Henry Roth 1906–1995
American novelist, essayist, and short story writer.
The following entry presents criticism of Roth's work through 1996. For further information on his life and career, see CLC, Volumes 2, 6, and 11.
Henry Roth's career has been the subject of intense interest and speculation. After the critical success of his first novel, Call It Sleep (1934), Roth suffered from a writer's block that lasted sixty years. When he reconnected with his creative impulse, it gushed forth with a 7,000-page memoir in the form of a novel with several volumes. Due to the autobiographical nature of his work, Roth's controversial life is discussed as often as his fiction.
Roth was born in Austria circa 1906. When he was eighteen months old his mother brought him to New York where his father had been working to save the money for their passage. There was tension in the Roth family which resulted in Roth's close relationship with his mother and his alienation from his father. In his early childhood, the Roths lived in New York City's Lower East Side. Roth felt a sense of belonging in the Jewish community of this neighborhood that he did not receive at home. He suffered greatly when his family moved to the more threatening and diverse environment of Harlem. His identity as a Jew was shaken at this time in his life. It was his Jewish heritage that marked him as different, and therefore he moved away from his religion to adapt to his Gentile Irish neighborhood. Roth graduated from DeWitt Clinton High School in Manhattan in 1924 and began studying biology at the City College of New York. While a student at City College, Roth became interested in writing and met Eda Lou Walton, a New York University professor and poet. Walton helped Roth with his writing, and in 1928 the two began living together. The two socialized with prominent intellectuals, but Roth still suffered from a sense of alienation. Roth began writing his first novel in 1930. He started recording biographical facts, but then let the literary figures take over. Walton supported Roth both financially and emotionally while he spent the next three and a half years writing Call It Sleep. While Roth was still living with her, Walton had an affair with David Mandel, whom she later married. Mandel was a partner in the publishing company Robert O. Ballou, and Walton convinced him to have his company publish Roth's novel in 1934. The book received favorable reviews, but literature of the 1930s was heavily politicized. The Left Wing complained that Call It Sleep did not make a strong enough political statement. In an attempt to overcome the guilt of his dependence on Walton and to serve his political impulses, Roth joined the Communist Party. He wanted to feel a part of a larger whole, but later complained that joining the Party hampered his creative skills. He began a never-finished second novel in 1935. The protagonist was a midwestern industrial worker who joins the Communist Party after being injured in an accident at work. Roth felt as though his work had to have some larger political meaning, but he lost his personal connection to his writing. After writing the first 100 pages and having the idea accepted by a publisher, Roth decided he could not write the novel. He eventually burned the manuscript and turned his attention to other pursuits, including a stint as a teacher, a precision grinder, and a raiser of waterfowl. In 1964, Call It Sleep was rediscovered and republished. It went on to sell one million copies, which only intensified the mystery of Roth's subsequent silence. Miraculously, after sixty years of writer's block, Roth found his muse again. He began work on a six-volume series of novels that, although fictional, represent a memoir of his life. Roth only lived to see the first volume published, but he did work on the galleys of the second volume before his death in 1995.
Call It Sleep is an autobiographical work which traces a young Jewish immigrant's search for belonging in New York City in the 1930s. The protagonist is David Schearl. David suffers from a feeling of alienation—from the father who questions the boy's paternity, from the Gentile neighborhood in which he lives, and from the Jewish religion which he does not understand. The only closeness David feels is with his mother, and the Oedipal aspect of that relationship causes David to pull away from her throughout the novel. The novel is full of symbols which point to the underlying theme: redemption. Roth uses dialect and ethnic speech patterns in the novel to help portray David's isolation. In the end the boy turns to myth and the story of Isaiah for his transfiguration. He touches a milk ladle to the third rail of the trolley tracks, electrocuting himself, and symbolically purifying himself. When David does not die, his father's feelings soften toward him and there is hope that he will transcend his inner conflicts. Roth's return to fiction with Mercy of a Rude Stream (1994) was once again autobiographical in nature. Roth strongly denied that the work represented the facts of his life, but the many parallels between himself and the protagonist, Ira, led to speculation about which events the author had actually experienced.
The critical reception of Call It Sleep was favorable on its first release, especially for a first novel. Many reviewers have commented on Roth's skill as a storyteller. Critics were impressed with Roth's use of dialect in the novel, interspersing English with Yiddish and the language of the street. Many reviewers compare Roth to James Joyce in his sensitive portrayal of adolescence. Praise for Call it Sleep was even stronger upon its rediscovery in the 1960s after its second release. Many critics asserted that it was the most important work about the Jewish immigrant experience of the twentieth century. Reviews were more mixed for the three volumes of Roth's Mercy of a Rude Stream. Critics complained that Roth merely recorded actual events and did not let the story and the characters have their own life. Others praised Roth for the brutal honesty and poignancy of the work.