Writer's block found its most magnificent ally in Henry Roth, but what he managed to write was and is important, and will last. Not one for half-measures, Roth published his first and most famous novel, Call It Sleep, in 1934, then waited for 60 years to publish a novel again. Another followed one year later, a third will appear in the spring; in all, six volumes are due, representing the most extraordinary late flowering of a writer thought for more than half a century to be a one-book wonder.
Call It Sleep, now considered a classic, was only respectfully received when it first appeared. Its account of the vicissitudes of immigrant life as seen through the eyes of David Schearl, a young Jewish boy in a distinctly non-Welfare-Age America, found less favour than the social fantasies of New Yorker writers such as John O'Hara. In hard times readers are apt to be most interested in tales of easier ones.
Like James T. Farrell's Studs Lonigan trilogy, Roth's novel was unabashed in its treatment of the gamier, sexual side of immigrant life, yet unlike Farrell Roth was consciously modernist, in no sense a social realist. His earthy subject-matter was paired improbably with a prose style deeply influenced by Joyce and the poet Hart Crane. Interestingly, despite his own left-wing politics, Roth found his strongest detractors among contemporary Communists, who were unhappy with the poetic apolitical treatment accorded the slums of his story.
The tension between his leftist politics and aesthetics doubtless contributed to Roth's difficulties (to use a euphemism) in completing a second novel. Perhaps apocryphally, it is said that the famed editor Maxwell Perkins's dislike for Roth's early stabs at novel number two was also a key factor in his "block". In any case, nothing further appeared, and Call It Sleep itself sank into critical oblivion. In these dry years, Roth worked in a series of uninspiring jobs - as a night-school teacher, a "precision metal grinding machine" operator, a mental-hospital attendant in Maine, and a waterfowl farmer. Happily married to the composer Muriel Parker, Roth was seemingly content never to write again.
It was the rediscovery of Call It Sleep that proved the initial catalyst. Described in the 1950s by both Alfred Kazin and Leslie Fiedler as a neglected masterpiece, it was reissued in paperback in 1964 and received a front- page review by Irving Howe in the New York Times Book Review. …