For much of the twentieth century, Henry Roth, the novelist who vanished for sixty years after a stunning debut, seemed a gloss on writer F. Scott Fitzgerald’s quip that American lives lack second acts. Yet his long life offers enough acts to please the most garrulous of playwrights and challenge the most assiduous of biographers. He is at once salutatorian and valedictorian of twentieth century America, a contemporary of both William Faulkner and Don DeLillo. His pioneering use of stream of consciousness captured a newly urbanized, industrialized society undergoing massive transformation, but Roth survived into a very different era to write his own requiem.
In retrospect, Call It Sleep seems so unequivocally a major artistic achievement that it is difficult to understand why it was neglected for thirty years. However, in 1934, American culture lacked a category for American Jewish literature. By 1964, Roth fulfilled the need to anoint a worthy ancestor to Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, and Philip Roth, to legitimate a newly canonized tradition. It was only after ethnicity became a crucial issue in American society that Roth’s novel could be appreciated for its pioneering embodiment of multiculturalism and multilingualism.
Mercy of a Rude Stream is of a different order of accomplishment than Call It Sleep. The fictional sequence that Roth created in his final years is of compelling interest to those fascinated by...
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