For much of the twentieth century, Henry Roth, the novelist who vanished for sixty years after a stunning debut, seemed a gloss on writer F. Scott Fitzgerald’s quip that American lives lack second acts. Yet his long life offers enough acts to please the most garrulous of playwrights and challenge the most assiduous of biographers. He is at once salutatorian and valedictorian of twentieth century America, a contemporary of both William Faulkner and Don DeLillo. His pioneering use of stream of consciousness captured a newly urbanized, industrialized society undergoing massive transformation, but Roth survived into a very different era to write his own requiem.
In retrospect, Call It Sleep seems so unequivocally a major artistic achievement that it is difficult to understand why it was neglected for thirty years. However, in 1934, American culture lacked a category for American Jewish literature. By 1964, Roth fulfilled the need to anoint a worthy ancestor to Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, and Philip Roth, to legitimate a newly canonized tradition. It was only after ethnicity became a crucial issue in American society that Roth’s novel could be appreciated for its pioneering embodiment of multiculturalism and multilingualism.
Mercy of a Rude Stream is of a different order of accomplishment than Call It Sleep. The fictional sequence that Roth created in his final years is of compelling interest to those fascinated by a tormented author’s representation of his own compulsions and his desperate attempt to find closure. If Roth’s virtuosic first novel appeared ahead of its time, his parting tetralogy was a throwback—a fictional sequence that not only is set in the 1920’s but also employs the naturalistic style common to that era. From Call It Sleep to Requiem for Harlem, Roth’s frustrated literary career is itself the most remarkablenarrative he created.
Call It Sleep
Call It Sleep begins in May, 1907, with the arrival by ship from Europe of two-year-old David Schearl and his mother, Genya. They are met at Ellis Island by David’s father, Albert, a surly, abusive man who is embittered by disappointment. Albert is forever falling out with fellow workers and forced to seek new employment, as a printer and then as a milkman. The family moves from modest lodgings in Brooklyn’s Brownsville neighborhood to a crowded tenement on the lower East Side of Manhattan. Roth’s book focuses on young David’s troubling experiences during the years 1911-1913, as a stranger in a strange land. Call It Sleep is a coming-of-age novel about a hypersensitive Jewish boy who is forced to cope alone with the mysteries of sex, religion, and love.
After a brief prologue recounting David’s arrival in America, Roth organizes his story into four sections, each defined by a dominant image: “The Cellar,” “The Picture,” “The Coal,” and “The Rail.” What might otherwise seem casual details are magnified by refraction through the mind of an anxious child. Roth’s use of stream of consciousness intensifies the sense of an unformed mind trying to assimilate the varied sensations that assault it. The family apartment is a haven for David, as long as his father, who even doubts his paternity of the boy, is not home and his doting mother can lavish her affections on him. When David ventures out into the clamorous streets, he encounters threats, from both rats and humans.
At the heder, the drab religious school where Jewish boys are given rote instruction in a Hebrew Bible they cannot understand, David is confused and inspired by Isaiah’s account of the angel with a burning coal. Eavesdropping on a conversation between his mother and her sister, Bertha, he misconstrues an explanation for why Genya, disgraced after being jilted by a Gentile, married Albert. When Leo, an older Polish boy, persuades David to introduce him to his cousin, Esther, David is overwhelmed by incredulity and guilt over the sexual liberties that...
(The entire section is 1651 words.)