“Hello, I must be going,” sang Groucho Marx in the 1930 film Animal Crackers—but it is Henry Roth who is at once salutatorian and valedictorian of modern America. His work is contemporaneous with both James Joyce and Don DeLillo. If D. W. Griffith, the inventor of American narrative cinema, had abjured his art shortly after The Birth of a Nation (1915) and then, on the verge of ninety and extinction, had reemerged to create four extraordinary films to send out the century, his career would have resembled Roth’s extraordinary arc.
With his literary debut, Call It Sleep (1934), Roth created the first masterpiece of American Jewish fiction and a classic immigration narrative, as well as prodigious expectations for continued achievement. He rushed into print with his second novel, A Star Shines over Mt. Morris Park, sixty years later. It was the initial installment in an autobiographical tetralogy that the octogenarian author, borrowing a phrase from William Shakespeare, called Mercy of a Rude Stream. The final volume, Requiem for Harlem, appeared two and a half years after its author’s death on October 13, 1995, at eighty-nine. Two other novels, which Roth’s editors and executors have determined not to belong to the Mercy cycle, remain unpublished. “You are not required to finish,” declares the Talmudic dictum that Roth, widowed from his beloved wife Muriel and wracked by rheumatoid arthritis as he tapped out every word, echoes several times in this book. How he exceeded the requirement is itself a heroic chapter in American literary history. “Not thine the labour to complete,/ And yet thou art not free to cease!” proclaims the Mishnaic injunction that the aging, ailing Roth, yearning for consummation but compelled to continue his flawed task, adopts as epigraph.
Requiem for Harlem can be read independently of its predecessors, A Star Shines over Mt. Morris Park (1994), A Diving Rock on the Hudson (1995), and From Bondage (1996), though all four books constitute a single massive Kunstlerroman—a portrait of the artist as young wretch. Even more than the previous installments, this volume both recounts and enacts its protagonist’s humiliation, and he is the literary voodoo doll for his tormented author, Roth. Though Requiem for Harlem begins with a routine disclaimer, “This novel is certainly not an autobiography, nor should it be taken as such,” it is hard for anyone even slightly familiar with the outlines of Roth’s life not to read this story as barely camouflaged confession. In its outer frame, an ancient, invalid author residing in a trailer in Albuquerque, New Mexico—as Roth did in his final years—and grievously widowed from a musician he calls M—as Roth was from Muriel—summons up remembrance of things past. He is keenly aware of how little time is left to perform his arduous task and how the labor that he has undertaken, to reveal a shameful personal secret that kept his writing blocked for sixty years, is destined for posthumous publication.
Roth’s novel begins in gluttony and dyspepsia, wallows in revulsion, and concludes with the prospect of redemption. Yet its title, Requiem for Harlem, suggests nostalgia for an anguished adolescence in the lowly uptown neighborhood on which the final pages close the book. It is an elegy for anguished youth. The year is 1927, and Ira Stigman, twenty-one, is attending his senior year at City College of New York. The opening pages recount Ira’s arduous journey, with weary feet and—after gorging himself on pasta—a bloated stomach, from Harlem, in upper Manhattan, all the way down to Greenwich Village, near the lower tip of the borough. When he arrives at the apartment of Edith Welles, a professor at New York University, she is occupied with another man, and Ira returns to his room up on East 119th Street. However, in the final pages of Requiem for Harlem, he again makes his way down to Edith’s house, to stay. In the novel’s parting, plangent words, Ira, brooding on infernal guilt, takes a squealing subway “downtown and the hell out of Harlem.” He has, at least, been transported into purgatory.
A college examination on John Milton’s Paradise Lost forces the immigrant scholar, afflicted with his own “sinister cyst of guilt that was within the self, denigrating the yontif [holiday], denigrating everything within reach, exuding ambiguity, anomaly, beyond...