The Reappearance of Henry Roth So Who Is He? a Giant, Say the Serious Literati

By Larry Swindell 1994, Fort Worth Star-Telegram | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), January 23, 1994 | Go to article overview

The Reappearance of Henry Roth So Who Is He? a Giant, Say the Serious Literati


Larry Swindell 1994, Fort Worth Star-Telegram, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


A PUBLISHING event of the new year provokes extraordinary curiosity. After a silence spanning all of 60 years, the enigmatic Henry Roth is a resurgent author launching an immensely ambitious project.

"Mercy of a Rude Stream" (St. Martin's Press, $23) is the collective title for a six-novel cycle paraphrasing the author's own life. As with Marcel Proust's seven-tiered "Remembrance of Things Past," each of Roth's novels is a separate entity bearing its own title but linked chronologically. The publisher has just issued the first volume, "A Star Shines Over Mt. Morris Park." Roth has completed the entire series, and the second work is expected later this year.

You may be wondering, why all the fuss? And who is Henry Roth, anyway? He is no household name and his fame is distinctly intramural; but serious-minded literati etch him as a giant, entirely on the basis of one novel written in his youth and substantially "lost" for many years, but lately anointed as a classic.

"Call It Sleep" is the novel redeemed. A story goes with it.

In 1906, Henry Roth was born into a poor Jewish family in the old Austro-Hungarian empire. He was only 3 when the family migrated to America, settling in a ghetto on New York's Lower East Side after the obligatory internment on Ellis Island.

Young Henry's life was one sustained nightmare ,or at least that conclusion is drawn from "Call It Sleep," which records six years in the life of a Jewish immigrant boy named David Schearl. It is an unrelenting chronicle of the boy's fear - of his father, ineffectual but paranoid and sadistic; of a strange and elusive English language; of mean older boys ruling the dark streets. …

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