Henry Roth Roth, Henry (Vol. 6) - Essay

Roth, Henry (Vol. 6)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Roth, Henry 1906–

Roth, born in Austria-Hungary and brought to the United States as an infant, is an American novelist. (See also Contemporary Authors Permanent Series, Vol. 1.)

The technique of Call It Sleep is contrived to make manifest at every moment that its real subject is not so much abomination in the streets as … abomination in the mind. Aside from a prelude, in which the arrival of David and his mother in America is objectively narrated, and a section toward the book's end which blends into a Joycean rhapsody the sounds of a score of city voices as overheard by some omniscient Listener—the whole substance of the novel is presented as what happens inside the small haunted head of David. (p. 275)

No book insists more on the distance between the foulness man lives and the purity he dreams; but none makes more clear how deeply rooted that dream is in the existence which seems to contradict it. It is, perhaps, this double insight which gives to Roth's book a Jewish character, quite independent of the subject matter with which he happens to deal. Certainly, it reveals his kinship to Nathanael West, also a novelist of the thirties, whose relationship to his own Jewishness if much more equivocal than Roth's, but who quotes in his earliest book an observation of Doughty's about the nature of Semites in general which illuminates his own work as well as Roth's: the Semite stands in dung up to his eyes, but his brow touches the heavens. Indeed, in Jewish American fiction from Abraham Cahan to Philip Roth, that polarity and tension are present everywhere, the Jew mediating between dung and God, as if his eternal function were to prove that man is most himself not when he turns first to one then to the other—but when he touches both at once. And who can project the awareness of this more intensely and dramatically than the child, the Jewish child? (pp. 275-76)

To have written such a book and no other is to betray some deep trouble not only in finding words but in loving the life one has lived enought to want to find words for it. A retreat from all that 1935 meant to Roth: from the exigencies of adult sexuality and political commitment alike—this is what Call It Sleep seems to the retrospective insight of 1960. (p. 276)

Cued by whatever fears, Roth's turning to childhood enables him to render his story as dream and nightmare, fantasy and myth—to escape the limits of that realism which makes of other accounts of ghetto childhood documents rather than poetry. In its own time Call It Sleep was occasionally compared to Farrell's Young Lonigan, but one cannot conceive of such a foreword to Roth's book as that written for Farrell's by "Frederic M. Thrasher, Associate Professor of Education, New York University, Author of The Gang." Roth's book aspires not to sociology but to theology; it is finally and astonishingly a religious book, though this fact even its latest admiring critics tend to ignore or underplay. Only in the account of a child's experience could a protégé of Eda Lou Walton (it would have been another matter if he had been sponsored by Mary Pickford) have gotten away with a religious resolution to a serious novel about ghetto life; and it was to a child's experience that he was canny enough to turn. (pp. 276-77)

Turning the final pages of Roth's book, one realizes suddenly how in the time of the Great Depression all the more serious fictionists yearned in secret to touch a religious note, toying with the messianic and the apocalyptic but refusing to call them by names not honored in the left-wing journals of the time. The final honesty of Roth's book lies in its refusal to call by any fashionable honorific name its child hero's bafflement as he learns the special beauty of a world which remains stubbornly unredeemed: "Not pain, not terror, but strangest triumph, strangest acquiescence. One might as well call it sleep." (p. 279)

Leslie Fiedler, "Henry Roth's Neglected Masterpiece" (originally published in Commentary, August, 1960), in his The Collected Works of Leslie Fiedler, Vol. II (copyright © 1971 by Leslie A. Fiedler; reprinted with permission of Stein and Day/Publishers), Stein and Day, 1971, pp. 271-79.

Call It Sleep is so remarkable an artistic achievement that on its basis alone, Roth stands as one of the major creative novelists of the twentieth century. (p. xi)

[A] single novel by a Henry Roth is worth a score of fictions by any popular, superficial, commercially successful novelist. Roth was an artist and Call It Sleep is a work of art.

To the critic in the Jewish field, it is of special moment. The carefully phrased dialogue, replete with Yiddishisms brilliantly translated into English to evoke the poetics of the Yiddish language, is only part of Roth's accomplishment. The sounds and smells of the street are here. The give and take between boys and girls, men and women, and the admixture of joy and sorrow, fulfillment and failure are traced in dozens of pages throughout the narrative. (p. xxix)

The passages between David and his mother are unequalled in any other books which deal with the love of a Jewish boy for his mother and her devotion to him. Other writers have attempted to project and describe such relationships because they are common among Jews. None has captured the magic between mother and son that Roth has…. (p. xxxi)

There is violence in these sketches, but the novelist writes out of love and understanding—and knowledge.

These are the elements which have long been missing in American Jewish writing. Where there is knowledge, there too frequently appears cynicism. And love and understanding are usually absent.

The sense of Jewish alienation, too, is captured in Call It Sleep…. Just as Roth can describe the Sabbath as "the hushed hour, the hour of tawny beatitude," he can also, within a few swift pages, depict the rawness of life and the cruelty of boys pitted against each other. (pp. xxxi-ii)

Call It Sleep, to this day, illuminates a past era with such light that it makes the contemporary Jew, who has left the ghetto and moved to suburbia, more clearly understandable to those who would know him. (p. xxxii)

The reader of Call It Sleep will agree that Henry Roth, like Joseph Conrad, makes him hear, feel and see—by the power of the written word. (p. xxxiii)

Harold U. Ribalow, "The History of Henry Roth and Call It Sleep" (1960; reprinted by permission of Cooper Square Publishers, Inc.), an introduction to Call It Sleep, by Henry Roth, Pageant Books, 1960, pp. xixxxv.

Call It Sleep reminds you there is [a] missing element in the contemporary, assimilated Jewish-American novel. It is the element of immediacy, of direct contact with the immigrant Jewish folk life itself. In no other novel, I think, has this been rendered so perfectly and so purely. And the folk base was also the missing element in almost all the contemporary American fiction of the fifties: the fiction, as it were, of the financial and professional classes, deracinated and conformist, without roots, color or convictions—a fiction of the suburbs.

Now it is excellent, on the other hand, that Walter B. Rideout's The Radical Novel in the United States [see CLC-2] has given an extensive and acute analysis of Call It Sleep, while most literary histories have omitted the book altogether. But is this really a "radical novel," and does it strictly deserve the honor of being called "the most distinguished single proletarian novel?" In one sense, yes, of course; and yet on a deeper level there is only a formal connection between Call It Sleep and other such typical products of the same period as Jews Without Money, Bottom Dogs, The Old Bunch, or even, say, Nelson Algren's hard (and fine) tale of the Polish immigrants in Chicago, Never Come Morning. In terms of literary history, the work which is "the best" of any genre, usually defies the genre altogether. On the surface, Call It Sleep is simply a novel about an immigrant Jewish family in Brooklyn and New York City. (pp. xxxvii-viii)

The use of language is beautiful, the use of detail in the novel is admirable; and these are the bricks of a novelist's craft. Since the narrative key is pitched so low, every incident is an event, and every event becomes dramatic. (p. xl)

In terms of modern psychology the family trio at the center of Call It Sleep is a classic example of the oedipal relation—described so beautifully, so completely, that one realizes that the author, too, wrote this classic fable in all innocence of spirit. Oddly enough the novel that we associate today with Call It Sleep is William Styron's Lie Down in Darkness, another ironic fable of childhood and adolescence, based on the Electra-complex of father-daughter love, with the same stress on the tragic "reality" of existence.

From this ancient, incestuous and perennially renewed source of childhood love comes the wonderful purity of tone in the present novel; the serenity of emotion which can tolerate the most debased forms of human behavior. That is the inner lining, so to speak, for the harsh and discordant coming of age in the American ghetto. Call It Sleep is another allegory of the Fall—and not only from the particularly tender Eden of the hero's childhood, but also from the enfabled Biblical (and protective) heritage of the Jewish immigrant culture itself, now footloose on the anonymous pavements of American cities. The inner action of the novel is parallel to and reinforces the outward action. The scenes at Reb Yidel Pankower's cheder are a marvellous satire on "religious education." The rabbi is a disgusting petty tyrant; his pupils are blockheads; what they learn from their master is mainly a series of vivid Jewish curses…. Yet it is Reb Pankower who sees and treasures David's intellect, and it is the squat, dirty, angry rabbi who delivers the real verdict on David's new-world society—

A curse on them!… What was going to become of Yiddish youth? What would become of this new breed? These Americans? This sidewalk-and-gutter generation?

Now Call It Sleep is the definitive novel of "these Americans," this sidewalk-and-gutter generation which has never been described so well as here; and the descendents of which perhaps are to be found mainly in the novels of Herman Wouk. Yes, and what a long distance this branch of our native letters—and our native life—has come in the twenty-five years between Henry Roth's chronicle and, say, a Marjorie Morningstar. From the melting pot to the marts of trade and of finance! Maybe that explains the singular feeling of warmth and affection which Call It Sleep awakens in us now, when all the acute miseries of an earlier form of immigrant city life are diminished by time; when we too are drawn back into the "delicious circle" of this pre-Edenite childhood, and to a folk culture so intimately involved with ancient legent and wisdom. (pp. xliii-v)

Maxwell Geismar, "A Critical Introduction" (1960; reprinted by permission of Cooper Square Publishers, Inc.) to Call It Sleep, by Henry Roth, Pageant Books, 1960, pp. xxxvi-xlv.

I know of no more perceptive work in any literature, dealing with a child's conditioning. In this field, Call It Sleep is a classic.

The closest work, for comparison, is James T. Farrell's A World I Never Made…. Both books are written with tremendous poetic insight, and apparently a great deal of autobiographic memory evocation. But Roth's book is not only the precursor; it goes much deeper in what must have been an intuitive use of psychological and analytical methods which are only today coming to be generally accepted.

Roth must have taken some impetus from James Joyce, particularly for the last section of his book, in which David's stream-of-consciousness throughout his electrocution experience is polyphonally interwoven with the existence-experience of a variety of persons who witness and react to the accident. This tour-de-force is to be the only out-of-character note in the entire work, as it represents a change of point of view and of method, acceptable indeed as a device for heightening the tension of the climactic episode of the book, but distracting in that it carries the reader into the realms of literary appreciation whereas up until that point he is so completely identified with David's views and reactions that he is living, rather than reading of life. But in so important a work, the virtuoso effect of this section may well be disregarded.

The amazing achievement of Call It Sleep is the poetic spell maintained with complete intensity even while the book is written on a naturalistic basis. The poetic soul of the child absorbs and transmutes every experience, creates God out of the short-circuit flash of the streetcar's buried powerline. (pp. xlvii-viii)

[There] is built up a whole and unsurpassable portrait of the child's world in an American slum,… rendered with the pulse and beat of life itself, with the full projection that takes art out of the particularization of an individual experience into the universal. (p. xlix)

This is not the kind of childhood-in-the-slums portrait that capitalized on picturesque values and on the easy effects of looking backward through survival and transcendence. This is not the kind of immigrant-portrait that abounds in Torahmumbling patriarchs who are golden-hearted and filled with old-country wisdom. Nor is it the accented kind of "sociological fiction" which points with alarm to the breeding ground of gangsters.

This is the human portrait of people striving to master themselves, to live with each other, people sometimes giving way to their impulses for vulgarity and filth, people on animal and on spiritual levels, people acting out of every human impulse and under every human influence. Call It Sleep, because it is pure art, increases human understanding. (pp. l-i)

Meyer Levin, "A Personal Appreciation" (1960; reprinted by permission of Cooper Square Publishers, Inc.), an introduction to Call It Sleep, by Henry Roth, Pageant Books, 1960, pp. xlvi-li.

When [Call It Sleep] first appeared I assured my public that Henry Roth had the gifts of a "major novelist," and I also suggested that his sense of dialect—Yiddish, Irish, Italian—could make his fortune in Hollywood. (I blush for this last not because it proved unprophetic but because the comment was basically unperceptive—no gift of Henry Roth could have been used by Hollywood.) In the forties I repeated the business about Henry Roth having the "literary equipment of a major novelist," adding that this could be said of "no other American Jewish writer."

I mention these estimates neither in a mood of self-congratulation nor penance, but because they suggest a consistent and representative attitude shared by the novel's first startled readers. (p. 89)

The central relationship of the book is the family, holy or unholy, of father, mother and child…. Jealous resentment between father and son, passion between mother and child, the true eternal triangle, are described not in scenes of childhood remembered but of childhood directly experienced. In this respect alone the novel is extraordinary. Here is no childhood, wistful, cute, or heart-breaking, remembered in anger or nostalgia by the adult intelligence. The impact of the events has not been weakened by the hindsight of adult comprehension. On the contrary, experience presents itself, raw, frightening, radiant, unsullied by understanding….

That the reader is persuaded rather than irritated by the child's hysterical reactions to the routine instructions of street and family life, in the slums or out of them, is a major achievement of the author.

Part of the force of the novel lies in its transcendence of the fashionable realism of the thirties. Call It Sleep cannot be pigeon-holed as a social document or a slice of life in the slums of Brownsville and the East Side. The frequent comparison of Henry Roth with James Farrell is misleading because nowhere does Farrell evince the poetic vitality of Roth. In Roth fidelity to the depiction of the environment is always complemented by the imaginative capacity to weld the drab details of the outer world into the transport of the child's vision. Sordid commonplaces of the experience of growing up in a poor tenement … are described in all their helpless dreariness. So far the realist with wonderfully acute ear and eye. But the coarsely actual, refined by the delicacy of perception of the hyper-sensitive child, becomes ultimate horror and glory. In this fusion of the realistic and poetic Roth is far closer to Joyce, whose influence is sometimes too apparent, particularly in the final chapter, than to the social realists of the thirties. (p. 90)

The debunking of the cheder can become as superficial a stereotype as its sentimental idealization. If this were all, you would have the Jewish counterpart of the naturalistic description of a parochial school such as you can find in the Studs Lonigan trilogy of Farrell. But Roth uses naturalism as one of his means, never as an end. Something glows in that cheder…. (p. 91)

If East Side life were glimpsed only through David's febrile awareness, the novel would still be powerful but limited in range. Roth, however, always lets you feel the "real" outer texture of the objective experience which the child suffers subjectively….

In its union of symbolism and realism Call It Sleep is strikingly up-to-date. It belongs more to the era of Bernard Malamud than of Farrell and Dos Passos. Perhaps one clue to Roth's silence lies in his anticipation of a style more characteristic of the fifties than the thirties. In his study, The Radical Novel, Professor Walter Rideout calls attention to the hostile reception given Call It Sleep by critics of the Left [on the grounds that the book was not sufficiently useful to the working class]. (p. 92)

We do not know what Roth's political views were in his youth in the thirties. It is obvious that as an artist he had no ready-made formula…. David withdraws from the anguished effort at illumination into a passive acceptance—call it sleep. Henry Roth, too, withdrew…. (p. 93)

Marie Syrkin, "Revival of a Classic," in Midstream (copyright © 1961 by The Theodor Herzl Foundation, Inc.), No. 1, Winter, 1961, pp. 89-93.

[In Call It Sleep, Henry Roth] explores the responsive psychological inscape of the thirties as meticulously as Dos Passos explored the physical and social landscape. [As in U.S.A.] there is no goal, only a "widening gyre" [as in Yeats's "Second Coming"]: the strange new land, the new language, the new stages of David Shearl's physical and psychological development. The vehicle is David. The motive power is the myth of success combined with the ego energy that drives him through his Oedipal situation. At the novel's center is the terrible freedom: the endless opportunities and possibilities evoked by the myth of success, and the ever changing physical and psychological boundaries. The opening scene dramatizes the helplessness of the immigrant in an incomprehensible and threatening world; the rest of the novel dramatizes the plight of a young boy in a world that becomes increasingly violent in its physical and psychological menaces. Roth does not show the "widening gyre" to the cause of the "centre's" destruction; still, he is the victim of his rational and evolutionary plot line. Since the dominant impression at the end is that of the hero's progress, the irrational elements—those which are most powerfully drawn and psychologically complex—are subordinated. Roth's primary vision is sacrificed to a literary convention. (pp. 133-34)

Richard Pearce, in Criticism (reprinted by permission of the Wayne State University Press; copyright 1971 by Wayne State University Press), Vol. VIII, No. 1, Winter, 1971.

[A] remarkable American Jewish novel which bridges, as it were, the documentary and the symbolic … is Henry Roth's Call It Sleep, published in 1934, a picture of immigrant Jewish life in New York seen through the eyes of a boy but with the real heroine the boy's mother. The symbolic element derives from the brilliant use of language: when the boy's mother is talking in her native Yiddish or thinking to herself, her words are rendered in a sensitive and fluent English, mirroring the sensitivity and fluency of her use of her native tongue: but when she communicates with her non-Jewish environment and has to use English, her language is broken, crude and inadequate. The gulf between her real self and the self that communicates with the gentile world around her is thus symbolized by the way language is used in the novel, and this gives a moving new dimension to the work. There are other symbolic elements in the novel's plot, and there is also a rich documentary groundwork that anchors it in social reality. (p. 90)

David Daiches, in The Jewish Quarterly (© The Jewish Quarterly 1973), Vol. 21, No. 1-2, 1973.

The facts of the rediscovery of Henry Roth's Call It Sleep in the 1960's are widely known. But what happened to Roth after Call It Sleep? Why did he never publish another novel after this first work about a Jewish child searching for mystical understanding on the Lower East Side? This fascinating question has been left inadequately answered. Even the existence of "If We Had Bacon," a twenty-page opening section of Roth's second novel, is virtually unknown. There are two reasons for this: Roth has repeatedly told interviewers that he destroyed the two novel fragments he wrote subsequent to Call It Sleep (1934); and "If We Had Bacon" was published in an obscure, short-lived magazine, Signatures: Work in Progress (Autumn, 1936). (p. 610)

In a headnote to the fragment in Signatures, "If We Had Bacon" is described as the "opening section of what is, perhaps, a growing trilogy." Why, then, did Roth never complete the work? Part of the answer lies in the subject matter. Call It Sleep, Roth's first and only completed novel, is an autobiographical work: Roth shaped his memories and impressions of childhood into fiction. The usual "second novel" problem—how to go on to write another, presumably less "subjective" novel—was compounded by the fact that Roth belongs, as he now believes, to "that category of writer who has to write about the stages of his own development and then when he does it, is ready to go on to the next stage." By not writing about the next stage in his life, the adolescent years, but attempting to write about Loem, a midwestern worker who becomes a Communist, Roth abandoned his natural bent under the influence of the Weltanschauung of the 1930's. Although not proletarian literature in the sense of being "limited by utilitarian objectives," the fragment clearly reflects the class-consciousness and political leftism of its decade.

Aspects of Roth's personal life also contributed to his failure to complete the work…. Roth himself views his psychological situation after Call It Sleep as a failure to mature: "The main reason I think I didn't go on was that I didn't have to mature. In Call It Sleep I stuck with the child, so I didn't have to mature…. I think I just failed at maturity, at adulthood." (pp. 611-12)

Bonnie Lyons, "After 'Call It Sleep'," in American Literature (reprinted by permission of the Publisher; copyright 1974 by Duke University Press, Durham, North Carolina), January, 1974, pp. 610-12.