Henry Roth Essay - Roth, Henry (Vol. 2)

Roth, Henry (Vol. 2)

Roth, Henry 1906–

Roth, born in Austria-Hungary, now lives in the United States. His only novel, Call It Sleep, was resurrected in 1964 after remaining underground for thirty years. The story of the ghetto life of a Jewish boy, Call It Sleep has a unique literary history. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)

[The] outstanding … and, in the opinion of the present writer, the most distinguished single proletarian novel is Henry Roth's Call It Sleep. Far more complex in conception, far firmer in execution, than any usual first novel, Call It Sleep is a full record of approximately two years (from the age of six to eight, from 1911 to 1913) in the childhood of a Jewish immigrant child in Brownsville and the Lower East Side of New York….

Though the presence of an actual plot in Call It Sleep may seem contrived to some, the real force of the author is revealed in the intricate strength of his symbolic pattern…. Roth's view of [Ghetto] life has the dizzying intensity of the mystic who sees all things at once, even the most minute, in utter clarity.

Walter B. Rideout, in his The Radical Novel in the United States 1900–1954: Some Interrelations of Literature and Society (© 1956 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College; reprinted with permission of Harvard University Press), Harvard University Press, 1956.

Roth plunges us into a child's mind more directly and more intransigently than any other novelist has done. We share the child's instantaneous apprehension of his world. Compared with Roth's rendering of this, the chapters on the early childhood of Stephen in Portrait of the Artist are easily translatable, almost conventionalized shorthand notations of the working of a child's mind. And the child David is a most unusual child. Timid, sensitive, intelligent, above everything else he is imaginative. He re-creates, transmutes, the world he lives in not into any simple fantasy of make-believe … but with the desperate, compulsive imagination of a poet….

Roth's artistry is seen at its clearest in his handling of speech. He renders with horrible fidelity the degraded mutilations of English as spoken by the children of European immigrants…. But when the characters are speaking in Yiddish, Roth puts into their mouths a remarkably pure English. It is as though a kaleidoscope has suddenly been shaken, and we see the characters in quite a new light, with, as it were, a double vision. We are made sharply aware, as in no other novel I know except possibly Willa Cather's My Antonia, of the degradation, the diminution in human dignity, that was the immigrant's lot as he transplanted himself from a society with a traditional culture to one with no culture at all.

Walter Allen, in his The Modern Novel: In Britain and the United States (copyright © 1964 by Walter Allen; published by E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc. in a paperback edition and used with their permission), Dutton, 1964, pp. 173-75.

Call It Sleep … is a novel about redemption which develops through and around four major symbols. The novel describes a boy's journey toward mystical revelation…. The symbols enable the reader to enter David's consciousness, to participate in his movement from profoundest fear and revulsion in "The Cellar," to the final, sublime reconciliation in "The Rail,"… [The] novel's structure of symbols has been largely neglected by the critics. Since the symbols form the basis of the theme of redemption, the theme too has often been misunderstood or ignored. In praise of the novel, various critics have labeled Call It Sleep a great "proletarian," "immigrant," "childhood," or "Jewish" novel. But the book has a larger and more universal theme than any of these terms suggest. The greatness of Call It Sleep transcends its milieu, and the fact that the novel focuses on the activities of an immigrant Jewish family in New York in 1914 is incidental to its theme: the search for redemption, or mystical understanding. This universal theme is conveyed through the four major symbols of cellar, picture, coal, and rail, whose meanings and interrelationship form the basis of Roth's extraordinary vision.

Bonnie Lyons, "The Symbolic Structure of Call It Sleep," in Contemporary Literature (© 1972 by the Regents of the University of Wisconsin), Vol. 13, No. 2, Spring, 1972, pp. 186-203.