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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)

Henry Roth was born in Tysmenica, Galicia, Austria-Hungary. His father was a waiter. Roth moved in 1907 with his mother 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 Harlem, an Irish and Italian neighborhood. Roth graduated from the City College of New York. 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 Grenwich Village house. There he met such writers as Hart Crane and Margaret Mead.

Call It Sleep received moderate critical praise and 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 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 mind.

The novel was dismissed by the leftist 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." 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 social critic. Roth was more concerned with the psychological development of his characters, Freud's ideas, and linguistic considerations. However, the work has been hailed by some critics as one of the finest works of proletarian novel, although Roth did not particularly focus on the sufferings of the working class.

Later Roth stated in interviews that he suffered from both the political pressures on his writing and 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)

After his first novel Roth started his second, an autobiographical work. It was intended to please the Communist Party but Roth destroyed it in the beginning. In the 1940's Roth burned his journals and manuscripts. He published no more novels until 1994, going through a very long writer's. During this time Roth worked in several jobs, among others as a precision metal grinder, mental nurse, poultry farmer, and teacher. Roth married Muriel Parker, a pianist and composer, in 1939. 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. Call It Sleep was reissued in paperback in 1964. It sold a million copies, and the Roths eventually settled to Albuquerque.

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. 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. Ira Stigman's 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 Ira Stigman. 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 in New York Times: "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." (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); Henry Roth by Bonnie Lyons (1976); Studies in American Jewish Literature 5 (1979, special issue on Henry Roth); New Essays on Call It Sleep, ed by Hana Wirth-Nesher (1996) - Other 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)

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