Henry Roth Roth, Henry (Vol. 104) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Call It Sleep (novel) 1934
Nature's First Green (novel) 1979
Shifting Landscape: A Composite, 1925–1987 (essays and short stories) 1991
Mercy of a Rude Stream, Volume One: A Star Shines Over Mt. Morris Park (novel) 1994
Mercy of a Rude Stream, Volume Two: A Diving Rock on the Hudson (novel) 1995
Mercy of a Rude Stream, Volume Three: From Bondage (novel) 1996

Fred T. Marsh (review date 17 February 1935)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "A Great Novel About Manhattan Boyhood," in New York Herald Tribune Books, Vol. II, No. 24, February 17, 1935, p. 6.

[In the following review, Marsh praises Roth's Call It Sleep and asserts that the novel should win the Pulitzer Prize.]

This is a novel about a New York childhood, the story of a small boy from the ages of six to nine in Brownsville and Jewish East Side Manhattan. It is a first novel. I believe it to be the most compelling and moving, the most accurate and profound study of an American slum childhood that has yet appeared in this day when, be it said to the credit of our contemporary critics, economic color-lines are no longer drawn in...

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Joseph Gollomb (review date 16 March 1935)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Life in the Ghetto," in Saturday Review of Literature, Vol. II, No. 35, March 16, 1935, p. 552.

[In the following review, Gollomb complains that in Call It Sleep, Roth magnifies the foulness of life on the east side of New York instead of accurately portraying it.]

By this time it is probable that New York's great ghetto of decades ago has been written up as amply as any other equally small segment of the modern world; yet Call It Sleep shows once more how rich for the writer has been the yield on New York's lower east side. Here is a novel twice the average length, yet it records only two to three years of a small boy's life down there, and...

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Harold V. Ribalow (essay date Fall 1962)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Henry Roth and His Novel Call It Sleep," in Wisconsin Studies in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 3, No. 3, Fall, 1962, pp. 5-14.

[In the following essay, Ribalow asserts the importance of Roth's Call It Sleep in a discussion of how it expresses the Jewish immigrant experience in America and how it portrays the pains of adolescence.]

A phenomenon of contemporary American literature has been the emergence of the "Jewish novel" as a major force on the literary scene in this country.

As recently as a decade ago, novels by American-Jewish writers on Jewish themes were not considered part of the mainstream of American creative activity....

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Irving Howe (essay date 25 October 1964)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Life Never Let Up," in The New York Times Book Review, Vol. 69, No. 43, October 25, 1964, pp. 1, 60.

[In the following essay, Howe asserts that "At the end of a novel like Call It Sleep, one has lived through a completeness of rendered life, and all one need do is silently to acknowledge its truth."]

Thirty years ago a young New Yorker named Henry Roth published his first and thus far, his only novel, Call It Sleep. It was a splendid book, one of the few genuinely distinguished novels written by a 20th-century American; and there were critics and readers who recognized this immediately. From the general public, however, the book never won any...

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A. Sidney Knowles Jr. (essay date Winter 1965–1966)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Fiction of Henry Roth," in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. XI, No. 4, Winter 1965–1966, pp. 393-404.

[In the following essay, Knowles traces the history of critical discourse about Roth's Call It Sleep and briefly analyzes Roth few short pieces of fiction written since the novel.]

In reviewing the publication history of Henry Roth's Call It Sleep, one is struck by the aptness with which its title describes the long period of its obscurity. The novel was first published late in 1934, a year that produced Scott Fitzgerald's Tender Is the Night, Graham Greene's It's a Battlefield, John O'Hara's Appointment in Samarra, William...

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Sanford Pinsker (essay date July 1966)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Re-Awakening of Henry Roth's Call It Sleep," in Jewish Social Studies, Vol. XXVIII, No. 3, July, 1966, pp. 148-58.

[In the following essay, Pinsker provides reasons that the themes contained in Roth's Call It Sleep were appropriate for rediscovery in the 1960s.]

The events which lead to the re-discovery of a previously neglected novel are often as interesting as the conditions which precipitated its original obscurity. In a sense, the recent popularity of Call it Sleep is as much a tribute to critics like Alfred Kazin and Leslie Fiedler as it is a triumph for its author Henry Roth. To be sure, Call it Sleep is the same novel...

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Kenneth Ledbetter (essay date October 1966)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Henry Roth's Call It Sleep: The Revival of a Proletarian Novel," in Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 12, No. 3, October, 1966, pp. 123-30.

[In the following essay, Ledbetter discusses the relationship between Roth's Call It Sleep and other proletarian novels of the 1930s. He asserts that "Roth's achievement is a novel first, and a proletarian one only secondarily."]

The recent publication of a paperback edition of Henry Roth's Call It Sleep and the prominence afforded a review of it in The New York Times Book Review can hardly be construed as a revival of proletarian literature in the United States; our generation remains properly...

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Henry Roth with David Bronsen (interview date 1967)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "A Conversation with Henry Roth," in Partisan Review, Vol. XXXVI, No. 2, 1967, pp. 265-80.

[In the following interview, Roth discusses his life and his relationship to writing and creative life.]

[Bronsen:] I visited Henry Roth on his Farm near Augusta, Maine, and we began to talk. At one point I remarked that he had never lost his command of language. He replied: "That comes from having talked with myself for twenty-five years."

[Roth:] It's too bad I was not older when I was brought to America, so that I could recall the Old World and the original home of my mother and father. I was born in Tysmenitsa, near Lemberg, Galicia, in 1906,...

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Daniel Walden (essay date Summer 1979)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Henry Roth's Call It Sleep: Ethnicity, "The Sign," and the Power," in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 25, No. 2, Summer, 1979, pp. 268-72.

[In the following essay. Walden discusses David's quest for peace and a sign from God in Roth's Call It Sleep.]

Henry Roth's Call It Sleep, justifiably called one of the great achievements in American writing in this century, was Roth's only novel, a tour de force composed of equal parts of sensitive writing, deep psychological insights, and great ethnic empathy. It was a profound study of an American slum childhood, suggestive of the Great Russians, wrote Lewis Gannett. It revealed more of the actual conditions...

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Henry Roth with William Freedman (interview date Fall 1979)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Henry Roth in Jerusalem: An Interview," in The Literary Review, Vol. 23, No. 1, Fall, 1979, pp. 5-23.

[In the following interview, Roth discusses the mystical element in Call It Sleep, and describes his relationship to Israel.]

Five years ago, when I first met Henry Roth, it was in the same but in a very different place. He had come to Israel, then as now, on a kind of pilgrimage, an artist's search for the history and possibilities of self, but he had taken a different route. Having turned down a variety of invitations and offers of special treatment in order, as he put it, to avoid commitment and obligation, Roth had attached himself to a charter...

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Richard J. Fein (essay date Fall 1984)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Fear, Fatherhood, and Desire in Call It Sleep," in Yiddish, Vol. 5, No. 4, Fall, 1984, pp. 49-54.

[In the following essay, Fein discusses David Schearl's enmity with his father in Roth's Call It Sleep.]

Call It Sleep is a classic portrayal of the Americanized son who pits himself against the unyielding immigrant father. In an orthodox but dramatic Freudian fashion that never succumbs to a mechanical pattern (and is as moving as Lawrence's rendition of this conflict in Sons and Lovers), David Schearl finds his enemy in his father.

Henry Roth's Call It Sleep portrays a father who looms as an impregnable tower of...

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Morris Dickstein (review date 29 November 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Call It an Awakening," in The New York Times Book Review, November 29, 1987, pp. 1, 33, 35-6.

[In the following review, Dickstein discusses Roth's Shifting Landscape and his journey of self-discovery.]

I had just finished interviewing Henry Roth, the author of Call It Sleep, when as if by some dramatic design, a large, flat package was delivered to his New York hotel room. It was an advance copy of Mr. Roth's first book in 53 years, Shifting Landscape, a complete collection of his shorter writings along with many excerpts from letters and interviews, lovingly assembled by his gifted Italian translator, Mario Materassi.


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Robert Alter (review date 25 January 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Shifting Landscape and Call It Sleep, in New Republic, Vol. 198, No. 4, January 25, 1988, pp. 33-7.

[In the following review, Alter discusses Roth's Call It Sleep and asserts that his new volume, Shifting Landscape "provides the outlines of a spiritual autobiography."]

The haunting question about Henry Roth remains his half century of silence after the publication of Call It Sleep in 1934. Call It Sleep, which, as I have just discovered, is one of those rare books that actually improves with rereading, exhibits the perfect pitch of genius in all the play of its invention and stylistic energy; it clearly...

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Lynn Altenbernd (essay date Winter 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "An American Messiah: Myth in Henry Roth's Call It Sleep," in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 35, No. 4, Winter, 1989, pp. 673-87.

[In the following essay, Altenbernd asserts that David in Roth's Call It Sleep is a messiah figure.]

Henry Roth's Call It Sleep has moved and delighted—and puzzled—two generations of readers. Sometimes regarded as the best of American proletarian novels or as the best novel growing out of the Great Depression, it is in fact neither proletarian in any strict sense nor directly concerned with the economic depression of the 1930s. Since its publication in 1934 and particularly since its reissue in 1960, a...

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Stephen J. Adams (essay date Spring 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "'The Noisiest Novel Ever Written': The Soundscape of Henry Roth's Call It Sleep," in Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 35, No. 1, Spring, 1989, pp. 43-64.

[In the following essay, Adams analyzes the importance of sound as a signifier of power in Roth's Call It Sleep.]

"The squalor and filth, the hopelessness and helplessness of slum life are remorselessly presented and the cacophony never ceases—this must be the noisiest novel ever written." Walter Allen's remark identifies one of the most striking and unusual features of Henry Roth's novel: this text opens up a world of sound as few others seem to do. Although most fictional imagery is, like...

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Hana Wirth-Neshner (essay date May 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Between Mother Tongue and Native Language: Multilingualism in Henry Roth's Call It Sleep," in Prooftexts, Vol. 10, No. 2, May, 1990, pp. 297-312.

[In the following essay, Wirth-Neshner discusses Roth's use of language in Call It Sleep and how the author uses multilingualism to portray David Schearl's experience as an immigrant in America.]

Henry Roth's Call It Sleep is a multilingual book, although it is accessible to the American reader who knows none of its languages other than English. In order to portray a world that was both multilingual and multicultural, Roth used a variety of narrative strategies, some designed to simulate the...

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Alfred Kazin (review date 10 October 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Art of Call It Sleep," in The New York Review of Books, Vol. XXXVIII, No. 15, October 10, 1991, p. 15.

[In the following review, Kazin discusses Roth's Call It Sleep and asserts that it is a story of David's inner growth.]

Call It Sleep is the most profound novel of Jewish life that I have ever read by an American. It is a work of high art, written with the full resources of modernism, which subtly interweaves an account of the worlds of the city gutter and the tenement cellar with a story of the overwhelming love between a mother and son. It brings together the darkness and light of Jewish immigrant life before the First World War as...

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Robert Alter (review date 16 January 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Desolate Breach Between Himself and Himself," in The New York Times Book Review, January 16, 1994, p. 3, 29.

[In the following review, Alter compares Roth's two novels, Call It Sleep and Mercy of a Rude Stream, complaining that the latter does not have the emotional depth or novelistic tension of the first.]

There is something utterly improbably about the appearance of a second novel by Henry Roth after 60 years of silence, and the new book can scarcely be read except against the enigmatic background of that silence. The haunting story of Mr. Roth's career has often been told—most recently in these pages by my Berkeley colleague, the...

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Zachary Leader (review date 25 February 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "An East-Side kid," in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4743, February 25, 1994, p. 20.

[In the following review, Leader proposes that in Roth's Mercy of a Rude Stream "The author wishes to recreate a world now lost, one defaced by the earlier novel's 'artistic' distortions, a product of complex personal and political needs."]

The stream in question is Henry Roth's life: "rude" because materially impoverished as well as harsh, a life of immigrant slums and the coarse intimacies of crowded tenements; "merciful" because by returning to it as a source of art, after decades of "literary desolation", Roth the novelist at last regained his voice, was released...

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Robert Towers (review date 3 March 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Look Homeward, Ira," in The New York Review of Books, Vol. XLI, No. 5, pp. 24-5.

[In the following review, Towers praises the absorbing story in Roth's Mercy of a Rude Stream, but complains that the structure is disjointed and the narration of the older Ira is intrusive.]

The oddity of Henry Roth's career keeps getting in the way as one reads Mercy of a Rude Stream. Had he written a number of novels during his eighty-seven years, one could try to place the new work by comparing it with the others. But we have only a single precocious masterpiece, Call It Sleep, published sixty years ago, and now generally recognized as the most moving and...

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Paul West (review date 5 February 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Waves of Memory," in WP Bookworld, February 5, 1995, p. 5.

[In the following review, West discusses the confessional and autobiographical nature of Roth's A Diving Rock on the Hudson, pointing out that Roth asserts that the book is a work of fiction.]

Stationary there on a brown promontory studded with stubs of girder, he has just trudged past us carrying a fishing rod, or he has been there forever. Behind him a tug makes its minor bow-wave in the cobalt blue water, and above him, as if the heavens are rending, a shower of white cloud reaches him. All he has on are dun shorts and a loose-fitting undershirt. This is Ira Stigman, Henry Roth's adolescent...

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Mary Gordon (review date 26 February 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Confession, Terminable and Interminable," The New York Times Book Review, February 26, 1995, p. 5.

[In the following review, Gordon discusses Roth's complicated relationship with his Jewishness as expressed in his A Diving Rock on the Hudson.]

The circumstances that surround the writing of Henry Roth's novel A Diving Rock on the Hudson are so special that it is impossible to expect a reading untouched by them. At the time of publication of this novel/memoir/journal—a work deliberately hybrid and unfixed—its author is 89 years old. It is the second volume of a series that broke the 60-year silence following the publication of Call It Sleep, a...

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Frank Kermode (review date 14 July 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "'Holistic Rendering of My Lamentable Past,'" in The New York Times Book Review, July 14, 1996, p. 6.

[In the following review, Kermode states that Roth's From Bondage "does what has rarely been done before; it enhances its brilliant youthful original by casting upon it the calmer, contemplative light of old age."]

There can be few readers of modern American fiction unfamiliar with the extraordinary career of Henry Roth. Born in Galicia in 1906, he arrived in New York with his Yiddish-speaking parents three years later, and lived first on the Lower East Side and then in Harlem. He did many menial jobs and was a not particularly bright student at City...

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Marshall Berman (review date 23 September 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Bonds of Love," in The Nation, Vol. 263, No. 8, September 23, 1996, pp. 25-30.

[In the following review, Berman discusses how Roth's From Bondage was changed and how its impact was lessened when crucial scenes concerning incest were cut from the published edition.]

Henry Roth, who died last year at age 89, wrote one of the great novels of the century, Call It Sleep. It is the story of a poor Jewish boy on the Lower East Side, trying to survive and grow in a world where it was dangerous to go out and maybe even more dangerous to stay in, and yet where life was holy. Roth not only assimilated D.H. Lawrence, James Joyce and William Faulkner but,...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


"Call It Sleep Author Henry Roth, 89." Chicago Tribune (13 October 1995): 11.

Notice of Roth's death at age 89.

Clark, Eunice. Review of Call It Sleep, by Henry Roth. Common Sense 4, No. 3 (March 1935): 29.

Calls Roth's Call It Sleep "a gold mine of accurate impressions."

Dickstein, Morris. "No Longer at Home." Times Literary Supplement, No. 4840 (5 January 1996): 5.

Offers a review of Roth's Shifting Landscape, asserting that Roth comes through as "the...

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