Henry Roth, who died in 1995 at age 89, was the author of Call It Sleep (1934), Shifting Landscape (1987), and a multi-volume novel, Mercy of a Rude Stream, published between 1994 and 1998. Most of the significant questions concerning Roth's artistic career are suggested by what Roth himself called the "longest writer's block in history," and it is important to consider the reason for this blockage and the fact of Roth's recovery from it during the last two decades of his life. Roth's hiatus from writing-a remarkable period of silence for an enormously gifted writer who was widely praised for his first novel-should, I believe, be understood as symptomatic of a condition of subservience to an adopted national culture, a captivity from which Roth never freed himself as the conflicting ideals of pride in his immigrant history and drive toward assimilation left him no alternative but silence. The searing humiliation of Roth's childhood, beginning in the lower East Side slums, resulted in an habitual identification with privilege and hegemony, an identification that Roth questioned only in retrospect. Even then, in the revisionary settling of accounts of Mercy of a Rude Stream, Roth anxiously adopted new sources of authority, even as he freed himself of earlier captivity.
Both Roth's career, and the critical reception and promotion of his writing, must be positioned in relation to the control of hegemonic culture. The force of the national culture is everywhere evident in the critical reception of his work, from the ambivalence of contemporary reviewers of Call It Sleep (impressed by Roth's artistry but uncomfortable with his political tentativeness) through the novel's "rediscovery" after its reissue in 1964. Roth's work continued to attract critical attention notably in Alfred Kazin's influential New York Review of Books essay on Call It Sleep (1990). With the publication of the first volumes of Mercy of a Rude Stream, beginning in 1994, even greater interest in Roth's work emerged as evidenced by such influential essays as Irving Howe's New York Times Book Review front-page review. The critical perception of Henry Roth's work, however, has remained consistent since the 1930s and was itself, as Kazin points out, a critical production of the intellectual culture of the late-modernist period. As Kazin writes: "We can see now that [Call It Sleep] belongs to the side of the 1930s that still believed in the sacredness of literature, whether or not it presumed to change the world" (x). This interpretation, in which Roth is figured as a heroic sufferer in the cause of revolutionary art, continued to be echoed, even in more poststructuralist criticism, such as an article on Roth's textuality by Wayne Lesser.1 A third generation of critics, including Thomas J. Ferraro and Hannah-Wirth Nesher, has positioned Roth in relation to new interests in immigrant and multiethnic literary studies. All of these readings, however, obscure the destructive force of hegemony as represented not by Roth but in Roth's career. By enshrining Roth as a modernist, or poststructuralist, or postcolonial martyr, a Promethean figure by virtue of his ambitious first novel and subsequent silencing, the critical figuration of Roth's fiction has never confronted the destructive force of hegemonic culture in his case, and thus has failed to comprehend its actual significance as a record of hegemonic power.
Perhaps the greatest injustice of the critical reception of Roth's works has been the inability of criticism to recognize the conflict of subaltern and hegemonic culture in Roth's writing as represented primarily by the conflict of Jewish immigrant and middle-class American culture. However ingenious, Wayne Lesser's response to this conflict-the central thematic and emotional tension of Roth's work-finally results in the undermining of its significance, since, as Lesser admits, in this reading David's search for meaning within "the religious, familial, and social systems most commonly assumed to possess such universal value . . . leads nowhere" (164). All critical readings from within an ideology which represents the artist or intellectual in elitist terms as heroic, martyred, or powerful-which is to say, almost all readings of Roth's work following the initial reviews by Marxist critics-share Lesser's inability to find meaning in the conflict of immigrant and assimilated culture. Lesser is, of course, correct in pointing out that David is represented as "wish[ing] to establish meanings by discovering the semantic relations among the various signs of the world," but this is very far from proving the conclusion that David's "failed attempts" to discover a coherent system of signs "ultimately reveal[s] the mistake of assuming that the systems of the social world have an essential meaning and, thereby, possess any special moral authority" (165). Lesser is entirely correct in stating that David's "desire to create a personal-cultural identity and its end in failure" are "the text's organizing theme" (167), but in a move that is typical of liberal theory, he obscures the fact that there is a historical agency behind the failure, and that David's confusion, mirrored, as Lesser notes, by the "mass confusion of all in Chapter XIX" (164), results from the agency implicit in his rejection of the authority of his family's cultural tradition.
Foremost among his offenses is David's too eager dismissal of his inherited culture, a dismissal that has devastating aesthetic as well as human consequences. Chapter VII, Book III ("The Coal") begins ironically enough on "the morning of the first Passover night," a holiday when "one was lucky in being a Jew" (242),2 yet by the end of the following chapter, David, having wandered aimlessly to the wharf on the East River and met a hostile trio of Irish youths, has denied that he is a Jew. At the end of this sequence David is forced to drop a "sheet-zinc sword" onto the electrified center rail of the street car line, thus setting off an explosion of power and "light, unleashed, terrific light" (253), an electrical discharge that the eight-year-old David connects with the description of Isaiah in a passage in which an angel touches Isaiah's lips "with a fiery coal that the prophet might speak in the presence of God" (Rideout 186). The fact that David should have been overwhelmed by a reading of Isaiah is understandable, as in Second Isaiah there appears a prophecy of redemption, the redemption of both the Jewish people from captivity and of each soul from the private captivity of sin. Roth implies, however, that David has not applied this prophecy to his people's captivity in poverty and cultural isolation nor to his own indiscretions, but only to his own ambitious image of selfhood-a "victory" over, and not of, his circumstances. David's attachment to the Polish-American boy, Leo Dugovka, is another instance of …