Henry Roth, born in Austria-Hungary in 1906, wrote his first novel in the early 1930’s. Published in 1934 and rediscovered in 1964, Call It Sleep vividly evokes the childhood traumas of a sensitive Jewish immigrant boy in the hostile—and sometimes gentle—New York ghetto. Though not strictly autobiographical, the novel derives much from Roth’s own boyhood in turbulent New York City, as do most of his short pieces published in The New Yorker.
Roth began writing at City College, where he majored in English and graduated in 1928. His chief mentor was Eda Lou Walton of New York University, whose encouragement and support enabled him to devote almost four years to completing Call It Sleep. Published in 1934, the novel drew reviewers’ praise but made little impact on the public or on most literary scholars. Its subject and style reminded critics of the works of James T. Farrell, James Joyce, and Theodore Dreiser. Psychologically truthful and unified by skillfully handled themes and motifs, the book demonstrated Roth’s considerable skill in the art of fiction.
Between the late 1930’s and the mid-1960’s, Roth largely abandoned writing for a variety of other occupations: high school teacher in the Bronx, precision metal grinder, teacher in a one-room school in Maine, orderly and supervisor in a mental hospital, breeder of ducks and geese, tutor in Latin and mathematics.
In 1964 Call It...
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