tale of years of neglect followed by a sudden rediscovery. In fact, the novel by no means did badly on its first publication. The years 1934 and 1935 were grim ones for American publishing, and Henry Roth's publisher, Robert O. Ballou, was driven out of business by the economic hazards of the times within a few months of launching Call It Sleep. All the same, it went into two editions and sold 4,000 copies: and it collected a most impressive set of reviews.
Yet I think the book we have rediscovered looks a little different now from what it did in the 'thirties. The 'thirties, in America even more than in England, was the period of socially conscious fiction and of much theorizing about what was called the proletarian novel. Inevitably, Call It Sleep was seen as an attempt at a proletarian novel; or it was judged that it would have been a better book if it had been a proletarian novel, as by the reviewer of the Communist weekly, New Masses, who wrote: "It is 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." Today, despite its setting of urban poverty, it is difficult to see Call It Sleep as a proletarian novel in the 'thirties sense at all. It exists in quite another dimension, which Professor Fiedler comes near defining when he applies to it C. M. Doughty's epigram: "The Semites are like to a man sitting in a cloaca to the eyes, and whose brows touch heaven." This very well suggests both the social environment in which Roth's characters exist and the condition of striving hi which the central character, David Schearl, has his being.
Call It Sleep, after a short prologue, tells the story of David's life in the slums of New York between the ages of six and nine. David, except in the prologue, is the novel's center of consciousness; but the prologue is important because it establishes the emotional pattern that is to dominate the child's life. It describes the meeting on Ellis Island in 1907 between Albert Schearl, a Polish Jewish immigrant already working in New York as a printer, and the wife and infant son who have followed him to join him in what the epigraph calls ironically the Golden Land. It shows immediately the relation between husband and wife, which for the greater part of the book we see through David's eyes and through its effects on him. The characters, as immigrants, are uprooted and isolated. The father is permanently and radically estranged from the world about him; for him, immigration is a form of banishment. He is proud, bitter, violent, inordinately suspicious; his paranoiac self-regard causes him to lose job after job; and increasingly he turns against his son, who in the end he believes is not his child but a bastard conceived by his wife after his leaving her for America. Warmhearted, sensual, his wife Genya is also isolated, imprisoned in her ignorance of English:
"I know that I myself live on one hundred and twenty-six Boddeh Stritt—"
"Bahday Street," her husband corrected her. "I've told you scores of times."
"Boddeh Stritt," she resumed apologetically. He shrugged. "It's such a strange name—bath street in German. But here I am. I know there is a church on a certain street to my left, the vegetable market is on my right, behind me are the railroad tracks and the broken rocks, and before me, a few blocks away is a certain store window that has a kind of whitewash on it—and faces in the whitewash, the kind children draw. Within this pale is my America, and if I ventured further I should be lost. In fact," she laughed, "were they even to wash that window, I might never find my way home again."
Forced in upon herself by her husband's harshness and coldness towards her, she turns increasingly to the child, who finds in her lap his only sure refuge from the terrors of the New York slums.
The boy himself is isolated by his very childishness and, beyond this, by the emotional relationship, classically Freudian in its pattern, between his parents. Call It Sleep must be the most powerful evocation of the terrors of childhood ever written. Lost, bewildered, friendless, the small boy David scuttles through the streets of the Lower East Side like a frightened little animal lost hi a jungle inhabited by the larger carnivores. We are spared nothing of the crudeness of cosmopolitan slum life and living. There is, for instance, the horrified boy's initiation into sex by a crippled girl only a little older than himself. The irons on her legs creak as she embraces him. "Between de legs. Who put id in is de poppa. De poppa's god de petzel. Yaw de poppa." And all the terrors the boy experiences in the streets of New York are brought together, symbolized, in his fear of the tenement houses in which he lives, the dark, rat-infested cellars with their overwhelming suggestion of mindless and brutal animality, the sweating stairways to be tremblingly climbed to the topmost apartment, which means warmth and security because his mother is there, and, finally, the roof above, the escape to which is freedom.
Yet though the squalor and filth, the hopelessness and helplessness of slum-life are remorselessly presented and the cacophony never ceases—this must be the noisiest novel ever written—Call It Sleep does not strike one as primarily a novel of social protest, an exposure novel, like Farrell's Studs Lonigan, to which many reviewers of the first edition compared it. Roth's subject is no more poverty and its stultifications than it is Joyce's in A Portrait of the Artist. Indeed, there is a sense in which the Schearls are in the slums but not of them. Roth shows this beautifully in his dialogue. He renders with what seems quite horrible fidelity the mutilations of English as spoken by the immigrant slum-dwellers, Jewish, Hungarian, Italian, Irish alike. "My ticher calls id Xmas, bod do kids call id Chrizmas. I'd's a goyish holiday anyways. Wunst I hanged op a stockin' in Brooklyn. Bod mine fodder pud in a eggshells wid terlit paper an' a piece f’om a ol' kendle. So he leffed w'en he seen me. Id ain' no Sendy Klaws, didya know?" David, too, speaks like this when he is speaking English—but not when he is at home with his parents, talking in Yiddish. Then he, and they, speak a remarkably pure English, the English of people of cultivation; and we see them in a wholly new light. In this way, Roth makes us sharply aware, as no other novelist except Willa Cather has done, in a book like My Antonia, of the degradation, the diminution in human dignity, that was one aspect of the immigrant's lot as he moved from a society with a traditional culture to another with no culture at all. We feel this with David's parents; we see it, by implication at any rate, at its most striking in the representation of the teacher of Hebrew, Reb Yidel Pankower. Dirty, irascible, a petty sadist, a Dickensian character conducting what appears to be "an almost Dickensian parody of religious education—this is certainly part of the truth about him; but it is only part, what one is tempted to call the American truth about him, or the truth in English. The deeper truth is revealed by his discovery of David's caliber. The rabbi belongs to a much older and richer culture than that of the Lower East Side; and it is he who makes the final comment on the Golden Land: "A curse on them! He glared about him at the children and half-grown boys and girls who crowded the stoops and overflowed in the sidewalks and gutters. The devil take them! What was going to become of Yiddish youth? What could become of this new breed? These Americans? This side-walk-and-gutter generation?" With Reb Yidel Pankower we are back with Doughty's "The Semites are like to a man sitting in a cloaca to the eyes, and whose brows touch heaven."
There is another obvious difference between this novel and the American novels of social protest of the 'thirties, of which Studs Lonigan may be taken as representative. In those novels, the characters strike one as being wholly conditioned by their economic and cultural circumstances; they are almost excretion's of their environment. This is anything but true of Roth's characters. Despite the conditions in which they live, they are dominating figures. This is most obviously so of Albert Schearl: half-mad as he is, he is a tragic figure. And Genya and her sister Bertha exist just as much in the round as feeling, suffering, reacting human beings. They exist as it were as natural forces. Bertha is a very considerable comic creation, but she has her moments of pathos and perception, as when, wanting desperately to be married, to Genya's "Why, Bertha, New York is full of all kinds of men who would want you," she retorts: "Yes! It's also full of all kinds of glib, limber Jewesses who can play the piano."
But the real center of the novel is the boy David, and Roth seems to me to plunge us into a child's mind more directly and more intransigently than any other novelist has done. We experience the child's instantaneous apprehension of his world. Roth captures, too, better, I think, than it has ever been done in English before, what might be called a child's magical thinking, which is closely allied to the thinking of the poet. With David, we are a long way from either Tom Sawyer or the boy Studs Lonigan; his world is not that of simple fantasy or make-believe but one he creates with the desperate, compulsive imagination of the poet. However grotesquely different the environments in which they lived, he is, it seems to me, of the company of the boy Wordsworth in The Prelude. Racked by guilt he cannot understand, obsessed by notions of an incomprehensible God, he has intimations of transfiguration prompted by Reb Yidel Pankower's translation at the Hebrew School of a passage of scripture in which an angel is described as touching the lips of Isaiah with a fiery coal so that he may speak in the presence of God. And the transfiguration is realized at the end of the novel when, fleeing his father's anger both at his possession of a rosary, which he has got for what seem its magical properties, and at his apparently precocious sexual depravity, he runs through the streets at night and pushes the handle of a zinc milk ladle into the slot between the streetcar tracks that carries the live rail. Knocked out by the electric shock that results, as he comes round he has a vision that unifies his fragmented world and, in a sense, reconciles him to his experience of that world. In a mysterious way, the world becomes a whole.
Roth, who was born hi 1906, wrote Call It Sleep in his middle twenties. Apart from two or three sketches, he has written nothing since. According to the biographical information given in the last American edition of Call It Sleep, he now lives with his wife and family at a farm called "Roth's Waterfowl" deep hi rural Maine. His father lives near by; his mother, hating the quiet of the country, has remained in East Side New York. He earns his living raising ducks and geese and slaughtering and plucking those raised by other farmers. He also coaches local boys who need help in Latin and mathematics; and his wife teaches in an elementary school in a neighboring town. He is quite cut off from literary life, and the only paper he reads regularly is the New Statesman. He has said: "I don't think I'll write again."
More than one can say, one hopes that time will prove him wrong. Even so, to have written Call It Sleep is itself enough to make any man's reputation. In it, Roth shows himself a master of the novelist's art, a master of sympathy, humor, detachment and deep poetic insight into the immigrant's lot and into the mind of childhood. Place, tune and people are alike uniquely and unforgettably evoked, so that to read Call It Sleep is to live it.
*The first paperback edition referred to here was published in October, 1964. Critical attention was immediate and enormous beginning with a review on the front page of The New York Times Book Review on October 25th by Irving Howe. Since then it has gone through nearly twenty editions with nearly 900,000 copies in print.