Roth, Henry (Vol. 11)
Roth, Henry 1906–
Roth, an American novelist and short story writer, is known primarily for his only novel, Call It Sleep. The book is generally considered a modern American classic, though it was widely ignored when it first appeared in 1934. A naturalistic novel about the early life of a young immigrant Jew, it is one of the most intensely realized visions of a child's view of a fearsome world ever written. Roth has virtually abandoned writing since Call It Sleep, producing only a handful of stories for magazines. (See also CLC, Vols. 2, 6, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 11-12; Contemporary Authors Permanent Series, Vol. 1.)
The 'thirties, in America even more than in England, was the period of socially conscious fiction and of much theorizing about what was called the proletarian novel. Inevitably, Call It Sleep was seen as an attempt at a proletarian novel; or it was judged that it would have been a better book if it had been a proletarian novel…. (p. 443)
Call It Sleep must be the most powerful evocation of the terrors of childhood ever written. Lost, bewildered, friendless, the small boy David scuttles through the streets of the Lower East Side like a frightened little animal lost in a jungle inhabited by the larger carnivores. We are spared nothing of the crudeness of cosmopolitan slum life and living…. And all the terrors the boy experiences in the streets of New York are brought together, symbolized, in his fear of the tenement houses in which he lives, the dark, rat-infested cellars with their overwhelming suggestion of mindless and brutal animality, the sweating stairways to be tremblingly climbed to the topmost apartment, which means warmth and security because his mother is there, and, finally, the roof above, the escape to which is freedom.
Yet though the squalor and filth, the hopelessness and helplessness of slum-life are remorselessly presented and the cacophony never ceases—this must be the noisiest novel ever written—Call It Sleep does not strike one as primarily a novel of social protest, an exposure novel, like Farrell's Studs Lonigan, to which many reviewers of the first edition compared it…. Indeed, there is a sense in which the Schearls are in the slums but not of...
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Call It Sleep is the kind of book one feels a bit reluctant to write about, at least to "criticize," in the icy sense of that term. To criticize, to analyze, is in a sense to freeze, and Henry Roth's great and only novel becomes too much a part of one's immediate and intimate experience for that. It is, of course, the very personal quality of the book that assured its consignment to obscurity during the golden age of the proletarian novel. Though Call It Sleep may be such a work in the sense that it deals with a working-class Jewish immigrant family in Brownsville (and the Lower East Side of New York) shortly after the turn of the century, it is a book about very particular and very painfully real people with very particular and real problems, fears and guilts. (p. 107)
This may mean that the novel offers us no patentable answer to the sufferings of David and his parents, but it does bring us into contact with them as identifiable human beings and establishes an intimacy that I, for one, have too rarely enjoyed in the reading of fiction, (pp. 107-08)
Autobiographical though the book may be, it is first of all the product of a highly gifted, creative, literary imagination, and the fact that it was the only sustained achievement of what surely must have seemed an inexhaustible literary mind is every reader's loss…. Perhaps one of the reasons for its premature exhaustion was its overexertion in this one great work, for in Call It Sleep Roth has produced a literary tour de force. He has framed with rare success a story of profound social and psychological realism in a mythopoeic outline of symbolic death, redemption and rebirth and rendered both through a subtly complex and symbolic system of light and dark imagery. (pp. 109-10)
Roth's novel takes us through an agonizing two-year period in the life of young David Schearl—from his sixth to his eighth years—and relives for us the world of his daily experience, a world beset by unsubsiding fears and recurrent attacks of guilt. David has a compelling need to belong, yet he is withdrawn into the frightened confines of his own painfully vivid imagination. He is alienated from his peers; rejected by his father; and petrified by the normal sexual experiences of childhood, his father's seething violence, the prospect of retribution for his guilt (both real and imagined), the largeness and chaos...
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[There has] been nearly unanimous agreement among critics that the … closing episodes [of Call It Sleep] witness a radical transfiguration of David Schearl. Whether the terms of the [protagonist's] conflict are defined as political, psychological, or religious, all of Roth's interpreters argue that Call It Sleep traces a movement from terror and alienation to tranquility and reconciliation. (p. 569)
The terms recur again and again [in the interpretations]: redemption, reconciliation, salvation, vision, transcendence…. [I would like to suggest that] David's moments of illumination are essentially bogus—images of betrayal rather than of salvation. And the tranquility which he wins from terror is something far more marginal, tentative, and equivocal than has generally been recognized. Dazzled by Roth's verbal fireworks, much as David is dazed by the light from the car tracks, most critics have failed to understand David's actual domestic predicament and the defined dramatic action of the novel's ending. It is, after all, "only toward sleep" that David can extract coherence from the chaotic nightmare of his waking world; it is only in the numbed withdrawal, the fuzzy half-consciousness of sleep that terror is held at bay. The question nags; if the critics call it redemption, why does Roth call it sleep?
The world of Roth's novel is curiously insular. The Schearls are immigrant Jews and the people among whom they live are immigrant Jews. Their alienation is so extreme that they have no clear conception of the forbidden and forbidding world from which they are alienated. The society that surrounds them is hostile—that much they understand—and David's few thrusts into alien territory result in experiences of confusion and pain. Inhabitants of a kind of cultural island, Roth's Jews have their own religion, their own teachers, their own tenements, their own language—all of which isolate them from the world which encircles but rarely touches them. They are walled-in and American life is walled-out. (p. 570)
This quality of cultural introversion is one of the remarkable aspects of Call It Sleep. From an urban Jew writing in the thirties one might reasonably expect a bitter examination of the failures of American life, a harsh judgment upon the seductive land which had promised so much and delivered so little. Some such judgment is surely implicit in the bleak ghetto landscape against which the action is set…. But the indictment of American life is never more than implicit. Roth's social judgments are hidden because, in a very real sense, the society that he is judging is hidden—concealed largely beyond the view of David Schearl, through whose consciousness the world of the novel is created. The central focus of Call It Sleep is not upon the "Golden Land"; nor is it upon that social frontier where the alien and impotent encounter the entrenched and powerful, where the drama of failure is acted out. The novel is concerned instead with the radically estranged, and with the permanently separate world in which they live. (p. 571)
[The] domestic world to which David flees is as terrible and menacing as the world outside, and a novel that begins with a child's persistent need to find in his home a refuge from the streets, ends with his desperate flight to the streets from the terrors of home. (pp. 571-72)
Threatened by the world outside and the world within, David is paralyzed. Fear and guilt are the major components of his experience…. David is terrorized by his father, who seems to him an omnipotent and inexplicably malign God: "Who could answer his father? In that dread summons the judgement was already sealed."… Albert Schearl (unlike Kafka's confident and successful father) is a man profoundly alienated from family and society, driven by guilt and suspicion, who projects his own sin onto his son. Posed against the menacing father, and completing the Oedipal triangle, is the soft, yeilding, protective Genya: "The comfort of being against her breast outstripped the farthest-flung pain."… (p. 572)
To some extent the relationship between Albert and David is corollary to the father's social predicament. What I have said concerning the cultural isolation of the Schearls applies more fully to David and Genya than to Albert, whose position as head of the family forces him to...
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