Henry Roth's National and Personal Narratives of Captivity

By Folks, Jeffrey J. | Papers on Language & Literature, Summer 1999 | Go to article overview
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Henry Roth's National and Personal Narratives of Captivity


Folks, Jeffrey J., Papers on Language & Literature


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 .

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