Living on Writer's Block: Henry Roth and American Literature

Article excerpt

Three mysteries surround Henry Roth (1906-95), the Rip Van Winkle of American authors: 1) Why was Call It Sleep ignored in 1934 but acclaimed in 1964? 2) Why did Roth renounce literary life after Call It Sleep? 3) What compelled Roth, in his eighties and dying, to summon the fortitude to create the tetralogy Mercy of a Rude Stream? The Depression was an inauspicious time for an immigrant novice's novel about life among the lowly, whereas it found a receptive public in 1964, when ethnicity was fashionable and American Jews were eager to affirm a tradition. Roth's 60-year writer's block can be explained by the false lure of Marxism as well as Roth's alienation from his Jewish roots. The most cogent explanation is that only approaching death could this autobiographical author confront his adolescent incest. His final torrent of creativity was self-abasement and cathartic redemption.

Henry Roth, who was born in Galicia in 1906 and died in Albuquerque in 1995, was the Rip Van Winkle of American authors. F. Scott Fitzgerald quipped that American lives lack second acts, but when Roth reawakened in his late eighties, his second act was spectacular; despite rheumatoid arthritis so severe that merely lifting a pencil meant agony, he managed to tap out on his word processor 5,000 manuscript pages that would serve as his posthumous adieu. Much of it would be published after his death in a four-volume sequence called Mercy of a Rude Stream. "Hello, I must be going," sings Groucho Marx in Animal Crackers. But it is Roth who is at once salutatorian and valedictorian of twentieth-century America. Imagine D. W. Griffith, the inventor of narrative cinema, abjuring his rough magic shortly after Birth of a Nation and, then, much later, on the verge of ninety and extinction, reemerging to create four extraordinary films to send out the century. Roth is a cohort of Don DeLiIIo and Thomas Pynchon as well as James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, of Art Spiegelman and Allegra Goodman as well as Abraham Cahan and Anzia Yezierska.

Roth's first novel, Call It Sleep, is now read, studied, and revered as a classic of immigration fiction, a brilliant attempt to adapt Joycean techniques and Freudian insights to American experience, the finest of the proletarian novels of the 1930s, and the first major work of American Jewish literature. But it languished in obscurity for thirty years. With a few exceptions, the novel was enthusiastically reviewed when it first appeared, in 1934. Writing in the New York Herald Tribune, Fred T. Marsh, for example, said of Call It Skep,"l believe it to be the most compelling and moving, the most accurate and profound study of an American slum childhood that has yet appeared in this day when, be it said to the credit of our contemporary critics, economic color-lines are no longer drawn in our literature."1 In The Nation, poet Horace Gregory hailed Call It Sleep as a "first novel of extraordinary character" and "an experience which few readers of contemporary fiction can afford to ignore."2 However, the Depression was not an opportune moment to market a book about Jewish slum children, and readers stayed away in droves. Roth's publisher soon went bankrupt, and most of the 2,000 copies of the original edition (which now fetch about $10,000 each) simply disappeared.

Discouraged by the indifference to his ambitious first book, Roth himself eventually disappeared, abandoning New York for a primitive farmhouse in Maine, where he eked out a living raising and slaughtering ducks and geese. At various times, he also chopped wood, sold maple syrup, fought forest fires, tutored Latin and math, and served as an attendant at a psychiatric hospital, but he did not write the second novel that he seemed to poised to produce after the publication of Call It Sleep. And as far as the literary world was concerned. Henry Roth and his remarkable only novel had ceased to exist.

However, in 1964, thirty years after its first appearance, Call It Sleep was republished as an Avon paperback. …