Requiem for HENRY ROTH

By Kellman, Steven G. | USA TODAY, March 2000 | Go to article overview
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Requiem for HENRY ROTH

Kellman, Steven G., USA TODAY

What led the author to wait 60 years between publication of his first and second novels?

"YOU ARE NOT REQUIRED to finish," declares the Talmudic dictum that Henry JL Roth, wracked by rheumatoid arthritis as he tapped out every word, adapted as an epigraph even as he denied it. The authorization for insufficiency from Mishnah Abot 2:16 appears at the outset of Requiem for Harlem (1998), the final, posthumously published volume in Roth's fictional tetralogy, Mercy of a Rude Stream. Nevertheless, after suffering a legendary writer's block that lasted six decades, the octogenarian author became a veritable Niagara of narrative--3,200 manuscript pages that recount an anguished life much like his own.

Roth finished his career in 1995, at the age of 89, as dramatically as he began it. For much of this century, Roth seemed a gloss on F. Scott Fitzgerald's quip that American lives lack second acts. In fact, Roth's long life offers enough acts to please the most garrulous of playwrights and to challenge the most assiduous of biographers.

It is Roth who is at once salutatorian and valedictorian of modern America. Imagine D.W. Griffith, the inventor of American narrative cinema, abjuring his art shortly after "The Birth of a Nation" and then, on the verge of extinction, re-emerging to create four extraordinary films.

In his literary debut, Call It Sleep (1934), Roth created the first masterpiece of American Jewish fiction as well as prodigious expectations for continued achievement. His second novel, A Star Shines Over Mt. Morris Park, didn't appear until 60 years later. A Diving Rock on the Hudson, which continues the story of Ira Stigman, alter ego of both David Schearl, the young protagonist of Call It Sleep, and the author, followed in 1995. From Bondage, the third installment in the Mercy of a Rude Stream cycle, was published in 1996, eight months after Roth's death. Two additional Stigman novels that, in the judgment of Robert Weil, Roth's editor at St. Martin's Press, fall outside the Mercy cycle remain in manuscript.

The latest dark volume to see the light, Requiem for Harlem, recounts and reenacts the humiliation of Stigman, a senior at City College of New York who is so closely modeled after the young Henry Roth as to be the verbal voodoo doll for his tormented author. The novel begins in gluttony and dyspepsia, wallows in revulsion, and concludes with the prospect of redemption. Yet, its title suggests nostalgia for an anguished adolescence in the lowly uptown neighborhood on which the final pages close the book. The year is 1927, and 21-year-old Stigman resolves to leave the fouled family nest on 119th Street and move down to Greenwich Village, to live with Edith Welles, the 32-year-old New York University professor who serves as his literary mentor. Welles is a close facsimile of Eda Lou Walton, Roth's lover and muse when he wrote Call It Sleep.

For all his notorious procrastination, Roth was an artist of exitry. The prose lullaby that closes Call It Sleep is one of the most plangent finales in all of American literature: "It was only toward sleep one knew himself still lying on the cobbles, felt the cobbles under him, and over him and scudding ever toward him like a black foam, the perpetual blur of shod and running feet, the broken shoes, new shoes, stubby, pointed, caked, polished, buniony, pavement-beveled, lumpish, under skirts, under trousers, shoes, over one and through one, and feel them all and feel, not pain, not terror, but strangest triumph, strangest acquiescence. One might as well call it sleep. He shut his eyes."

Requiem for Harlem, too, concludes with the beginning of a dream. Like A Portrait of the Artist as Young Man, Roth's parting tetralogy ends with the start of a writing career. "Ira boarded the train, his cold fingers still aching, and strait was the route, and strait the rails--the IRT swerved, squealing on the tracks of the long curve westward as it repaired downtown and the hell out of Harlem.

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