The Great Jewish-American Novel
By Jacob Shamsian
“Call It Sleep,” Alfred Kazin wrote in a 1991 appraisal of Henry Roth’s first novel, “is the most profound novel of Jewish life that I have ever read by an American.” That first sentence of the essay holds a key to understanding Roth’s masterpiece: it observes Jewish life, and it is written by an American.
First published in 1934, when Roth was 28, Call It Sleep famously languished in obscurity for thirty years. Though it was met with warm praise by critics when it was first published, it sold only 4,000 copies. Few lay readers, it turned out, were interested in spending 600 pages in a fictional world about a Jewish Galacian family immigrating to New York at the turn of the century. The novel stars David Schearl, a child and exceptional student, who from his perspective sees a hostile father and city that threaten to overwhelm him and his loving mother. Throughout the novel, Roth uses a remarkable technique to demonstrate the blustering English language compared to the Yiddish. The entire book is in English, but the parts that are meant to be Yiddish — as when David speaks to his mother — are written beautifully and lyrically, while the English dialogue is coarse, resembling Jim’s dialogue in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
Roth, not-so-mysteriously, was also born in Galacia (Tysmenitz, specifically, now in Western Ukraine) in 1906. His early life resembles that of many other Yiddish-speaking New York Jews of the time. His family moved to America in 1907 and lived in Brownsville, Brooklyn, and then the Lower East Side of Manhattan, then to Harlem in 1914 where, in his Irish neighborhood, he was somewhat removed from the Jewish community. He then enrolled in City College. His life was not too dissimilar from that of David: they share neighborhoods, colorful characters in their lives, and the unique, specific world of Jewish New York.
At City College, Roth’s life took an extraordinary turn. At 19, he started dating Eda Lou Walton — in Call It Sleep, she is fictionalized as Edith Welles — who was 31 and a lecturer at New York University. Walton was also dating the man she’d eventually marry. Walton never committed to Roth, but still gave him two things that made him who he became: a copy of Ulysses by James Joyce and financial support. With Ulysses, Roth was inspired to invent a sort of version of the novel for his own life, where Dublin would become New York. With the money, Roth could write it. Roth dedicated the book to Walton, and wrote drafts on blue books she took from NYU.
Call It Sleep was typed up by Rose Roth, Henry’s sister. In criticism, the fact is often mentioned casually; Daniel Mendelsohn actually places it in parenthesis in a review of Roth’s biography in the The New York Review of Books. But one wonders if the fact should be dealt with so dismissively. Call It Sleep is, after all, a work that resembles autobiography. And we know that in their teenage years, Henry and Rose Roth slept together, a secret spilled decades later that twisted the Roth mythos into wild dimensions. If Henry began Call It Sleep at age 19 or 20 and published it when he was 28, he began the novel after he had already slept with Rose. So one wonders if those early draft made reference to their relationship, or any sister at all (David Schearl is an only child in the final draft). Did Rose have any editorial control? Did she subtract suggestions of incest? We may never know.
The same year Call It Sleep was published, a week after returning the proofs for the novel, Henry Roth joined the Communist party. Members of the party actually criticized the book, calling it “overly aesthetic and bourgeois,’” and spurring Roth to attempt “producing the grand, proletarian, socialist-realist work that he felt obliged to write.” There’s an apocryphal story, perpetuated in Steven G. Kellman’s biography of Roth, Redemption: The Life of Henry Roth, about how Roth wrote several hundred pages of such a novel, but he eventually burned it. As the story goes, Roth was trying to write a novel for Maxwell Perkins, the literary editor at Charles Scribner’s Sons who was assigned to Roth after Call It Sleep. The editor of Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Jones, and Thomas Wolfe, Perkins was the most important literary editor of the time, and arguably the most important in the history of American letters.
Morris Dickstein, an influential Jewish critic who championed Roth, often told that version of the story: Roth had built a bonfire in his Maine farm and burned his letters and manuscripts, including that not-to-be second novel. The account was disputed a few months after the biography was published. A story in the New Yorker covered an event remembering Roth, and Larry Fox, Roth’s literary executor, said that he had recently visited Roth’s last home, in Albuquerque, and found
seventy-five file folders containing approximately thirty-five hundred pages and including journals from the thirties onward, finished stories, letters, and sketches … so the Roth legend is apparently due for another revision: from being a writer famous for giving up writing to one famous for having resumed writing. Roth may finally be remembered for having written all his life.
In the late 1930s, Walton sent Roth for a stint at Yaddo, the artists’ colony, where he met his wife, Muriel Parker, a gentile and music composer. The two fell in love, renounced the artistic life, and leapt “into poverty and obscurity.”
With that move, Roth began his series of odd jobs, supposedly never writing the whole time. That sort of life nearly made Roth one of the greatest one-hit wonders of literature. With few practical skills, he first tried finding hack work in Hollywood, to no avail. Then he moved back to New York to work as a substitute Latin and mathematics high-school teacher, and then trained as a precision-tool grinder. The latter was deemed essential enough by the United States government for him to avoid having to serve as a combatant in World War II. Then, as Jonathan Rosen writes in his profile of Roth: “Moving to Providence and then Boston, he worked in places with names like the Federal Products Company that capture perfectly the anonymity into which he was fading.” Finished with the cities, Roth and his wife moved to rural Maine and worked as a hospital attendant and then a water fowl farmer. In that time, Roth still wrote, submitting a handful of short pieces to the New Yorker and Commentary.
In 1964, thirty years after it was originally published, Call It Sleep surged up the bestseller charts. Roth became a literary celebrity, but he was nowhere to be found in the city he wrote so eloquently about. Reporters scratched their collective heads, looked around America, and found that reserved water fowl farmer “scraping a living in Maine, gloomily slaughtering ducks and geese with equipment he’d made out of parts scavenged from discarded washing-machines.”
The book became famous when Avon published it in paperback. It was assigned a front-page review in the Sunday New York Times Book Review by Irving Howe. He called it “a splendid book, one of the few genuinely distinguished novels written by a 20th‐century American.”
“Call It Sleep” is one of those novels — there are not very many — which patiently enter and then wholly exhaust an experience. Taking fierce imaginative possession of its subject, the novel scrutinizes it with an almost unnerving intensity, yet also manages to preserve a sense of distance and dispassion … The writing in “Call It Sleep” is consistently strong. When speaking in his own right, as disciplined narrator, Roth provides a series of powerful urban vignettes: slum kids fishing for pennies though the grate of a cellar, the ghastly little candy store in which David’s Aunt Bertha, a red-haired gargoyle, bitterly trades with urchins, the freedom of tenement roofs on which David learns to climb .
The review is not quite Howe’s strongest piece of writing; it’s often disjointed and quotes too extensively from the novel for the space it was given. But Howe identified the unique aspects of Roth’s novel that makes it so compelling: its frame of reference, resistance to polemical interpretation, thoroughly realized world, engagement with Ulysses, complicated psychology, and beautiful writing. By Roth’s death in 1995, Call It Sleep sold a million copies.
Call It Sleep opens with David’s father, Albert, fighting with his wife, Genya. He does so for the rest of the story. As in the 1975 film Hester Street, the newly emigrated father doesn’t care much for his family, and tries to remain distant. It’s a somewhat representative situation of the Jewish community in New York at the time, where many fathers left or ignored their families.
Roth’s genius is that Call It Sleep is from David’s perspective. In that way, the reader can burrow into the psychology of how an angry and remote father effects such families, rather than simply knowing the sociological fact of remote fathers. As a six-year-old, David is smart enough to understand how his father feels about him and his mother, and roughly why, but does not necessarily have the experience and perspective necessary to know the larger historical context. Some of that is filled in with David’s conversation with Genya, and other things he observes about the world.
Albert’s brutality is presented in psychological terms, and harsh ones. Though he hovers about David like a violent specter, it isn’t until about fifteen percent through the novel where we first witness his spitefulness. David accidentally bloodies another child’s nose, and Albert goes into a rage:
Answer me, his words rang out. Answer me, but they meant, Despair! Who could answer his father? In that dread summons the judgment was already sealed. Like a cornered thing, he shrank within himself, deadened his mind because the body would not deaden and waited. Nothing existed any longer except his father’s right hand — the hand that hung down into the electric circle of his vision. Terrific clarity was given him. Terrific leisure. Transfixed, timeless, he studied the curling fingers that twitched spasmodically, studied the printer’s ink ingrained upon the finger tips, pondered, as if all there were in the world, the nail of the smallest finger, nipped by a press, that climbed in a jagged little stair to the hangnail. Terrific absorption.
The episode is terrifying, and highlights the atmosphere Albert’s presence created in the house. More importantly, the passage demonstrates how Albert isn’t just a ghost lurking in the background; he is immediate and violent and always on the edge of going off. But Albert is at least not a drunkard.
“Albert,” said his wife reddening, “you are a man without a heart.”
“I?” His father drew back, his nostrils curving out in anger. “A plague on you both — I have no heart? And have you any understanding, any knowledge of how to bring up a child?” He thrust his jaw forward.
A moment of silence followed and then “I’m sorry,” she said, “I didn’t mean it. I meant only — these things happen sometimes — I’m sorry!”
“Oh, you’re sorry,” he said bitterly. “I have no heart! Woe me, to labor as I labor, for food for the two of you and for a roof over your heads. To labor and to work overtime! In vain! I have no heart! As if I gorged myself upon my earnings, as if I drank them, wallowed in the streets. Have you ever gone without anything? Tell me!”
Though Call It Sleep shares obvious affinities with James Joyce and Ulysses, Roth’s admitted relationship with Joyce’s book was fraught. On one hand, it’s an obvious influence, and numerous critics cite parallels between the books. And yet, Roth wishes he had avoided him. In a Bloomsday conference in 1981, Roth railed against Joyce, attempting to throw off the yoke of his shadow and influence on his writing. Kirsch said that in Mercy of a Rude Stream, Roth’s later book series, Roth partly blames Joyce for being unable to write it for sixty years: “By following the virtuosic example of the master of ‘silence, exile, and cunning,’ Roth came to feel, he estranged himself from his own surroundings and subject matter.” Roth blames Joyce’s towering influence for his inability to escape himself: Joyce was a master of the bildungsroman, the genre Roth wrote in. When Roth wrote his, it was intensely self-reflective yet lyrical. And with one book, be believed he had exhausted all he had to say and could not find anything else to write about.
The Jewish religion as represented in Call It Sleep is one of action, but not belief. In a remarkable passage while Genya prepares to light candles, she and her son discuss the afterlife.
“But — ” David interrupted, horrified and bewildered. “But when do they wake up, mama?”
She opened her two palms in a gesture of emptiness. “There is nothing left to waken.”
“But sometime, mama,” he urged.
She shook her head.
“Not here, if anywhere. They say there is a heaven and in heaven they waken. But I myself do not believe it. May God forgive me for telling you this. But it’s all I know. I know only that they are buried in the dark earth and their names last a few more lifetimes on their gravestones.”
Perhaps that’s the reason the book doesn’t treat Judaism — or at least Hebrew — as sacred. At one point in the novel, David wipes himself in the bathroom with a Hebrew-language newspaper — right after he was learning Talmud. Roth and his characters don’t see themselves as part of a religious tradition, they see themselves as part of an intellectual and cultural tradition, though not consciously. There’s no love for religion in Roth’s writing.
In another episode, David becomes sexually scarred. Annie, a neighbor’s slightly-older daughter, tries to have a sort of sexual exchange with him. It would be funny if it wasn’t so disturbing.
“Yuh know w’ea babies comm from?”
“From de knish.”
“Between de legs. Who puts id in is de poppa. De poppa’s god de petzel. Yaw de poppa.” She giggled stealthily and took his hand. He could feel her guiding it under her dress, then through a pocket-like flap. Her skin under his palm. Revolted, he drew back.
“Yuh must!” she insisted, tugging his hand. “Yuh ast me!”
“Put yuh han’ in my knish,” she coaxed. “Jus’ once.”
“I’ll hol’ yuh petzel.” She reached down.
The whole thing inspires a feeling of guilt that haunts his dreams, and preludes another disturbing episode later in the book.
It’s unlikely that Roth’s notion of his incestuous relationship with his sister is hidden in the writing about David’s mother. That is to say, Roth likely did not create a sort of emotionally composite character out of his sister and his mother. In Call It Sleep, David’s relationship with his mother is written about in uncommonly warm and glowing terms, true. Consider this passage:
Without knowing why, her last words stirred him. What he had failed to grasp as thought, her last gesture, the last supple huskiness of her voice conveyed. Was it in his heart this dreamlike fugitive sadness dwelled, or did it steep the feathery air of the kitchen? He could not tell. But if only the air were always this way, and he always here alone with his mother. He was near her now. He was part of her. The rain outside the window set continual seals upon their isolation, upon their intimacy, their identity. When she lifted the stove lid, the rosy glow that stained her wide brow warmed his own body as well. He was near her. He was part of her. Oh, it was good being here. He watched her every movement hungrily.
The writing is erotic, and David is no-doubt in love with his mother. But it’s still a son-mother type of bond. Throughout the novel, the two are under the constant threat of assault by David’s father. Because of that, they become closer than sons and mothers often do. And many passages of description throughout Call It Sleep are written in heightened, poetic language like that passage. The sheer sincerity of the emotional outpouring in every sentence would be considered unstylish if it were released today. It’s a little quaint, like other novels of its time and type. Its style and tone isn’t too different from Look Homeward, Angel by Thomas Wolfe, published five years earlier.
Roth’s life as a communist colors his career during the writing of Call It Sleep, and afterwards. Though most initial reviews of the novel were warm, it wasn’t so well-received among those in the communist movement. In Redemption, Kellman writes that Roth was struck by the criticism in The New Masses, a communist publication, which essentially believed that the novel should have been grittier and more boring. “It is a pity,” the reviewer wrote, “that so many young writers drawn from the proletariat can make no better use of their working-class experience.” The New Masses, in fact, gave an award for “a novel on an American Proletarian theme” to Clara Weatherwax for a novel called Marching! Marching!, which Leslie Fielder called “a desolately enthusiastic tract disguised as fiction,” the sort of thing The New Masses wanted Call It Sleep to be.
Instead of leaving the movement, Roth was propelled by the criticism, and started writing another book which he probably never finished and of which little is known. But Roth remained in the party until 1967, during the Six-Day war in Israel. Roth may have not been an observant Jew, but he was still a supporter of Israel. The Communist Party, however, deployed intense antizionist rhetoric. The Soviet Union, which Roth had admired, supported the Arab states. Roth was aghast. He renounced the party, and became a more vocal supporter of Israel. In A Star Shines Over Mt. Morris Park, a later novel, his autobiographical main character daydreams about moving to a kibbutz where “I would know chiefly hard work, rigor, danger, but also kinship, precious kinship, dignity.” He also started studying Hebrew.
After 1964, when Call It Sleep was republished and found popular in a new generation of readers, Henry Roth didn’t start writing again. It wasn’t until he broke with the Communist party in 1967 and started learning Hebrew that he considered his writer’s block to be broken. But even then, he didn’t start writing again until 1979. What he did write became Mercy of a Rude Stream, a 1,300-page quartet of novels starting with A Star Shines Over Mt. Morris Park in 1994 and completed, posthumously, with Requiem for Harlem published in 1998. He was determined to complete the massive undertaking despite his advanced age. “His hands were warped by rheumatoid arthritis; the very touch of his computer keyboard was excruciating. But he still put in five hours a day, helped by Percocet, beer, a ferocious will, and the ministrations of several young assistants. Roth would not die like a pomegranate, with all his seeds inside.” Roth has been called the Jewish Ralph Ellison, but unlike Ellison, he managed to at least see a second novel published before he died.
When Roth died on October 14th, 1995, it was a turbulent time in his life that for had so long been quiet. A Diving Rock on the Hudson, the novel that revealed his shame about his incestuous relationship with his sister, was published just months earlier. He and his publisher, St. Martin’s Press, were in a legal tangle with his sister at the time about the novel’s publication. His death somehow warranted two obituaries in the New York Times, published on succeeding days.
But what took so long for him to write Mercy of a Rude Stream? There are two prevailing theories, both advanced in The New York Review of Books. The first is that Roth had writer’s block because of his shame about his incestuous relationship with his sister. But according to Daniel Mendelsohn, after Call It Sleep, Roth ran out of things to say. “If you want to know why Roth stopped writing, you must look at the work, and at the life,” he writes. Mendelsohn, who doesn’t think much of Mercy as a work of literature, points out that the subject of Call It Sleep is eight years old, and Mercy nineteen. “I suspect that the real cause of Roth’s inability to write persuasively after Call It Sleep, with its masterly rendering of a child’s worldview, was an old, undramatic one: once he’d exhausted the subject of childhood, the only one that was, to him, psychologically as well as artistically urgent, Roth had nothing to write about.” A polemical attachment to communism, perhaps, had removed Roth’s creative flow. Perhaps trying to create art that pleased the ideologies of the editors of The New Masses was something that crushed Roth’s ability to see the world in original ways, as every artist should.
Nathaniel Rich, though, believes the evidence for the incest theory can be found in Mercy itself. He finds that the first book in the series is indeed dull and overwritten, as many other critics have noted, but Rich observes that “it feels as if Roth is stalling for time” and finds, later, that he indeed was.
Mercy is punctuated by interruptions where an older Ira Stigman is sitting by his computer and writing — or rather struggling to write — Mercy. The significance of those interruptions, according to Rich, are that they indicate “that the novel’s central drama lies not in the misadventures of young Ira, but in old Ira’s effort to turn his life into literature.” But Rich rejects that struggle as an explanation for writer’s block. He thinks it’s Roth recognizing that his writing is bad, but not quite explaining why.
Then Rich finds that, 122 pages into Diving Rock on the Hudson, the second volume of the series, an unexpected character enters the story.
shortly after a summation of his junior year report card (“A, A, A, every quiz, every test”), with Ira lying in his bed on a Sunday morning while his mother goes shopping, we encounter two nonsensical words of dialogue: “Minnie. Okay?”
There has not been any previous mention of a Minnie, so why a woman named Minnie should be inside the Stigmans’ small apartment is baffling. Not as baffling, however, as what follows:
She said all kinds of dirty words at first; where did she learn them? After he showed her how different it was, “Fuck me, fuck me good!” He wished she wouldn’t, though he liked it.
Minnie is Ira’s little sister, and the books reveal, over its course, that they’ve been in a relationship for four years, since she was ten. “It is one of the most deranged moments in American fiction,” Rich writes. “It also turns everything that’s come before it into a lie — including, if we are to read it as a work of memoir, Call It Sleep.” Later in Mercy, old Ira says that he evaded the subject in an earlier novel. The overwriting in Mercy then becomes clear: according to Rich, Roth is overcompensating for the elision he made in Call It Sleep. He wants to put everything about his childhood on the table, laid bare for everyone to see.
Rich writes that after the disclosure, “it is as if the novel begins anew.” The prose becomes livelier, and the story gains momentum and suspense. Roth is liberated by the revelation. Mercy is the work of a man repressed for six decades, and exhilarated to be free. The key difference between Rich’s and Mendelsohn’s understanding of Roth’s life through his work, though, is that Mendelsohn considers Mercy a failure, while Rich sees it as an astonishing triumph. Whichever the explanation, Roth’s life and work are, as always, intertwined.