Henry Roth Biography


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Henry Roth, born in Austria-Hungary in 1906, wrote his first novel in the early 1930’s. Published in 1934 and rediscovered in 1964, Call It Sleep vividly evokes the childhood traumas of a sensitive Jewish immigrant boy in the hostile—and sometimes gentle—New York ghetto. Though not strictly autobiographical, the novel derives much from Roth’s own boyhood in turbulent New York City, as do most of his short pieces published in The New Yorker.

Roth began writing at City College, where he majored in English and graduated in 1928. His chief mentor was Eda Lou Walton of New York University, whose encouragement and support enabled him to devote almost four years to completing Call It Sleep. Published in 1934, the novel drew reviewers’ praise but made little impact on the public or on most literary scholars. Its subject and style reminded critics of the works of James T. Farrell, James Joyce, and Theodore Dreiser. Psychologically truthful and unified by skillfully handled themes and motifs, the book demonstrated Roth’s considerable skill in the art of fiction.

Between the late 1930’s and the mid-1960’s, Roth largely abandoned writing for a variety of other occupations: high school teacher in the Bronx, precision metal grinder, teacher in a one-room school in Maine, orderly and supervisor in a mental hospital, breeder of ducks and geese, tutor in Latin and mathematics.

In 1964 Call It...

(The entire section is 429 words.)


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Like David Schearl, the youngprotagonist of Call It Sleep, Henry Roth was born in 1906 in the Galician region of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (now in Ukraine) but was brought to New York City when only two years old. Like many other working-class Jewish immigrants, the Roths settled on the lower East Side of Manhattan but later relocated to Harlem. Roth manifested talent with a story in the student magazine of New York’s public City College. Eda Lou Walton, a professor at New York University who befriended Roth and encouraged him to write, became his mentor and lover. Eventually, Roth moved into her Greenwich Village apartment, where he wrote Call It Sleep. Though Walton helped him find a publisher, the Depression year 1934 was not propitious for a literary debut, and, though the book received favorable reviews, its publisher, Robert O. Ballou, was forced into bankruptcy.

Roth began a second novel but, convinced that it was unworthy of the Marxist ideals he then set for himself, he abandoned both it and the cosmopolitan ferment of New York. He married Muriel Parker, a composer he had met at the Yaddo artists’ colony, and moved with her to rural Maine. Abandoning her own musical aspirations, Muriel supported him and their two sons by teaching school, while Roth helped by chopping wood, selling maple syrup, fighting forest fires, tutoring Latin and math, and serving as an attendant at a mental hospital. For most of a decade, he raised...

(The entire section is 422 words.)