Henry Roth's Secret

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HENRY ROTH'S SECRET Redemption: The Life of Henry Roth. By Steven G. Kellman. New York: Norton, 2005. Pp. 371. $25.95.

In 1958, New York City resident Harold U. Ribalow trekked to rural Maine to converse with Henry Roth, a literary curiosity whose only book to that date, the exceptional 1934 immigrant novel Call It Sleep, had been long out of print. Ribalow, an advocate for contemporary Jewish-American literature and culture, offered to help Roth get the novel republished; at the very least, Ribalow explained, Roth needed to renew his copyright on the book, which would soon slip into the public domain. Acting as Roth's unofficial representative, Ribalow successfully placed the novel first with Pageant Books in 1960 and then with Avon, a paperback imprint, in 1964. Ironically, the unprecedented popularity of the Avon edition necessitated Roth's hiring a professional agent. Relieved of his representational duties, Ribalow suggested that he might continue to serve the novelist, but as his biographer. Roth declined the offer. "That involves material I would rather not disclose-yet," Roth told him.

It took another three decades, Steven G. Kellman writes in Redemption: The Life of Henry Roth, before the novelist disclosed that upsetting material. In 1994, one year prior to his death at age eighty-nine, Roth resumed publishing book-length autobiographical fiction. Throughout the four-novel sequence Mercy of a Rude Stream, Roth tackled the question that had dogged him for sixty years: Why had he suffered a debilitating silence following the initial appearance of Call It Sleep? Prior to the 1990s, Kellman explains, Roth alternated between two standard answers, the first stemming from his Communist Party membership: "The seductive abstractions of socialist realism had lured him from the human basis of his art," the biographer recites. "And alienation from the Jewish community severed his ties with the muse," he continues, repeating Roth's second stock response. But throughout the bulky manuscript that Roth delivered to his editor at St. Martin's Press near the end of his life, Roth offered a very different and, Kellman argues, more compelling reason for his legendary writer's block: he was subject for decades to paralyzing guilt owing to a prolonged history of incest committed with his sister, beginning when she was ten years old and continuing into early adulthood, and with a thirteen-year-old cousin.

This guilt explains why numerous journalists who interviewed Roth at the height of his republished novel's popularity in 1965 encountered an oddly reluctant literary celebrity who seemed to resent and even fear exposure. It also sheds light on Roth's rebuffing of Ribalow and, later, novelist Leonard Michaels when each suggested writing a biography of the author. That duty has now fallen to Kellman, who manages to recount Roth's full litany of excuses and musings about silence while never neglecting Rose Broder (née Roth) and her central role in this painful drama. Kellman's main task is to determine the precise extent to which Roth reshaped his own experiences in his five autobiographical novels-which draw heavily on Roth's childhood, teenage years, and early twenties-and in "Batch 2," a 2,000-page unpublished manuscript that continues the narrative of Ira Stigman, Roth's debased alter ego in Mercy of a Rude Stream, from his time as an aspiring novelist in Greenwich Village through the mid-1940s when, as had Roth, he departs New York City to serve out a nonliterary life in rural New England. (As for "Batch 1," that became the four volumes of Mercy of a Rude Stream.)

Kellman is on safest ground when making general observations such as: the character Larry Gordon from Mercy of a Rude Stream is a slightly altered version of Roth's high-school friend Lester Winter, an assimilated Jew whose polish and worldliness put Roth to shame. Or: Larry's mature lover, Edith Welles, is a stand-in for New York University literature professor Eda Lou Walton, who later also became Roth's lover and literary mentor. …