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...
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