Critical Evaluation

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When Henry Roth’s first novel, Call It Sleep, appeared in 1934, its critical reception was predominantly positive. The novel sold fairly well, going through first and second editions totaling four thousand copies, a large number for the depths of the Depression. Yet the novel soon fell into obscurity. Then in 1964, the book was republished in hardcover and paperback, and its sales and critical reputation soared. Call It Sleep came to be recognized as a masterpiece and one of the great works of American literature. Not until 1994 did Roth publish his second novel, A Star Shines over Mount Morris Park, the first volume of a projected series of books to be entitled Mercy of a Rude Stream. Roth seems to have conceived this later series as a kind of continuation of Call It Sleep. Many critics argue that the long time between Roth’s first and second novels resulted in part from his dismay that the public seemed to have forgotten his first book.

After 1964, critics began to praise Call It Sleep for being a tightly knit, stylistically excellent piece of literary art. Roth uses imagery to give the novel a kind of organic unity that points inexorably to its ending. Especially important are the images Roth associates with the titles of the four books of the novel, “Cellar,” “Picture,” “Coal,” and “Rail.” “Cellar” is associated with David Schearl’s fear, initially, of the dark cellar in the tenement where he lives and ultimately of a series of things that include his violent father and sex.

“Picture” points to Genya’s picture of cornflowers, which reminds her of her home in Austria. The picture represents her European past, especially her affair with a Christian before she meets Albert. Balancing Genya’s picture is Albert’s pair of bull’s horns, which he associates with the cattle he tended in Eastern Europe and with the accusation that he watched passively while a bull gored his father to death. Significantly, he is bitterly unhappy with every job he has in America until he works as a milkman. The horns also represent his fear that he has been cuckolded and that David is not his biological child.

“Coal” refers to the physical object, the source of heat and power. For David, it represents what he does not have, power, and he associates it with the passage in Isaiah in which an angel touches coal to Isaiah’s lips and gives him divine knowledge.

“Rail” is a reference to the third rail, which provides power to streetcars. David is tricked into touching a piece of scrap metal to the third rail, which creates a blinding light that he associates with the power of God. He tries to draw on that power near the end of the novel when he runs from his apartment in fear that his father will kill him. This time, David uses a milk ladle against the third rail, which connects his actions with his mother, who gives him milk, and his father, who delivers milk. Knocked unconscious and near death, he has a vision full of religious and sexual imagery. When the policeman who revives him carries him into his home, his father talks “in a dazed, unsteady voice,” and David listens to “him falter and knew him shaken.” In fact, David sees that his father, whom Genya has reassured that David is his son, is genuinely concerned about him. This suggestion of a reconciliation has important implications for David’s future growth.

Stylistically, Call It Sleep is a triumph. Roth often enables his readers to enter David’s mind by using a...

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stream-of-consciousness technique reminiscent of James Joyce. Roth also draws on Sigmund Freud’s theories about dreams and their relationship to waking life when he combines surrealistic or dreamlike episodes with highly realistic, tangible impressions of life on the Lower East Side of New York between 1907 and 1913.

In Call It Sleep, the reader becomes immersed in the sights, smells, and especially sounds of the Lower East Side. When Roth’s Jewish characters speak Yiddish, their language is represented by lyrical English. When they speak English, however, Roth shows their strong accents and the difficulty they have making themselves understood. He also reproduces Italian, Irish, and Hungarian accents and the English dialect associated with the streets of New York that David and his young companions speak.

Central to the story is David’s growing up. Not only is it remarkable that he survives in an atmosphere of violence, it is a miracle that he manages to grow in spite of all the things that conspire to thwart his growth. It is Roth’s magnificent achievement that David’s growth is believable. Although the novel gives an extraordinarily good picture of Jewish life in New York City during the first part of the twentieth century, it simultaneously tells a universal story of maturation and reconciliation.