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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...
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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.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 55
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
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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 literature.
It has been a long-drawn-out campaign of guerrilla warfare involving the clergy, the law, the press and the academicians; and the young men who bite the hands of the pioneers in the field—from the early Dreiser through the realists of the twenties—show a marble-hearted ingratitude. It is safe to assume that this novel would never have been published if Ulysses had not won the decision in our courts. And the law trails enlightened public opinion.
But this book is a novel, a work of superior craftsmanship, more than that, a work of significance, authority and depth. Horace Gregory speaks of it as no mere "human document" and that it seems to me, is one of the first things to be said about it. Michael Gold's autobiographical Jews Without Money was a rich human document emerging from the same background; but Henry Roth writing in the third person, has achieved the detachment and universality of the artist.
Curiously, Roth has succeeded in making his David both a more individualized child and a more representative protagonist than most of the boys and girls whom our best younger novelists of metropolitan life have written about. The comparisons here are not invidious, for both Farrell and Dahlberg have concentrated on the years of adolescence and young manhood, rather than on childhood. But the "Studs Lonigan" of Farrell's novels is a product of the extraneous environment of the streets, and the Lorry Lewis of Dahlberg's Bottom Dogs and From Flushing to Calvary is a waif, egotistic, introspective, unhappy but self-sufficient.
David is bound to his home and to the Father-Mother-Son relationship which here takes the normal turn of the child clinging to the mother while fearing the father. This factor gives the story depth, roots that grow deep into the soil from which human life springs. All three, Studs and Lorry and David, are individuals who are yet representative of thousands of others. And we do not know what happens to David later when the dangerous and rebellious age of puberty is reached. But this novel, within its limited scope, is absolutely true to universals. One thinks immediately of any number of other childhoods—of Vardis Fisher's Vridar, whose boyhood was spent on a remote and impoverished Idaho ranch; of Penrod in his smug suburban town; of the young David Copperfield as a waif on London streets; of Plupy Shute's "Real Diary" of a nineteenth century small-town New England childhood; of Tolstoy's "Boyhood and Youth"; of the boy who was Proust at Combray; of the early chapters of Sons and Lovers. David is not like any of these others but this novel has captured more than its share of the essence of boyhood in the rarest and most volatile phases.
But to be more specific, David's father had been in America two years saving money in order to have his wife and son come over and join him. When he meets them at the dock, however, he is in one of his worst moods. And the antagonism between father and child begins there. The father, Albert, is a printer, a powerful man physically but almost unbalanced mentally, complex, a paranoid, suffering from a sense of guilt, violent and moody.
In Brownsville the father goes from one job to another, loses his only man friend, finds in violence the only outlet to his repressed emotions. But he is competent, hard-working and thrifty; would be a good husband and father if he were not ridden by his demons.
The mother is a woman of instinctive grace, resilience and tact, warm and comforting and gentle to her sensitive little boy, managing, providing, pouring oil on troubled waters at all times. The boy and the mother find that vast comfort in each other, that solace for all wounds, that play, full of humor, irony, wit, affection, indulgence, understanding, pathos and beauty, that marks all great fundamental relationships. One sympathizes with the father who remains an outsider. That is owing to his own perverseness; but that perverseness is defensive. To this reader, he stands out as a notable and clean creation. For all the bitterness, David is fortunate in having such a father, rather than a commonplace one.
Of the boy, himself, what can one say! A summary in a review would rob him of that subtlety and those nuances, that unique essential verity which is his, together with his common childishness, which only his creator should be allowed to portray. One must read the novel. But, on the surface, David goes to school, goes to cheder, meets life on the boyhood plane, on the roofs, on the streets, in the alleys, through the neighborhood as many another little boy has done. He runs into dangers, into puppy sex, into and out of boyhood friendships and cruelties. David is an imaginative and clever and sensitive little punk. But he also knows what's what on the realistic plane. Only, he cannot adapt himself to it. And always waiting are his mother's arms, his sovereign remedy against his small world's harshness.
The language of this novel is nothing short of the highest talent. It moves from a kind of transmutation of picturesque, warm, emotional and gentle Yiddish, to the literal English argot of the Ghetto, an ugly, fascinating, and expressive speech. It moves from the delicate attempts at translating refined sentiments from Yiddish into English, into free translations of the coarsest Yiddish into English. Roth has traversed these paths, with a little Hebrew thrown in to perfection. His ear, with all due respect to Arthur Kober, is, I think, the best attuned of all the writers in the field. This, of course is a mere technicality. But it seems to me noteworthy here because it all fits into a serious and outstanding novel. Neither the language nor the license in physical, including sexual, details, nor the various jargons and extraneous incidents with which David comes in contact, are dragged in for the sake of virtuosity. Always they are incidental, natural, implicit, simple and effective. And the next to the last section—where David creates a short-circuit on the trolley line almost to his own destruction—is a little masterpiece, in its asides, of the talk of any congested section in the City of New York. And that talk, except that it is intensified, varies in no way from the talk familiar to every city, large or small, in the United States.
Some will object to the fact that there is a plot running through the novel, that after the plot is resolved one discovers that certain matters have been "planted" anticipating the denouement. I do not think this business adds anything to the story. But this factor is relatively unimportant; and for some readers it will serve as a spur to an already swift-running exciting and tremendously stirring novel.
Expressions used here will shock only because they appear in print. If one had never heard them he would not know what they meant. But, of course, every one has heard them; or almost every one. I learned most of them at the age of eight in the remote little hamlet, twenty houses strong, of Thornton's Ferry, New Hampshire, over thirty years ago. But country children, of course, are more realistic, though less articulate, than the kids I knew when I lived in a big city. Henry Roth's great virtue in this particular field is that he stands aside and lets the whole outpouring of David's emotional reactions, his revulsion, wonder, terror, run its course.
This is a review about the book rather than one of the book. I have sidestepped the main issues because I have nothing to say about them, beyond what is in the book. To discerning readers, I believe, for its profound intensity, its rare virtuosity, its sensitive realism, its sheer weight, its power, circumference and depth, this first novel of this Mr. Roth will be remembered for some time to come. I should like to see Call it Sleep win the Pulitzer prize—which it never will.
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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 records it with what amounts to a congestion of material.
Part of this is due to the rich soil of the scene itself; it would seem that a writer needs only "tickle it with a hoe, and it laughs with a harvest." But the novel owes most of its plethora of sensation and emotional tension to the author's sensitivity, which is acute to the point of painfulness; and the minutest impact on him seems to him indispensable in his report.
The setting and the people of the novel are by now familiar enough to readers of east side novels; the "stench and throb" of the tenements; tenement Jews writhing in poverty and crowded together beyond endurance; and a central character, a little boy, who bears the brunt of life with only a fine and sensitive mother to help him bear it. But the treatment of all this in the book, for all its wealth of photographic detail, renders Mr. Roth's east side quite an alien, somewhat unreal land, especially to those who have known it at first hand.
Partly the defect is due to reporting. Although poverty, for instance, is the all-embracing, brutally dominating fact in slum tenement life, its climate, so to say, and its very soil, the author in his depiction almost completely ignores its role. What also helps to make the novel seem unreal as a transcript of life is the author's injection of passages and chapters of stylized writing in the ultramodern tradition.
But the distortion of the picture—for, by and large, his picture is distorted—must be laid to the author's temper, which casts over familiar scenes and people a hectic light and creates an atmosphere in which human beings could not long survive. Mr. Roth's east side is an extremely violent and febrile world; rarely a moment of peace there, a breath of respite; nothing but poisonous life goes on. Now anyone who has spent even part of childhood on the lower east side knows how brutal and hectic life can be there even for a youngster of tough fibre, and David, the, boy in the novel, is fragile to an extreme. But a conscientious report of that life would include contrasts to Mr. Roth's picture of it and even triumphs over the undeniable brutalities he depicts. Let anyone who doubts it ask, for example, librarians on the east side how much the children there for generations have found reading almost as much as food a part of life.
There is much, to be sure, that is true in Mr. Roth's novel; he has a sensitive ear for speech; his characters speak from character and in the idioms of their land; he remembers amazingly and reports photographically; still, let me repeat, the book in part and as a whole does violence to the truth. Someone once wished that novels of east side life did not have to be so "excremental." Call It Sleep is by far the foulest picture of the east side that has yet appeared, in conception and in language. Certainly there was and is foulness down there as in other places; but Mr. Roth treats it not with the discriminating eye of the artist but with a magnifying glass, and if not with a relish, certainly with no effort to see what Emerson saw, that "even in the mud and scum of things there always, always something sings." Whoever omits that something in his picture of east side life omits the very thing which has kept that life so long a fertile field for the creative writer.
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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. Thus the works of Ludwig Lewisohn, Meyer Levin, Maurice Samuel and other significant Jewish writers were overlooked and omitted from the accepted and acknowledged literary histories. This development has been noted previously and is worth stressing at this time only in order to emphasize the radical change that has taken place in the last ten years.
Today, of course, Herman Wouk, Leon Uris and Harry Golden are household names, and even the less "popular" authors, like Bernard Malamud, J.D. Salinger, Herbert Gold, Harvey Swados, Philip Roth and dozens of other young writers, now represent an entire bloc of talented men who have contributed enormously to the fiction of the last decade. Their books are read, bought and widely discussed. Publishers, who used to avoid Jewish subject matter as non-commercial, now seek out Jewish writers and themes.
The current renascence has led publishers and critics to look back in time in order to discover those Jewish novels which had languished in the 1930's. Today, some of these books are being reissued, to the satisfaction of both literary critics and the reading public.
Daniel Fuchs, for example, wrote three novels about Jews in Brooklyn some thirty years ago which were indifferently received in their own time. When they were made available once again, in a single volume and with a new preface by the author, the novels earned long critical appreciations in scores of general and literary periodicals.
It is no wonder, then, that perhaps the best Jewish novel ever written in the United States should have been "rediscovered" in 1960. It is Call It Sleep by Henry Roth.
Call It Sleep was published early in 1935, received glowing notices and then fell into complete obscurity for twenty years. From time to time, critics made passing references to it, but the novel itself remained unobtainable while a cult of Henry Roth admirers developed.
Leslie Fiedler and Alfred Kazin were among those who called attention to Henry Roth's novel. They wrote about it and, when they lectured, called attention to it. Marie Syrkin, editor of The Jewish Frontier, as long ago as 1940, referred to Call It Sleep as the finest Jewish novel produced in America. But Henry Roth had disappeared and it seemed that Call It Sleep would remain a fond memory in the minds of a handful of sensitive readers.
As a critic who devotes himself almost entirely to Jewish writing in America, I had been asked time and again by interested readers and lecture audiences about Henry Roth and Call It Sleep. It is a book about a young Jewish boy living, at the turn of the century, in New York City, and the sensitivity with which the book was written made a tremendous impact on Jewish readers whose own parents were immigrants and who, themselves, were familiar with the milieu which Henry Roth describes. Accidentally, I had heard from a friend, the novelist and former managing editor of the old American Mercury, Charles Angoff, that Roth was alive and living quietly near Augusta, Maine.
I had remembered that early in 1940 I had seen two short stories in The New Yorker by someone who signed himself as Henry Roth, but I was not quite sure whether it was the same Roth.
Nevertheless, I wrote to Henry Roth in 1959, and that was the first step taken to bring Roth back into our contemporary world. I have corresponded with him at great length ever since (and learned, almost at the outset, that the two New Yorker stories—fragments, he called them—were indeed his). I met him a number of times, both in Maine and in New York City, and was instrumental in the reissuance of Call It Sleep by Cooper Square Publishers. The new edition carries a critical introduction of the novel by Maxwell Geismar, a personal appreciation of the book and its author by Meyer Levin, and a biographical essay by the present writer.
It must be stated unhappily that Henry Roth has been a "one-novel" writer. This is his only book and it is unlikely that he shall ever write another.
The crack-up of American novelists from F. Scott Fitzgerald to Ernest Hemingway is not an unusual phenomenon in the United States. Whatever it is that shatters the psyche of sensitive American novelists, assailed Henry Roth as well as Fitzgerald and Hemingway. Ironically, it now develops that Roth was stronger than they. Fitzgerald sought escape in alcohol and Hemingway shot himself. Roth merely retreated to Maine with a loving wife, raised two fine sons and simply stopped writing.
Before analyzing the remarkable qualities of his novel, I think it is instructive to trace the psychology of Henry Roth and perhaps in doing this we may gain some insights into the heart and mind of an extraordinarily talented man who deliberately withdraws from the creative act.
Roth, I discovered, had become a waterfowl farmer five miles south of Augusta, Maine, and when I first wrote to him, in 1959, telling him that I was one of many who admired his novel, he replied:
It was very kind of you to write. My delay in answering seems to stem from the fact that I apparently have to settle down and become however fleetingly a unified personality, at least during the time of my reply. It's gratifying that Call It Sleep still continues to impress people; it is less gratifying, of course, that the author no longer does so. Apparently that flower grew out of a soil that became sterile.
But—one has seen the same thing happen to others in this epoch and previous ones. It's a little painful. I find myself vacillating between an impatience to get the years over with, and a complacency that I got out of it with a whole skin, relatively whole skin, if not a whole soul. Oh, like everyone else, I have illusions, especially when I have the leisure to have them in, but in my most lucid moments I think, or counsel myself, that the less I attempt to write, the better…. It would seem as if a personality changes, and what was an attribute of the one is not necessarily an attribute of the other. There is one theme I like above all others, and that is redemption, but I haven't the fable.
I don't know if I have the ability either. Other than that I wondered whether there would be any value, any earthly value; of a literary nature, of communing or communicating with one I know nothing about as a means of getting rid of this huge and hideous cargo I lug about with me. Art is a means of jettison.
Or should I say frequently, or for me?
Outside of this sphere, if you have any curiosity about it, I am merely a waterfowl raiser or farmer, and not a very prosperous one, not that it matters in the least, have two children by a woman who daily retrieves my sanity with her constancy and good sense. I am nominally happy—and curiously enough, when I am in my right mind, which happens a surprising number of times during the day, I accept my own history, and that is perhaps my only inner strength. I would not have it arrive at any other outcome except this, and so I sanction what I lament. I don't imagine that is very unique either, is it?
In his second letter to me, Roth wrote:
I think I'm finished. It's a rather hard thing to say, especially for someone who once felt, or fancied he felt, a truly creative ardor. But one might as well face facts, and try to face them as objectively as possible. I do write occasionally, a kind of protracted reminiscence, but it's not worth much, except psychologically, to discharge some of the potential that would never go anyway. I have rather limited ability; I relied almost entirely on the imagination and when that faded, so did I.
Roth continued his defeatism in later letters as well. Once, he wrote: "Yes, I would like to write, to write as I once wrote, when it had meaning and I seemed to be exploring worlds no one else had before, and the possibility existed for uniqueness and wonder and magnitude. But maybe I was just young. If it doesn't exist, or I can't evoke it, why bother? There's enough pulp in the world."
In spite of Roth's nagging feeling of defeat and frustration, he still writes with exceptional brilliance and power, even if only intermittently.
At about the time he learned that Call It Sleep would be reissued, he was invited to contribute an essay on the last twenty-five years of his life, by the editor of Commentary. Eventually, though reluctantly, he did so. In this essay, he re-echoed the thoughts earlier stated in his letters to me, but here they were more carefully phrased.
"By now," he wrote, "I console myself with the thought that my creative powers, such as they were, even though fully employed, would be on the decline anyway, and by now I would have met myself perhaps with certain volumes published, and conscious of a certain modicum of acclaim, and in possession of certain emoluments, to be sure. What difference does it make? The years would have been over in any event. Poor solace, I know. The mind shuttles and reminds. We go this way only once; and shuttles again and rejoins: once is enough."
If most of us, passing through only once, can leave behind us a work of art comparable to Call It Sleep, we would have every reason to be proud of ourselves. But it seems to be the fate of many talented writers to see their pride give way to uncertainty, to doubt always that what they are doing is worth doing. Henry Roth carries the heavy burden of the creative writer. He withdraws constantly from society, from his fellow man, and seldom permits us to see him as he truly is. We must, therefore, judge him on his one book.
Call It Sleep describes the inner life of David Schearl, a little Jewish boy who lives with his mother and father in Brownsville Brooklyn, and later, on New York's East Side. David's world is a harsh one, for his father—who is domineering and bitter—jealously harbors a suspicion that his wife has never loved him and that his son David is another man's son. David survives in the nightmare of the big city jungle. He wants desperately to belong, but everywhere, at all corners of life, he finds enemies. Christian boys taunt him; girls flaunt their sex at him; his father, he is convinced, hates him. He has only his mother and her comforting breast, but it is barely enough.
In Hebrew school, David is first praised by his teacher and then tortured. He is deeply aware of the unspoken animosity which shatters the lives of his parents. He exists in a world he never made, but Roth creates of this world a moving series of vignettes, in poetic prose, in experimental language, now tender, now violent.
To the critic in the Jewish field, Call It Sleep is of special importance. 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.
For example, Roth is particularly observant in tracing the relationship between David's mother and a man named Luter, a close friend of David's father. The passages involving Luter and David's mother are utilized, in part, to depict David's gradual discovery of sex. Roth offers a keen insight into the attitude of a boy who slowly realizes that his own mother is an object of sexual desire. In a later sequence, the street boys call David to join them in peeping at a naked woman, who, horror of horrors, turns out to be his own mother! But more subtly, this is how Roth suggests jealousy on David's part:
Luter, his eyes narrowed by a fixed yawn, was staring at his mother, at her hips. For the first time, David was aware of how her flesh, confined by the skirt, formed separate molds against it. He felt suddenly bewildered, struggling with something in his mind that would not become a thought.
David's love for his mother is deep and when Roth writes of the boy's mother, the prose in the novel sings. The book is full of heavy dialect-spelling, but, from time to time, it suddenly becomes clearly and deliberately lucid.
There is the passage where David's mother talks to her little son about Europe and the death of her own grandmother. Recalling the agony of death, David's mother says: "She looked so frail in death, in her shroud—how shall I tell you, my son? Like early winter snow. And I thought to myself even then, let me look deeply into her face for surely she will melt before my eyes."
As he listens to his beloved mother, David thinks: "I was near her. I was part of her. Oh, it was good being here. He watched her every movement hungrily."
But he is not yet done with his probing of her mood and death seems terrible to him.
"But when do they wake up, mama?" he asks.
Sadly, his mother replies, "There is nothing left to waken."
"But sometime, mama," he persists.
His mother remains the realist and says, "Not here, if anywhere. They say there is a heaven and in heaven they waken. But I myself do not believe it. May God forgive me for telling you this. But it's all I know. I know only that they are buried in the dark earth and names last a few more lifetimes on their gravestones." And the boy listens and thinks, "The dark. In the dark earth. Eternal years. It was a terrible revelation."
The scenes in the cheder, or Hebrew school, are both realistic and idealistic. The aggravated melamed, or teacher, is irritated and frustrated. The children of the New York immigrant Jews want to tear themselves away from their religious studies, but they fear their teacher. He uses a stick on them, shouts at them, but is delighted when one of them shows an aptitude for study. David is a good boy; he is willing to learn. The letters of the Hebrew alphabet come to him easily, and the blessings and prayers trip from his youthful lips. The teacher likes him for that. But the moment David becomes daring in class, or does something he shouldn't, the teacher—to whom Torah is of paramount importance—becomes a scourge and a tormentor. There is violence in these sketches, but the novelist writes out of love and understanding—and knowledge.
These are elements which have for a long time 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. David wants to belong to something. His home is breaking up. The streets are too tough for him. Sex, as it is introduced to him by a sluttish child, frightens him. This is why he is attracted to the rosary of a Catholic street friend. The rosary becomes a symbol of belonging. How he is willing to allow his friend to "woo" his cousin Esther in order to obtain the rosary beads is touching, persuasive and sad at the same time. 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.
It is no wonder that Leslie Fielder has been praising Henry Roth's novel for years. "No one," he has written, "has ever distilled such poetry and wit from the counterpoint between the maimed English and the subtle Yiddish of the immigrant. No one has ever reproduced so sensitively the terror of family life in the imagination of a child caught between two cultures." Fiedler has added that Call It Sleep is "a specifically Jewish book, the best single book by a Jew about Jewishness written by an American, certainly through the thirties and perhaps ever."
Professor Walter Rideout, author of The Radical Novel in America, looks at Call It Sleep not as a Jewish book but as an American novel. In an essay in American Jewish Archives (October 1959) Professor Rideout stated that:
Call It Sleep is a truly brilliant performance, one of the best first novels which I have ever read…. What makes the novel so extraordinary is its seamless web of concrete and abstract, of reality and symbol, of earth and spirit. Many of the events are grossly physical and are described in revolting detail; yet even these become incandescent with the intensity of a mystic's vision as symbol, in the Transcendentalist phrase, flowers out of fact. The language, too, represents the same unity of opposites; it moves back and forth effortlessly from a precisely heard and rendered everyday speech, complete with oath and obscenity, to the apocalyptic imagery of David's own thoughts. The result is to give the reader the sense of himself experiencing all the levels of a child's inner and outer world and of himself coming to accept the repulsive, the ugly, the horrifying along with the clean, the beautiful, the loving, as necessary parts of life's self-contradictory wholeness.
Maxwell Geismar, in his critical introduction to the new edition of Call It Sleep, calls it the definitive novel of a "side-walk-and-gutter generation" which Roth describes better than anyone else, and he suggests that the descendants of these Jews are to be found in the novels of Herman Wouk. "Yes," Geismar writes, "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!" Geismar goes further in his analysis and remarks that "in terms of modern psychology the family trio at the center of Call It Sleep is a classic example of the oedipal relation—describedso 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 a childhood and adolescence, based on the Electra-complex of father-daughter love, with the same stress of the tragic 'reality' of existence."
Meyer Levin, who himself is a novelist of substance and solidity, remarks that "most of the book tells of David Schearl's life from his sixth to his eighth year. It tells of the life of his mother and father, as seen through the eyes of this child. 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."
Quite apart from Henry Roth's remarkable achievement in recreating the mood, tension and agony of childhood he also has managed to bring off a most unusual final section of the book, in which he borrows from James Joyce's stream-of-consciousness method and concludes his book in crackling, beautiful prose.
David flees his home after a violent fight between his mother and father and he nearly electrocutes himself by placing a piece of iron into the crack of the streetcar tracks, thus calling forth a power flash. Geismar interprets this scene as the young hero finding the "light of God" in the third rail of the trolley-car line. He adds that the "power" which convulses his body makes him a man. There is no question that there is powerful symbolism in the final section of the novel called, quite simply, "The Rail." The reader, however, must submit himself to the cumulative power of the prose to realize how difficult a task Henry Roth set for himself and how well he succeeded.
Here is the final passage of the book, which offers a sample of Roth's prose and demonstrates anew that the skill of Henry Roth has not been surpassed by modern prose masters. David's mother suggests to him that he go to sleep and forget the horrible experience through which he has just lived. He agrees to try:
He might as well call it sleep. It was only toward sleep that every wink of the eyelids could strike a spark into the cloudy tinder of the dark, kindle out of shadowy corners of the bedroom such myriad and such vivid jets of images—of the glint on titled beards, of the uneven shine on roller skates, of the dry light on grey stone steps, of the tapering glitter of rails, of the oily sheen on the night-smooth rivers, of the glow on thin blonde hair, red faces, of the glow on the outstretched, open palms of legions upon legions of hands hurtling toward him. He might as well call it sleep. It was only toward sleep that ears had power to cull again and reassemble the shrill cry, the hoarse voice, the scream of fear, the bells, the thick-breathing, the roar of crowds and all sounds that lay fermenting in the vats of silence and the past. It was only toward sleep one knew himself still lying on the cobbles, felt the cobbles under him, and over him and scudding ever toward him like a black foam, the perpetual blur of shod and running feet, the broken shoes, new shoes, stubby, pointed, caked, polished, buniony, pavement-beveled, lumpish, under skirts, under trousers, shoes, over one and through one, and feel them all and feel, not pain, not terror, but strangest triumph, strangest acquiescence. One might as well call it sleep. He shut his eyes.
Call It Sleep is being read avidly by critics in the 1960's, as it was in the 1930's. It is not being overlooked; it is being discussed and analyzed.
Hollywood producers, television personalities, musical comedy writers and paperback publishers are reading it carefully, hoping to find in its pages something which will bring them new fortunes.
Meanwhile Henry Roth continues to live quietly on a byroad in Maine. He is satisfied to have produced his one novel. The rest of us can only regret that he has never given us a second book. But we must be grateful for Call It Sleep.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1934
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 attention.
In its deepest impress, Call It Sleep was alien to the spirit of the times. The politically radical critics then dominating the New York literary scene had enough taste to honor Roth for composing an impressive work, but they did not really know what to make of it. They could not bend the novel to their polemical purposes, and some of them, one suspects, must have felt that the severe detachment with which Roth presented the inner life of a Jewish immigrant boy between the ages of 6 and 8 was an evasion of the social needs of the moment.
Time passed, thousands of cluttering novels came and went each year, and Call It Sleep faded from sight. So too did its author, about whom vague rumors arose that he became a hospital attendant in upstate New York and then a duck farmer in Maine. But if most books die and a very few live, some just survive precariously in a kind of underground existence. Copies of Call It Sleep became hard to find, but all through the 1940's and 1950's a number of serious critics, writing in such magazines as Commentary and Partisan Review, remained loyal to the book, and kept insisting that it was a neglected masterpiece which people ought to read and some publisher reprint.
In 1960 a small firm (Pageant Books, Inc., now Cooper Square Publishers) did put out the novel in hardcovers, but to little effect. Now, with some accompanying flourishes, Avon has issued the novel in paperback and this time, one hopes, it will finally gain the public it deserves. As with all belated acts of justice, there is something bitter in the thought of the many years that have had to go by; still, it is an act of justice, and a welcome one.
Call It Sleep is one of those novels—there are not very many—which patiently enter and then wholly exhaust an experience. Taking fierce imaginative possession of its subject, the novel scrutinizes it with an almost unnerving intensity, yet also manages to preserve a sense of distance and dispassion. The central figure is David Schearl, an overwrought, phobic and dangerously imaginative little boy. He has come to New York with his east European Jewish parents, and now, in the years between 1911 and 1913, he is exposed, shock by shock, to the blows of slum life.
Everything is channeled through the child's perceptions. For considerable sections, David's uncorrected apprehensions of the world become the substance of the narrative, a mixture of stony realism and ecstatic phantasmagoria. Yet the book is not at all the kind of precious or narrowing study of a child's sensibility that such a description might suggest; for Henry Roth has taken pains to root it deeply in the external world, in the streets, the tenements, the other children David encounters. We are locked into the experience of a child, but are not limited to his grasp of it.
One of Roth's admirers, the English critic Walter Allen, has elsewhere described this aspect of Call It Sleep very well: "David recreates, transmutes, the world he lives in not into any simple fantasy of make-believe—we're a long way here either from Tom Sawyer or the young Studs Lonigan—but with the desperate, compulsive imagination of a poet. He is, indeed, for all the grotesque difference in milieu, much closer to the boy Wordsworth of 'The Prelude.'"
Call It Sleep yields a picture of brutality in the slums quite as oppressive as can be found in any 1930's novel—and because Henry Roth has neither political nor literary preconceptions to advance, neither revolutionary rhetoric nor fatalistic behaviorism, his picture is more authoritative than that of most slum novels. Through the transfiguring imagination of David, Call It Sleep also achieves an obbligato of lyricism such as few American novels can match. David Schearl, in his besieged and quavering presence, exemplifies the force of G.M. Doughty's epigram: "The Semites are like to a man sitting in a cloaca to the eyes, and whose brow touches heaven."
"… a cloaca to the eyes." That is the world of Brownsville and the Lower East Side into which the child is thrust. Quarrelsome grown-ups, marauding toughs, experiments in voyeurism and precocious sex, dark tenements with rat-infested cellars and looming stairways, an overwhelming incident in which David's father, a milkman, whips two derelicts who have stolen a few bottles of milk, the oppressive comedy of Hebrew school where children cower before and learn to torment an enraged rabbi—all these comprise the outer life of the boy, described by Roth with deliberate and gritty detail. One is reminded of Dickens's evocation of childhood terrors, and Roth certainly shares with Dickens the vision of an unmeditated war between the child and society; but nothing in Dickens is so completely and gravely caught up, as is Call It Sleep, with the child's vision of the world as nightmare. Yet—and this seems to me a remarkable achievement—Roth never acquiesces in the child's delusions, never sentimentalizes or quivers over his David. In the economy of psychic life, the book makes abundantly clear, the outer world's vitality and toughness have their claims too.
"… and whose brow touches heaven." For David heaven is his mother's lap, the warming banter of her faintly ironic voice. Genya Schearl, immigrant wife who speaks only Yiddish, a tall and pale beauty, fearful of her violent-tempered husband, yet glowing with feminine grace and chastened sexuality—this marvelous figure should some day be honored as one of the great women of American literature, a fit companion to Hawthorne's Hester Prynne. Genya brings radiance and dignity to every page on which she appears. We cannot help share David's craving for her, even as we recognize its morbid elements; we see her most powerfully through the eyes of the child, as the enclosing mother who provides total security, but we also sense what David has begun uneasily to sense, that she has a complex emotional and bodily life beyond the reach of the child.
As we would say in our contemporary glibness, it is a classical Oedipal situation: the troubled delicate boy, the passionate mother, the inflamed father whom the child looks upon as an agent of punishment and who, in turn, feels himself cut off from the household's circle of love. An Oedipal situation indeed—but in our mindless jargon we forget that this phrase refers to one of the most sustaining experiences a human being can know. Henry Roth, who seems to have been happily innocent of Freudian hypotheses, provides in Call It Sleep a recognizable "case," but far more important, an experience superbly alive and fluid. He writes:
"It is summer," she pointed to the window, "the weather grows warm. Whom will you refresh with the icy lips the water lent you?"
"Oh!" he lifted his smiling face.
"You remember nothing," she reproached him, and with a throaty chuckle, lifted him in her arms.
Sinking his fingers in her hair, David kissed her brow. The faint familiar warmth and odor of her skin and hair.
"There!" she laughed, nuzzling his cheek, "but you've waited too long; the sweet chill has dulled.
Lips for me," she reminded him "must always be cool as the water that wet them." She put him down.
Away from his mother, David is torn by fears: fears of the fingering sexuality he discovers in the street, fears—also hopes—that he is not really the child of his father, fears of the rabbi who curses a fate requiring him to teach the intractable young. At the climax of the book David runs away from home, fleeing the anger of his father who has caught him playing with a rosary and believes him implicated in an act of depravity.
There follows a brilliantly rendered flight through the streets, composed in a Joycean stream-of-consciousness that is broken with fragments of gutter talk, street noise and left-wing oratory. For David, in whose mind a scriptural passage about the fiery coal God put to the lips of Isaiah becomes linked to the terrifying flash of the live rail on a streetcar track, there is now an overmastering urge to sacrifice and cleanse himself. He thrusts the ladle of a milk can into the slot between the car tracks which carries the live rail, suffers a violent shock, and then, recovering, harbors a vision in which all guilts become assuaged and there may yet be a way of containing the terrors of the world.
The writing in Call It Sleep is consistently strong. When speaking in his own right, as disciplined narrator, Roth provides a series of powerful urban vignettes: slum kids fishing for pennies through the grate of a cellar, the ghastly little candy store in which David's Aunt Bertha, a red-haired gargoyle, bitterly trades with urchins, the freedom of tenement roofs on which David learns to climb.
Roth is even better at rendering varieties of speech. With a hard impersonality he records the patois of immigrant children several generations back, and because he never condescends to them or tries to exploit them as local color, he transforms their mutilated language into a kind of poetry:
My ticher calls id Xmas, bod de kids call id Chrizmas. Id's a goyish holiday anyways. Wunst I hanged op a stockin' in Brooklyn. Bod mine fodder pud in eggshells wid terlit paper an' a piece f'om a ol' kendle. So he leffed w'en he seen me.
And here the rabbi curses his "scholars" with a brimstone eloquence:
"May your skull be dark!… and your eyes be dark and your fate be of such dearth and darkness that you will call a poppyseed the sun and a carroway the moon…. Away! Or I'll empty my bitter heart upon you."
But when Genya speaks, Roth transposes her Yiddish into a pure and glowing English, reflecting in prose the ultimate serenity of her character.
Intensely Jewish in tone and setting, Call It Sleep rises above all the dangers that beset the usual ghetto novel: it does not deliquesce into nostalgia, nor sentimentalize poverty and parochialism. The Jewish immigrant milieu happens to be its locale, quite as Dublin is Joyce's and Mississippi Faulkner's. A writer possessed by his materials, driven by a need to recapture the world of his youth, does not choose his setting: it chooses him. And to be drawn into Roth's trembling world, the reader need have no special knowledge about Jewish life, just as he need have no special knowledge about the South in order to enjoy Faulkner.
Call It Sleep ends without any explicit moral statement. A human experience scoured to its innermost qualities can take on a value of its own, beyond the convenience of gloss or judgment. 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.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5000
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 Saroyan's The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze, and Evelyn Waugh's A Handful of Dust. The same year saw the publication of forty-three other works considered memorable enough to be listed in the second edition of Annals of English Literature (1961). Call It Sleep is not listed, nor is the novel or its author referred to, in such compendia as Thorp's American Writing in the Twentieth Century (1960), Herzberg's Reader's Encyclopedia of American Literature (1962), and Burke and Howe's American Authors and Books (revised by Weiss, 1962). A search through the numerous paperback cram-books is equally fruitless.
In an afterword to the present widely-circulated edition, Walter Allen praises Alfred Kazin and Leslie Fiedler for calling attention to Roth's novel, "Fiedler notably in his book Love and Death in the American Novel." In reality, Fiedler mentions the novel in part of a parenthetical sentence in Love and Death (1960), devotes a short paragraph to it in No! In Thunder (1960), and briefly discusses it again in Waiting for the End (1964). In the August, 1960, issue of Commentary, however, Feidler presents a full treatment of the novel. Kazin contributes a blurb to the latest edition, but does not take up the novel in his essay collections, among them Contemporaries (1962), which gathers some seventy-three articles in its 513 pages. In the last ten years there has been a scattering of articles in the literary journals. Call It Sleep is discussed in Rideout's The Radical Novel in the United States (1956) and by Kazin and Fiedler in a symposium on "The Most Neglected Books of the Past 25 Years" in The American Scholar (1956). On the whole, hunting Roth's novel in indexes is useful mainly for reminding the reader that it has been a long time since he looked at Jack London's Call of the Wild.
Yet the novel was not treated with indifference when it appeared in December of 1934. F.T. Marsh, in Books, called it "the most accurate and profound study of an American slum childhood that has yet appeared," and concluded that he would "like to see 'Call it Sleep' win the Pulitzer Prize." The Boston Transcript termed it an "exceptional book"; Horace Gregory, in The Nation, found Roth's novel "an experience which few readers of contemporary fiction can afford to ignore"; The New Republic saw "rare powers and densities" in the work; Lewis Gannett, for the New York Herald Tribune, thought the novel suggestive of "the great Russians." Reviewers in the New York Times and Saturday Review of Literature were shocked by the frankness of Roth's language, which, if nothing else, should have given the novel a certain notoriety. Only certain of the leftist press, as Fiedler points out, were able to dismiss Call It Sleep: the age required that a novel about the slums invoke the class struggle; Roth offered poetry instead.
In its day Call It Sleep did not do badly. The ailing firm of R. O. Ballou gave it two printings; some four thousand copies were put into circulation, a good showing for a first novel in the Depression (but, by comparison, Hemingway's Winner Take Nothing was given a first printing of some twenty thousand copies in 1933, his Green Hills of Africa a first printing of some ten thousand copies in 1935). In 1960, Pageant Books re-issued the novel in hard covers. This impressive edition, with prefatory essays by Harold U. Ribalow, Maxwell Geismar, and Meyer Levin, remains in print; at the time of its first appearance, however, it attracted little attention. All the more amazing that Avon's paperback edition, issued in October, 1964, should have brought the great awakening.
Call It Sleep was thirty years, almost to the month, coming into its own with the public. Was it brought in on the tide of reawakened interest in the 'thirties? Did it need a period when competition from established authors was slack? Whatever the answers, the story of Henry Roth suggests that the one-book author can rarely maintain a reputation in a society awash in books; and it forces us to wonder how many other neglected masterpieces are awaiting their miraculous year.
Call It Sleep may seem at first glance to fall into the tradition of urban naturalism. The novel could stand its ground there, rivaling Farrell, Dreiser, and the other recorders of slum life. Roth's account of three years (1911–13) in the life of the immigrant boy David Schearl recreates the qualities of life in the melting pot with remarkable richness. The novel is full of the lore of Jewish life, the clamor of the streets, the stench of the tenements. Roth is a virtuoso of language; his street dialects are a coarse, dissonant music, rising and falling through the length of the novel. He knows the psychology of the city child: David's fear of the cellars, his exhilaration on the rooftops, must strike deep into the memory of any reader who grew up in the tenements and apartments of a big city. Roth knows the city child's sense of the terrible distance between a third-floor apartment and the street, knows his panic at finding himself lost in a "new" neighborhood only two blocks away. Living in the consciousness of David from his sixth to his ninth year, we are uniquely reminded of that chaotic mixture of savagery and beauty that is city life.
Equally, Call It Sleep belongs in the company of the great Bildungsroman. As a document of developing consciousness it is closely related to Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, sharing that novel's concern with the peculiar mixture of fascination and revulsion produced by certain types of experience. For David Schearl, sex is such an experience. His lessons at the Hebrew school are a source of both fear and irresistible curiosity. His first real friendship produces both triumph and defeat. His home offers both security (the mother) and rejection (the father). Thus, learning the lessons of experience, growing up, becomes for David—as it does for Stephen Dedalus—a matter of surviving and reconciling the very diversity of existence.
The success of Call It Sleep, however, rests ultimately upon factors other than the ease with which it competes with other novels of a certain genre. Something must be said about its extraordinary intensity and about its craftsmanship.
Nineteen thirty-four began with a major event in publishing, the first American edition of Joyce's Ulysses. When Call It Sleep was published eleven months later, reviewers were struck by similarities between the two novels. Comparison of the two is inevitable: both make massive use of stream-of-consciousness; both are "noisy," their authors fascinated by the sheer clamor of interior and exterior experience. There are certain similarities of characterization. The placid femininity of Genya Schearl relates her to Molly Bloom; there are moments when the rabbi Yidel Pankower conjures up the alienated Leopold.
Certainly both can be called—using the term loosely—Freudian novels, novels based upon the assumption that total character can be revealed only when overt acts and speech are presented in relation to the freely associative flow of psychic experience. Roth's technical handling of this assumption is often highly Joycean: one might guess that both the Sirens and Circe chapters of Ulysses, in particular, exercised a strong influence on Roth's presentation of the events in Chapter XXI of Call It Sleep, where young David Schearl runs through a wild storm of exterior and interior experience surrounding the climactic act of the novel.
Call It Sleep, however, is technically far less elaborate than Ulysses, and it is therefore surprising to find that the experience of reading it is somewhat more intense. The reason, perhaps, is that while Ulysses lays bare the complex psychic experience of three characters who may lie in some degree outside ourselves (Leopold, Molly, Stephen), Call It Sleep, by focusing on childhood, draws us into an area of intense psychic experience that we have shared in common, and that is at once simpler and more piquant. We confront the basic traumas in Call It Sleep, their variant effects in Ulysses. We have little choice but to rediscover ourselves in David Schearl; all the terrors, all the joys of childhood seem to dwell in his consciousness. In a very real sense, reading Call It Sleep is a psychoanalytic experience, capable of producing an unusual degree of emotional discomfort in the reader.
This awareness of being deeply touched is present in much of the criticism the novel has attracted so far. Walter Allen calls Roth's work "the most powerful evocation of the terrors of childhood ever written." Leslie Fiedler observes that any element of social criticism in the novel is subordinate to "the passion and suffering of Roth's child hero." Harold U. Ribalow mentions "Roth's remarkable achievement in recreating the mood, tension and agony of childhood."
Yet, as appropriate as such reactions are, it would be misleading to suggest that Call It Sleep is simply an emotional tour de force. While criticism of the novel has been enthusiastic and perceptive (and has, in fact, found much to discuss besides its emotional impact), there is room for further comment on certain subtleties of Roth's craft. It can be suggested, for instance, that the prologue to Call It Sleep not only provides a graphic opening but is also a source of basic themes and metaphors for the whole novel. We are taken in the prologue to a steamer leaving Ellis Island in 1907:
the year that was destined to bring the greatest number of immigrants to the shores of the United States. All that day, as on all the days since spring began, her decks had been thronged by hundreds upon hundreds of foreigners, natives from almost every land in the world, the joweled close-cropped Teuton, the full-bearded Russian, the scraggly-whiskered Jew, and among them Slovack peasants with docile faces, smooth-cheeked and swarthy Armenians, pimply Greeks, Danes with wrinkled eyelids. All day her decks had been colorful, a matrix of the vivid costumes of other lands, the speckled green-and-yellow aprons, the flowered kerchief, embroidered homespun, the silver-braided sheepskin vest, the gaudy scarfs, yellow boots, fur caps, caftans, dull gabardines. All day the guttural, the high-pitched voices, the astonished cries, the gasps of wonder, reiterations of gladness had risen from her decks in a motley billow of sound.
Among the immigrants are David Schearl, then about two years old, and his mother, Genya. Albert, the father, had come to America earlier and the family is now to be reunited. But in Albert's behaviour there is a coldness markedly different from the demonstrativeness of the immigrant families around him. His remarks to his wife and son are contemptuous and accusatory. In a gesture full of shame and pathetic pride, he snatches David's old-country hat and hurls it into the river in order that his boy will not look like an immigrant.
It is a powerful beginning for the novel, and valuable as such, but it is also a scene of considerable resonance. First, it establishes the Schearls as travelers in an alien culture, a circumstance that colors the whole novel. As Marie Syrkin points out, the Schearls are a counterpart of the Holy Family seeking refuge in an inimical land. Second, the prologue establishes the other and more profound kind of alienation existing between mother and son, on one hand, and father on the other. Finally, the prologue suggests a metaphor that underlies the entire work: the voyage that David must take into the alien world of complex experience. In this sense, the sheltering arms of Genya are the old world; David is the immigrant in life who must leave their haven and seek his own meanings in the new culture of maturity. Albert's tearing the hat from David's head and hurling it into the river becomes an abrupt and brutal symbol not only of the father's pride but of the beginning of David's harrowing journey toward some distant station where he can come to terms with the chaos of experience. The gesture is rounded off at the end of the novel when David, brought home with a burned foot after an experience that has had precisely this reconciling effect, is covered with bedclothes by a gentle interne.
Considering the basic theme of the prologue, it is not surprising to find how often the novel presents David literally in motion: the lost David running through the streets of Brownsville looking for his apartment house; running, after his first encounter with the electrified rail; running, after Leo seduces his cousin Esther; running, after telling the rabbi a fantastic suspicion about his parentage; and, finally, running from the fury of his father toward his second rendezvous with the "fatal glory" of the streetcar track. David's flights are at once a perfectly natural record of childhood behaviour and a metaphor of his chaotic progress toward maturity. It is in the prologue that the basic motion of this metaphor is generated.
The scene in which David touches a milk-ladle to the electrified rail of the streetcar line illustrates the care with which Henry Roth unites his themes at the end of the novel. Throughout Call It Sleep, David is perplexed by his growing awareness of sexuality. In an early episode he is uneasily conscious that his mother's body is attractive to Albert's foreman, Luter. In later episodes, David is given a disgusting lesson in the physical mysteries of sex by a crippled girl of the neighborhood; he is horrified to learn that some older boys have been spying on his mother as she bathes; he listens in fascination to the sexual play of Leo and Esther in a coal-bin. Throughout the novel, his days are punctuated by the coarse sexuality of city street-language.
Toward the middle of the novel, David is taken to the Hebrew school, the cheder, where he becomes enthralled by a passage of scripture in which Isaiah is described as having been touched on the lips by a fiery coal, allowing him to speak in the presence of God. In the climactic scene of Call It Sleep, as David seeks his own source of all-clarifying light in the streetcar track, the theme of sexuality and the theme of David's quest for the understanding of Isaiah are united. As he moves toward the track, his interior monologue is set against fragments of the sex-obsessed conversations of the surrounding neighborhood. In David's own thoughts, the act of producing light is expressed in terms that have obvious sexual overtones:
Now! Now I gotta, In the crack,
remember. In the crack be born.
When the ladle, thrust between the lips of the track, makes contact with the electrified rail, the result is described in an orgastic explosion of poetic prose:
Power! Power like a paw, titanic power,
ripped through the earth and slammed
against his body and shackled him
where he stood. Power! Incredible,
barbaric power! A blast, a siren of light
within him, rending, quaking, fusing his
brain and blood to a fountain of flame,
vast rockets in a searing spray! Power!
The hawk of radiance raking him with
talons, of fire, battering his skull with
a beak of fire, braying his body with
pinions of intolerable light. And he
writhed without motion in the clutch of
a fatal glory, and his brain swelled
and dilated till it dwarfed the galaxies
in a bubble of refulgence—Recoiled, the
last screaming nerve clawing for survival.
He kicked—once. Terrific rams of darkness
collided; out of their shock space
toppled into havoc. A thin scream wobbled
through the spirals of oblivion, fell like
a brand on water, his-s-s-s-s-ed—
Thus the two themes are united: the generative touch of the fiery coal upon the lips of Isaiah is equated with the generative act of sex. David's struggles with sexuality, as well as with his total environment, are reconciled in a moment that relates the act of sex to the creative energy of God. The subsidence of action that follows, terminating in sleep, carries these implications to their logical conclusion.
Considering the amount of creative energy displayed by Call It Sleep, it is astonishing that no major work by Henry Roth has followed it. The pattern of tension and relaxation in the final pages of his novel has, curiously, proved to be prophetic of Roth's literary career.
Yet Roth has not been completely silent over the years. Four short pieces have appeared over his name, two in the New Yorker and two in Commentary. The first New Yorker piece, "Somebody Always Grabs the Purple," appeared sixteen years after Call It Sleep; the second, "Petey and Yotsee and Mario," sixteen years after the first. Neither story is of great importance. "Somebody" gives us Sammy Farber, "eleven or twelve years old," at a New York branch library. He is looking for the Purple Fairy Book, aware that he might be considered too old for fairy stories. "'Everybody says I'm too big to read fairy books. My mother calls 'em stories with a bear.'" The determined Sammy discovers that another boy is reading the book—"'somebody always grabs the Purple'"—and tries to talk him out of it, without success. The story ends with a suggestion that Sammy intends to follow the boy home and get "the Purple" one way or another.
"Petey and Yotsee and Mario" is a vignette: the Jewish narrator remembers when, as a child, he almost drowned in the East River, but was saved by three neighborhood boys. His mother baked a "Jewish cake" as a reward for the boys, and the narrator was certain they would laugh at the gesture. Instead, the heroes ate the cake "with gusto," as the mother was confident they would: "'You were afraid they wouldn't like Jewish cake. What kind of people would they be if they didn't like Jewish cake? Would they have even saved you?'"
While both stories draw their materials from essentially the same culture as that of Call It Sleep, and are expertly written, they are minor items. It is possible to see in them, of course, some continuing interest in the educative experiences of childhood; in the main, the stories only remind us of a pleasant time when life among ethnic groups in New York was still possible as a subject for gentle humor.
The sixteen-year cycle of Roth's publishing was broken by the two pieces that appeared in 1959 and 1960. Both depart from the world of Call It Sleep and are particularly interesting because they attempt, through the medium of the parable, to account for their author's inability (or unwillingness) to go on producing. The first of these, "At Times in Flight," is an impressive piece.
Like Sherwood Anderson's "Death in the Woods," Roth's parable is an attempt to lay bare certain problems of the literary artist. But while Anderson's story suggests the processes through which the artist understands and makes use of his materials, "At Times in Flight" reveals why, in Roth's case, his materials became no longer valid. The story begins with a reminiscence of an artists' colony that Roth attended in the summer of 1938 (we must assume that the "I" of the parable is Roth; that the artists' colony, called "Z," was Yaddo, near Saratoga Springs; and that the "Martha" of the story became Roth's wife Muriel). The purpose of the colony was to provide a setting for unhampered creativity, but most of the inmates "loafed or spent a great deal of time in frivolity or idle chatter." Roth was engaged in a second novel: "It had gone badly—aims had become lost, purpose, momentum lost. A profound change seemed to be taking place within me in the way I viewed my craft, in my objectivity."
While there, the parable relates, Roth was courting a young woman "bred and raised in the best traditions of New England and the Middle West, the most wholesome traditions." Around them the essentially trivial life of the colony went on: overeating, playing charades, discussing the civil war in Spain. One diversion Roth and Martha found was going into Saratoga Springs to drink the waters, which bubbled, free, from a fountain at the spa. The water appealed to Roth because it reminded him of the seltzer water his family had bought during his childhood on the East Side. It was "not easily obtainable" then, but here he could have all he wanted. Of those at the colony, only Martha shared his enthusiasm.
Another diversion he and Martha shared was watching the training of horses for the nearby track:
as we drove past in the early morning, we would see what I suppose was one of the usual sights at race tracks, but to us a novelty: the grooms or trainers bent low over their mounts and urging them on for a longer or shorter gallop. A horse is a beautiful thing. A fleet, running horse, and we would stop sometimes on our way and watch one course along the white railing. Enormously supple and swift, they seemed at times in flight. The dirt beneath their hooves seemed less spurred by their hooves than drawn away beneath them in their magnificent stride.
One afternoon, they decided to watch a horse race, and took a path "not frequently trodden" through the woods to a point beside the track far from the grandstand. "We seemed to be, as we virtually were, in some coign or niche where we could behold the excitement in a remote and almost secret way." The horses seemed "tiny and remote," the whole event an affair of toys. But as the race began and the horses came nearer, Roth realized that his perspective was changing:
They were no longer toy horses and toy riders. They were very real and growing in reality every second. One could see the utter seriousness of the thing, the supreme effort, the rivalry as horse and man strained every muscle to forge to the front. Oh, it was no toy spectacle; they were in fierce and bitter competition, vying horse and man, even the mounted man, vying for the lead, and the glowing eyeballs and the shrunken jockeys, the quiet, the enormous suppleness and the cry.
As the horses neared the couple, one, with his rider, fell. The jockey rose and limped away, but the horse had broken a leg: "There was something terribly ungainly and grotesque about his motion" as he ran after the pack. A few more steps and the horse fell to the track. Booted men in a truck came to shoot the animal. Martha tried to leave, but Roth restrained her. She was afraid of being shot: "Bullets richochet. I'm afraid." Roth stayed to watch the "grave and dread … event."
I watched them load the carcass aboard the truck, and for some reason a similar scene on the East Side of long ago returned—an image from long-vanished childhood of a cop shooting a horse fallen in the snow, and the slow, winch of the big green van that hauled the animal aboard later. So that was the end? Ars brevis, vita longa.
"'The odd thing is,'" Roth told Martha, "'when I saw him going down, I felt a sense of loss.'" They made their way back to the colony, Martha leading the way because she had a "better sense of direction," Roth musing over the scene they had left, "a horse destroyed when the race became real."
In a note published with the story, Roth says, "The main meaning of the story to me lies in the projection, so to speak, of the inadequacy of a man's art in the face of modern realities, and the implied decision to make a new start." The horse race, then, is life, the fallen horse Roth's art. Call It Sleep was a novel about childhood, of events seen far off, as the beginning of the race was seen. As long as he wrote about childhood, there was a certain comfortable distance between Roth and his material. It was an art that was not quite grounded in reality, like the horses in training that "seemed at times in flight." The trips to Saratoga Springs to the bubbling fountain also suggest a continuing attempt to reuse the experiences of childhood. It is a kind of escape; it comes easy, the waters are now "free." But that "path not frequently trodden" leads Roth to a sudden confrontation with present reality. He is no longer viewing events across a distance of time. The track of time, of maturing experience, has brought his art into the present and his art has failed; the only merciful act is to destroy it. Martha, also an artist, flinches and fears a "richochet," but Roth watches, hearing the "oddly insignificant" report of the pistol that dispatches a childhood-centered art that is no longer viable. It is art that is short, life that is long. Roth expressed the problem more simply in a letter to Harold U. Ribalow; "Apparently [Call It Sleep] grew out of a soil that became sterile…. I haven't the fable."
"The Dun Dakotas" is half a frank expression of Roth's resignation to the failure of his creativity and half a rather enigmatic "yarn." There was something in his era, he asserts, "fatal to creative gusto." He once wondered about what had happened to his art, but he realizes now that "one has to put a term to things." He can accept the fact that there are stages in the continuum of life: "I was a writer once, just as I was an eager East Side kid before that, and a mopey Harlem youth in the interim, who am now a waterfowl farmer." He lives now in present reality. In the parable that follows, Roth tries to express the problem of his generation. He tells of a group of soldiers who went out to map the Bad Lands in the 1870's and were stopped by hostile Indians. To placate the Chief, they gambled with him and lost all their money. When they asked the Chief whether they could pass, he folded his arms and fell silent. Only after "a long dream or a long thought" did he motion them on.
My generation, Roth seems to say, set out to map the Waste Land ("You can imagine the gnarled terrain, or consult an encyclopedia, or consult Mr. Eliot") but were stopped in the process by the hostility of the Waste Landers, or perhaps the hostility of events. We surrendered as much of ourselves as we could, but we still weren't allowed to go on. There was nothing to do but wait:
That was as far as I got for over twenty-five years, waiting for the decision of the Chief who had turned into stone or into legend, waiting for a man to decide what history was in the dun Dakotas, waiting for a sanction; and oddly enough it would have to be the victim who would provide it, though none could say who was the victim, who the victor. And only now I can tell you, and perhaps it's a good sign—at least for my generation, who waited with me—though perhaps it's too late.
"Will the Chief let us pass?" the Scout repeated. "Always remember Great Chief."
"And the Chief unfolded his arms and motioned them the way of their journey. "Go now," he said.
And so the sanction that was denied Roth when he began "a novel about a Communist living in the Midwest" finally came, "though perhaps it's too late."
The story that lies behind these two parables is, in many ways, unique in its revelation of a problem of the American writer. Roth, like so many of his compatriots, started with the myth of childhood, and with the materials of that myth he wrote a remarkable novel. Then he was faced with the problem of where to go next, and the answer seemed to lie in a novel that would deal in some way with adult, political problems of the thirties. He had discovered, as "At Times in Flight" reveals, that the myth of childhood was no longer challenging or useful (while the two later New Yorker pieces are about childhood, they obviously represent no new inspiration); but he had also discovered that he was unequipped to deal with the present partly because of the failure of his art, partly for extrinsic reasons ("The Dun Dakotas"). And so, Roth simply stopped. The themes were there but the embodying fable was not.
While we may lament the virtual retirement of a writer who could produce Call It Sleep, it is difficult not to admire his honesty. The path of American literature is strewn with writers who have found themselves in Roth's predicament and have either failed to recognize it or chosen to ignore it. Wolfe kept rewriting himself; Earrell goes on rewriting Studs Lonigan; Salinger seems unable to find a fresh perspective. Hemingway's quality declined when he abandoned his early themes and tried to reflect the immediate crises of the present. Faulkner, in mid-career, felt some necessity to abandon his original lyricism; his rhetorical style of the forties produced his least satisfactory work. In short, the American writer seems frequently to encounter some crisis of the imagination that demands a change of theme or style. Some have simply gone on producing embarrassing imitations of themselves. Others have changed but lost their touch. Faced with such a crisis, Henry Roth dropped his pen and found a new occupation.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5360
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 today that it was when it first appeared in 1934. What has changed, of course, is the way we tend to read the novel.
The history of Call it Sleep is not so much one of unconcern as it is of misunderstanding. The novel was first published in an era dominated by economic depression, social consciousness, and writers like William Faulkner, James T. Farrell and John Dos Passos. Nevertheless, Call it Sleep managed to go through two editions, sell about 4,000 copies, and collect a set of mildly impressive reviews before it slipped quietly into obscurity.
It was not until the publication of Professor Rideout's influential study, The Radical Novel in the United States (1956) that Call it Sleep was once again brought to the attention of American readers. In that same year, both Alfred Kazin and Leslie Fiedler mentioned the novel in a symposium which appeared in The American Scholar under the title, "The Most Neglected Books of the Past 25 Years." Since that time, the popularity of Call it Sleep has been growing rapidly. In 1960, the novel was finally re-published and, in 1964, it was issued in paperback edition.
If nothing else, the rather topsy-turvy business of Call it Sleep's popularity seems to suggest that there are other factors besides a lack of merit which may plunge a novel into obscurity. Novels are, after all, written at a particular time and they suffer all the disadvantages thereof. A "first-rate" novelist is very oten determined by the interests and competition of the age in which he happens to have written. For example, we seldom think of Ben Jonson and Christopher Marlowe as "second-rate" playwrights. However, if we compare them with Shakespeare, the results are painfully clear. This is not to imply, of course, that there is something terrible about being "second-rate." There are, after all, eighth- and ninth-rate authors too. My point is simply that everyone (with the exception of Shakespeare) was at least a "second-rater" during the Elizabethan period.
In the thirties, the really "first-rate" writers were the proletarian novelists who demonstrated a clear and direct social conscience. When we think of the literary scene of the thirties today, the name which looms the largest is certainly Faulkner's: other writers of the period tend to become a bit fuzzy. However, during the thirties themselves, authors like James T. Farrell and John Dos Passos were very much in the running. In a general way, what these authors were reacting against was the Joyce-Proust-Mann notion of putting a great deal of emphasis on the value of an "inner life." For a Farrell or a Dos Passos, the private dilemmas of sensitive souls were not nearly as interesting as where one lived or what job one's father had.
It is, therefore, only natural that Henry Roth's Call it Sleep should have been initially considered as simply one more of the many proletarian novels dealing with poverty-stricken Jews on New York's lower East Side. The novel most frequently compared with Call it Sleep was Michael Gold's Jews without Money (1930) and, as late as 1936, Professor Rideout still felt that the comparison was "an instructive one." According to Rideout, Call it Sleep is not only better than Jews without Money but it is, in fact, "the most distinguished single proletarian novel."
However, to say that Call it Sleep is about poverty on the East Side is to feel that Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is about Irish politics or Lawrence's Sons and Lovers is about coal mining. There were, of course, reviewers who were sympathetic enough to realize that Call it Sleep did not quite fit into the general category of a proletarian novel. As one reviewer commenting for The New Masses put it: "It is a pity that so many young writers drawn from the proletariat can make no better use of their working class experience than as material for instrospective and febrile novels." To be sure, the reviewer was unaware that his off-hand remark was anything more than a statement of dissatisfaction about the "unorthodox" way that novels were being written. However, the use of a "proletarian" milieu as a backdrop against which an "introspective" novel could be written is at the core of Call it Sleep. It is indeed ironic that such a novel should appear at a time when all literature was being read in such a social way. It is, I suppose, doubly ironic that the label of "proletarian novel" (which had originally drained the book of its distinctive character) was the very reason Rideout included it in The Radical Novel in the United States.
The current critical interest in Call it Sleep represents a kind of index to the shifting "hot centers" of literary expression. During the thirties, the Southern agrarians (headed by Faulkner and Co.) had successfully shifted attention from small towns in the Midwest to the post-bellum Southerner's tortured quest for identity. The problems of a George Willard, stifled by the lack of possibilities in Winesburg, Ohio (1919), began to look almost "trivial" when compared to those of a Quentin Compson in Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury (1929).
After World War II, however, the center shifted once again. This time the "city" became the focus of literary attention and, with that shift, the American Jewish novelist finally came into his own. However, the popularity of the Jewish novel was the result of more than a mere change of locale. The Cold War quickly created a situation in which personal insecurity was the rule rather than the exception. The very size and increasing complexity of urban life gave rise to a feeling of mass identification on the one hand and the need for individual identity on the other. If the Jew had been the "outsider" or alienated one, now all men were Jews. Since it was the Jew who had the longest tradition in the psychodynamics of living on the edge, it was the Jewish novelist who emerged as the spokesman for an entire generation of Jews and non-Jews alike.
The re-discovery of a novel like Call it Sleep represents an attempt to discover a distinctly "American-Jewish" identity, by investigating the roots from which we came. Far more than the value of its immediate socio-economic message, the novel projects a world in David Schearl's unconscious which has become a shared condition by 1966. The family unit (treated with warmth in the Yiddish literature of the European ghetto) is now more riddled with the theories of Freud than the practices of writers like Sholom Aleichem. The world of urban New York presents economic opportunities unknown in the shtetl, but it also assumes Kafkaesque proportions. In this sense, David's nightmare world of 1934 is not far from the "reality" of our present condition. To be sure, contemporary readers of Call it Sleep may be drawn to the novel for the most nostalgic of reasons, but the book has more to say than such "reasons" suggest.
With the exception of a short Prologue, David Schearl is the novel's center of consciousness. However, even the Prologue sets the tone of alienation which is to plague David throughout the novel: "Only the small child in her arms (i.e. David) wore a distinctly foreign costume, an impression one got chiefly from the odd, outlandish, blue straw hat on his head with its polka dot ribbons of the same color dangling over each shoulder." David's "difference" (as symbolized by the "outlandish hat") brings out all of his father's latent paranoia: 'Can't you see that those idiots lying back there are watching us already? They're mocking us! What will the others do on the train? He looks like a clown in it. He's the cause of all this trouble any way!' In the next instant his father "scooped the hat from the child's head" and sent it "sailing over the ship's side to the green waters below." The act is heavy with the psychological symbolism and intensity which characterizes the novel. The symbolic castration which introduces David to both America and his father is quite possibly connected with the family name of "Schearl" or "little scissor" in Yiddish.
In fact, the entire Schearl family adheres (almost too perfectly to Freud's notion of what typical families tend to be: David "loves" the mother who will protect and comfort him in adversity and he "hates" the father who is a strict disciplinarian and unbending tyrant. Evidently Roth equated certain movements toward assimilation into American society with Oedipal tension not generally associated with ghetto culture. David's father, after all, had been in America for some time before his wife and son arrive. His hard-boiled cynicism is the result of "golden hopes" which have died only to be replaced by petty jealousies and a variety of psychological fears.
Roth portrays parental roles and emotions in a leitmotif of Freudian symbolism. David's mother is continually associated with flowers. When she chooses a picture, for example, it is "a small patch of ground full of tall, green stalks, at the foot of which, tiny blue flowers grew." David's father, on the other hand, is associated with cattle and, particularly, bulls. As if to compete with his wife's romantic penchant for "flowers," he finally places a pair of mounted cow's horns on the wall.
Although David is unable to articulate the meaning of these symbols, he is, nevertheless, unconsciously aware of their significance:
Somehow he couldn't quite believe that it was for memory's sake only that his father had bought the trophy. Somehow looking at the horns, guessing the enormous strength of the beast who must have owned them, there seemed to be another reason…. He sensed only that in the horns, in the poised power of them lay a threat, a challenge he must answer, he must meet. But he didn't know how.
The "challenge" is, of course, the inevitable conflict between a father and a son. Albert Schearl is not only an "authority figure" (there are many of those in the novel), but he is an authority figure of such magnitude that he nearly frightens David out of his wits. Albert is such a stern disciplinarian that he would rather beat his child than understand him. Those of us raised, as it were, "by Spock" may find this hard to swallow. However, if a really first-class rebellion requires a strong Victorian father, Albert certainly fits the bill.
David's mother also represents a "threat" of sorts, but of an entirely different variety. She is characterized by "kisses." In an early section of the novel, she teases him into giving her a kiss with the provocative question, "Whom will you refresh with the icy lips that the water lent you?" Because David's mother feels that "lips for me must always be cool as the water that wet them," David vows he will "eat some ice" so she will like his kisses even more.
However, if David measures his mother by kisses, he measures his father with multi-colored leaves: "He dragged a chair over beneath the calendar on the wall, clambered up, plucked off the outworn leaf, and fingered the remaining ones to see how far off the next red day was. Red days were Sundays, days his father was home. It always gave David a little qualm of dread to watch them draw near." There is no doubt that Albert Schearl is as frightening a character as David imagines him to be. When he loses a job, his excuse is always the same: "They look at me crookedly, with mockery in their eyes!" When David's mother once dared to suggest that such stares might possibly be only his imagination, "his father snarled then. And with one sudden sweep of his arm had sent food and dishes crashing to the floor…. He wouldn't speak. His jaws and even his joints seemed to have become fused together by a withering rage."
While David is justifiably afraid of his father, he also complains that "every boy on the street knew where his father worked" except himself because his father "had so many jobs." This is, indeed, a curious state of affairs for what critics had thought of as a "proletarian" novel. Albert Schearl's disagreeable disposition (he gets along with his fellow-workers no better than he does with his bosses) merely necessitates a number of job changes. Evidently there is no great problem about getting another job.
However, the change of jobs is often accompanied by a subsequent change of address. Therefore, David tends to live in a fluid community which denies stability at every turn. In Call it Sleep, the economic condition of the Schearls is of less importance than the Kafkaesque world in which they live. As David's mother so metaphorically points out, theirs is a ghetto founded upon the fear of what might exist beyond the bounds of the familiar:
"Boddeh Stritt," she resumed apologetically…. "It's such a strange name—bath street in German. But here I am. I know there is a church on a certain street to my left, the vegetable market is to my right, behind me are the railroad tracks and the broken rocks, and before me, a few blocks away is a certain store window that has a kind of white-wash on it—and faces in the white-wash, the kind children draw. Within this pale is my America, and if I ventured further I should be lost. In fact," she laughed, "were they even to wash that window, I might never find my way home again."
Of course the mother's fears are merely speculative. It is David, however, who actually experiences all the frightening aspects of being lost in a tangle of streets:
Which one was it which? Which one was—Long street. Long street, lot of wooden houses. On this side. Yes. Go through the other side. Then other corner…. Right away, right away. Be home right away…. This one?… Didn't look like…. Next one bet … house … giddyap, giddyap…. Corner coming, corner coming, corner—here?
"Mama!" The desolate wail split from his lips. "Mama!" The aloof houses rebuff his woe. "Mama!" his voice trailed off in anguished abandonment. And as if they had been waiting for a signal, the streets through his tear-blurred sight began stealthily to wheel. He could feel them turning under his feet, though never a house changed place—backward to forward, side to side—a sly inexorable carousel.
In Kafka, of course, the physical world tends to become a surrealistic abstraction which helps to carry the allegorical and philosophical aspects of his novels. Other writers, however, have picked up Kafka's notion of alienated terror and blended it into the fabric of a "realistic" novel.
To be sure, there is always a problem with terms like "realistic"; we have lived with the Kafkaesque absurd world for so long that we tend to think of his novels as being very "realistic" indeed. The Kafka novel very successfully portrays the naked anguish of modern man as he confronts the world around him. Although Kafka's descriptions of towns or castles are not likely to be confused with naturalism, the dilemmas of characters like Joseph K. strike us as very real indeed. In many respects, Henry Roth imposes such a world upon New York's East Side.
The authors who seem most interesting to us today are the ones who rejected the going beliefs in socio-economic ideologies and, instead, concentrated upon the naked anguish of man in conflict with himself. In this sense, Henry Roth is more akin to an author like Nathanael West than he is to a Michael Gold. Like West, Henry Roth creates characters whose suffering takes on universal dimensions.
But if Call it Sleep in involved with the nightmarish childhood of David Schearl, it is unusual that such a novel ends with the protagonist still a child. After all, a character like Stephen Daedalus had a great deal of difficulty in the early portions of Joyce's Portrait: he is continually being pushed into ditches by his classmates or punished unfairly by his teachers. However, Stephen really seldom suffers in his difference. If anything, he revels in it for an "artist" is supposed to have exactly this kind of childhood.
Call it Sleep, on the other hand, ends with David still only nine years old. He is certainly not ready to make the kind of "arty" proclamations that characterize the Stephen about to launch into a literary career nor is he old enough to join the Communist Party (one of the favorite ploys of the proletarian novelist). Instead of these rather "grand" gestures, David must face a variety of childhood initiations in his journey toward manhood.
One of the most memorable scenes in the novel centers around such an initiation experience. David is introduced to the world of sexuality via a childish "game" suggested by one of his slightly older playmates. The girl is a frightening grotesque who "nudged him gently" into a dark closet with "the iron slat of her brace." Terrified, David accepts her lips (a "muddy spot in vast darkness") and enters into the ritualistic business of playing "bad" for the first time:
"Yuh must ask me," she said. "G'wan ask me."
"Yuh must say, Yuh wanna play bad? Say it!"
He trembled. "Yuh wanna play bad?"
"Now you said it," she whispered, "Don' forget, you said it."
David is, thus, tricked into accepting a responsibility and a guilt that is really not his. Like Kafka, Roth is fond of presenting such traumatic scenes in settings which suggest claustrophobia. Throughout Call it Sleep, the sexual experience is associated with dark, close places such as the closet mentioned above or toilets located in dingy cellars.
However, Roth adds still another dimension to such scenes by his peculiar use of language. As I have already suggested, the sexual confrontation between the innocent David and the more experienced (and perhaps symbolically "crippled") girl is a frightening one. And yet, Roth fills the crucial dialogue with such incongruous terminology that the effect is not only "childish," but almost humorous:
"Yuh know w'ea babies comm from?"
"From de knish."
"Between de legs. Who puts id in is de poppa. De poppa's god de petzel. Yaw de poppa." She giggled stealthily and took his hand. He could feel her guiding it under her dress, then through a pocket-like flap. Her skin was under his palm. Revolted, he drew back.
The effect which Roth achieved in this scene has become almost a standard one today. Authors like Joseph Heller (Catch-22), Ken Kesey (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest) and Thomas Pynchon (V) mix humor and horror in such rapid succession that the result is a new genre of the absurd. In many respects, the revival of interest in Nathanael West and (now) Henry Roth is due, at least in part, to a search by these contemporary authors and their critics for various literary authorities.
Of course sexuality per se is not the only terrifying aspect of David's youthful world. "The Cellar" (the title of the novel's first section) finally becomes a metaphor of David's curious descent and initiation into the dreck of life. David's characteristic gesture at this point is one of running; he generally runs from the nightmarish world of his childhood to the warmth of his mother. As the novel progresses, however, David tends to look for ways to run out of his world altogether.
Roth is at his best as a literary artist when he is creating the kind of grotesques that can only be described as Dickensian. These figures usually exert some amount of authority and control over David, and Roth makes them qualify as objects of our disgust and David's rebellion. The Hebrew teacher, Reb Yidel Pankower, is a good case in point. If the Hebrew teacher of Yiddish songs like "Oifn Pripichok" represents a portrait of extreme sentimentality, Pankower has more than made up for him.
Nearly every contemporary Jewish author has a portrait of the "old heder teacher" somewhere in the canon of his work. Philip Roth's "Conversion of the Jews" revolves about such a figure as do sections of Bruce Jay Friedman's Stern. However, to a very large extent the Hebrew school teacher has dropped out of both modern fiction and life as an influential person. While modern authors continue to use the heder teacher as a nostalgic touchstone, their characterizations lack any real intensity because the teacher no longer poses a genuine "threat." Pankower, on the other hand, is a different matter entirely:
He appeared old and certainly untidy. He wore soft leather shoes like house slippers, that had no place for either laces or buttons. His trousers were baggy and stained, a great area of striped and crumpled shirt intervened between his belt and his bulging vest. The knot of his tie, which was nearer one ear than the other, hung away from his soiled collar.
Pankower is not only physically repulsive, but he is psychologically monstrous. As one of his students describes him, "He's a louser. He hits." Pankower is, in fact, a first-class sadist who gets more joy from wrong answers than he does from right ones. His authority symbols are whittled-down popsicle sticks which the boys bring as payment for "special" treatment. Pankower uses the sticks as pointers to keep his place as he goes over the tiny Hebrew letters. When one of his duller students is unable to distinguish between a beth and a veth, [Hebrew letters] he launches into a tirade of very elaborate and characteristic curses:
"You plaster dunse!" he roared. "When will you learn a byse is a byse and not a vyse. Head of filth, where are your eyes?" He shook a menacing hand at the cringing boy and picked up the pointer.
But a few moments later, again the same error and again the same correction.
"May a demon fly off with your father's father! Won't blows help you? A byse, Esau, pig! A byse! Remember, a byse, even though you die of convulsions!"
Roth's ear for dialect and his ability to capture the flavor of Yiddish in Anglicized forms is one of the great triumphs of Call it Sleep. However, like Twain's use of the Negro dialect, Roth is more interested in presenting the "illusion" of dialect than the dialect itself. Only a modern author such as Bernard Malamud seems to have more success in conveying a Yiddish dimension through English speech. However, Roth had a number of problems that have gone away as the Anglo-Jewish novel and its audience has grown. Roth, for example, feels compelled to explain whatever Yiddish puns appear in the novel: "Christmas … Jesus Crotzmich, the grocery man said and he always laughed. Crotzmich means scratch me. Jesus scratch me. Funny." More often, however, he will simply duplicate the mutilated English of David's immigrant friends by the use of phonetic spellings:
"My ticher call id Xmas, bod de kids call id Christmas. Id's a goyish holiday anyways. Wunst I hanged up a stockin' in Brooklyn. Bod mine fodder pud in a eggshells wid terlit paper an' a piece f' om a ol' kendle. So he leffed w'en he seen me. Id ain' no Sendy Klaws, didja know?"
The Schearl family, on the other hand, seem to speak English without the slightest trace of an accent. To be sure, Roth keeps reminding us that it is really Yiddish, but the effect, nevertheless, places the Schearls in a curious juxtaposition to the others of their environment. As Mrs. Mink tells David's mother, "Yes, not proud, noble! You always walk with your head in the air—so!"
The major difference, however, between the Schearls and the world surrounding them lies in the area of expressed intensity. Mr. Walter Allen has pointed out that Call it Sleep "must be the noisiest novel ever written." To be sure, the constant screaming of the Hungarian, Italian and Jewish immigrants who live together in the East Side slums certainly suggests that he is right. However, the Schearls frequently express their most intense moments in silence. Thus, Call it Sleep is, in many respects, also the quietest novel ever written.
In fact, the only occasions in the Schearl household than inevitably lead to a raised voice are those dealing with David's Aunt Bertha. She is every bit as much a grotesque as Pankower. Like the fiery Hebrew teacher, Bertha has an acid tongue and the courage to wield it. However, unlike Pankower, Bertha is a comic character whose sense of life makes for much of both the humor and pathos in Call it Sleep. In many respects, her wit is the only way she could cope with such a grotesque physical make-up:
She had a mass of rebellious, coarse red hair, that was darker than a carrot and lighter than a violin. And the color of her teeth, if one had to decide upon it, was green…. A single crease divided fat forearm from pudgy hand. Her legs landed into her shoes without benefit of ankles. No matter what she wore, no matter how new or clean, she always managed to look untidy.
If Bertha's "distressingly homely" appearance has caused her moments of anguish, she has, at least, managed to adjust to her condition with a distinctly Jewish shrug. As she puts it, "pearl and cloth of gold would stink on me."
For Bertha, America is a land both cursed and blessed. The factory system has enabled her to buy an incredibly large pair of underpants for only "twenty cents" and, thus, she "can wear what only a baroness in Austria could wear." However, when David's father tears the undergarment in a fit of rage, Bertha changes her tune in a way which must have made the "social reformers" of her day very happy indeed:
Why did I ever set foot on this stinking land? Why did I ever come here? Ten hours a day in a smothering shop—paper flowers! Rag flowers! Ten long hours, afraid to pee too often because the foreman might think I was shirking.
However, no matter how much Bertha may rail against the system in general or David's father in particular, she is still very much aware of her own inadequacies. Although she is still quite young, there is a good possibility that she will not be able to find a husband. When David's mother tries to comfort her with the observation that "New York is full of all kinds of men who would want her," Bertha replies:
… "It's also full of all kinds of glib, limber Jewesses who can play the piano. Go! Go!" she tossed he head petulantly. "By the time I learn to speak this tongue I'll be what? Thirty! Old and dry! Others have money, others can dance, can sing with their hands so—Yuh-Yuh-ruh! All I can do is laugh and eat—my only talents! If I don't get a man now—" She waved her hand as if throwing something away. "Maybe I wont even be able to do that."
The actual threat of the "glib limber Jewesses," however, is more imagined than real. Bertha's role as the "have-not" immigrant who is the economic victim of her surroundings is a decidedly short lived one. In fact, she is ultimately a kind of gastronomic Horatio Alger, who ends up with not only a husband, but a candy store as well.
Therefore, the "threats" in Call it Sleep are often more social than economic. David must face the problems of living in a land which puts more premium on "fitting in" than "sticking out." Thus, David's reaction to his first encounter with antisemitism foreshadows the rejection of religious and filial ties which has become a convention in more recent Anglo-Jewish literature:
"Dat's a sheeny block, Pedey," prompted the second freckled lieutenant with ominous eagerness.
"Yea. Yer a Jew ainchiz?"
"No I ain't!" he protested hotly. "I ain't nod a Jew!"
"Only sheenies live in dat block!" countered Pedey narrowly.
"I'm a Hungarian. My muder 'n' foder's Hungarian. We're de janitors."
The epitome of the freedom to which David aspires is symbolized in his Christian friend, Leo. As David puts it, "There was no end to Leo's blessings—no father, almost no mother, skates." As if these weren't enough, Leo had a Catholic medal which allows its owner to "Johnny-high-dive all yuh wants an' yuh'll never hit bottom." To David, Leo's medal makes him not only "god-like," but gives him the right (as a "superior being") to mock Jewish paraphernalia in a wholesale fashion. Even when Leo describes a mezzuzeh as "full o' Chinee on liddle terlit paper," David remains silent although
he felt a slight qualm of guilt, yes, guilt because he was betraying all the Jews in his house who had Mezuzehs above their doors; but if Leo thought it was funny, then it was funny and it didn't matter. He even added lamely that the only thing Jews wore around their necks were camphor balls against measles, merely to hear the intoxicating sound of Leo's derisive laughter.
Thus, Leo represents all the glamor and appeal of a world beyond his narrow ghetto and its limited possibilities. David cannot reach this "enchanted land," however, because he lacks the necessary means of transportation:
Skates. That was the real reason why he had lost Leo—because he lacked them…. If he only had a pair of skates!… If he had a pair of skates he could leave the hated boys on his block behind him; he could go to Leo's block, to Central Park as Leo said he did.
To be sure, David's almost compulsive desire to escape the shackles of his Jewish environment seems a far cry from the assimilated suburban world of a Philip Roth or a Bruce Jay Friedman. However, the difference between his skates and their station wagons is only one of degree and not of kind. Certainly one of the reasons that Call it Sleep has done so well in its re-publication is that it suggested a direction in 1934 which a number of people have taken since. For many people, the novel represents an index of accomplishment and, therefore, it becomes almost fashionable to read about one's ancestors, no matter how poor they might have been.
In the final pages of the novel, David receives "shocks," both literal and figurative. In an extended stream-of-consciousness section which finally widens the social scope until it includes a kind of thirties' panorama, Roth manages to achieve the same effect that John Dos Passos matches in his lengthy trilogies. David is reawakened into both a new life and a new world. Although there have been countless novels which focused on the initiation experience, Call it Sleep is one of the very few to end with such a young protagonist. However, the intensity of his initiation is not hampered by his youth. David "learns" a variety of lessons and, presumably, he will learn more. However, his childhood nightmare of Oedipal fears finally has been conquered and David can go on with the business of defining himself in an adult world.
In the final analysis Call it Sleep is more universal and significant than any critical discussion of the thirties or Anglo-Jewish literature can possibly suggest. Although the Freudian apparatus may strike some contemporary readers as a bit artificial, the bulk of David's initiation experiences are so archetypal in character that they will strike even the most sophisticated reader as "true." And about its neglect, as David's last words suggest, "One might as well call it sleep."
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4115
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 skeptical of the rabid commitment and simple slogans spawned by the confusion of political, economic, and literary values in the 1930s. Such hack work as Mary Heaton Vorse's Strike! and Clara Weatherwax's Marching! Marching!—indeed, the whole body of proletarian melodramas that once were hailed enthusiastically as weapons in the class struggle—have been mercifully forgotten, and our credulity is strained even to conceive of the high seriousness and religious devotion which characterized the literary controversies of that period. Yet Roth's novel, resurrected now after suffering almost total neglect for thirty years, is perhaps the most authentic and compelling expression the American proletariat has received.
It should be noted, of course, that the qualities of Call It Sleep that have given it new life today are the ones most vigorously attacked in the leftist press upon its initial publication in 1934. The Marxist critics of the thirties demanded that proletarian novels meet the immediate needs of the class war, that they be instruments of propaganda containing two-dimensional portrayals of "good guys" and "bad guys" in which the worker-hero discards his petty-bourgeois ideals of virtue and fair play when confronted with the ruthlessness and brutality of capitalist gangsters. To explore the proletarian memory or the consciousness of the worker was to imitate slavishly Proust and Joyce, over-ripe fruits of bougeois decay. Only novels concerned with the proletariat in social relationships (i.e., class conflict) in which the revolutionary movement was portrayed as larger than life and the quickening class-consciousness of the worker anticipated rather than honestly described could expect sympathetic treatment in leftist journals.
Roth was indignantly chastised by the literary Marxists when they discovered that his talents were introspective rather than bombastic. When first reviewed in the New Masses, Call It Sleep was criticized for degenerating into "impression on a rampage," for being too long, for "vile" spelling of dialects, and for over-emphasizing "the sex phobias of this six-year-old Proust." The review concluded: "It is a pity that so many young writers drawn from the proletariat can make no better use of their working class experience than as material for introspective and febrile novels." Favorable comments by John Chamberlain in the New York Times and Fred Marsh in the Herald Tribune were ignored, as were letters by Kenneth Burke (who wrote that "the great virtue of Roth's book … was in the fluent and civilized way in which he found, on our city streets, the new equivalents of the ancient jungle") and Edwin Seaver (who accused the New Masses reviewer of suffering from "the infantile disorder of leftism"). After a second printing of 2,500 copies in January, 1935 (1,500 copies had been printed in December, 1934), Call It Sleep was virtually forgotten until 1956 when Alfred Kazin and Leslie Fiedler called attention to it in a special issue of The American Scholar and Walter Rideout called it "the most distinguished single proletarian novel." It was reprinted from the original plates by Pageant Books, Inc., in 1960, making it possible for readers who had searched unsuccessfully for used copies of the book finally to obtain it, but little critical or popular attention resulted. Now, however, it is available in quantity, and, if the editors of Life magazine can be cited as a reliable source, Roth netted $15,000 from the Avon paperback in 1964 alone.
Call It Sleep is the story of the two years between the ages of six and eight in the life of an immigrant Jewish boy named David Schearl, living first in Brownsville, then on New York's East Side. Physically his life is restricted in both neighborhoods by the tenements that surround him; emotionally it is determined by the paranoia of his father an the security of his mother. David lives in a perpetual fear of his father, of the street, of most of his physical environment, finding love and security only when close to his mother. On the surface there is little action and little plot; events have meaning only as they are refracted through David's controlling consciousness. Always introspective and withdrawn, he is intimidated by the other slum children until at the "cheder" he creates and becomes infatuated with a god of fire and power. The only attachment that he ever has for another child ends disastrously when he is forced to arrange a meeting where the friend "plays dirty" with one of the stepdaughters of David's Aunt Bertha. Running from this experience to his mother, he finds that his parents know of the lie he told at the cheder about his "dead mother and goyish father." Hating him because he suspects he is not really his son, David's father threatens to kill him when he discovers David's part in the sex play at his Aunt Bertha's. David runs in terror from the tenement and finds in the street a metal dipper which he drops into the power conduit between the streetcar tracks. The subsequent electrical shock knocks him unconscious, but he revives and is carried home.
Obviously the surface events of the story do not constitute the novel, for essentially it is a symbolic portrayal of the proletarian world and an epitome of the proletarian experience. David Schearl's is a consciousness undergoing orientation and rebirth, and it is through the representative nature and suggestive quality of his experiences that the plight and the hope of the proletariat are conveyed. The error of the more militant Marxist critics who first reviewed the novel was their failure to recognize the complex system of symbols growing organically out of Roth's account of David's childhood, symbols that reflect more accurately and compellingly than any other expression of the period the point of view and the possibilities of the proletariat. If the proletarian novel is a novel by and about the proletariat in which it is seen as a separate class with unique experiences and responses, then Call It Sleep was the first proletarian novel to be published in the United States.
It is constructed in terms of four major symbols—the cellar, the picture, the coal, and the rail—corresponding to the four parts of the novel. David identifies the cellar with his fear of his father, the terror of the street, bodily corruption, and violence. The picture he associates with his mother, with her warmth and security, and with release. The coal suggests spiritual escape from the physical repulsiveness of his environment, for it is conceived always in terms of the coal with which the angel touched Isaiah's lips so that he might speak with God. The rail, on the other hand, becomes for David the power of God, terrifying in its brilliance, yet comforting in its immensity. In terms of and through these symbols David re-enacts a basically human yet emphatically proletarian pattern of experience—repeated thrusts into the world, each followed by a withdrawal back into the self (in David's case the refuge of his mother's arms, the womb of their tenement flat). Finally, at the end of the novel, cut off from this refuge and unable any longer to retreat, David finds safety—and a new identity—in the power of the rail and in the midst of the proletariat.
The novel begins ironically. The "Prologue," a short scene set four years earlier than the main story, begins with the epigraph, "I pray thee ask no questions / this is that Golden Land," yet the first thing David learns after his journey from Europe and the reunion with his father at Ellis Island is that he is hated and unwanted. To his father he is "the brat," and even the Statue of Liberty is colored by his father's attitude: "the rays of her halo … spikes of darkness roweling the air; shadow flattened the torch she bore to a black cross against flawless light—the blackened hilt of a broken sword." At home, David soon realizes that he is not only an unwanted, an insignificant, object to his father, but also a helpless and inconsiderable object in his new world. Contemplating the water faucet, he "again became aware that this world had been created without thought of him. He was thirsty, but the iron hip of the sink rested on legs tall almost as his own body, and by no stretch of arm, no leap, could he ever reach the distant tap." Even at home, where ordinarily there is the security and contentment of his mother, David discovers (although usually only subconsciously) that he remains an alien in a world unconcerned with his existence. Throughout the novel he must fear and try to combat repeated attempts to destroy this haven of home and mother. His father's presence always threatens his security, as do the visits of playmates or neighbors. Luter, the man who befriends his father in order to try unsuccessfully to seduce his mother, is a danger that David only half comprehends and is finally powerless to defy.
It is interesting to observe that as the novel progresses the oedipal attachment that David has for his mother is made more explicit, and one of the dangers from which the power of the rail delivers him is the suffocating extreme to which this relationship might grow. Early in the novel his mother is merely a source of strength and of safety, yet this soon grows into a feeling of identity. Alone with his mother, inside and warm, David watches the cold rain falling outside, and he welcomes his return to a prenatal state: "He was near her now. He was part of her. The rain outside the window set continual seals upon their isolation, upon their intimacy, their identity." Later in the novel, David's dependence on his mother is suddenly united with his hatred for his father, the two impulses blending into a feeling specifically sexual in tone and implication. When his father brings home a pair of huge horns to be mounted on the wall (emblem of his cattle-tending days in Europe before coming to America), David instinctively identifies them with his father's great strength and with his mother's sexual contentment. The horns remind him of the beating his father once gave a man and of the serenity of his mother when confronted unexpectedly one afternoon as she arose from his father's bed. And although David does not understand how it could be, he immediately sees the horns as a threat that he must somehow meet.
He was silent. Somehow he couldn't quite believe that it was for memory's sake only that his father had bought this trophy. Somehow looking at the horns, guessing the enormous strength of the beast who must have owned them, there seemed to be another reason. He couldn't quite fathom it though. But why was it that two things so remote from each other seemed to have become firmly coupled in his mind? It was as though the horns lying on the washtub had bridged them, as though one tip pierced one image and one tip the other—that man outstretched on the sidewalk, that mysterious look of repose in his mother's face when he had come in. Why? Why did he think of them at one and the same time. He couldn't tell. He sensed only that in the horns, in the poised power of them lay a threat, a challenge he must answer, he must meet. But he didn't know how.
Outside the peace of his mother's womb lies the street, and David finds himself continually thrust into it by the conditions of his life. Just getting into the street, making the transition from womb to world, requires an almost superhuman effort, for between the safety of home and the insecurity of the street is the cellar, always identified by David with death, corruption, and that part of himself unrelated to his mother, a dark side to his own nature that stems from his father and that occasionally erupts in a burst of temper not unlike the explosive anger of Albert Schearl. The most powerful scene in Part I, and a turning point in David's development, centers around his descent into this darkness of self. Tormented one day by other street urchins until no longer able to endure the frustration, David turns on the one nearest him and knocks him down. As the child falls, his head strikes the pavement and he loses consciousness. David flees, but he cannot go up to his tenement apartment because Luter is there and he is afraid of what he might find Luter and his mother doing. His only refuge from the terror of the street is the terror of the cellar.
…. He sprang to the cellar door and pulled it open—Darkness like a cataract, inexhaustible, monstrous.
"Mama!" he moaned, peering down, "Mama!"
He dipped his foot into night, feeling for the stair, found it, pulled the door shut behind him….
Darkness all about him now, entire and fathomless night. No single ray threaded it, no flake of light drifted through. From the inpenetrable depths below, the dull marshy stench of surreptitious decay uncurled against his nostrils….
He gritted his teeth with the strain. Minutes had passed while he willed in a rigid pounding trance—willed that Luter would come down, willed that Luter would leave his mother…. Exhausted, he slumped back against the edge of the stair…. Against his will he sifted the nether dark. It was moving—moving everywhere on a thousand feet. The stealthy horrible dark was climbing the cellar stairs, climbing toward him…. His jaws began to chatter. Icy horror swept up and down his spine like a finger scratching a comb. His flesh flowed with terror.—Run! Run!
Escaping from the cellar, David finds momentary deliverance in counting utility poles "marching up the hill" while he loses himself among unfamiliar streets. As he follows the poles he experiences a complete dissociation from self, a release from the bonds of temporal identity:
He stopped counting them. And with them, dwindling in the past, all he feared, all he loathed and fled from: Luter, Annie, the cellar, the boy on the ground. He remembered them still, yes, but they were tiny now, little pictures in his head that no longer writhed into his thoughts and stung him, but stood remote and harmless—something heard about someone else. He felt as if they would vanish from his mind altogether, could he only reach the top of that hill up which all the poles were, striding. He hurried on, skipping sometimes out of sheer deliverance, sometimes waving at a laggard pole, gurgling to himself, giggling at himself, absurdly weary.
After these experiences of viewing the self from deep within its darkest recesses and then from a distance that produces a feeling of separation, David is able to turn his thoughts away from the cellar and toward the picture on the wall, a picture always associated with his mother, yet in its pastoral simplicity suggesting another world, different from the one he knows. He is still acutely aware of his own isolation in an alien world, of which he is vividly reminded when he loses himself among the utility poles, but he can now pass the cellar with a feeling of anger rather than of fear, "as though he defied it, as though he had slammed the door within him and locked it." Initially the picture of the corn with the blue flowers under it is merely a token of his mother's happiness and contentment in which he shares, for "she laughed when she hung it up." Later it becomes the emblem of his mother's youth and of her goyish lover, suggesting to David qualities of peace and simple beauty unknown in his East Side world.
The turning point in David's struggle for identity in a world outside his mother's womb comes when he hears in the cheder the story of Isaiah and the purification through which he passes in order to be judged fit to speak with God. In David's seven-year-old mind, the coal with which the angel touches Isaiah's lips becomes a unifying symbol for all of his experiences, revealing to him in the simple terms of light and dark the antitheses within himself and of his world. His first intimation of this new orientation comes one sunny day as he watches the river, the brilliance of it holding him in a hypnotic trance until "his spirit yielded, melted into light":
In the molten sheen memories and objects overlapped. Smokestacks fused to palings flickering in silence by. Pale lathes grew grey, turned dusky, contracted and in the swimming dimness, he saw sparse teeth that gnawed upon a lip; and ladders on the ground turned into hasty fingers pressing on a thigh and against smokestacks. Straight in air they stood a moment, only to fall on silvered cardboard corrugating brilliance. And he heard the rubbing on a wash-board and the splashing suds, smelled again the acrid soap and a voice speaking words that opened like the bands of a burnished silver accordian—Brighter than day … Brighter … Sin melted into light….
The peace of the picture and the light of the coal, however, are soon shattered, for as David's vision at the river passes, he is confronted by a group of boys from another block, who, suspecting that he is Jewish, force him to drop a toy zinc sword into the conduit between the streetcar tracks. David is momentarily blinded by the flash and stunned by the power that leaps from the crevice.
Like a paw ripping through all the sable fibres of the earth, power, gigantic, fetterless, thudded into day! And light, unleashed, terrific light bellowed out of iron lips. The street quaked and roared, and like a tortured thing, the sheet zinc sword, leapt writhing, fell back, consumed with radiance.
In the same way the peaceful brilliance of the tenement roof and the release which it seems to promise degenerate into the corruption of sex play in the darkness of the cellar. On the roof David had found what he hoped would be a friend, but the boy whom David begins to trust merely uses him as a means by which he may work his own designs upon the girl to whom David innocently brings him, and the incident terminates in the explosion that seals him off forever from his mother's womb and that finally forces him to find personal identification (and salvation) in something larger than and external to the self.
Two earlier incidents, however, have already forced David to see his world in an altered light. The first is his discovery that the neighborhood urchins have seen his mother naked in her bath, a discovery that arouses in David intense jealousy followed by the fleeting intimation that his mother's pristine (and protective) nature has somehow been tarnished. The second incident concerns a promise to his father that he will not tell his mother that his father beat him because David had allowed two derelicts to steal milk from his father's delivery wagon, and the experience (especially his fancied infidelity to his mother) leaves David with "a globe about his senses" as he sets out for his lesson at the cheder.
Something had happened! Even Ninth Street, his own familiar Ninth Street was warped, haunted by something he could feel; but perceive with no sense. Faces he had seen so many times he scarcely ever glanced at any more were twisted into secret shadows, smeared, flattened, whorled, grotesque grief and smirking never before revealed.
Confronted finally by an enraged father and a mother no longer able to protect him, David frantically runs from the house that had hitherto been his refuge. The rabbi has told his parents of the lie by which David repudiated his earlier identity; his Aunt Bertha's husband is forced by David's father to reveal David's part in the sex play with his daughter; and his father in turn repudiates David as another man's son and threatens to kill him. Thus with all of the hideous darkness and terror of the cellar closing around him, David flies to the only refuge remaining to him—the rail, the power and light of God by which he must be purified and reborn. Knocked unconscious by the electrical current that leaps through him as he pushes the ladle between the rails, David "sleeps," and through the vision that accompanies this sleep all the disparate elements of his earlier existence are united, so that when he awakes, not so much his world but himself has been changed. He discovers as he awakes that the salvation of those unwanted aliens in a new world will come not through fear and withdrawal, nor by nostalgic yearning for a simpler and more peaceful past, but only through power, the power of the united masses in whose bosom David awakes.
Humanity. On feet, on crutches, in carts and cars. The ice-vendor. The waffle-wagon. Human voices, motion, seething, throbbing.
In this context David shoves the dipper home, and
Power!… titanic power, ripped through the earth and slammed against his body and shackled him where he stood…. A blast, a siren of light within him, rending, quaking, fusing his brain and blood…. And he writhed without motion in the clutch of a fatal glory, and his brain swelled and dilated till it dwarfed the galaxies.
As he awakes surrounded by people attracted by the flash, David sees and accepts all of the elements that had previously splintered and terrorized his world (the river, his father, death, corruption, the cheder, God, the cellar) and descends into the cellar of the self until he is nothing, and into nothingness he "would have hidden again," until, attracted by a single ember, he makes the unifying and saving discovery of the novel: in the cellar there is coal. Picking up the coal of his vision he finds it neither cold nor hot, "but as if all eternity's caress were fused and granted in one instant," and "horror and the night fell away. Exalted, he lifted his head." After he awakes, David is carried home where, alone in his bed, he feels the change within him.
He might as well call it sleep. It was only toward sleep that ears had power to call again and reassemble the shrill cry, the hoarse voice, the scream of fear, the bells, the thick-breathing, the roar of crowds and all sounds that lay fermenting in the vats of silence and the past. It was only toward sleep one knew himself still lying on the cobbles, felt the cobbles under him, and over him and scudding ever toward him like a black foam, the perpetual blur of shod and running feet, the broken shoes, new shoes, stubby, pointed, caked, polished, buniony, pavement-beveled, lumpish, under skirts, under trousers, shoes, over one and through one, and feel them all and feel, not pain, not terror, but strangest triumph, strangest acquiescence.
The agony—and the hope—of the proletariat have never been more powerfully portrayed in an American novel, a fact that makes it ultimately even more revolutionary than the most militant pieces of party propaganda. The principal difference between Roth and other left-wing writers in the 1930s was the place of emphasis in their work. The others stressed the "proletarian" nature of their novels; Roth's achievement is a novel first, and a proletarian one only secondarily. The remarkable reversal in the fortunes of this novel during the past three years indicates that it will soon attract the body of critical commentary that it has so long deserved. Certainly the tentative probings contained here merely suggest the irony in the fact that recognition of the first significant proletarian novel to be published in the United States had to wait until the revolutionary temper that produced it had long grown cold. Our generation, no longer concerned with the distinction between "proletarian" and "bourgeois" or with art as a weapon, can now concentrate on the remarkably natural and unselfconscious symbol-making power displayed by Roth, and on how the theme of Call It Sleep is expressed through symbols that grow out of the physical facts of David's world and flower easily into spiritual truths.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7482
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, and was only eighteen months old when my mother brought me to this country.
My father had gone to New York and saved up enough money to bring my mother and me over in steerage. This is the material I used in the prologue of Call It Sleep. Since there was no birth certificate, there was some doubt about my age. My father said I was two and a half years old when I came, but my mother maintained I was a year younger. As proof she used to point out that my sister, who was conceived in America, was two years younger than I am, so I imagine that her version of my age is correct.
My parents settled down in Brownsville at first, which corresponds to certain passages of the novel. Two years later we moved to Ninth Street on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. When we lived there in the years 1910 to 1914, the East Side represented a very secure enclave. Everyone in our building was Jewish, as were the neighbors to either side of us and the people across the street. Had I thought of it in those terms back them, I would have said that I was surrounded by a homogeneous environment and that I completely identified with it. In that atmosphere of devoutness and orthodoxy it would not have occurred to anyone to question the dietary regulations or the observance of holiday rituals. Those were the years when the huge influx of Eastern Jewish immigration was building the area up. The East Side was helpful, communicative and highly interrelated—in short, a community. It was a place with the promise of opportunities and new horizons, where one could make a new start in life. And the Jew in those years was optimistic and dynamic, full of the feeling that nothing was holding him back.
We lived in Ninth Street till I was eight years old, and then in the summer of 1914 we moved to Harlem. My mother's parents, along with several uncles and aunts, were brought over just before the outbreak of the First World War and settled by my maternal uncle in a steam-heated, hot-water apartment in Harlem. My mother wanted to be near her parents, which accounted for our moving there too. The move turned out to be crucial for me.
We settled at 108 East 119th Street, near the trestle of the New York-New Haven Railroad. This part of the neighborhood, squeezed in between Little Italy to the east and the more prosperous and predominately Jewish area to the west, was considered the poorer part of Harlem. It was a mixture of Irish, Italians and Jews, and a rough mixture. I was taken from a neighborhood that had been home for me and put in a highly hostile environment. That produced a shock from which I have perhaps never recovered. Until then I had had a natural love of activity and enjoyed the companionship of other children. I had been a good student in school as well as in cheder. After the move to Harlem all that changed and I took to avoiding outside contact by staying in the house and near Mama as much as possible, so that I grew fat with the lack of activity. In fact, that is what the children used to call me—"fatty." For weeks I cried and had tantrums, begging to be taken back to Ninth Street. But no one paid any attention to me, nor was there any concern when I received C's for the first time on my report card. I got into fights at the new school for a while, but I soon learned to avoid any provocation. I retreated into myself and stayed out of people's way. Serious psychological damage had been brought about by this uprooting of a naturally conservative child, and it expressed itself after a while in my rejection of Jewish faith and customs, which until then had been a part of me. I felt no anguish over this at the time—I was throwing it all to the winds. My mother, who was the only source of security, did not understand what was going on, although I suppose her example was also influencing my behavior. She herself was reacting against the fanatical orthodoxy of her father, which had oppressed her as a child and a young woman. If her faith had not been tongue in cheek I might have been insulated against the influences of Harlem. But she did not seem to care if I became a Goy or not, and damn it, I became a Goy!
My father was also not particularly orthodox, he merely went through the motions. He did not fail to celebrate Seder and observe Yom Kippur, but at the core true devoutness no longer existed. My father had a pat phrase that he appended to every reference to God, which he continues to use till this day: "op si doh a Gott"—"if there is a God."
Looking at it in another way, I suppose my parents went through some of the same dislocation by coming to America that I experienced by moving to Harlem. That kind of change is much more of a trauma for the Eastern Jew than for the Westerner. The Jew coming out of his little Eastern European hamlet, with its insularity and stagnation, is likely to undergo a radical transformation when he gets caught up in the tumult and perpetual change of American life.
In any case, the move in 1914, the Goyish environment and the negative example of my parents threw me into a state of turmoil. I had gone to Harlem with a pronounced Jewish bent and proceeded to take on the conflicting characteristics of my new surroundings. It was as if two valences of the same element were at odds with one another; at the time, of course, I could not intellectualize about the contradictions involved, but I did feel them emotionally, and my response took the form of rebelling against Judaism. I fought as hard as I could against going through with the Bar Mitzvah, even though my parents insisted on it and finally had their way. But only a year later, when I was fourteen, I firmly announced that I was an atheist.
Call It Sleep is set in the East Side, but it violates the truth about what the East Side was like back then. Ninth Street was only a fragmentary model for what I was doing. In reality, I took the violent environment of Harlem—where we lived from 1914 to 1928—and projected it back onto the East Side. It became a montage of milieus, in which I was taking elements of one neighborhood and grafting them onto another. This technique must have grown out of the rage I had been living with all those fourteen years. I was alienated—to use that old hack of a word—and my novel became a picture in metaphors of what had happened to me.
All the rancorous anti-Semitism which Hitler was beginning to epitomize was not limited to Germany alone. To a lesser degree it was being felt everywhere. It may be difficult to explain how such social forces affect the individual psyche, but it is clear that they have powerful behavioral effects. My own experience of being thrown into a neighborhood where anti-Semitism was growing provides an example, and the scene in Call It Sleep in which David Schearl lamely denies his being Jewish to the gang that is threatening him is an objectification of the same thing.
The characters in the novel have a cohesion of their own, but to really understand them you have to go through the characters and back to the author to find out what was motivating and disturbing him. I needed empirical reality for the sake of its plausibility, but I took off from it on a tangent. In other words, I was working with characters, situations and events that had in part been taken from life, but which I molded to give expression to what was oppressing me. To a considerable extent I was drawing on the unconscious to give shape to remembered reality. Things which I could not fully understand but which filled me with apprehension played a critical role in determining the form of the novel. The father in the novel is a powerfully built, menacing person given to uncontrolled violence. My own father, who served as a model for this figure, was basically an impulsive little man with poor judgment, and perhaps a little unbalanced. He did not beat me often, but when he did he went crazy. Because I felt I could be overwhelmed at any time by forces that were constantly threatening me, it became necessary to change this little man into someone capable of real destruction. Violence is associated as a rule with great strength, and to the mind of a child an adult seems to be seven feet tall.
I worked with polarities in expressing the subjective reality of the little boy in the novel. I am referring to the personalities of the mother and father, as well as the characters of the mother and her sister. Actually, my own mother was the source of both of these contrasting female figures. I abstracted one side of my mother, rounded it out and created an aunt who in most respects is the antithesis of David Schearl's mother. The presence of Aunt Bertha seemed to give an aesthetic justification to the character of the mother as well.
My parents were hopelessly mismatched, and their life together was marked by furious quarreling. My mother, who felt profoundly cheated in her husband, could never bring herself to express the full force of her feelings against him until late in life, when an outbreak of paranoia tore down all her reserve. In her earlier years she turned all her attention to me. Since at that age I could hardly have any recourse to depth analysis, the Oedipal fixation that took hold of me was to keep me firmly in its grip.
I made use of a number of incidents out of my childhood experiences, but recast them in a manner that is just as revealing of the author's frame of mind and his hindsight as it is of the character of the little boy. The critical episode in the novel of thrusting the milk dipper into the car track is an example. A couple of boys had enticed me into doing that for the sake of a prank. The author turned the incident into a personal statement: the impressionable boy living in hostile surroundings adopts as his own a destructive act to which he is instigated by outsiders to whom he has no personal relationship.
After publication of Call It Sleep a number of critics pointed out what they thought were its social implications. My own feeling was that what I had written was far too private for me to have given much thought to specific social problems. My personal involvement had absorbed my entire consciousness, leaving no room to focus on anything else.
When I force myself to be objective I realize that if I had not moved to Harlem I most likely would never have written the novel. But during the anxieties and hardships of the intervening years I have told myself that I would not hesitate to sacrifice Call It Sleep for a happy childhood, adolescence and young manhood. Given the choice, I would have stayed on the East Side until I was at least eighteen years old. Then I would have gone forth.
Of course, I can see that moving to Harlem was a formative experience in its own right. It had the virtue of compelling an enlargement of vision and sympathy. I was presented at an impressionable age, when everything becomes emotionally charged, with the problem of trying to integrate in my mind a much greater diversity and many more contrasting forces than I would have known otherwise. If we had stayed on the East Side and I had gone on to write—two big ifs, because I wanted to become a biology teacher when I was a boy—it is possible that I might have written some honest portrayals of Jewish life on the East Side. Such writing would necessarily have reflected Jewish life as Jewish life, which is not the case with my novel; I do not regard Call It Sleep as primarily a novel of Jewish life. There is something positive in the writer striving for the broader awareness that enables him to interrelate many more disparate elements in an art form; such an aim, by its very nature, requires the consideration of a much wider world than the one I originally came from.
As an illustration you can take the case of Robert Frost. From my knowledge of his verse, Frost never broke through what might be called the bucolic curtain. Emotionally and ideologically he played it safe by never going out into the larger world to tes his attitudes and views. Had I stayed on the Lower East Side I also would have been spared having to submit my feelings and beliefs to a wider experience and understanding.
During the years in which I devoted myself to writing Call It Sleep I came to regard myself as a disciplined writer who could turn his hand to whatever literary task he cut out for himself. I knew that the flow of creativity would not be uniform, and I had come to expect resistance from my material, but I felt that by working at it I could resolve all the difficulties I encountered. My self-confidence approached the point of arrogance in those years. I remember in a moment of introspection reviewing in my mind the authors and literary works that I considered important and that had personally affected me. At the same time, and with a good deal of pride, I felt that I was consciously fighting literary influences and going my own way.
T.S. Eliot, James Joyce and Eugene O'Neill were the writers of major stature that interested me back then. Eliot's Waste Land had a devastating effect on me, I felt stunned by the vastness of its conception. I had been introduced to the work by Eda Lou Walton, a professor of literature at New York University. It was to her that I dedicated Call It Sleep. She was a woman twelve years older than I, who was very devoted to me and who for a time supported and sponsored me. Our relationship had certain parallels to that of Thomas Wolfe and Aline Bernstein, although I do not stress the resemblance.
Some of the plays of Eugene O'Neill left a deep imprint. I went to see The Great God Brown with Eda Lou and came away feeling that I had been listening to the inner voice of a man.
I had already read Joyce as a freshman in college, and a copy of Ulysses which Eda Lou had brought me from France introduced me to an entirely new way of seeing things. I felt I could see doors swinging open on untried possibilities in literature.
But during the time I was writing the novel I was trying to establish a demarcation between myself and other authors. As far as I was concerned, no one could teach me anything and nothing was too big an undertaking.
I started writing Call It Sleep in 1929, worked on it for four years and finished it in 1933, when I was twenty-seven. A substantial part of the book was written in Maine, in the small town of Norridgewock, in 1932. I learned of a farmhouse where an elderly widow, a woman of seventy, boarded the local schoolmistress; and since this was summer and the room vacant, she agreed to take me in as a boarder. For seven dollars a week I got room and board—and was fed royally. I had nothing to do but work on my novel, which I did from June till November. It was a happy stay, and years later, when I was casting about for a place in which to settle down, it must have been the memory of those satisfying months that made me decide on Maine.
The book was published in 1934 by Ballou and Company. I paid little attention to the contract at the time and just wondered how the publisher could possibly hope for any financial return on the book in the middle of the Depression. Viewed from today's vantage point, you would think Robert Ballou had a gold mine in his possession. Meyer Levin was one of his authors and John Steinbeck, who was just getting started, was another. But his firm was having difficulties, like so many others; one publisher after another was going on the rocks and selling his writers to the more affluent survivors. Owing to Ballou's rather desperate financial straits, he was relieved when David Mandel, a lawyer, put some money in the firm. That gave Mandel a share of the business and certain rights in deciding policy. Ballou was already favorably inclined to the book, and David Mandel, who subsequently married Eda Lou Walton, submitted to her urging to have the book published.
In later years people would say to me, "You haven't written because you were not given any recognition." That is not true; for a first novel I was given a large measure of acclaim, enough to encourage any writer. And the fact is that I did write, for a time….
Even before the publication of Call It Sleep I was at work on a new book. I had met a colorful person around whom I was building my second novel. The man was a tough, second-generation German-American who had been raised on the streets of Cincinnati and relied on his fists and his physical stamina to cope with life. Being an illiterate, he had acquired almost everything he knew through his own experience. I was attracted to him because he always took pride in being able to defend himself, no matter what happened. His build and the way he carried himself made me think of a champion middleweight fighter, and as a matter of fact, he had trained with professionals. When he told me that he had never been beaten I was inclined to believe him. Then suddenly this man who had fought and brawled his way through life lost his right hand in an industrial accident. With that came the terrible shock and realization that he was no longer able to fight the world alone. His personal tragedy and the knowledge that he would have to turn to others for help were terrifying blows that hit him at the depth of the Depression and changed his whole outlook on life.
Like many intellectuals during the Depression, I had become attracted to Marxism and felt the Communist Party to be its true expression. It was as a result of my contact with the Party that I met my German acquaintance and conceived the idea of basing a novel on him. The man and what I learned about him fitted in with what I thought the Party stood for. I carefully gathered the data of his life as well as my observations concerning him, and wrote about a hundred pages of manuscript. He had become an organizer for the Party, and several times I went along with him to distribute leaflets on the waterfront, where I used the Italian I had been studying on my own to make contacts with the longshoreman. There was no CIO at that time, and the Party was espousing the cause of industrial unions on the waterfront, in the same way that Harry Bridges had been doing on the West Coast.
One day while I was accompanying him on his assignment, my "character," whose instincts for danger were better than mine, warned me, "Better stay close to me." With a hook for a hand he was still a man that no one was likely to cross. But I wandered away from him in the process of handing out the leaflets.
The aims of the Communist Party had been coming into conflict with those of the AFL, which was well entrenched among the longshoremen. I was approached by one of the business agents of the AFL, who asked me for a leaflet. When I held it out to him he belted me across the face, smashed my glasses and proceeded to beat me up, all the time driving me across the highway as he pounded away at me. By the time my friend came running towards me the incident was over, but for a man of sensibility no further lesson was needed about the animosity and antagonism that arise from a struggle over vested interests.
In the meantime, Ballou had gone bankrupt and sold Scribner's the rights to my second book. During the negotiations I had submitted the unfinished manuscript to Scribner's editor, Maxwell Perkins, who was so enthusiastic that he predicted the novel would be one of the outstanding books in contemporary American fiction. The poor man—he died without getting the rest of the manuscript. Once the contract was signed and Ballou was paid, I did not write another word. I had mapped out in detail the course I was to follow in each chapter of the book, but I seemed to have arrived at an utter mpasse.
Only after completing all the rest of Call It Sleep did I go back and write the prologue. But after doing the first hundred pages of the second book I changed directions and did the prologue as a pretext for not going on to Section II.
My second book was supposed to be a short but substantial novel, that I was going to follow with a longer one, for which I had been saving myself. This work was to be far more ambitious and of greater scope; in it I would deal with the Jewish intellectual embracing many more elements of the social world. But my second novel was not getting anywhere. For a time I made all kinds of excuses to myself, then I decided I had made a mistake by limiting my perspective to the midwestern proletarian that was turning revolutionary. I wanted the words to come flowing out of me again, and I needed a fresh start; as a physical demonstration of this recognition I burned the manuscript I had shown Perkins and set to work on the next novel. I wrote the opening chapters, which dealt with autobiographical material from Harlem, but I felt I was not reaching the mark. My notes called for bringing together a great many disparate aspects of society and weaving them into an artistic whole. More than anything else I required a sense of unity in the work I did, a unity that could almost be reduced to a metaphor. I struggled with both the style and content, getting only so far before once again running up against immobility and total frustration.
I found myself analyzing my views on progress and indulging for hours and days in mental excursions on the subject of moral righteousness. To my surprise I found myself in sympathy with the South and its myths of tradition and languorous women. I carried on debates with myself in which my intellectual judgment and my sensuous orientation were at odds with each other. Common sense told me that my principles required that I side with the more enlightened North, that my phantasies were ignoring the disadvantaged Negro and the ugliness of racism. To my horror I caught myself musing about the Nazi cult of German brotherhood, and then I would shudder when I stopped to think what they were doing to the Jews in Germany.
I suppose all this was a revulsion from the emphasis on the struggle for social justice. The intellectual decision to identify myself with the proletariat had created a crisis which brought into sharp focus my dichotomy as a human being. I knew that justice was at stake, that Jews were involved, that one had to do something about poverty. But poverty is ugly and the proletarian bored me, with the result that the sensuousness in my nature was pulling me in the opposite direction. The artist in me had never gotten over the appeal of art for art's sake, which had flourished in the twenties. With this war going on inside of me I became immobilized to the point that I found myself incapable of making a narrative decision. All this is subjective evidence that something was knocking the props out from under me, that in spite of my tremendous creative urge something was working against me, stymieing me, preventing me from doing what I desired most. My efforts to get on with the novel petered out and the whole thing gradually shriveled and withered away, until finally I destroyed that manuscript as well. I regret that now. Had I kept the autobiographical material about Harlem it might have provided me at some later time with renewed motivation.
When a writer gives up what is most vital to him, the work in which he has placed his greatest hopes and which was going to be the object of his greatest efforts, he is undercutting his creative gifts and abilities. I was through. For a long time I thought that I was afflicted by some peculiar curse. But I have come to believe that there was something deeper and less personal in my misfortune, that what had happened to me was common to a whole generation of writers in the thirties. One author after another, whether he was Gentile or Jew, stopped writing, became repetitive, ran out of anything new to say or just plain died artistically. I came to this conclusion because I simply could not believe that anyone with as much discipline, creative drive, inbred feeling for the narrative and intense will to write as I had, could, after such rigorous efforts, still be baulked.
Looking about, I saw the same phenomenon manifesting itself in practically every writer I knew. They became barren. Daniel Fuchs decided after his third novel that he would write for Hollywood. He maintained that he had arrived at his decision clearly and rationally, but I do not believe that. James Farrell is another example. He had exhausted himself by the time he had written his third novel, and everything he wrote after that consisted of variations on played-out themes. Steinbeck is not radically different, as far as his real contribution is concerned; nothing else he ever wrote came up to The Grapes of Wrath. And Edward Dahlberg—what did he write after Bottom Dogs and From Flushing to Calvary? There was Hart Crane and Leonie Adams, both of whom ran into the stone wall of noncreativity. Crane committed suicide, and Nathanael West for his part conveniently died.
I have to get a cigarette—this works me up! [Mr. Roth lit his cigarette deliberately, abruptly changed the subject and bantered for several minutes before resuming his train of thought.]
How does one explain this peculiarity? It happened often enough that I began to reflect on it, and I have continued to reflect on it ever since. I do not have the training to make a scientific or sociological analysis, but it seems to me that World War II, which was already in the making, was a dividing line between an era which was coming to an end, namely ours, and another, which was coming into being. I think that we sensed a sharp turn in historic development. How do writers sense these things? We sense it in our prolonged malaise, and in our art—in the fact that, having been fruitful writers, we suddenly grow sterile. The causes are personal, but they are also bigger than any of us. When so many people are affected in the same way and each one is groping for his own diagnosis you have to look for a broader explanation.
To those of us who were committed to the Left, the Soviet Union was the cherished homeland; but that homeland had become an establishment which was interested in consolidating itself. In the Moscow trials the establishment was destroying the revolution, although at the time we were still loudly professing our allegiance. Events often do not become comprehensible until long after they have occurred.
I am throwing out these ideas as possibilities. The scholar who some day will be making a formal study of the question will undoubtedly find other things to single out. One interesting facet he will have to investigate is the influence such historical factors exert on the artist. How do they get into the writer's bloodstream and affect his creative sensibility? How are his potentialities inhibited? The world around him after all remains largely intact, but something inside of him has changed.
In 1938, when I was despairing of ever writing again, my relationship with Eda Lou Walton deteriorated. We separated, and almost immediately afterwards I met Muriel Parker at Yaddo, an artist's colony at Saratoga Springs. The following year we were married, but the only livelihood we had came from the WPA and relief. They had me working with pick and shovel laying sewer pipes as well as repairing and maintaining streets. In 1940 I wrote "Somebody Always Grabs the Purple," a story of a boy's visit to the public library, which was published in The New Yorker. When I notified the relief agency that I had received three hundred dollars for the publication I was reclassified as being no longer indigent, and promptly removed from the rolls.
Shortly after that I obtained a steady job as a substitute teacher at a high school in the Bronx. I decided that jobs offer security, that I would have to accept the obligations and compulsions that came my way and forget I had been a writer. When I discussed this with my wife we both agreed that I would never write again. I told myself I had done so many different things in the meantime that there would be no more suffering, yet there was some hidden reservation that lingered on and continued to crop up in moments of introspection.
By 1940 Europe was at war and the American economy was speeding up. I learned that people were being trained as craftsmen to turn out the immense volume of war material that was beginning to come off the assembly lines, and the thought of a skilled trade appealed to me. Although I had given up being a writer and accepted the idea that I would have to work for a living like everybody else, I still felt that anything remotely touching on my former interest—and that included advertising as well as clerical and office work—was repugnant to me. So I gravitated to machine shop work and became a precision grinder. That entailed doing the high precision finishing work on a variety of cutting tools, dies, fixtures and jigs. The machinists who carried out the earlier parts of the operation left me only a few thousandths of an inch to take off. The ordinary machinist does not care for such slow and demanding work, but I had always been interested in mathematics, which was necessary for the required calculations, and I came to like the work. In time I was classified as A-1 on the basis of the skill I acquired.
For six years I plied that trade and regarded myself as a machinist. During those years, perhaps because it had been the scene of my frustration, I developed a distaste for New York. I wanted to get away from anything that reminded me of my past as a writer. But leaving New York is a two-fold undertaking for a New Yorker. First of all he had to decide to make the break, having always looked upon New York implicitly as the only place in which he could live. Then he has to decide where he is going. In 1945 I finally made the move and took the family to Boston.
Fifteen years passed before I was to return even briefly to New York. I discovered then that it was no longer my New York. I had been so versed in the city, I could see the little detail that spoke for the whole, and had developed an expertise in conning the place. I went back to visit Ninth Street and the East Side, the neighborhood I had known and identified with, and discovered the whole area had become Puerto Rican. The great spirit that had once vitalized that stack of bricks was gone. Nevertheless, I was moved by nostalgia the first time I went back there; perhaps there was a touch of symbolism in my "return." But now I would like to see everything there bulldozed down and some fit habitations erected. My response to prowling through Harlem was markedly different. You experience nostalgia if you are aware of a former identity which has been displaced or replaced. I never had that kind of tie to Harlem, only the feeling that I did not belong.
After working in Boston during 1945 and 1946 I decided that was not the right place for me either. I found an inexpensive farm in Maine, not the one I am living on now, but in Montville, and the price of twelve hundred dollars included the house and barn. The one-hundred-ten acre farm described a ribbon a couple of hundred yards wide and a mile long. I bought the place in March, 1946, and two months later my wife and the two boys came out here to live. After continuing work for six more months in Boston I settled down with my family in Maine.
The years that followed were occupied with making a living and supporting the family. I started out by taking a job as a teacher at a school in which eight grades were all cooped up in one room. I never learned the knack of keeping them all busy; while I was teaching the eighth grade the first and second graders would get restless. I saw myself as a juggler trying to keep up an illusion of perpetual motion.
There followed a variety of odd jobs—from putting in heating insulation to fire fighting in the woods of Maine—whatever offered a livable wage. In 1949, the same year we moved to Augusta, I went to work as an attendant at the Augusta State Hospital and later became a psychiatric aide, a position I held for four years. By then both of my boys were in school and my wife was able to start teaching. From that point on we managed fairly well, although our income never amounted to much. My wife was a wonderful sport and took the ups and downs in her stride. My own attitude was that there was no real meaning outside of writing, so it did not really matter what I did.
Time passed, it became clear that the hospital job had no future, and I turned to something new. Since we were down in a hollow near a brook, I thought the farm would be a good place to raise waterfowl. With the help of my boys that is what I did for a number of years. I used to winter forty breeders each of ducks and geese in order to have fertile eggs in the spring. Then I would incubate the eggs and peddle the ducklings and goslings. I worked up a little trade in feathers too; goose feathers are worth two dollars a pound. When my sons came home from school they ran errands and did chores. That was a happy period for me; I found it wonderful to be working with my own boys.
My life during those years revolved around the family. From time to time I used to wish I could take part in intellectual discussion, but it was pointless to attempt that with the neighbors. There was always my wife, however, and discussion was carried on at home. The area of contact between myself and the natives has been very slight, just as the over-lapping of that which is vitally important for them and myself is minimal. The result is that my family and I have lived rather retired lives, to the point where I seem no longer to miss anything in the way of larger human contact. Being a Jew has not provided fellowship either—nor has it been a problem. The Jewish population in Maine is small and I doubt that most of the people I deal with know that I am Jewish.
When my older boy got a scholarship to Phillips Exeter Academy and, a couple of years later, the other one went away to finish high school, my wife and I found ourselves alone. It became necessary to find something less taxing than raising waterfowl by myself, so I took to tutoring Latin and math.
In the summer of 1959 Harold Ribalow, a critic of American-Jewish literature, came out here to talk with me about Call It Sleep and its possible republication. That was the first time it occurred to me that anyone might be interested in bringing out the book. I felt that from a business standpoint it would be a foolish venture and would not do any better than it had the first time. I was gratified, however, and hoped that it would result in some needed income. Ribalow pointed out that my copyright was approaching the expiration date, after which the book would become public domain. My obliviousness to that fact shows how divorced I was from literature and writing. As a result of Ribalow's interest the book was brought out by Cooper Square Publishers in 1960, and then in 1964, thirty years after the first publication, it came out as a paperback with Avon Books. After all those years of being out of print the book had become accessible again.
What I had perhaps overlooked is that one grows old and that a book like Call It Sleep can gain a certain value as an antiquity. At least I was still alive to see the revival of interest in the novel. I am sure that moving to Maine with its much slower pace of life, giving up the consuming attempt to keep writing at all costs, and the devotion of a steady and sensible wife account for my being alive today. Otherwise the republication of the book would have been a posthumous event. But as far as literature is concerned, I am in reality no longer alive. The renewed interest in Call It Sleep is being witnessed by a dead author who still happens to be ambulatory.
But strangely enough, this dead author may be going through a resurrection. I started writing again in the summer of 1967, simultaneously with the outbreak and conclusion of the Israeli-Arab war. I was in Guadalajara, Mexico, at the time, where I had gone with my wife on the royalties of Call It Sleep, and where I followed the daily events of the war in the local newspapers with great avidity. I found myself identifying intensely with the Israelis in their military feats, which repudiated all the anti-Jewish accusations we had been living with in the Diaspora, and I was glorying in their establishment of themselves as a state through their own application and resources. An intellectual excitement seized hold of me that forced me to set down what was going through my mind, to record my thoughts about Israel and my new reservations regarding the Soviet Union. What I wrote seemed to reflect a peculiar adoption. Israel did not adopt me; I adopted my ex post facto native land. What seemed important was that I identified with Israel without being a Zionist and without having the least curiosity about Israel as a practical, political entity. Suddenly I had a place in the world and an origin. Having started to write, it seemed natural to go on from there, and I have been writing long hours every day since then. I am not yet sure what it is leading to, but it is necessary and is growing out of a new allegiance, an adhesion that comes from belonging.
I had the need for us to be warriors; I had the need for us to be peasants and farmers, for us to exercise all the callings and trades like any other people. I have become an extreme partisan of Israeli existence—for the first time I have a people. All this made me conscious of a latent conviction—that the individual per se disintegrates unless he associates himself with an institution of some sort, with a larger entity. I could not find that kind of bond in religion, and I do not think the Israelis do either. I found it in the existence of a nation. I have not been able to turn for that to America, which is presently committing the folly of destroying itself, so at least for the present I have adopted a people of my own, because they have made it possible for me to do so. And I am further indebted to Israel because I am able to write again.
If there is anything dramatic about all this, I suppose it can be explained as the way a fictioneer does things. Significant for me is that after his vast detour, the once-Orthodox Jewish boy has returned to his own Jewishness. I have reattached myself to part of what I had rejected in 1914. Even before the Israeli-Arab war I was beginning to feel that there might be some path that would lead me back to myself, although I realized there was no returning to the Jews of the East Side of more than a half century ago. Then suddenly I discovered that I could align myself with a people that is forward-looking and engaged in the vital process of its own formation. And with the resumption of writing I find that I myself am reabsorbed into something that is immediately vital. One of the little—or big—projects I have undertaken is a work dealing with the artist responding to his world.
Being a Jew in the Diaspora is basically a state of mind, an attitude of not belonging. In that sense there are also Gentiles who are Jewish. Only two courses remain open to the Jew in America: he assimilates and disappears completely, while giving the best elements of himself to his native culture—and God knows that he has a lot to give; or he goes to Israel and does the same thing there. The emergence of Israel has proved to be the greatest threat to the continued survival of the Jew of the Diaspora. I do not think the Jew in America can exist much longer with a distinct identity, although he continues to make an attempt at it. I myself do not want the Diaspora. I am sick of it. Isn't it time we became a people again? Haven't we suffered enough?
Abruptly the emotional pitch subsided, and an infinite weariness took its place, as Mr. Roth concluded, "This has taken a lot out of me. I don't think I will be giving any more interviews."
The impassioned note on which the long session had ended contrasted with the relaxed, good-natured mood which prevailed at the dinner table. Mrs. Roth had waited patiently until late evening and the conclusion of the interview, at which time this equable woman of Anglo-Saxon stock served us a superb meal consisting of well-known staples and delicacies of the Jewish cuisine. That in turn brought on reminiscences from Henry Roth about his childhood on the Lower East Side. At one point Mrs. Roth spoke of the travels abroad she and her husband have undertaken in the last few years and remarked with a touch of humor, "Henry is a poor traveler. As soon as he gets somewhere he wants to settle down for good."
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2562
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 of living in New York's East Side than any other book extant, said Horace Gregory. Above all, Kenneth Burke said, the book dealt fluently with the psychological phenomena of orientation and rebirth. To me, it is all these, but it is also a book that deals successfully and penetratingly with the traumas of dislocation, the problems of the "New Immigrants" as they were Americanized, and the conditions (especially in the 1920s) of a country tied to industrialism, electricity, energy, power, and disillusionment.
Call It Sleep is very much an autobiographical novel, written in what might have been a state of possession. While working on it from 1929 to 1933 Roth saw that he was in "a sort of general mystical state. I had a sense about the unifying force of some power I neither knew nor had to bother to know," he wrote. "It was part of having been an orthodox Jew," he thought. For at base all he was trying to do was to understand his childhood and what had happened to him. Having felt he was an outcast, having come from a cultural past he felt more than he knew, he had to find relief and release when placed in a present he wanted to understand but could not.
Born in 1906 in a little town in Galicia, to Herman and Leah Roth, Henry was brought to America when he was eighteen months old. His father had arrived earlier to earn money to bring his family over. Unfortunately because Henry's birth date was questioned—it was perfectly natural in the Old Country not to keep records—and Herman was already unhappy in the New World, the intra-familial strife that was to grow was present from that moment. In Henry's eyes his father was a most unadmirable little guy; in a short story in 1969 he called him "a little old dwarf in a baggy pair of pants." His mother, however, who doted on him, was both contemplative and anxiety-ridden, qualities that were given to Genya and Bertha in the book.
At first the Roths lived in Brownsville, but two years later, in 1910, they moved to East Ninth Street, on Manhattan's Lower East Side. Recalling those years, Roth said that he was surrounded by a "homogeneous environment" and "completely identified with it." In that atmosphere of devoutness, orthodoxy, and community, "it would not have occurred to anyone to question the dietary regulations or the observance of holiday rituals." Four years later when the family moved to Harlem it produced an anxiety in him from which he never recovered. The homogeneous environment, in a sense duplicating the life of the shtetl from which they had come, meant a consensus way of living in which almost all the Jews thought alike, dressed alike, ate alike, and reacted alike. Suddenly removed to Harlem, to be near Henry's grandparents, uncles and aunts, he was unceremoniously thrown into a multi-ethnic neighborhood made up of Italians, Irish, and Jews from all over. (In Call It Sleep, however, the fictive Lower East Side was made up of a Jewish ghetto that combined the homogeneity of the Lower East Side with the disharmonious elements of Harlem.) The impressionable Henry, who knew he was a Jew but who had progressed in cheder only to the point where he could read Hebrew by pronouncing the letters, was affected by the forces of Americanization. As Roth put it much later, "Continuity was destroyed when [my] family moved from snug, orthodox 9th street, from the homogeneous East Side to rowdy, heterogeneous Harlem…. And once continuity was destroyed, there would always be a sense of loss afterward, an insecurity." Like many first and second generation immigrants he badly wanted to blend into the environing fabric. "I wanted to adapt to this gentile Irish neighborhood," he remembered, "in the shortest time possible, and one of the conditions for adapting was to get away from Judaism." A few years later, while at New York University and living with his English teacher Eda Lou Walton, twelve years his senior, he admitted that he had paid a price. "In Call It Sleep," wrote Roth, "I stuck with the child, so I didn't have to mature. And I was being supported by Eda Lou, so I didn't have to mature."
While a freshman at New York University, in 1925, Roth wrote a paper in an English class titled "Impressions of a Plumber." After detailing the events of the day in the life of a plumber's helper, he placed the youth on a subway and then described those parts of the day that were due to the system's influence. As the helper looked around him, he saw that "Grim toil has graven on their faces his trademark." When the factory whistle blew, it made a long "Tooooooot." And when the boss came around to check up on the workers, the youth hoped he would trip on the steps of the ladder and hurt himself. In the mind of the helper, "He is the boss; I am the laborer."
Roth, like most immigrants, desperately wanted to be an American but couldn't entirely escape the pull of the past. "Like so many first generation American Jewish youth, I had already come to dissociate from family, Judaism, the whole thing—and to embrace the American scene, the American attitudes." But, he went on, "I couldn't bridge my background. I was able to speak glibly enough at the cocktail party level, but as far as digesting what was going on, especially in the literary world, it just didn't sink in. My whole orientation was to try to understand my own childhood, my own background."
Having written and published this one story, in which the conditions of the working man and the influence of the industrial system were mixed, Roth now began to write Call It Sleep. In the grip of the disillusionment, technocracy, and shattering values of the late 1920s and early 1930s, reminiscent of the traumas, the Social Darwinism, the psychic crisis, and the significance of power at the turn of the century, he sought himself—he sought to find himself—in the tension, problems, and writing of Call It Sleep.
It seems obvious that Call It Sleep was a novel by a Jew manqué about the Jewish experience early in this century. On a more basic level, however, it was a novel about the travails and neuroses of the immigrant generation in a particular cultural context. It was also a novel about the varieties and persistence of ethnicity in the age of energy.
Let me spell out what I mean. First, here are several examples of ethnicity affected by Americanization. 1) In the beginning, David's speech is pure Yiddish and halting English. By the end of Part One, "The Cellar," his Yiddish is more than half English according to his mother. On the other hand, his father, mother, and Aunt Bertha continue to speak fluent Yiddish, but a heavily accented, ungrammatical English. The forces of acculturation did not work evenly. 2) Although Call It Sleep is an American novel it conveys its most important motifs by reference to the past. a) After meeting Genya and David at the boat, it was David's clothes that drew the father's ire. Albert, moving toward becoming an American, picked on the most overt sign of the child's affect. His "distinctly foreign costume" with its "odd, outlandish blue straw hat" marked David a new arrival. b) When Albert, the father, introduced David to his countryman, Luter, he pointed to David, saying, "And that over there is what will pray for me after my death." Albert knew that Luter understood the reference. Albert, unhappy with his son, regretted that the old tradition would be carried out by such a one as "that." c) When Aunt Bertha described her father, she evoked the medieval, Eastern European Jewish past. "His praying," she explained, "was an excuse for his laziness. As long as he prayed he didn't have to do anything else…. A pious Jew with a beard—who dared ask more of him? Work? God spare him. He played the lotteries." In the old country, it was enough for a man to study the Torah. In the New World, a man had to work, to achieve, to make a success. d) Lastly, the reference to the past is especially noted in Genya's aside to Albert when she enrolled David in the Hebrew School. As for his learning what it means to be a Jew, she said, "I think he knows how hard that is already." e) Finally, and how with reference to the forces of electricity and efficiency deified in the 1920s, when David, beset by problems too great for a child to either comprehend or overcome, looked for a sign, i.e., a way out, it was in Isaiah that he found it. Told by the Rabbi that an angel had used tongs to place a fiery coal on Isaiah's lips and thus cleansed him, David at first wondered about the story and then was impelled to duplicate it. As he plunged the metal dipper into the car tracks he kept repeating, "I gotta make it come out." That is, now attempting to fuse the past with the electric present, he had to make the light, the power, the force, the cleansing agent, come to him and cleanse him.
It is this quest for personal peace, and a sign that would lead him to it, that is the driving force of the novel. Seeking his identity, initiated into manhood by Annie, who induced him to "play bad" and then take the blame for it, he was alienated by reason of being a Jew in a Christian multi-ethnic society. At the same time, his father represented terror and irrationality, and the society symbolized hostility and repression. With the coming of spring, however, he felt a new "sense of wary contentment, a curious pause in himself, as though he were waiting for some sign, some seal that would forever relieve him of watchfulness and forever insure his well-being." It was at cheder that he discovered what appeared to be the sign. When the lesson dealt with the pious, unclean Isaiah, who saw God in His majesty and His terrible light, David asked himself: "Why did he want to burn Isaiah's mouth with coal?" Was there some connection with his mother's explanation when he asked her who is God and she said that a pious old woman had once told her that "He was brighter than the day is brighter than the night." Was there a connection with the three antisemitic boys who, in cruelly showing him "magic," forced him to throw a sword into the car tracks? Terror stricken, David remembered, he rammed the sword into the slot, "like a tongue in an iron mouth."
He stepped back. From open fingers, the blade plunged into darkness. Power. Like a paw ripping through all the stable fibres of the earth, power gigantic, fetterless, thudded into day. And light, unleashed, terrific light bellowed out of iron lips. The street quaked and roared, and like a tortured thing, the sheet zinc sword, leapt writhing, fell back, consumed with radiance. A moment later, he was spurting madly toward Avenue D.
In the Isaiah story God had touched Isaiah's lips with the fiery coal and said you're clean. His mother had said that God "has all power. He can break and rebuild, but He holds." And now out of the iron lips of the car tracks he had witnessed, seen, both light and power.
Soon after, David broke into the cheder to get the Bible; "the blue book with the coal in it! The man and the coal!" was what he was after. Of course, this was all incomprehensible to the Rabbi who caught him. But to David it was another step on the way to the sign, to finding his identity in an ethnic jungle in a technological maze.
At the end of the book, having suffered fear and terror too often, David fled. Instinct guiding him, he headed for the car tracks. Grabbing a metal milk dipper on the way, he kept muttering, "I gotta make it come out" and "in the crack be born." Straddling the sunken rail he braced his legs, held his breath, and "now the wavering point of the dipper's handle found the long, dark grinning lips, scraped, and like a sound in a scabbard—…. Plunged!" But nothing happened. He did it again, this time with his toe crooked into the dipper as into a stirrup. It grated, stirred, slid, and, to the accompaniment of someone else saying "Oy! Machine! Liberty! Revolt! Redeem!, he felt it—
Power! Power like a paw, titanic power, ripped through the earth and slammed against his body and shackled him where he stood, Power! Incredible, barbaric power! A blast, a sren of light within him, rending, quaking, fusing his brain and blood to a fountain of flame, vast rockets in a searing spray! Power! The hawk of radiance raking him with talons of fire, battering his skull with a beak of fire, braying his body with pinions of tolerable light. And he writhed without motion in the clutch of a fatal glory, and his brain swelled and dilated till it dwarfed the galaxies in a bubble of refulgence—Recoiled, the last screaming nerve clawing for survival. He kicked—once. Terrific rams of darkness collided; out of their shock space toppled into havoc. A thin scream wobbled through the spirals of oblivion, fell like a brand on water, his-s-s-s-s-ed—.
What had happened? After he was revived his mother asked him, what made you go? What made you do it? His only answer, "I don't know, mama," was true. As a child of seven, gripped by fear and terror and guilt, common to so many then, but beyond his comprehension, he sought the "sign," the "light," the force that God touched Isaiah with and made him clean and pure and innocent and burden-free. He sought the sign in order to be reborn. As an outcast, in an age of power, electricity, and industrialism, between 1925 and 1933, he believed that the Biblical image would fuse with the all-powerful symbols of the environing community. Somehow he knew, instinctively, that as darkness met light, it was "only toward sleep that every wink of the eyelids could strike a spark into the cloudy tinder of the dark, kindle out of shadowy corners of the bedroom such myriad and such vivid jets of images," including the "open palms of legions upon legions of hands hurtling toward him." It was only toward sleep that pain and terror were replaced by the "strangest triumph, strangest acquiescence." David had found the sign. David had found a peace.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6795
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 flight hired for a Hadassah group tour and was staying, when he called me, in Haifa's distinctly second-best hotel. It was a flight from expectation, of self and by others, that in a way, though I neglected to investigate it at the time, threatened the goal.
When I met him in September, 1977, Roth was staying, at the government's invitation, in Mishkenot Shaananim, Jerusalem's fine and fancy guest-artist's residence where Pablo Casals, Saul Bellow, Isaac Stern and Heinrich Böll had stayed before him. Five years ago, when we spoke on the telephone and arranged our meeting, Roth had just returned from an enervating all-day bus tour to the Golan Heights and warned me that I might be wasting my time, that he might have nothing to say. He was wrong then, impressively, thumpingly wrong, and somewhere in that five-year interim he had learned that much about himself and very much more. He seemed more open, better pleased and more comfortable with both of us when he received me at the door to his apartment, and within a quarter hour he suggested we begin taping. He had been interviewed frequently since his arrival at the end of summer and used these interviews for expression and discovery. He had something to say, to himself and others, and would learn what he had to say to himself by speaking to others. I spoke almost as much as he did during our interview in 1972, filling spaces and responding to questions with my own readings, impressions and interpretations. This time my questions were almost interruptions. Roth, who had accepted obligations, had his own.
[Freedman:] I want to begin by working with the contrast between the framework of this visit and that of the last, when we did our first interview five years ago. The last time you came, in '72 if I remember correctly, you turned down offers for a special arrangement and came, oddly I thought, on a Hadassah tour. You insisted on that. You really wanted to do it middle class.
[Roth:] Middle class, and without any commitments to any institution, person or state whatever. Just as if I were a completely free individual, coming here to see for himself what it was like and what kind of impression he got out of it, if any. I wanted no sense of being obligated in the least because I felt it might inhibit me, especially if I thought this place was impossible. In the end, I think the impressions of Israel, although they were considerable, were less lasting than that of the Hadassah group itself.
Of course, whether Israel impressed me favorably or not, it's difficult to say. What did we see after all? We saw the great historical sights, the biblical sights, and very little of actual Israeli life. So the first impression is that of a tourist seeing the Church of the Nativity or seeing Masada, etc. But later on I subscribed to the Jerusalem Post, so evidently, in the very fact that I did so, the interest per se continued. And then I felt that if I were going to do anything about this revived interest and involvement, I really ought to join the Jewish community in Albuquerque—which was quite a step, I must say. I wanted to see what they were doing about Israel and try to join efforts with them. So ultimately I joined the Israeli subcommittee of the J.C.C.—Jewish Community Council. And it was very Jewish and very diaspora. Muriel [Mrs. Roth] was good enough to come along too; she became the secretary of the subcommittee, the Israeli subcommittee, as it was called. It was the most active of all. Some of the others, subgroups of the public relations committee and such, simply languished and fell apart. The most active was the Israeli subcommittee, which would indicate that it is central to Jewish thinking, even out in far off Albuquerque. At all events, my interest continued.
Did you really get involved in that community, in those activities?
Well, no. No, I didn't, though there was some socializing. Actually, I felt in Albuquerque, in the Jewish and Christian community—let me say it that way and be fair about it—I felt more at home than I'd felt anywhere in all these many years of wandering: Maine, New York, Boston. The west is open still. It still has some of that original openness, so there's a greater degree of friendliness. Through Muriel's music we were able to make friends in the gentile community and through my own efforts, in the Jewish community. We had all the social life we wanted, and it was very satisfactory. But the Israeli thing kept growing.
How about your sense of Jewish identity? Did you feel anything special, that you were making contact with something deep and important in yourself, when you began to make these other contacts?
That's a good question. The Jewish identity was cooking all the time. I think you can say, practically as a verity, that there has always been, for me at all events, in the diaspora, the inner sense that I am different, that there is a reservation, an ambivalence. I can go so far with you, and then I have a different gyroscope in me that orients differently.
What do you mean by "go so far with you"?
Well, I can hardly say what I mean by that, except that I would feel that boundary even with people with whom we enjoy great conviviality. My own interpretations seem always to have extensions in every direction that go beyond theirs. Either it was a compassion that went further than theirs, or it was some sort of introspection that they would stimulate within me, which I knew I couldn't communicate. Those are just two little examples, but there is that reserve, and despite the greatest of friendliness.
But while that was going on, the question and growth of my Jewishness, I was conducting, simultaneously, an interior dialogue between myself and the young man who wrote Call It Sleep—essentially a dialogue about what happened. Why didn't you go on, the old man would ask. You wrote a good novel, and obviously you've written what amounted to a self-fulfilling prophecy. You used as one of your chief symbols the short circuit, and you yourself are short-circuited. How did that come about? Why did you choose that theme? This is to give you an example of the kind of inner life you're leading even though outwardly you're married, have work to do, raise a family and so forth. The inner life is continually talking to the youth that was and was created, asking it questions and asking itself: Why can't you continue, and what would it take, or is there any possibility? Muriel and I had agreed there was no possibility, and a divorce, a real divorce took place. I tried to reconcile myself to it, but somehow or other you can't quite reconcile yourself to that. The dialogue goes on, this search for something that would again give you an opportunity to express yourself esthetically, in narrative form or on some level that is of some merit; and you look about for avenues that might allow this. There were none. I can say that very simply.
I recall reading an address that Bellow made to the Anti-Defamation League on the occasion of being awarded a medal for his contribution to democracy in the United States. The title of his piece was, "I Took Myself as I Was." Now there's a fortunate man. He could take himself as he was because he never went through this horrendous business of being an immigrant kid who was tremendously attracted to the Left, a member of the Communist Party who was thereby deflected almost completely and found that the deflection did not pay off in the literary sense. That person has to look for a new avenue which he can't find, having cut himself off from the diaspora which he doesn't want.
You're talking about yourself now.
I'm talking about myself. Bellow wrote his first novel, I think, around 1944. So he never went through that terrible trauma that many of us went through in the thirties, that swept Jewish intellectuals into this messianic, mystical kind of … trance (I was about to say) [laughs] … out of which Call It Sleep was written.
The book has that effect. It reads as though it were written under that kind of special influence.
It's a mystical, messianic grouping, a constellation, if you wish, and it's a constellation that didn't hold out. If you know anything about astronomy you know that in the course of time these various stars move about.
So you do see it as a kind of mystical book. I once began an article on the mysticism of Call It Sleep and abandoned the idea as a bit fanciful.
Yes. It's a religious continuation despite the individual who protested that he was not religious. It was an efflorescence followed by a wilting. Bellow's a fortunate man because he could take himself as he was. And if you take yourself as you are you can run a tremendous string of literary work. I think it was true of the Elizabethans, some of them. They took themselves as they were. They felt the society was stagnant, was going to stay that way forever, while they went on and on. Not only Shakespeare, but Webster and Turner and Fletcher and the whole caboodle. We were less fortunate. We went through this trauma, and I don't think, and I've said this before, that any of those of use who came of age in the thirties literarily—I can't speak for the whole field of art—seemed to be able to go on. The thirties were disabling, and we were all affected alike.
I can remember Eda Lou Walton saying, "Well, that one's too shallow," or "that one's run out of steam," and so on. But when it happens to you and you know you aren't that shallow, well then, it must be some kind of a social force that's at work. It would really make a good study, and I think some day it will: Jewish writers in the thirties and the proletarian novels they attempted to do.
Can you clarify for me exactly what you think the problem was, what caused the truncation? Was it the deflection into communism? The sense of being cut off from the diaspora? How did these forces work? How did they short-circuit the creative wires?
I can tell you this much—that in going into communism I found a character for a novel, began to write, wrote perhaps a hundred pages, and Scribner's and Maxwell Perkins accepted it. And then I was finished. Apparently I didn't want to go on, and this is part of the dialogue I hold with myself. Why didn't you want to go on? If I understand it correctly, it's a matter of maturity. I didn't want to go through this man's life, although he was a very colorful character. He had lost a hand, he was illiterate, and he had a very colorful way of expressing himself: really made to order. I wanted to do a character who finally realized you can't go it alone. He had once been quite a brawler, and when he was up against it, he didn't hesitate to commit armed robbery. But in the end he would see he wasn't enough, and he would join the Party. It looked good, but I didn't want to go into it. What Scribner's had accepted was the boyhood stage. Now I would have to do a whole section on his life as a young man, and then I'd have to go into his marriage, his kids, his jobs, his strikes, and so forth. That's why I say maturity. All that seemed to be a function of maturity, and I hadn't matured that way. I hadn't matured, period. I think that's an element. The fact that I was dependent on Walton all those years had in a sense been both very beneficial and very harmful.
So now you're offering personal as well as social reasons. You're not really seeing it in exclusively social terms. You also attribute the short-circuiting to your own personal history and composition.
What I'm saying is that they're interrelated and almost inextricable. You just can't take them apart. If I had been made to hit the grit of the Depression, and writing, let's say, was my livelihood, it would have been root, pig, or die, and I might have forced myself through that second novel and maybe gone on from there. Each one might have been worse than the one before, but I'd have gone on anyway—because of the Depression, because I had to.
Have you ever looked at it from the other side of the track, considered the possibility that the flight into communism, into ideology and affiliation, was a form of flight from a literary career that may have frightened you?
Now that's one. A literary career that scared me.
Perhaps something inside you quietly figured: "Maybe I can't do it again," or "It would be a hell of an effort to try it again. If I get myself involved in politics, I'll have an explanation for not going on."
Well, there may have been a subconscious factor there: Now you've become an activist, you don't have to write anymore. That sort of thing. But curiously enough I did attempt to write while being an activist, though I didn't get very far with it. I don't really know whether the deflection into communism was a fatal thing. I don't really know, because I can recall that while I was writing Call It Sleep and things seemed to be in a fairly stable state, I would get these promptings: Well, then the next thing you ought to do is take a child, or take a youth (you don't have to go back to childhood) from a ghetto and show his passage from his ghetto associations to a self-consciousness of literary ability, a passage, in more concrete terms, from the ghetto to Greenwich Village and to somebody like Walton. That seemed to be my next job.
You tried that too, didn't you?
I started it, but it didn't go. And when that didn't go and this other didn't go, then I seemed to be, as far as I was concerned … finished.
The failures shook you.
The two failures. They became self-generating, a further cause. The dying out of these things when I had already, I thought, become a disciplined writer, seemed to mark the end of my career. Then I though, well, now wait a minute; you can still force yourself to write small pieces on a high commercial level, for the New Yorker, or something. And I did for a while. But it was just too much like work—which is another indication that I was not a pro.
You weren't getting much satisfaction out of it either, were you? It was hack work for you.
Mostly. It was a great thing to get the money the New Yorker pays, but as far as that satisfaction a writer gets out of an inspired piece …
Which Call It Sleep was; it really was.
I think that the quality of intellect and analysis and all the rest of it that others had, or that I had, could not have produced Call It Sleep without the aid of some kind of inspiration.
Have you ever considered that your emotional roots may really be in childhood and that the electricity from you is somehow linked to, or grounded in, a child's mind or a child's emotional and imaginative life? Have you ever tried to write about a child again?
No, I never did, because I think that even in Call It Sleep I was trying to project a scenario of the inner life of the man who was doing the writing via what appealed to me as the most familiar, the easiest, the most accessible instrument, the child, using autobiographical experiences and everything else that goes into Call It Sleep, and rearranging them. But of course, at the same time, I was trying to build a structure out of it, an architecture of some kind. The narrative skill I had in abundance, an instinctive sense of narrative. So I drew from that particular period all that I needed, all the narrator wanted to build his particular literary edifice.
You say the book is about the inner life of the narrator, the adult author, yet he doesn't appear in the book at all. Not in that way, not as a character. Let me understand you here. Are you saying you intended the child to be read as a metaphor for the innocent, frightened, intimidated young adult of the thirties, for the author of the book who, like his contemporaries, would be short-circuited by the forces that drove and threatened him? If so, Call It Sleep is not merely a non-proletarian novel. It's an artist's fear of the proletarian novel, of everything that led to its ascendancy and of what those forces and that ascendancy might do to him: the short circuit. I doubt the book has ever been understood in quite that way.
The narrator of Call It Sleep was both naive and complex. Naive as far as recognizing, in ideological terms, the symbolic latency of the central character. He probably wouldn't have written the novel, wouldn't have been capable of it, if he had recognized it. He tried to create with all intensity the yarn of an immigrant childhood, but the factual is at extreme variance with the fable. The author never again experienced the security and happiness of the East Side ghetto. Why then all the anxieties, the fears, the intimations of apocalypse? Because those currents were continually in the author's ambience; they permeated his psyche. Hitler was already on the horizon, together with my own fears which I didn't formulate but which were there nonetheless. And there was a great Depression going on at the same time. Also, before I was through, I developed a fear of communism itself, of the demands it would make on what I regarded as my type of sloppy character and mind, on someone who was impractical and not given to militance or to arousing militance in others: there's always Joe out there with his stern demands. By the time I was through, I realized this was something I had been afraid of, though I'd never told anyone. It was to project those peculiar fears and strains into the novel that I injected Irish or goyish Harlem into the East Side—at the expense of actuality.
How long were you associated with the Party?
I joined at the very beginning of '34 and stayed on a couple of years. And then I dropped out, only to rejoin it when Hitler began to move. Of course I was shaken by the Russo-German pact, but I tried to justify it. That was very important. I knew nothing about the execution of Jewish writers, and whenever I heard anything … I mean I was really … what's the right word for it?
I could justify and defend it on any damn grounds whatever. And as I look back I feel as if I'm as guilty—well, not quite, but that I share in a certain amount of guilt for what happened there to the Jewish writers, because I approved, so to speak, of what was happening in general. And whenever some shocking revelation surfaced, something involving Jews like Zinoviev, Kamenev and others, people who were really great leaders at one time and who were executed, and when Trotsky was driven out, I applauded it. I condemned "the counter-revolution." I went along with the herd. It's terrible.
Did you feel comfortable with it at the time, or did the guilt accompany the applause?
No, I never felt comfortable with it, but I couldn't create out of it either. I was not only uncreative literarily; I was not creative in it, as a political person. I was just one of the inert members who gave his approval.
Then you weren't at home in the Party either?
I wasn't at home. There's a difference between what I felt then and the identification I feel now, with Israel. When I speak of Israel there is always a tendency to bring the identity issue in and a tendency to try to stimulate the non-Jewish community out there in Albuquerque to do more than it does. So there's really quite a difference. In the one I seem to be alive, and in the other I was really inert.
The recurrent biographical theme, as I hear it, is the search for a home.
You asked about the roots in boyhood or childhood. It's very pertinent. I couldn't go back to another childhood. I did one, the one Scribner's accepted, in an entirely different environment, the middle west. I think the key word here is continuity. The roots were there but they had nowhere to continue. I had cut myself off from the diaspora. I disapproved of much, if not most of the diaspora. I cut off the religious aspect of it. The kids I grew up with simply repelled me because they were doing what they were taught to do: drive as hard as possible towards success. It was almost completely mercenary, and most of the diaspora that I came to know, including my own relatives, were doing the same thing. So there was nowhere to go from that childhood. Had I remained on the East Side, there would have been a development. But I was taken away at the age … taken away I say; my family moved when I was eight and a half, just short of going into Chumush and the other great religious texts. Had I remained there, in that homogeneous society—there again, there's the old man asking the young man, "What would you have done?" And I think that while I probably wouldn't have written Call It Sleep, I might have been able to run a string of books, with a less apocalyptic end, had I remained in a Jewish community and seen what the development of a youth is in that kind of community.
How do you talk to that young man when you talk to him? Is it strictly in terms of this one question, or do you have other questions to ask him?
Mostly it's in terms of that one question, since it's such a deep-seated thing. The creativity of the individual is so deep-seated that to cut it off like that creates a profound shock. It's a kind of trauma that sets up a polarity. I began to feel, and I now almost certainly feel, as if we were two individuals.
Do you feel emotionally identified with that person? Is there still an intimate bond of some sort between you, or are you speaking to someone else when you question him?
I don't feel emotionally identified with him. He was cut off, and there's a vast gap and a vast bridge to be crossed. The only continuity between us is this identity I now have with Israel.
I had always missed that, felt the need for the identity and continuity that Eliot, for example, had found in his commitments. As I said in this little article of mine in the January 1977 Midstream—and this may represent the first awakening of the literary ability in the new dispensation—Eliot had gone through a transformation by accepting Classicism, Royalism and Anglo-Catholicism; and I thought: the lucky bastard! But that sort of thing was absolutely beyond me, impossible. There was no outlet for me, at least not until the '67 war. But even before that war I was in a way crystallizing. I was beginning to become curious about this place; and then the war seemed to crystallize it. From then on I realized I had bridged this awful chasm, this awful discontinuity, by the identification with Israel. And this continuity made another possible. I could feel, arising again, a kind of literary urge. But it takes quite a while, at least for my slow kind of mind, to move from commitment to its literary expression. I began to write in a rather confused and haphazard way about what I did feel—about what communism meant to me, what I felt about Israel, and so forth. I have the notebook somewhere, and I imagine that will become part of the raw material for what I expect to write.
But what the war and the newly solidified identity did most was to liberate the youthful period. That may be both ambiguous and interesting. It liberated me to examine and write about the whole youthful sexual awakening in relation to Walton, which I had previously felt inadequate for. The kind of thing I did, the kind of person she was—I just felt completely unable to treat that sort of thing. Maybe what I'm representing or attempting to represent is not Walton, but there is a character there.
So that's the book you're working on now?
Yes, and it will be different. I can no longer depend on a linear narrator; too much is happening. But I think I can deal with the diaspora youth leaving his Judaism, or attempting to, trying to get as far away from it as possible. And then, against that, the old man, in a counter movement, reuniting, because returning is impossible, reuniting with a Judaism in the form it has taken now in the state of Israel.
So the book would span these forty years or so.
Yes. And there would be, I hope, a kind of double movement taking place not quite simultaneously—because you can't do that—but with narrative on the one hand, on the other expositions about the author's views of certain things, or reports of certain conversations. That's the kind of book it will be.
Have you ever thought of writing the story that in effect you just began to tell me, the story of this dialogue itself, the one that centers on the question, Why didn't you go on?
I think that's part of it. You see, you write the narrative, but when you're dealing with the old man again you can treat it as a dialogue then. He can ask the question, What happened? even in the midst of one of these subcommittee meetings. To him all his past, all that he can recall, is contemporaneous.
I was thinking of a book in which the dialogue on that one question would be more central, the focal point and dramatic force in a work of its own.
I really don't know how it's going to come out, but what I see before me is that kind of thing: the intervention in the narrative of the old man and the queries he puts to himself, or what he attempts to do at some particular time, or a letter he may write in protest of, let's say, some editorial. I suppose this may be somewhat Herzogian, but his letters are sent; these things are done in the recognition of his shortcomings, and they have practical consequences.
OK, but one thing is still not quite clear to me. Exactly what is it that Israel has been or done to you to make you feel and respond this way? Where does this re-stimulating power derive from? Can you pin it down?
That's a damn good question. What did Israel do to me? Well, that guy Eliot must have known he was at the end of his rope, that unless he found a way to regenerate himself he was through as a poet. So he found a way.
So you see his political and religious choices as basically literary decisions.
As basically literary decisions. This was what he had to do if he was going to regain his coherence and his literary expression. I had no such vehicle. What I saw was that I had been continually looking for something in the nature of a regeneration, but scarcely realizing it. And then came the '67 war with its preliminary fears, that terrible pall, and then the sense that Israel was holding her own, better; and then the cease-fires, one after another, and what seemed like a total victory evaporating all those fears. So I said to myself, What the hell are you waiting for? This is a people that is regenerating itself, and in battle too, and you'd have to be out of your mind not to go along with this regeneration. Perhaps this is the equivalent of Eliot's regeneration.
And this too you saw as a basically literary decision?
I saw it as a literary decision. I think that is what Israel means to me. I'm not coming here to help Israel in any way or to contribute anything at all, except inadvertently, in cash.
You came here to redeem yourself.
I came here because I feel it is a necessary element in my own writing.
In a letter you wrote to Harold Ribalow, which he printed in his introduction to the Pageant edition of Call It Sleep back around 1960, you said, "I had one theme, redemption, but I haven't the fable." What you're saying now, if I understand you correctly, is, "That is still my theme, but now perhaps I've found a fable to carry it."
That's a very good point. I think redemption still is my theme; and in this case perhaps not so much the redemption of the individual soul, but of the writer.
Well, how is Israel doing as a redeemer?
I came here with no expectations of utopia. After all, I'd had a look at it before. What I came here for was, again, to get the material that will make for a construct, an edifice. And I think it will. I really think it will.
Where are you getting this literary injection from? From the concept of Israel as a Jewish nation? From the geography? From the people? The military victory?
A little of everything. It's a question of guessing at what you want and then going out to find it. It's not the other way around, where the experiences make for some kind of fusion in literary form. I think the fusion has already taken place, and I think it has something in common with Call It Sleep. That was a very Jewish book; all the elements in it are very Jewish, and yet it was written by somebody who no longer felt Jewish. He simply went out and got the material, the components for his architecture. And I think I feel the same way now. It's hardly the sort of thing someone else would come here to look for.
You feel as though you're exploiting Israel a little, don't you?
I'm self-interested. I think that's really a very good sign—that you have a definite self-interest in a particular place, and in a place like Israel in particular. Being here I can see how I can play off one thing against the other—Israel and the youth, his movement towards Greenwich Village and his movement away from it. I can see that. Whether it comes out that way or not I can't say.
I guess that's what I really wanted to know. I know what Eliot got out of Anglo-Catholicism, or at least I think I know some of the benefits he derived from it: authority, tradition, a warehouse of symbols. What are the equivalents here? What are you taking out of Israel that's equivalent to what Eliot mined from orthodoxy?
It probably will not be on that level at all. What I take from here is contrapuntal, a counterpoint between the young man who comes to literary consciousness and who is continually moving away from Judaism and the old man who had to come back, not just to come back but to reunite with it in some way in order to redeem the literary abilities that went to sleep in the youth.
Do you identify a reuniting with Israel with a reunion with Judaism?
I think this is all that Judaism means to me now. I don't think the Judaism of the diaspora is vital anymore. I think Judaism's next stage, whatever it's going to be, is probably here, in this country. Israel, for all its conflicts, inequities, treadmill, errors, and vicissitudes—the quotidian, in short—represents to me both the regeneration of Judaism and its future. And only Israel does. The diaspora may be far more pleasant in creature comfort and such, but only Israel is the state of the Jews. An irreducible value. I've received letters from people in Israel telling me, "You don't have to be religious here. We do the traditional things." But I can't see doing the traditional things unless I'm really communing with some Being or other as I did when I was a child.
The need for miracle again?
Yes, but today they seem to be mainly military. First '67. Then the revival after the first days of the war in '73.
But do you think these wars are anything but postponements? How many wars do you think we can sustain? How many miracles, if that's what they are, can we expect or hope for?
I don't know. I really don't know, and maybe we are doomed in one way or the other. But I know we're damn clever, given the emergency. If we could pull off an Entebbe, and time it to the split second almost, for all I know we could take their oil wells away from them before they woke up to what was happening. So now we're big oil magnates. I don't know. Fantasies go through your mind. You're so identified with the state and its survival you're willing to try anything. That's really what it amounts to. You get a Begin and you say, "O.K., I'm willing to try this guy. If he can get us out of this alive, then I can't deny him even though I don't like his politics. And the same goes for [General Ariel] Sharon. The canal crossing was a marvelous military achievement. So who am I to say this dream of yours is a fruitcake?
Perhaps this all ties in. Perhaps what I'm hearing from you now is a reflection of the same mysticism that energized Call It Sleep, the same belief, the same quest for redemption at a preternatural source.
Damn it all, I don't know. Apparently that is the one great theme of my life, and nothing else would do. And why is that? I think you put you finger on it. That childhood indoctrination, that childhood formation, the childhood religiosity which nothing will satisfy except a similar, an analogous thing.
So you see Israel being touched by God the way Isaiah was, and you hope somehow to absorb a little of the power by making contact at the other end, with the fingers of Adam's other hand.
I'm a man who proclaims that he's without a religious belief, but when I look at that proclamation I say, "No." Reading Victor Frankel's book, Man's Search for Meaning, was really an eye-opener because he adds to the Freudian classification of instincts two more: an artistic instinct and an instinct towards the transcendental. I feel it as a kind of tectonic thing, plates sliding against other plates. I feel the religious urge is part of the intuitive structure.
Yeats described himself as a religious man deprived of his religion, and he became a mystically inclined occultist, if not quite a mystic in the orthodox sense. Does that in any way describe you as well?
I think that's who the author of Call It Sleep was: the religious man without a religion who becomes a kind of mystic, with an accretion of communist ideas. And now you have it again, but it's late in the game so I can't guarantee anything. There is the same mysticism, I'm sure, and now it has to tax itself here.
With the same kind of almost magical belief in the power of the state.
Well, I don't know if it's the power of the state or the power of this people in this land. I really don't mean a state. The power of this people in this land is really where it taxes itself. So what you're seeing is what no one has brought out of me before: the continuity of that theme, the stream that still requires a redemptive, mystical association for it to flow. That's what infuses Call It Sleep and gives people a kind of religious charge. Some have an almost worshipful attitude towards it.
It has something in common with Invisible Man in that sense. Ellison also wrote an inspired and a religious book without orthodoxy, and he ran into the same blank wall.
The same wall. I don't know what his regeneration will be, if he ever achieves it. In my case it's the strain that goes all through Judaism, the prophetic and mystical element. I do think this is what Israel aroused again.
Had you formulated that to yourself before?
No, I think your questions brought it out. That's why I thought I'd like to tape this—because it causes me to attempt to articulate what's happening. And I think you got something here that did not appear and won't appear in any other correspondence: the recognition in me that this is some kind of a conditioning, for lack of a better word. And like other conditionings this alone seems to be able to trigger the profound literary or artistic impulse. When that isn't there, I could probably force myself, and have forced myself to write New Yorker stuff, and made some dough. But I was never really involved in that kind of writing.
All right, I'm going to leave this. I want to ask you one other question and change the subject, though perhaps not. Perhaps this too ties in. You seem to me quite different than you were when we met in '72. I mean this very personally and in a very positive way. You seem much more open, more sure of yourself. Accepting the invitation to Mishkenot Shaananim may be a sign of that. Five years ago you didn't want any commitments, partly, I think, because you weren't sure you could meet them. You weren't sure you would live up to expectations. I think you're no longer afraid because you know who you are, what you have to say and what you have to offer. Even honors have become acceptable because, well, you feel you've earned them.
I don't know about deserving honor, but I can now accept it without being thrown off balance or swayed by it or by all the attention I've received. I think you're observing very well. I do feel a much greater certitude. It's too bad it happened so late in life.
What did you say the theme of Bellow's speech was when he was awarded the medal?
He said, "I took myself as I was."
You seem to me to be approaching that kind of acceptance yourself.
I'm taking myself as I am now, but I certainly didn't take myself as I was. I was nothing, so there was nothing for me to take. Bellow took himself as he was and he was satisfied, apparently, with himself. And God knows, why shouldn't he be? He's a Nobel laureate. But being satisfied also has its disadvantages. You can also stop growing in that kind of an attitude, stop that struggle that goes on and on on, I know, in the best of us.
Well, anyway … [Muriel enters] … HERE COMES ME WIFE, THE IDOL OF ME LIFE!!!
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2741
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 energy to his son, the conflict beginning even before the child is conscious of the struggle. David Schearl sees his father as a figure of wrath. He dreams of his father lifting a hammer against people, an image he derives from the knowledge that his father once lost a job for threatening a fellow worker with a hammer. People at the father's former place of employment speak in the boy's presence of his father being crazy, and one man jokingly and sympathetically remarks that the son and the father are like David and Goliath.
The eyes of the father, with their suggestion of uncontrollable energy, haunt the boy throughout the book. David sees those eyes, that "unrelaxed visage," as raging, burning, blazing, glaring, glowering, consuming, smouldering, wrathful, judgmental, and sombre. (Only at the end, significantly, do the father's eyes change.) The father's eyelids are almost always heavy. The eyes of David and his mother Genya, in contrast, are usually described as passively troubled. David's daily encounters with his father are worse than bad dreams; they strike terror into the heart of the child.
The father's body also leaves a powerful impression on the boy. At one point David comes home shortly after his father has risen and concentrates on his father's naked chest while the large man is drying a razor after shaving. David is impressed anew by his father's chest, his muscular arms, and his handsome face. His father is like some powerful local chieftain or god—a god feared and envied but not loved. The father refers to himself as the angel of death and is a force the son cannot conquer or propitiate. Surrounded by the twin fears of the father and darkness, the child seeks a realm of power and light with which he can offset those fears. David Schearl seeks mastery of his soul, control of his world—not to be victim, not to twinge in docility. To exaggerate in terms consonant with remarks made by Roth, David seeks to escape the impotence of his diaspora childhood.
The unpropitiable father in Jewish-American fiction—Anzia Yezierska also offers a dramatic example—gives way to the more sedate father in the fiction of Delmore Schwartz and the other Roth. The authoritarian father of Jewish-American fiction diminishes as the process of embourgeoisement intensifies.
Roth powerfully and delicately registers the boy's sense of the potent-envied-enemy-father in the scene in which David comes home and sees a strange, calm countenance on his mother's face. Her languidness and the quietude of the scene puzzle and frustrate the child. His father is asleep, his new white-handled whip lying near an open package and crisscrossing the handle of the older black whip, broken in a fight with a derelict who stole some bottles from his milkwagon. Genya does not greet her son with outstretched arms as she usually does. David's obvious bewilderment causes his mother to suppose that he wants to ask for the handle of the broken whip. But he shakes off this idea (disturbed by the recent use of the whip against the derelict, an incident his father insists he not reveal to his mother). David is interested in the wooden plaque wrapped in the paper, a plaque on which are mounted the horns of a bull, a token of the time his father raised bulls and cows in Europe, work of which he was manfully proud. The child is struck by the shield-shaped plaque on which
two magnificent horns curved out and up, pale yellow to the ebony tips. So wide was the span between them he could almost have stretched his arms out on either side, before he could touch them. Though they lay there inertly, their bases solidly fastened to the dark wood, there pulsed from them still a suggestion of terrific power, a power that even while they lay motionless made the breast ache as though they were ever imminent, ever charging.
David then thinks of a picture his mother previously hung on the wall, a picture of corn flowers that he imperfectly understands is associated in her mind with a love affair she had in Austria before she married and came to America. David ponders both the picture and the plaque, wondering "why was it that two things so remote from each other seemed to have become firmly coupled in his mind?" His thoughts drift back to the derelict "outstretched on the sidewalk, that mysterious look of repose in his mother's face when he had come in. Why?… He sensed only that in the horns, in the poised power of them lay a threat, a challenge he must answer, he must meet. But he didn't know how." The sexual and physical prowess of the father vaguely overtakes his mind, making him feel unequal to the father's presence. David is like his biblical counterpart come to live with an angry, unapproachable, and bitterly regal Saul he does not know how to comfort, how to appease, but whose family and power he seeks to be a part of.
The passion for energy goes beyond the boy's relationship to his father. This concern appears in David's fear of the tyrannical melamed and the cheder he attends. Through his experiences there, his fascination for power and energy takes on a religious dimension.
Ultimately it is a religious concern that the book is dealing with, a theme covertly conveyed through the classic conflict of child and father. The father's unassailable strength, the rabbi's vituperative authority, the puzzling arts of gang-freedom so confusingly practiced in the street, the introduction to sex by a lame girl with metal braces in a dark closet, the old fear of dark cellars—all of these swarm through the boy's mind and are suddenly transformed as he hears the rabbi tell the story of the angel who brought a coal of fire to Isaiah's lips in order to make Isaiah clean and worthy of being God's spokesman. David is fascinated by the image of the coal that brings a worthy light and cleansing experience to the prophet. Caught up in his own sense of sin and helplessness and fear, David longs for this state of purity, for this undefiled energy. Suddenly, to the amazed child, God is light, God is power; and perhaps he, David, in imitation of Isaiah, can overcome the sense that he was "hedged in by two fears, the dark and his father."
His sense of God and light is further advanced when, after bringing home a penny from the rabbi for having memorized the Passover song of the goat (a song that culminates in the assertion of a brutal and divine energy in the world), he asks his mother about God. She tells him God is light and he holds the world. In reply to his wondering if God could break the world, Genya explains, "Of course. He has all power. He can break and rebuild, but he holds." Then David's father enters the room, ending all other possible questions. Wondering why they are sitting in the dark, the father calls for more light. Throughout the novel, the child seeks his own realm of light, as opposed to the realm dominated by the father.
At the docks later, David has a vision that metamorphoses the city landscape. In this vision, the city at the edge of the water is transformed into an environment of light into which, for a moment, the child's sense of sin and fear is suffused.
It is after his risky Isaiah-like vision while looking in the East River that David is forced by some East Side tough to throw a zinc sword into a slot between the trolley car tracks, setting off a flash of light. Frightened and excited, David runs back and sneaks into the cheder, looking for the book that contains the passage about the fiery coal. But when he tells the rabbi that on Tenth Street between the car tracks he has seen a light like that of Isaiah's coal, Reb Pankower (no Hasid, and certainly no reader of Whitman or Blake) only mocks the boy's vision: "Go beat your head on a wall!" he instructs the child, "God's light is not between car-tracks."
The child longs for light, for escape from the dark he associates with the cellar of a previous house in which he lived and that dark closet in which lame Annie introduced him to some obscure flap within her body. He imagines that redeeming light in the coal brought to Isaiah and in the powerful glow between the tracks—and also in a picture of Jesus and the Sacred Heart that he sees on the wall of a friend's house, Leo Dugovka. (Roth is sharp in rendering the fascinating poetic exoticness, especially to a child, of the objects or details of somebody else's religion.) David is impressed both by the dish of light above the bearded figure and the glow from within his exposed heart. "Gee! He's light inside and out, ain' he?" David wonders, his street dialect different in rhythm but not in admiring content from John Milton's praise three centuries earlier: "That glorious Form, that Light unsufferable, and that far-beaming blaze of Majesty." For the innocent and untutored Jewish child, the discovery of a pre-Christian Jesus can be a revelation unappreciated by dulled Christians and impervious Jewish elders. This fascination of Jewish writers with a prelapsarian Jesus (that is, before he fell to the Christians) is an intriguing footnote to modern Jewish thought.
The light of Christ and Isaiah and the flash from the car tracks merge in the boy's mind. These are also related to the rosary beads he gets from Leo as payment for his willingness to lead Leo to the dark cellar of his aunt's candy store, where Leo and Esther play together in the fashion of Annie in the closet. Although he is anxious to receive the beads, David feels guilty over what he has done and longs for the light of redemption, for escape from sin, for escape from the inscrutable darkness of will that others impose upon his weak self.
All of this climaxes with David's escape from his angry father, who has discovered the beads and the story of David's involvement with Leo and Esther—a Lower East Side, juvenile, and vulgar version of the mother's premarital affair—or perhaps even a Lower East Side distortion of an earlier Esther's affair in Shushan. Running away from the turmoil at home, David decides to return to the docks and thrust a milk dipper into the third rail slot between the car tracks so that he can emulate Isaiah's experience with the angels and that startling picture of Christ ("him with the lightguts"). The boy's eyes have defied the dark window of his apartment, an emblem of his father's wrath. In a shifting of imagery that previously belonged to the father, David is pictured with "a shifty steeling glimmer under his eyes."
On the second try, the boy makes contact with the electric current while his toes curl into the handle of the milk dipper, keeping it from falling out. He invokes power, fire, light, and is knocked unconscious from the electrical charge that causes "a quaking splendor … a cymbal clash of light." A power drain startles the area and disrupts the conversations and behavior of the people in the neighborhood whom Roth seeks to connect to the boy's act and thoughts through an unsuccessful collage of voices and activities. (Here Joyce and Eliot are no help and invite pretentious difficulties.)
By connecting the boy's actions to the people of the neighborhood, Roth slips from the design of the book. Suddenly, it appears, Roth is looking for a new center for the book's consciousness, a new center for its power. Up to this point the poetry of the novel, its charged awareness, is essentially connected to David. In this ambitious penultimate chapter, Roth switches from a poetry within to the search for a poetry from without, as if he is rendering the proletarian gestures expected of the novel of the thirties. Or perhaps he wishes to place the child's concerns in a larger world, much as Joyce connected Stephen Dedalus to political and social matters simply by having the young man come in contact with the average concerns of an average day in Dublin at the turn of the century. But Roth is unable to do this as his major character is just an eight-year-old boy lost beyond his few blocks of neighborhood. In this attempted climax, Roth tries to put the child's frustrations and urges in some larger social context, but overreaches. This is the least convincing part of the book, the thoughts of the child now appearing as self-conscious italicized prose-poetry paragraphs, and the language tends to get rhetorical. For most of this scene, the book is no longer simply lived; it now appears to be, if I may be allowed the phrase, "pastiched."
During his hallucination as he recovers from the terrific shock he received, David sees his father brandishing a hammer and snapping a whip, but on returning home he sees that his father has been disconcerted by what he has caused his son to do: "His eyes bulged, his jaw dropped, he blanched." David knew that his father faltered, felt guilty, was shaken. (One price for Roth's misplaced ambitions in the penultimate chapter is that the change of the father is suddenly thrust upon the reader, who does not see that change develop.) For a moment, David feels a sense of power over his father, over all that oppresses him, before he lapses back again into sleep and rest and that dark, rich sense of his mind. Some great passivity accepts him.
In 1960 when the novel was reissued for the first time since its original publication in 1934, Leslie Fiedler made a perceptive remark along the lines I have been tracking: "Roth's book aspires not to sociology but to theology; it is finally and astonishingly a religious book," like all the serious novels of the thirties, "toying with the messianic and the apocalyptic." At its peak, the boy's search is inspired both by a prophetic passage from the Bible and by his desire to override the daily authoritarian forces about him through some luminous self-assertion. Or to weave that religious motif into the linguistic web of the book: Can the inadequately grasped and fragmentary Hebrew offer a magic realm of redemption beyond the street brutalities of English and the family turmoil of Yiddish?
The boy's desire is like the recurring voice of the psalmist that asks for the strength and energetic mercy of God because "fearfulness and trembling are come upon me" and "for man would swallow me up." David's quest may be seen as a childhood version of the idea that God is a punishing God whom the suffering psalmist can appeal to as a force against his enemies. On one level David seeks God's light and power, God's strength and adequacy. But it is only after he is knocked unconscious that he finally attains a mastery over the father and a peace within himself whose price is the sacrifice of the will. The very weakness of this David has unexpectedly subdued the Goliath-father. It is a victory attained by a disarming debility, not by self-assertion. The novel is haunted by the problem of how the child can become reconciled with the powerful father and the unrelenting, harsh forces he comes to represent in the child's imagination. It is a conflict that compelled Roth to write Call It Sleep in the first place and that afterwards silenced him. Both David Schearl and his creator desired either a liberating power of their own or a peace that passes conflict. The first is self-assertion; the second you might call sleep.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3304
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.
It was a wonderful moment in a singular and enigmatic literary career. Mr. Roth seemed to take it all in stride, as if, by the age of 81, the appearance of a new book were no uncommon event for him. But the book, and my conversation with him, told a different story: five decades of agonizing conflict with crippling writer's block, a career dotted with the signposts of many small victories and defeats, including what he has described as "an equivalent or approximate nervous breakdown" at the end of the 1930's, followed by long years of complete silence.
Call It Sleep, a subjective, almost poetic novel about growing up on the Lower East Side in the early years of the century, was published in 1934 when Mr. Roth was only 28. Influenced by James Joyce and T.S. Eliot, the novel was modernist in method, biblical in cadence, yet intensely personal in its re-creation of family life and street life in the old Jewish ghetto. The book appeared at the height of the Depression when documentary realism, not Proustian recollection, was the latest literary fashion. Speaking of the novel, the Communist journal The New Masses said, "It is a pity that so many young writers drawn from the proletariat can make no better use of their working class experience than as material for introspective and febrile novels." Though the book was fiercely defended and favorably reviewed by its admirers, Mr. Roth's publisher went bankrupt and he and his novel were soon totally forgotten until the book was revived to great acclaim and impressive sales in the 1960's.
Henry Roth's appearance today is a study in contrasts. His large, impressive head, crowned by stray tufts of gray hair, rests on a stocky yet fragile-looking frame stiffened by arthritis. His hands speak of years of hard manual labor, and his quietly modulated voice radiates dignity and reserve. Mr. Roth's tall, elegant, gray-haired wife, Muriel, a composer, rarely leaves his side, and she gently cut off our interview when she felt he might be tired. He wouldn't stand out in a group of elderly Jewish pensioners, but he speaks gravely—often in the third person—about the bizarre turns of his life.
Henry Roth is his own severest critic. When we first spoke on the phone he worried that his new book might be "oversold, overinflated." He found it "a very meager output for 50-some odd years." Searching always for the exact word, he spoke of the book as if it were someone else's case study or dossier: "It impressed me quite objectively with the rather tragic thread—a trace went through it, I don't know whether it's frustration, a block, or what have you. It's a man fighting or serving his destiny. It had that overtone of a person too obdurate to give up." Ruefully, he added, "I wasn't satisfied. I should have had more wisdom, but I didn't, and the book seems to reflect that kind of tragic struggle."
During a depressed period of complete withdrawal from writing during the 1940's, Mr. Roth worked as a skilled toolmaker and an attendant in a mental hospital, and then, in the 50's and 60's, as a waterfowl farmer in Maine—raising and dressing ducks and geese—returning only gradually to wrest hard-earned sentences from the grasp of his private dybbuk. Meanwhile, his wife worked 17 years as a schoolteacher while caring for their two sons. Since 1968 the Roths have lived in a mobile home in Albuquerque, N.M., even farther from the literary world than Maine. Yet, living in this relative obscurity, he began publishing stories and articles with increasing frequency. Shifting Landscape covers this whole terrain, and includes several pieces that till now have appeared only in Italian translation.
In retrospect, Mr. Roth's long-lasting block seems less remarkable than his refusal to yield to it, although he tells us that he once referred to himself as "this dead author," and even burned his journals and the manuscripts of several aborted novels in the 1940's. His first writing in 14 years—in 1954—was a how-to-do-it article on cheap, homemade farm equipment, written for a trade journal. The Magazine for Ducks and Geese. Two years later Call It Sleep was praised in print by several critics, none of whom knew whether the book's author was still alive.
A chance encounter with Mr. Roth's sister in the late 50's led one critic, Harold Ribalow, to Mr. Roth's doorstep in Maine in the late 50's, and to the resurrection of Call It Sleep by a small press in 1960. Picked up by Avon and reissued in paperback in 1964, it went on to sell more than a million copies, permanently disrupting the anonymity of a man who could not write yet could not give up on writing, and who readily describes himself even today as neurotic, obsessive and bullheaded.
Mr. Roth's new literary fame made life on the farm impossible. Life magazine sent a photographer to take a picture of the best-selling author killing ducks and geese. He refused. "They were doing it to make me a freak," he told an interviewer recently, "and I'm freakish enough without that!" The belated success of the book enabled Mr. Roth and his wife to travel, but it also exacerbated the desire to write, as well as what he calls the "counterdrive not to write," which threatened to make life hellish again. A projected novel set in Spain and Mexico never materialized, but in 1966 The New Yorker published "The Surveyor," the story of an American couple in Seville, searching secretly for the site where Jews were burned in public during the Inquisition. It seems clear that Mr. Roth was unconsciously searching for a Judaism—and a writing life—he had left behind many decades earlier.
The turning point in that search, as he now sees it, came the following year during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, when the Roths were in Mexico. Long ago, almost in another lifetime, Mr. Roth, like many writers who had seen the world break apart in the early years of the Depression, had joined the Communist Party. He was just finishing his novel, and he remembers the woman he lived with, Eda Lou Walton, a poet and English professor nearly 12 years his senior, telling him in anguish, "You are destroying yourself as an artist." Years later, stunned by Khrushchev's revelations about Stalin, Mr. Roth ceased being a party member, but in 1967 he "still adhered very much to party principles," including support for the Arab cause. As the war unfolded in the Middle East, he found himself torn between his political faith, which condemned Israel, and certain buried tribal loyalties that surprised him.
Only four years earlier, Mr. Roth had told the readers of Midstream, a Zionist journal, that Jews in America could serve the world best by assimilating and "ceasing to be Jews." Suddenly, as he deciphered the headlines in the Mexican papers, the survival of the Jews deeply mattered to him. He feared a new Holocaust. Mr. Roth's ideological orthodoxy crumbled. "It was with an enormous sense of guilt that I had to tear myself away," he told me with great emphasis. "We thought that [Communism] would provide us with the answer." But in the end "it was a sterile move," he said. "It was a disaster."
For the ethnic, working-class writers of his generation who had gone through "a transition from a parochial to a cosmopolitan world," Mr. Roth said quietly, Communism seemed to offer an analysis of society that would "provide us with a method, a technique for being able to portray that transition." It was a way into the larger world. But it also distanced those writers emotionally from their own sources and their most authentic material. Mr. Roth sees the tragic thread of his truncated career as part of the common fate of a whole literary generation.
Shifting Landscape returns again and again to the quandary of writers who could not reconcile the esthetic attitudes of the 20's with the social consciousness of the 30's, and others who could not reorient their work after World War II from the proletarian naturalism of the Depression to more personal forms of expression. These include writers who died early and neglected (like Nathanael West and F. Scott Fitzgerald), who could not continue (like Mr. Roth and Daniel Fuchs), who failed to develop (James T. Farrell and John Steinbeck), or who simply disappeared, such as the proletarian novelists.
I asked Mr. Roth how much he felt his problems were ingrained in his own makeup and how much they could be traced to the predicament of his generation, the major shifts of sensibility at the beginning and end of the Depression. His answer had weight and cogency like all his comments on his gloomy, destiny as a writer, as if he had spent many years brooding on just this question. "I feel very much that I was caught in the same tide that they were caught in. I couldn't escape it. The way it caught you was at your weakest point. Each one of us succumbed because of a certain weakness in his character."
Mr. Roth doesn't explain what his own weaknesses were, but he makes it clear that he felt a sense of dependency and passivity, a lack of self-assurance. Call It Sleep is a classic portrayal of the terrors of childhood, a tenement "Sons and Lovers" that sets the sensual warmth of the bond with the mother—and the mother tongue, Yiddish—against the fear and violence associated with the father and the external world. From 1928 to 1938 he lived with Eda Lou Walton, who supported him and encouraged him to write—he dedicated the novel to her. With considerable feeling, he described her to me as "very warm, and very tender, and most maternal." He made an effort to break his dependence on Walton by taking off for the West Coast with a colorful, illiterate working-class character named Bill Clay. But "step by step he assumed a domination over me," Mr. Roth said with astonishment. "As I look back at it I'm amazed. He became my guide, my tutor, my mentor"—exactly what the party itself had already become, the answer to all political and even creative problems.
Mr. Roth now believes the natural successor to Call It Sleep would have been a continuation of the boy's story into maturity, showing his discovery of a broader culture in the Greenwich Village ferment of the 1920's. But, as he writes in Shifting Landscape, "it was never written because Marxism or Communism fell like a giant shunt across his career." Instead, he tried writing a proletarian novel centering on Bill Clay—there is one surviving excerpt in Shifting Landscape. But as Mr. Roth wrote in The New York Times in 1971, the "portrayal of proletarian virtue" was not his natural bent. As a writer, he was "no longer at home." His relationship to the world he knew best was ruptured, just as it had been in his childhood by his wrenching departure from the ghetto.
To explain his inability to go on writing, Mr. Roth looks back to his family's move (when he was 8 1/2) from the "Jewish mini-state" on the Lower East Side to "rowdy, heterogeneous Harlem"—from Ninth Street to 119th Street, where he lost his sense of identity and felt like an alien. When Mr. Roth was recapturing those early years in Call It Sleep, the book took shape for him with a "pattern of unity and inevitability," a phrase he used more than once in conversation, as if it represents his elusive esthetic ideal. For almost four years when he was writing his novel, he told me, it was really writing him: "I was no longer in control. It had taken control. I could not do other, no matter what I wanted."
From a psychological viewpoint, Mr. Roth's unswerving devotion to Israel over the last 20 years could be seen as yet another dependency, replacing his long indenture to Marxism. Mr. Roth's references to Israel are always personal rather than political. They mark his own return to Judaism, his voyage home. As Yeats needed his elaborate system to provide him with "metaphors for poetry." Mr. Roth needs a mythology, including a system of self-explanation, to unlock his exceptional creative powers.
Shifting Landscape is not a political document but an engrossing meditation on the creative process. As Call It Sleep showed long ago, Mr. Roth's imagination is essentially intimate, sensuous and retrospective. Where Marxism promised him a radiant future, yet made his kind of writing impossible, the unexpected return to Judaism has brought him full circle, restored continuity with the world of his childhood and liberated the conjuror's gift for personal recollection.
"Final Dwarf," one of the best stories in Shifting Landscape, chillingly takes up the tense relationship between father and son some 50 years after the conclusion of Call It Sleep, Mr. Roth never resolved the conflict with his father, whose reaction to reading Call It Sleep, as the author later recalled, was simply, "I shouldn't have beat him so much." When the old man died in the early 70's—Mr. Roth cannot remember the exact year—he left his son exactly one dollar.
Another piece in the new book integrates portions of journals dating from 1938 and 1939, when Mr. Roth left Eda Lou Walton and met his wife, Muriel, at Yaddo, the artists colony—journals that fortuitously survived the Maine bonfire. One remarkable memoir, "Last Respects," recalls a 1970 meeting with Margaret Mead, whom he had known in the 1920's, but it is actually Mr. Roth's oblique tribute to Mead's friend, Walton, who had done so much for him as a man and a writer.
All three pieces show what Mr. Roth does best, conveying the unbearable tension that can lie beneath the surface of ordinary relationships. The last two selections will form a part of a memoir-novel called Mercy of a Rude Stream that Mr. Roth has been writing since 1979. In old age, using a word processor, he has been writing this sequel to Call It Sleep which he feels be should have written in the 1930's. He has completed four volumes, but because some of them involve people still living he may not release them for publication in his lifetime.
Instead we have this brilliant mosaic constructed by Mr. Materassi, his translator, a book that Mr. Roth, in his self-effacing foreword, describes as "primarily Mario's, not mine," though Mr. Roth wrote or spoke nearly everything in it. It's typical of the ironies of his career that this biographical "composite" should come to us by way of Italy, where Mr. Materassi's translation of Call It Sleep won a major literary prize as the best foreign novel of 1985, and where Mr. Roth was mobbed by newspaper reporters and paparazzi when he came to collect it.
The collections writers give us instead of their long-awaited novels, books like Norman Mailer's Advertisements for Myself and Ralph Ellison's Shadow and Act, have a special kind of poignancy and appeal. They are holding actions, but also acts of propitiation that lay bare the writer's creative conflicts. As in Mr. Mailer's book (which Mr. Materassi once translated into Italian), many of the selections in Shifting Landscape are less remarkable than the personal prose that surrounds them, which Mr. Materassi has culled ingeniously out of letters and taped conversations.
If Mr. Mailer rescued a sagging career through a bold act of self-promotion, Mr. Roth, anatomizing his own failures, rivets our attention with almost Kafkaesque gestures of self-accusation. Looking back at some long-lost stories that Mr. Materassi has unearthed, Mr. Roth sees only signs of disintegrating talent and loss of control. After one charming sketch, "Many Mansions," Mr. Roth comments, "what a bit of fluff": "The writer," he says of himself, "was no longer capable of treating, of dealing with and transmitting the wonderful narrative signals, so to speak, that the serious novelist would have been sensitized to." In the book these lines are followed eerily by his 14-year retreat from writing.
One of Mr. Roth's problems may have been the exalted standard he brought to his work, which contributed to the anxiety and self-consciousness that developed with his block. Ulike many fiction writers today, who seem to spill their lives directly onto the page, Mr. Roth holds to a notion of art that requires that personal history be transmuted into a text that feels unified, self-contained and inevitable. The real beginning of Call It Sleep came, he told me, when he decided "to leave the realm of strict fact," began treating people and events in his past as "objects that were just mine to use" and grasped the overall fictive shape of his early experiences. For all its human immediacy, Call It Sleep is an intricately textured, literary novel, each of its four sections woven around key symbols and images. Mr. Roth was a Joycean then, but these unifying devices were "mostly intuitive rather than planned or conscious," he said. "I would continually glimpse elements in it that tied in, and they would gratify me very much, but I wouldn't allow them to interfere with the narrative."
But when he tried writing about the later stages of his life, "I no longer saw, in any of the things I tried to do, that kind of unity," be remarked. "I was not able to integrate the new cosmopolitan world into which I was now plunged." As a result, every project petered out and eventually went dead for him. He was "no longer at home," and his imagination couldn't encompass the larger stage he had entered. His proletarian novel was an attempt at a wholly American project—no Jews in sight—but its style is forced and unconvincing. Thanks to the Communist Party's puritan standards, he didn't feel free to deal with sex, though it haunts the edges of Call It Sleep and certainly haunted Mr. Roth himself during this period. "He yearned for the tainted, the perverse, for the pornographic," he wrote in 1971, "and detested himself as degenerate for doing so." "He had a vested interest in the sordid, the squalid, the depraved. He became immobilized."
Today, rediscovered as a classic in America, lionized in Italy where his book is a best seller, Henry Roth is very much a survivor. An Israeli film maker. has taken an option on Call It Sleep, and recently drove its author around the Lower East Side to search for remnants of a buried world. Cortisone and hip-replacement surgery have helped in his struggle with arthritis, and the computer has helped him get words on paper. Muriel Roth began composing again as her husband began writing, and for the last four years ("since I was 75," she said), she has been a serious composer for the first time in several decades.
Whether or not Mr. Roth's current project, Mercy of a Rude Stream, fulfills its high literary promise, the mere fact of longevity has helped supply a happy turn to the Roths' story. Aside from some of the fine pieces collected in it, Shifting Landscape can only excite wonderment as an extraordinary record of an author's stubborn determination to rescue his talent from the clutches of neurosis and the vicissitudes of history.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3928
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 belongs among the few great American novels of the 20th century. But this was not a case, as happens frequently enough, of a promising or even brilliant first novel that has no sequel because its author runs out of steam, because he has said the one thing he had to say. If this was Roth's Portrait of the Artist (As a Young Boy, for the protagonist, David Schearl, is seven when most of the action occurs), what happened to the Ulysses toward which the prodigious imaginative power of the large first novel seems to be moving?
Roth himself—he is now 81—has also been haunted by his own silence, as he repeatedly makes clear in Shifting Landscape, a collection of all his published short pieces from 1925 to 1987, assembled by Mario Materassi, his Italian translator and devoted friend. Materassi has helpfully prefaced each of the pieces with generous excerpts from Roth's correspondence, from taped conversations, from the many interviews Roth has given since 1964, when the meteoric success of the paperback reissue of his novel plucked him from the obscurity of his life as a waterfowl farmer in rural Maine. This new volume, then, gives us everything Roth has put into print beyond Call It Sleep. It provides the outlines of a spiritual autobiography.
The pieces exhibit the flickerings of an enormous talent, but scarcely any of them transcends the slightness of a fictional sketch or exercise. Between 1935 and 1940, Roth wrote about 100 pages of a proletarian novel, which he subsequently destroyed (one published chapter survives and appears in Shifting Landscapes), and three deliberately commercial stories. A state of depression marked the beginning of a total writer's block—even letter-writing, he confesses, became painfully threatening—that continued for a decade and a half.
Roth made his first tentative efforts to write fiction again in the later '50s, and the acclaim and income from the paperback Call It Sleep (over a million copies were sold) encouraged him to more sustained work. So far nothing substantial from this later period is visible, though in the last few years Roth has completed a thousand-page manuscript of a book he calls a "memoir-form novel," Mercy of a Rude Stream. (The title is from Shakespeare's Henry VIII.) He is apparently unwilling to have it published in his lifetime; the two excerpts included in the Materassi volume look intriguing, but they give little sense of what the shape or quality of the whole is like.
For the most part, Roth is his own severest critic on the subject of his deflected career. "I am hung with the albatross of myself," he writes to Materassi in 1964. The one partial exception to this severity is the attempt, made several times in interviews and in written remarks, to explain his withdrawal from literature as symptomatic of a whole generation of writers who never realized the brilliance of their initial promise. The explanation is not altogether persuasive. There is a big difference between decline and silence; and it is the former that applies to most of the writers Roth seems to have in mind. (Among those he mentions are John Steinbeck, James Farrell, Edward Dahlberg, and Daniel Fuchs.) And there is an even bigger difference between dissipated talent and the poignant plight (Roth's own) of aborted genius.
There is one clear and compelling reason for Roth's silence. It is his joining the Communist Party in 1933, even as he was completing Call It Sleep. That political act very rapidly impaired him as a writer, though its consequences, as I shall explain, would have certain retrospective complications. His novel's lyric immersion in the experience of childhood soon came to seem to him a throwback to the apolitical aestheticism of the 1920s, when the book was first conceived; he was made to feel a degree of bad conscience about his own achievement, earnestly aspiring instead to produce fiction that would embody revolutionary awareness. This aspiration, as he now says, violated all his inclinations as a writer, which were to the sensual, the personal, the visionary, the perverse. "Allegiance once deeply inhaled," he notes grimly in a letter written in 1968, "was as lethal as carbon monoxide."
Oddly enough, Roth is as vehement about James Joyce as about the Communist Party. Clearly it was the example of Joyce that galvanized his talent as a writer. Indeed, Call It Sleep is, together with The Sound and the Fury, which appeared five years earlier, the fullest American assimilation of Joyce; and, unlike Faulkner's novel, it is thematically consonant with Joyce as well as technically imitative of him. Roth's present quarrel with Joyce is not over technique, but over an ideal of artistic identity. He now dismisses the Joycean motto of silence, exile, cunning as "specious claptrap," and denounces the direction of "monstrous detachment and artistic autonomy" to which Joyce's enterprise points. Roth's recent concentration on a large memoir-form novel is an effort to place his actual life-experience squarely under fictional scrutiny, eschewing all Joycean pretense that the writer stands outside his work like a god, coolly paring his fingernails.
The ultimate source of Roth's vehemence toward Joyce, however, is something he has since discovered about himself—that he is a writer who needs to be deeply rooted in a particular culture with its distinctive complex of symbols. Though Joyce's point of departure was just such a connection with Irish culture, he moved toward an ideal of universal art that would integrate all cultures, working from a condition of self-imposed exile. Call It Sleep exhibits a productive tension in this regard. The author's intimate knowledge of the life of Jewish immigrants on the East Side, circa 1913, is masterfully evident on every page. It is a knowledge that is unsparing, affectionate, absolutely unsentimental. At the same time, the child protagonist pursues an essentially private visionary prospect (though partly by means of language and lore made available to him by his culture); had Roth written the sequel about David Schearl's adolescence and young manhood, the sequel that he says he ought to have written, the protagonist would no doubt have detached himself entirely from the world of his origins and realized his identity as an American Stephen Dedalus in the cosmopolitan realm of art.
In fact, this route was not psychologically viable for Roth. One might even wonder whether the Party's ideal of universal revolutionary solidarity, however illusory, was not an alternative family and culture for him, a substitute for the Jewish ones he felt he had to put behind him. Now, in the retrospection of old age, Roth appears to view Joyce as a kind of mirage that led him out into the wilderness of proudly autonomous art from which he fled, only to fall into the lethal air of Communist allegiance.
This perspective on his own experience was fixed for him not by the success of 1964, but, surprisingly, by the Six-Day War of 1967. Roth had severed all his Jewish ties, even declaring in a symposium in 1963 that the greatest boon that Jews could now confer on humanity would be to cease being Jews. But in the threat to Israel's survival in the spring of 1967, Roth suddenly discovered himself profoundly involved in the fate of the Jewish state, despite vestigial radical promptings that he ought to be siding with the Arabs. He has not, he says, become a Zionist, at least not in any official sense; but the idea of a new, secular Jewish culture under the conditions of political autonomy, and the identification with Israel, have become central to his imaginative life. In 1971 he announced that he had "adopted" Israel "as a symbolic home, one where symbols can lodge, whatever it is in actuality." Perhaps we will not be able to understand what precisely this means until we can read Mercy of a Rude Stream in its entirety, if then; but the identification with Israel seems to have liberated Roth from his sense of crippling isolation, to have made it possible for him to write again, after Joyce and contra Joyce.
Yet no reader of Call It Sleep will regret its Joycean inspiration. Formally, the novel interweaves the predominant technique of Ulysses with that of Portrait of the Artist. There are, that is, brief stream-of-consciousness passages in which staccato sequence of highly elliptical sentences and the repeated tag ends of fragmentary phrases are used to convey the dramatic immediacy, the groping confusion, at times the sheer panic, of a child's inner experience. The more pervasive technique, however, is that of the earlier Joyce. A finely articulate narrator, almost always adhering to the emotional and conceptual viewpoint of the protagonist, conveys that viewpoint in a wrought lyric language that would not be available to the protagonist himself.
Let me illustrate the nature of the connection between the two writers by juxtaposing passages from their novels that deal with similar subjects. Toward the end of Portrait, Stephen stands on the steps of the library watching a flock of birds wheel above him, "their dark darting quivering bodies flying clearly against the sky as against a limp hung cloth of tenuous blue." After watching, he listens to the cry of the birds, which sounds to him like the squeaking of mice. The simile, however, is too humble for his taste, as in a moment he will see in the birds a symbol or augury of his own fate:
But the notes were long and shrill and whirring, unlike the cry of vermin, falling a third or a fourth and trilled as the flying beaks clove the air. Their cry was shrill and clear and fine and falling like threads of silken light unwound from whirring spools.
In the last of the four sections of Call It Sleep, David daringly climbs to the roof of his tenement building for the first time, and suddenly finds himself in a world of dazzling immensities, under "the blinding whorl of the sun." From the quiet of his lofty vantage he looks all around:
And about were roof-tops, tarred and red and sunlit and red, roof-tops to the scarred horizon. Flocks of pigeons wheeled. Where they flew in lower air, they hung like a poised and never-raveling smoke; nearer at hand and higher, they glittered like rippling water in the sun.
Of course I do not mean to suggest that Roth was specifically imitating Joyce's rendering of bird-flight when he wrote these sentences. But the similarity of the object of description points up the stylistic bond between the two writers. The best literary influence is a kind of alchemy, as here Roth picks up from Joyce a certain incantatory rhythm, the strategic use of simile, and the lyric possibilities of certain kinds of simile (note the intriguing affinity between "a limp hung cloth of tenuous blue" and "they hung like a poised and never-raveling smoke"), and fuses them into the secret cellular structure of his own prose, his own fictional world. For the child David, in contrast to the self-conscious late-adolescent Stephen, the birds are not augury or emblem, they are the immediate objects of wondering attention; and yet Roth could not have made his hero see so well without the example of Joyce.
Technique is not easily separable, however, from literary ideology, and in this regard Roth's sense of vocation, and of the thematic embodiment of vocation, was kindled by Joyce. I have in mind particularly the orientation of fiction toward what Joyce liked to call "epiphany," the revelation of meaning and purpose for the character (and, implicitly, for the reader) in a moment of illuminating vision, when everything comes together. The most spectacular epiphany in Call It Sleep, of course, is the awesome moment near the end, when David thrusts a milk dipper into the third rail and experiences a surge of cosmic power through every cell, as he is flung between life and death.
But there are more delicate epiphanies earlier in the novel, including an exquisite one that should be mentioned for its Joycean associations of water and vision. In one of the most famous passages in Portrait, Stephen sees a lovely young girl, her skirt hitched up to her waist, wading in the Liffey. He immediately casts her as angel and omen in his privat mythology of a poet in the making, and is inflamed with ecstasy. Near the end of Book III of Call It Sleep, David, having been sent out to burn the crumbs of leaven on the morning before Passover, ends up on the wharfs, looking out over the East River. He has been much preoccupied with the passage from the sixth chapter of Isaiah that he has encountered in Hebrew school, in which the Lord appears before the prophet effulgent on his throne and an angel touches the prophet's lips with a livid coal to cleanse them of their impurity. In this case, the writing does not sound much like the corresponding epiphany in Portrait (which is a good deal more effusive and pre-Raphaelite in cast), but the Joycean moment might be viewed as a kind of matrix for the vision accorded Roth's protagonist:
His gaze shifted to the left. As the cloud began to pass, a long slim lathe of sunlight burned silver on the water—
—Gee, didn't see before!
Widened to a swath, a lane, widened.
—Like a ship just went.
A plain, flawless, sheer as foil to the serried margins. His eyes dazzled.
Fire on the water. White.
His lids grew heavy.
—In the water she said. White. Brighter than day.
Whiter. And He was.
Minutes passed while he stared. The brilliance was hypnotic. He could not take his eyes away. His spirit yielded, melted into light. In the molten sheen memories and objects overlapped. Smokestacks fused to palings flickering in silence by. Pale lathes grew gray, turned dusky, contracted and in the swimming dimness, he saw sparse teeth that gnawed upon a lip; and ladders on the ground turned into hasty fingers pressing on a thigh and again smokestacks. Straight in air they stood a moment, only to fall on silvered corrugating brilliance. And he heard the rubbing on a wash-board and the splashing suds, smelled again the acrid soap and a voice speaking words that opened like the bands of a burnished silver accordion—Brighter than day … Brighter … Sin melted into light …
Technically, this extraordinary moment could be described as Joyce doubled back on himself. The thematic juncture of privileged vision looking out over the water recalls Portrait. The musically lyric narration, with little fragments of stream of consciousness (typographically marked by introductory dashes), invokes the opening, or Telemachus, section of Ulysses. The scattering of crude details of tenement life, including a sexual image, in David's gyrating free associations, recalls the earthy realism of the Bloom sections of Ulysses, so unlike the vaporous poetic diction and perception of Stephen's world in Portrait. In 1960 Leslie Fiedler sought to explain this combination in Call It Sleep of pungent naturalism and visionary transport by invoking C.M. Doughty's epigram, "The Semites are like to a man sitting in a cloaca to the eyes, and whose brows touch heaven." But one hardly needs such canards about racial imagination to explain the marriage of opposites in Roth: it is already abundantly present in Ulysses, where Bloom (a Semite, to be sure, but conceived in a most Hibernian imagination) sits in the privy dreaming of sunbursts of paradisiacal splendor in a land to the East.
Roth's alchemic transmutation of Joyce has to do less with the application of the Irish writer's methods to Jewish materials (David's switchwielding kheyder rabbi in place of Stephen's punitive Jesuit masters) than with the peculiarly American resonances of his prose, of his whole imaginative enterprise. At a time when European novelists were creating classics of realism, a central tradition of American literature was producing (as D.H. Lawrence and others came to recognize) works of a potently mythic character. Joyce's three novels abound, of course, in mythological elements, but these are brought into play through an elaborate exercise of learned allsion. What I think Roth draws from an American matrix is his primary imagination of mythic drama, even without recourse to allusion, in his handling of realistic materials. He is not a mythological writer, like Joyce, but a mythographic one, like Melville.
This quality is felt, for a start, in certain recurrent traits of style. If Roth often displays a mood-painting delicacy reminiscent of the earlier Joyce ("The body was aware of a lyric indolence, a golden lolling within itself"), his language even more frequently evinces an explosive power of hyperbole that enlarges and violently transforms the experiences it describes. Here is David falling down a flight of stairs into a cellar:
Then darkness, swirling and savage, caught him like a wind of stone, pitched him spinning among palpable drum-beats, engulfed him in a brawling welter of ruined shapes—that parted—and he plunged down a wailing fathomless shaft. A streak of flame—and screaming nothingness.
It does not suffice to say that the language here catches the immediacy of the tumbling child's terror; what it also does is to make a fall down a set of stairs into a gripping intimation of the apocalypse. Prose like this ("caught him like a wind of stone") was scarcely written in English before Moby Dick. Roth, in his novel, does it again, just as well as the 19th-century master. Thus, at the center of David's great vision when he jams the dipper into the third rail are two sentences—like the whole vision, set out in italics as verse—that are pre-eminently Melvillian in their vigor of metaphoric invention, their muscular rhythm, their insistent force of hyperbole, their cosmic sweep:
The hawk of radiance raking him with
talons of fire, battering his skull with
a beak of fire, braying his body with
pinions of intolerable light. And he
writhed without motion in the clutch of a
fatal glory, and his brain swelled
and dilated till it dwarfed the galaxies
in a bubble of refulgence—
There is an obvious Oedipal triangle at the center of Call It Sleep, complete with Freudian Family Romance in the ambiguous suggestion that David may not be his father's child. What makes this representation of paternal hatred, maternal love, filial fear and desire utterly compelling is that the stuff of psychology has been transformed into the drama of myth. This transformation is in perfect keeping with a child's perspective, in which parents loom as large as the world, and life and death are at stake in a father's threat, a mother's kiss.
From the very first sentence, the father, with his "grim smouldering face," is like some titanic figure that has surged out of the archaic imagination, always threatening, never changing. He is repeatedly associated with motifs of upraised hammers, whips, bull's horns, volcanic fury. He is all knotted muscularity, phallic hardness, a man of stone. David's perception of his father standing over him after whipping him succinctly illustrates how faithfulness to the child's psychology moves the figure perceived into the realm of myth: "David's father towered above him, rage billowing from him, shimmering in sunlight almost, like an aura."
Call It Sleep, for all its beautifully limned realistic detail, is a novel that constantly pushes toward an order of meaning beyond the social and historical spheres—another quality that could not have endeared the book to the readers of The New Masses in 1934. This movement beyond is perhaps most vividly evident in Roth's English treatment of Yiddish dialogue. It has often been observed that Roth illustrates the linguistic predicament of the immigrants by giving them a finely articulate language when they are speaking in their native tongue, which stands in contrast both to their painfully hobbled, imperfect English and to the crude streeturchin's argot their children speak to each other.
But this is an incomplete description of what Roth accomplishes in the dialogues. The English that Roth lends his characters is more formal, more decorous and elevated, than the Yiddish they would actually have been speaking. A common colloquial expression for feeling sudden despair, es iz mir finster gevoren oif di oigen, through a slight modification of diction and word order, assumes a Shakespearean dignity, even falling into an iambic cadence: "The light before my eyes grew black!" The familiar Yiddish reference to a son as a kadish is transmuted into something strange and vaguely sinister when the father says, "And that over there is what will pray for me after my death." Above all, the famous Yiddish gift for invective is translated from fishwives' curses into a kind of poetry of resonant wrath—in the mouth of the rabbi, of David's outrageous Aunt Bertha, and, above all, in the mouth of the menacing father: "Curse him and his gifts!… May he burn with them! God bray him into bits!" Finally, then, this is not mimetic dialogue, but the speech of a personage in a dramatic prose-poem.
It is not a character in Sholem Aleichem who talks like this, but Melville's Ahab, raging in a state of virtual demonic possession against whale and God and man and life itself. Those cadences, that posture, can be heard again and again in the language of Albert Schearl, which is neither Yiddish nor colloquial English, but, like Melville's, a diction at once tragic and epic: "Nothing fulfills itself with me! It's all doomed!" And in his incandescent fury, when he thinks he has found out David's illegitimacy, he thunders with a 17th-century grandeur: "That's hers! Her spawn! Mark me! Hers!… Three years I throttled surmise, I was the beast of burden! Good fortune I never met! Happiness never! Joy never!"
It is possible to think of Albert Schearl in realistic terms as a study in psychopathology. The sweep of his language, however, and its signification, in dialogue and in narration, constantly invite us to see all of the figures in this family constellation, again in keeping with some of the classics of American literature, as images of humanity facing the absolute ultimacy of existence: the father seething with resentment against life, inwardly gnawed at by an unquenchable sense of inadequacy, avenging himself with the brute force of arbitrary authority; the mother dreaming of a lost love that was impossible from the start, and giving herself, like the gift of grace in a doomed world, to her cherished child; the boy lifting his mind toward a horizon of perfect brilliance beyond the grimy existence where fathers whip, other children mock, and tenement cellars swarm with rats and vague unspeakable terrors.
In all this, mastery speaks from every page of Call It Sleep, persuading us that its achievement could not have been a fluke. Perhaps we may yet see an answering mastery, in a different fictional mode, when Mercy of a Rude Stream is placed before the public. But even if that never happens, this single luminous book will have assured its author a place among the American novelists whose work will not perish.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5548
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 succession of commentators have produced something approaching a consensus that the novel is at its core the record of a religious experience and that the novel is a distinctly Jewish work.
I would suggest that the religious theme developed in Call It Sleep depicts the birth and childhood of a New-World messiah whose story conflates elements of the Jewish and the Christian traditions and is a version of the birth-of-a-hero myth dealt with by Otto Rank in The Myth of the Birth of the Hero and by Joseph Campbell in The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Rank derives his hero myth from what Freud identified as the family romance—the widespread tendency of youngsters to reject their biological parents and to imagine themselves the children of other, usually more glamorous, progenitors. Freud sees this tendency as a struggle of the child to break the bonds of the Oedipal relationship and to establish psychological independence. This is the significance of the quarrel over David Schearl's paternity and of his unusually strong and persistent Oedipal bond. His rejection of the hostile father is consonant with both Rank's myth and Freud's romance; his rejection of his mother is less evident but equally important in his struggle to gain mature freedom. Further, although Call It Sleep is an intensely Jewish novel, it is also very much an American novel in its depiction of the New York scene and as a part of the major tradition that deals with the supposed exceptional mission and destiny of the American people.
Call It Sleep traces the growth of an immigrant child in Brownsville and the lower East Side of New York City from age six to about age eight. Albert Schearl has come to the New World alone in 1905 and is joined in 1907 by Genya and their son David. From the moment of their reunion at Ellis Island, there is tension between the parents—between the gloomy, threatening, vituperative father and the gentle, submissive, but ardently protective mother. David clings so tenaciously to his mother, and is so fearful—and later so resentful—of his father, that the normal Oedipal relationship is aggravated and prolonged. Albert Schearl has some reason to doubt that he is the child's father; his suspicions poison the atmosphere of the home, while David overhears enough adult talk to suspect that he is not the son of the terrifying god of wrath who rules the family. The child proves to be unusually intelligent and sensitive, so that he suffers more than most of his peers from the rough-and-tumble of city street-life. Enrolled in cheder, he is an eager pupil who quickly earns the approval of the rabbi and who shows an unusual interest in the story of Isaiah. Stimulated even by meager religious instruction, the boy has—or believes that he has—a series of mystic experiences that will ultimately lead him to a terrifying climatic adventure in which he is nearly electrocuted by the current in the slotted rail of a street-car track. He survives to achieve a kind of reconciliation with his father and a sense of triumphant acquiescence in the conditions of his life.
The boy's characteristics and experiences are strikingly like those of the hero-messiah as depicted by Rank, Campbell, and others. David's given name means "the elect of God"; it also identifies him with the Old Testament King David, who, according to Ezekiel, was to return as the messiah and rule eternally over the future united and perfected state (Ezek. 34:23-24). Isaiah had foretold a messiah who would be "a shoot from the stump of Jesse," the father of David (9: 1-6; 11: 1-16; 32: 1-5). Centuries later the gospel writers identified Jesus as that messiah and provided a lineage that derived the Saviour from the house of David (Matt. 1: 1-17; Luke 1: 27). John Gabel and Charles Wheeler note that "When the gospels present Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah, they are drawing on Jewish tradition. In Hebrew mashiah means 'anointed one'; the equivalent in Greek is christos, hence 'Christ.' The title refers to the coronation ceremony: The chosen king is … God's choice and reigns with divine backing."
In Hebrew apocalyptic literature, the word messiah was applied to persons of unusual perception deemed worthy of receiving the message and mission of God. Like the opening phases of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and The Education of Henry Adams, (and indeed many a bildungsroman), the earliest passages of Call It Sleep depict the awakening of an unusual intelligence. From precise observation of details the five-year-old boy quickly moves to speculation about their meaning and often to reflections of precocious, although not implausible, sophistication. Having observed that a wedding and a funeral used the same carriages, for example, David concludes that "everything belonged to the same dark"—a proposition that he converts into the paradox, implied but unexpressed: everything is at once both light and dark.
Enrolled as a student in the cheder of Rabbi Yidel Pankower, David displays an unusual facility in pronouncing Hebrew. Although among the youngest, he is the one pupil who can remember all of the "Chad Godyah," a traditional Aramaic song usually recited by a child at the end of the Seder service. It is a text appropriate to a novice messiah, for it was once believed to be an allegory promising the redemption of Israel. Obtuse and vulgar though Reb Pankower is in many ways, he is fully able to appreciate David's eager response to the language of God, to commend the boy as "an iron head," and to speculate, "You may be a great rabbi yet—who knows!" Here is a child, then, of exceptional intelligence and aptitude for penetrating the divine mysteries.
Like the prophet-messiahs of history, David sometimes experiences the mystic state. During the Passover season in 1913, David is "content yet strangely nostalgic"—that is, in the mood that enfolds him at each Passover. Sitting on the edge of a dock fronting the East River, he is dazzled by a broad band of sunlight reflected from the water and falls into a trance: "The brilliance was hypnotic. He could not take his eyes away. His spirit yielded, melted into light." Abruptly he is awakened from his reverie by the noise of a tugboat chugging past and by the whistle of a man on board who shouts, "Wake up, Kid … 'fore you throw a belly-w'opper!" David is alarmed to find himself in danger of falling into the river and lurches backward to safety. His reflection on this experience further identifies it as a mystic spell: "What was it he had seen?… It was as though he had seen it in … a world that once left could not be recalled."
At several points late in the novel, usually when David is running and is under the impress of strong emotion or a powerful sense of purpose, he feels impelled by an irresistible force outside himself. As he is breaking into the locked cheder in a desperate effort to learn more about Isaiah, David reflects, "An enormous hand was shoving him forward." Similar language appears elsewhere: "an ineluctable power tore him from the moorings he clutched"; "an act, ordained, foreseen, inevitable at this very moment." These are David's illusions, and they are those of a servant of God.
David Schearl also meets the traditional expectation that the messiah will appear in a time of distress, when the land is "blighted by suffering, death, sin and other evils" and in an era that "has to be changed and superseded by a new age." Without editorializing, Roth depicts that time in the life of the Golden Land when the "huddled masses yearning to breathe free" swarmed into New York to find persistent poverty, discrimination, and cultural blight as their virtually universal fate. The heartbreaking contrast between the promise of the New World and the grim particularity of Roth's picture of New York slum life makes a comment upon the American Dream no less devastating than the parables of Dos Passos, Fitzgerald, or Hemingway.
This theme is introduced by the wry epigraph of the Prologue:
(I pray thee ask no questions
this is that Golden Land)
and by the immigrants' first disconcerting glimpse of the Statue of Liberty, whose welcoming brilliance is ominously darkened and whose guiding beacon becomes the shadow of a sword.
In this blighted land the debility of traditional religious institutions is epitomized in the condition of the cheder David attends. The rebbe, abusive, imaginatively foul-mouthed, greasy, and tobacco-stained, rules a pack of rowdies whose incapacity for the study of Hebrew is exceeded only by their reluctance. The atmosphere is tainted with sweaty bodies, the rebbe's cigarette smoke, and "gollic fahts," while the racket of scuffling boys and their alternating outbursts of glee and quarreling drown out the recitations of the language of God. David has been carried into a waste land where poverty, crowded tenements, stench, and noise, with their consequent pain, fear, and guilt, are the realities that belie the promise of "that Golden Land."
In yet another way, David's experience parallels that of the prophets of history: he has his time in the wilderness. In a rough-and-tumble street game, David knocks down—and knocks out—a boy who has been tormenting him. Frightened by his antagonist's lifeless appearance, David flees along a street that leads him out into the country. Delighted by the row of telephone poles that stretches endlessly "up the hill of distance," he chants, "Hello, Mr. Highwood…. Goodbye Mr. Highwood." But soon he is bewildered in a frighteningly unfamiliar area. Later David recognizes a parallel with the experience of biblical prophets when he overhears Rabbi Pankower explaining the circumstances in which Isaiah saw God. The child muses, "—Where did he go to see Him? God? Didn't say…. Way, way, way, maybe. Gee! Some place, me too … When I—When I—in the street far away…. Hello, Mr. Highwood, goodbye Mr. Highwood. Heee! Funny!" (first ellipsis mine). Thus David, like Isaiah—and like Christ—has a sojourn in the wilderness.
Like them he experiences temptation as well. Leo Dugovka, the only major gentile figure in Call It Sleep, performs two crucial functions in David's development. As a Roman Catholic, he is the chief source of David's exposure to Christian thought and ritual. In this role he aids David in achieving the ecumenical character that qualifies him as a possible savior of the cosmopolitan American world. But as one who introduces David to the possibilities of sensual delights, he plays the role of tempter, and in this instance is more successful than the devil was in his efforts to corrupt Jesus.
David first encounters Leo on the tenement's roof, "that precinct in the sky, that silent balcony on the pinnacle of turmoil," where they can look out over the neighborhood. With his talk of freedom from a mother's supervision and of kites, roller skates, and distant streets, Leo is, in effect, offering the younger boy "all the kingdoms of the world" (Matt. 4:8). The setting and Leo's street-wise confidence make David eager to learn from the older boy. Recently sensitized by the cheder to things religious, David is especially fascinated by Leo's crude accounts of Catholic doctrine. Leo promises to give him a broken rosary but only at a price. David, eager to obtain the rosary, takes on the role of pander and introduces Leo to his cousin Esther, with whom the older boy "plays bad"—whom, indeed, he rapes, although with the girl's half-willing collusion. This incident in a stinking cellar, as William Freedman has pointed out, is an aspect of David's descent into the underworld—an event that once again places him among the heroes of legend.
The quest of David as hero-messiah is a search for "God's light." Indeed, as a number of critics have observed, the dominant symbol pattern of the novel is the contrast between light and dark, between good and evil. Driven by a child's fear of the dark, David races with pounding heart every time he must pass the cellar door of the Brownsville tenement. Soon he learns that rats, decay, and foul odors as well as the smuttiness of coal belong to the cellar. Again, the darkness and mothball stench of the closet where Annie, the crippled neighbor girl, gives David a crude initiation into the mechanics of sex further extend this set of associations. At a still later stage, Leo's assault upon Esther deepens the evil import of cellar, darkness, stench, and sexual encounter.
But in Book Three, "The Coal," the matter is complicated by David's discovery that coal—a burning coal—was thrust by an angel against Isaiah's lips to purify him. The coal used as the agent of cleansing can hardly be the filthy substance in the cellar; David postulates an "angel coal" in God's cellar as something bright and purifying. Later he discovers, however, that the two converge and eventually coalesce, so that God's coal—brilliant, burning, and cauterizing—is one with the filthy black coal of the foul cellar. In fact he is recognizing that coal has two aspects, as the carriages used for weddings and funerals have two functions. Both conclusions recognize the moral ambiguity of life.
Light also symbolizes the power of God as well as the blinding divine understanding that engulfs the mystic and takes him out of himself. Gazing out over the river, David sees the essence of divinity in "a plain, flawless, sheer as foil to the serried margins…. White. Brighter than day. Whiter. And he was."
Almost immediately after this vision, David is accosted by three Irish toughs who force him to thrust a home-made sheet-metal sword into the crack of the electrified rail on the car-tracks; "power, gigantic, fetterless, thudded into day! And light, unleashed, terrific light bellowed out of the iron lips." Taking refuge in the cheder yard, David muses upon the immanence and power of God and associates them with the river, coal, and whiteness. When the rabbi discovers the boy, David gives a garbled account of his motives for invading the cheder, saying, "'I saw a coal like—like Isaiah…. Where the car-tracks run I saw it.'" The rabbi breaks into derisive laughter: "'Fool!' he gasped at length. 'Go beat your head on a wall! God's light is not between car-tracks.'" But Pankower is wrong: "The rabbi didn't know as he knew what the light was, what it meant, what it had done to him." God's light is indeed between car-tracks—as it is everywhere—unknown to the man of God, known to the child.
But if David is seeking purification, he is also seeking salvation—seeking to be saved from the wrath of a father like an angry, irrational god, from the terrors of the streets, from dangers unknown as well as only too well known. With each recurrence of the Passover season, David feels the renewal of life and of hope for serenity and security. But always there is a relapse from whatever sense of confidence he has acquired and a renewed struggle with dangers and fears. Indeed, his crises intensify as he grows and ranges more widely. Ultimately individual salvation eludes him; David reaches at last a scrutiny that is conditioned upon his acceptance of life in the community of his fellows, rather than upon escape from it.
Paramount among David's qualifications as a messiah is the mystery of his parentage. As Otto Rank and others have shown, heroes, including prophets and messiahs, are often the product of a miraculous or mysterious birth. Like Moses, Jesus, and innumerable heroes of myth and fairy tale, David may not be—but then again may be—the child of his nominal father.
The doubt is prompted by the arrival of Genya's younger sister Bertha, who annoys and frightens Genya by probing an old sore spot—the secret surrounding an early love of the older sister. Moved finally by renewed memories of that concealed and cherished episode, Genya pours out to Bertha the tale—or perhaps most of the tale—of her romance with Ludwig, a Christian organist in the old Austrian village. It is a story of youthful passion, of secret meetings, and finally of intervention by the girl's outraged parents and of betrayl by the young man's opportunism.
David, always alert and inquisitive, has hidden himself so as to overhear this enthralling conversation. Even so, he is tantalized by the occasional drift of the talk from Yiddish into Polish, a language unknown to him. The gaps in the account leave room for his imagination to build beyond what he actually hears. David's embellishment of the narrative harmonizes with his at least latent wish to be rid of his putative father; he concludes that he is the son of the shadowy and romantic Ludwig. At a moment of great stress, the child seeks refuge in the cheder and pours out to his rabbi a garbled tale of disaster compounded of fragments of his mother's secret, with some fanciful additions from his own version of what Freud and Rank have called "the family romance": his mother is dead; he is the son of an organist in a remote unidentified country; the people he lives with are his aunt and her husband. Reb Pankower carries this tale to the Schearls. The story reawakens Albert Schearl's secretly nurtured suspicion that David is not his son; in a bitter confrontation after the rabbi leaves, he accuses Genya of having colluded with her parents to deceive him. Most critics have taken the view that Albert's suspicions are the delusions of a maddened mind. In fact, however, a good bit of evidence supports Albert's contentions.
By her own account, Genya has undoubtedly had a love affair with an impoverished Christian youth named Ludwig. Indeed there is little room to doubt that Ludwig and Genya have had sexual intercourse. Her outraged father had no doubt when he shouted, as Genya tells Bertha, "I tell you she'll bring me a 'Benkart' yet, shame me to the dust. How do you know there isn't one in that lewd belly already …?" When Bertha rails against their father at this point in the conversation, Genya concedes, "Well, I wasn't entirely innocent."
However well disposed the reader is toward the gentle, honest, warmly sheltering Genya, the events that have dropped a bitter seed of suspicion into Albert's soul cannot simply be ignored. His theory that Genya was pregnant at the time of their wedding, that the child was well above average size at the alleged age of twenty-two months, that Albert was hustled off to New York with funds provided by his in-laws so that he could not personally ascertain the date of the child's birth, and that the birth certificate was conveniently mislaid so that it could not bear witness to the misdeed—all these circumstances are plausible and perhaps actual. Indeed, the doubts about David's paternity are never satisfactorily resolved. The effect of this measure of doubt is not to establish that David is in fact the son of Ludwig the Christian organist but rather to introduce some doubt, to envelop the child's birth—and particularly his paternity—in a cloud of mystery, and thus to qualify him further as a hero of myth, as a potential messiah.
In adopting an embroidered version of the story of Ludwig as his own history, David abolishes his terrifying natural or nominal father. But he also converts his mother into an aunt, a maneuver that marks an important stage in his escape from the Oedipal embrace.
David's moment of closest attachment to his mother occurs early in the novel in the warmth of home on the sabbath eve in "the hushed hour, the hour of tawny beatitude." "He was near her now. He was part of her. The rain outside the window set continual seals upon their isolation, upon their intimacy, their identity." But before long this intimacy is invaded by the advances of Joe Luter, Albert's friend from the shop, who is for a short time a boarder at the Schearls' table. Observing Luter's ogling of Genya as she moves about the kitchen and noting an insinuating tone in his conversation, David becomes uneasy about his own loving observation of his mother. This uneasiness, although seemingly arising from a desire to protect his mother's virtue, actually marks the beginning of the child's regarding her with growing sexual curiosity and hence of his separation from her. While playing in the street, David sees Luter heading toward the flat at a time when Genya is there alone and surmises that the two are going to "play bad." Subsequently he believes that they have done so, although in fact the reader understands that Genya has repelled her would-be seducer.
Returning to the flat one afternoon from a disastrous episode with his irate father and from a cheder session where he has for once behaved like a dunce, David discovers the neighborhood in an uproar over an escaped canary. In his distress he ignores this excitement and rushes to the flat. Finding the door locked, he raps furiously until his mother appears, just emerged from her bath, and wrapped in a clinging gown. David seeks her embrace and experiences a bliss that is intensified by his father's absence and novel only in being charged with a half-conscious sexual aura. Learning that his father is soon to return, he flees to the street, where he discovers that the boys have pursued the fugitive canary to the roof-top. Across the light well they have spied upon a woman stepping from her bath in a laundry tub—obviously David's mother, and obviously drawn from her concealment in the tub by his imperious pounding at the door. Outraged at the peepers but tormented by guilt as well, David nevertheless finds a moment to blame his mother: "Why did she let them look…. And she let me look at her! Mad at her!" Seeking to hide his tears, David starts toward the flat but is drawn to the pure air and freedom of the rooftop he has never yet visited. Although he cannot peep into the windows of his own flat, and indeed has no conscious intention of doing so, his movements are stealthy.
As he returns to the flat, he takes care to make noises in the hallway that will imply that he has just come up from the street. At home once more, he finds his mother in what the reader recognizes as a state of postcoital lassitude. David does not understand what has happened, but he does recognize that a pair of decorative bullhorns his father has bought connect the image of a man felled by his father's powerful fist and the spectacle of his mother bemused in unwonted contentment. For the first time he feels shut out from intimacy with his mother.
David continues to vacillate between passionate attachment to his mother and rebellion against her, but never again is the sense of intimacy and identity as close as it had been before he began a career of independent adventures. The bitter despair of these childish tragedies is the true dark night of David's soul; like the anguish of classic mystics and prophets it marks a turning toward self-reliance and serenity, toward ultimate escape from the Oedipal bond. As Freud puts the matter, "Every new arrival on this planet is faced by the task of mastering the Oedipus complex; anyone who fails to do so falls a victim to neurosis."
David's second and nearly fatal encounter with the streetcar tracks takes the form of a death-and-resurrection drama. The prelude and stimulus to this catastrophe is the confrontation between Genya and Albert concerning David's paternity. During this quarrel, David stammers out a confession of complicity in Leo's misdeed and asks punishment from his father. At this point Roth explicitly identifies David with Christ: "And the words he spoke were like staggering burdens he bore up a great steep where his own sighs battered him, where he floundered in his own tears." Albert works himself into a frenzy and claims the right to destroy this "goy's get." While Bertha and her husband wrestle with Albert, Genya rescues the child by thrusting him out the door.
Irresistibly impelled by the same external force that he has experienced several times earlier, David heads again toward the car-tracks, bearing a long-handled milk ladle he has found on the street. Now the action emerges from the confines of the Jewish neighborhood into a nearby area where the cast of characters takes on a thoroughly American diversity of nationalities, occupations, and avocations. Their talk, by turns comic, stupid, obscene, or aggressive, includes references to Christ, His ministry, and the events of the Passion. The result is to underscore the juxtaposition of the ordinary and the divine and to identify David unmistakably as a Christ figure.
Although there are procreative overtones in many of these remarks, suggestive of an impending birth, the reference to the Gospel accounts of the Passion is even more important in strengthening the role of David as an ecumenical messiah figure. The sexual reference of "How many times'll your red cock crow, Pete, befaw y' gives up?" is less important in this chapter than its paraphrase of Christ's prediction to Peter that "Before the cock crows, you will deny me three times" (Matt. 26:34). And after the calamity, Pete, the hunchback on crutches, denies aid to the injured David. The phrase "in the crack be born," however, when considered in conjunction with David's posture as he straddles the slotted rail to insert the dipper's handle between "the long, dark, grinning lips … like a sword in a scabbard" clearly suggests an insemination that will assure the rebirth of the self-created creator close upon his symbolic death in a blaze of the light that has come to symbolize divine power. Upon the discovery of the accident, a rapid series of exclamations all add to the identification of David Schearl with Christ: "Jesus!" "Holy Mother o' God!" "Christ, it's a kid!" "A stick, for Jesus sake!" "Bambino! Madre mia!"
As David fades into unconsciousness, his reverie includes a "swirl of broken images," with the tugboatman in his crucified posture hanging among the wires of the Mr. Highwood telegraph poles and with the sugar tongs (Zwank) that his mother used to demonstrate the limited human grasp of the infinite fusing with the tongs the angel used to seize the burning coal from the altar to purify Isaiah's lips. Driven downward by his father's thundering voice, he diminishes into darkness and extinction.
But then, as the doctor works to revive the stricken boy, "out of the darkness, one ember"; the image that marks his resuscitation is of light emanating from coal. Images of serenity and silence engulf the last glimpse and echo of the terrifying father; finally it is the recollection of the tugboatman who wakened him from his riverside vision—and saved him—that marks his return to consciousness. Thus the David-Christ messiah is resurrected amidst a melange of images drawn from his Jewish background and from the predominantly Christian society in which he is to come of age.
After the melodrama of the immolation-and-resurrection scene, the final chapter of Call It Sleep is relaxed and calm. In this conclusion one critic has seen resignation, whereas others have read it as a parable recording the paralysis of Roth's creative powers. I doubt that the novel is prophetic in this way; rather, I take the author's characterization of David's state at the conclusion as literally accurate: "not pain, not terror, but strangest triumph, strangest acquiescence."
The final stages of the hero-messiah myth usually include either the killing of the hero by his father, the killing of the father by the hero, or their reconciliation. According to Freud, the successful outcome of the romantic fantasy that is the individual psychic parallel of the myth is "the liberation of an individual, as he grows up, from the authority of his parents"; the child who masters the Oedipal relationship and thus escapes neurosis learns, by accepting his real parents, to overcome the fear of the presumably hostile father. Joseph Campbell is emphatic in identifying one outcome of the hero's quest as a recognition that "I and the Father are one" (John 10:30).
In the final chapter of Call It Sleep, a reconciliation of sorts is achieved. Although he has long believed that he wishes such an outcome, Albert is sobered by the real possibility of David's death. In his chastened mood, though with some residual hesitation about the boy's age, he accepts David as his son, in the one English utterance he makes in the novel: "My sawn. Mine. Yes. Awld eight. Eight en'—en' vun mawnt. He was born in—" After the bitter eloquence that has typified his Yiddish speech throughout the novel, this halting language testifies to his reduced condition. No longer is he for David the avenging Yahweh of the child's infancy.
The final paragraph of Call It Sleep is deftly organized. Genya is comforting the injured child, and he is accepting her ministrations, although with the mental reservation that has become characteristic of his attitude toward his mother as he gradually masters his Oedipal connection with her:
"And then you'll go to sleep and forget it all." She paused. Her dark, unswerving eyes sought his. "Sleepy, beloved?
He might as well call it sleep. It was only toward sleep that every wink of the eyelids could strike a spark….
He might as well call it sleep; but it is not sleep and forgetting; it is a state of reverie that lets him recall and evaluate images drawn from all his brief conscious life: images of glitter, sheen, glow—all the varieties of light that have brought his reassurance and delight; scenes from the life of the street; auditory images: "all sounds that lay fermenting in the vats of silence and the past."
All of this reverie leads him to feel, "not pain, not terror, but strangest triumph, strangest acquiescence." The novel ends, then, not in paralysis and defeat, not in the death of the artist, but in serenity, in liberation from the tyranny of a hostile father, the domination of an adoring mother, and the terrors of the unknown. Young though he is, David has come through the worst dangers of an immigrant childhood. After the perils of his quest, according to Campbell, the hero returns to the ordinary world, where as a result of his adventures he can teach his fellow citizens and serve them in a prolonged state of calm. Perhaps David will fulfill Rabbi Pankower's grudging prediction: "You may be a great rabbi yet—who knows!" Having learned the ambiguous moral nature of the world and having accepted life in the less than ideal human community, this obscure child of humblest origins may yet become the teacher, interpreter, examiner, guide, and comforter to the American people. He may become, indeed, the Messiah of the New World.
Roth's novel is a modern redaction of a widely diffused myth, although with significant alterations. The theme of the prince in humble guise is one of the most ubiquitous and enduring motifs in world literature; its usual outcome is the elevation of the apparently lowly to their rightful positions. Often the hero of myth or legend is the scion of wealthy, royal, or divine parents. He has been cast out either by the hostile father or by protectors shielding him from the father and has been adopted by humble parents—servants, peasants, or fishermen. The possible alternate father of David Schearl is neither wealthy, nor aristocratic, nor royal, nor divine, nor otherwise powerful. Roth's attribution of noble qualities to a person of genuinely commonplace origins—that is, one who is not a prince in disguise but who may nevertheless be inspired by the divine afflatus—is fitting in a democracy of common people, whose leaders can emerge from among the most miserable and despised part of its population. In addition, the myth of the messiah in Call It Sleep is distinctive in its violation of old xenophobic taboos to produce an American child. In Roth's parable his potential hero may be the child of a Jewish mother and a Christian father, a mixture that will particularly qualify him as the leader of a polyglot nation of nations where "all tribes and people are forming into one federated whole; and there is a future which shall see the estranged children of Adam restored as to the old hearthstone in Eden." Roth has bestowed American citizenship upon traditional materials to develop a myth for a democratic society.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8233
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 our language itself, overwhelmingly visual, Call It Sleep offers many lessons in the verbal evocation of "soundscape"—a term coined by the composer R. Murray Schafer in his highly original study of the sonic environment The Tuning of the World. Schafer advances many new terms and concepts which, by overturning the visual bias of our language and culture, create a vocabulary that helps to explain the operations of sound in the world of young David Schearl, Roth's central character. Roth's uncanny evocation of David's sonic environment does much to account for the emotional intensity felt by most of the novel's readers.
Call It Sleep is, I am convinced, still undervalued. Though the peculiarities of the novel's publication history—its virtual disappearance in the Thirties, its acclaim after the paperback edition of 1964—are well known to Roth's readers, the book since then seems to have become pigeonholed as a "Jewish novel," rather than the essential American novel that I think it is. There may well be, as Leslie Fiedler has said, "no more Jewish book among American novels," but the impact and significance of this book extend far beyond its Jewish interest, profound as that may be. No other American novel dramatizes so powerfully the trauma of the newly arrived immigrant. It is the classic portrayal, writes Richard J. Fein, "of the Americanized son who pits himself against the unyielding immigrant father." In David's psychological adventure, we experience from the inside a paradigmatic rejection of Old World values and a tentative reaching toward the new. And the novel treats this distinctively American theme with unparalleled richness of implication and technical mastery. Far from being a novel of a particular ethnic group, Call It Sleep claims a central place in the canon of American fiction.
Critics of Call It Sleep have tended to focus on David's psychology—his oedipal attachment to his mother, Genya, and his fear of his father, Albert. Or they have focused on the novel's spiritual implications, treating it, like Fiedler, as "astonishingly a religious book." On the other hand—still perhaps influenced by the Thirties' controversy in the Marxist New Masses over its supposed failure as "proletarian fiction"—they have downplayed the novel's broader social significance. Yet from the immigrant-crowded steamer Peter Stuyvesant sailing past the Statue of Liberty in the prologue, to David's climactic acts of betrayal and atonement, Roth's novel lives through the painful processes of separation and assimilation. Psychologically, David must separate himself from his father's rejection and his mother's emotional hold. Spiritually, he attempts to reach beyond a confining and yet somewhat destabilized Judaism, moving from an Old Testament culture into one defined and controlled by the New. The gradual orientation of a fearful child, and his painful discovery of power, of relative maturity, of freedom from fear—of all the freedoms held out by America—form the core of the novel's experience.
The intensity of this experience derives from Roth's creation of the young boy's point of view, which critics have universally praised. More specifically, it derives, I believe, from Roth's ability to create the sensory world of the child, particularly the sense of sound. Though the text has not entirely traded eyes for ears, it has at least altered the usual ratio. The world of sound, as Schafer insists (taking his cue from Marshall McLuhan), is "loaded with direct personal significance for the hearer. While sight defines objects as separate and distanced from the perceiver, sound seems to enter inside the body. Vision separates objects as distinct things, but the heard objects is often unseen and unidentified. For this reason, sound is naturally linked to the disembodied or the supernatural; as Schafer puts it, "God originally came to man through the ear, not the eye." Don Ihde, in Listening and Voice, agrees:
It is the invisible which poses a series of almost insurmountable problems for much contemporary philosophy. "Other minds" or persons who fail to disclose themselves in their "inner" invisibility; the "Gods" who remain hidden; my own "self" which constantly eludes a simple visual appearance; the whole realm of spoken and heard language must remain unsolvable so long as our seeing is not also a listening. It is to the invisible that listening may attend…. The primary presence of the God of the West has been the God of Word, YHWH.
But if sound can acquire a numinous cast, it is also inseparable from the instincts of alarm. As Schafer observes:
The sense of hearing cannot be closed off at will. There are no earlids. When we go to sleep, our perception of sound is the last door to close and it is also the first to open when we awaken. These facts have prompted McLuhan to write: "Terror is the normal state of any oral society for in it everything affects everything all the time."
If Call It Sleep is, as Walter Allen declares, "the most powerful evocation of the terrors of childhood ever written," the reason may be David's heightened sensitivity to sound. And after David's final vision in which his unconscious mind constructs a "self" which survives his father's wrath, deliverance from terror of the loud world forms part of the meaning of the ambivalent sleep at the end of the novel.
Roth's text evokes David's soundscape on three levels of awareness. Often it records sound simply as part of the child's general perception. On a second level, David not only registers sounds but reacts to them—often with alarm, but with a range of other emotions as well. On a third level, however, he not only hears and reacts but he interprets as well. David is not the simple passive character that some critics, and even Roth himself, seem to think. As Naomi Diamant has shown, in some of the best criticism written about the novel, Call It Sleep is "a semiotic Bildungsroman" in which David learns not only to decode but to encode his environment. (Diamant wisely qualifies this phrase, since the novel covers only three years of David's life and is not technically a Bildungsroman, but it raises many issues common to the genre.) I would add furthermore that this process, which Roth quite consciously modeled on Joyce, occurs simultaneously in the character and in the reader; as motifs accumulate, we together with David gradually invest them with symbolic and emotional attributes. The reader's experience fuses with that of the young boy, as he learns not simply to react to his New World but to interpret it and live in it.
On the level of simple perception, David is a remarkably sensitive register of his sonic environment, or to use Schafer's word, he is a reliable "earwitness." After the dry, objective narration of the Prologue, which tonally as well as semantically establishes the family's sense of emotional exile as they enter New York harbor in 1907, the text plunges into David's phenomenal world, creating auditory as well as visual perspective:
Where did the water come from that lurked so secretly in the curve of the brass? Where did it go, gurgling in the drain? What a strange world must be hidden behind the walls of a house! But he was thirsty. "Mama!" he called, his voice rising above the hiss of sweeping in the frontroom. "Mama, I want a drink." The unseen broom stopped to listen. "I'll be there in a moment," his mother answered. A chair squealed on its castors; a window chuckled down; his mother's approaching tread.
Roth often makes us hear by finding the unexpected phrase: the "slight, spattering sound from the end of her lip," as Genya drinks tea; a "hiss of shoes" on stone outside the door; a door "tittering to and fro in the wind."
And of course, as Bonnie Lyons and others have noted, the text makes us aware of the sounds of languages—Yiddish, Hebrew, Polish, and all the broken English dialects of the street. Roth expertly distinguishes, for example, the Irish brogue of the policemen from the speech of an Italian peanut vendor, and with virtuoso flair even endows one of his speakers with both dialect and an almost impenetrable lisp: "Cauthye I wanthyloo, dayuth w'y'." Roth ensures that his text must be read with ears as well as eyes. Such passages may be said to dramatize David's awareness of the difficulty of extracting meaning from an alien language. As Raymond Chapman has noted,
the primacy of speech over writing can be asserted even through the written text, with humor or with some social purpose. Indeed, the writer may actually draw attention to the difficulty and artificiality of what he is doing. He may emphasize the fact that the nature of language in its two realizations gives him an impossible task.
In "The Cellar," David registers primarily the domestic environment of the apartment in Brownsville: As his mother touches the lock on the door, "the hidden tongue sprang in the groove"; she sets the table, "knives ringing faintly, forks, spoons, side by side"; she talks to her husband, "noisily setting the dishes down in the sink." David at this point is indoors mostly, and on his major venture outdoors, following the telegraph poles, he gets lost. His sleep is disturbed one time by "the frosty ring of a shovel scraping the stony sidewalk"; but his awareness of the outdoor soundscape in this setting is dominated by children's play: "So get back in de line. Foller de leader. Boom! Boom! Boom!"
In "The Picture," however, when the Schearls move to the lower East Side, the outdoor soundscape is more insistent:
Here in 9th Street it wasn't the sun that swamped one as one left the doorway, it was sound—an avalanche of sound. There were countless children, there were countless baby carriages, there were countless mothers. And to the screams, rebukes, and bickerings of these, a seemingly endless file of hucksters joined their bawling cries. On Avenue D horse-cars clattered and banged. Avenue D was thronged with beer wagons, garbage carts, and coal trucks. There were many automobiles, some blunt and rangey, some with high straw poops, honking. Beyond Avenue D, at the end of a stunted, ruined block that began with shacks and smithies and seltzer bottling works and ended in a junk heap, was the East River on which many boat horns sounded. On 10th Street, the 8th Street Crosstown car ground its way toward the switch.
The noises of general humanity invade the indoors as well: "The stairs were of stone and one could hear himself climb. The toilets were in the hall. Sometimes the people in them rattled newspapers, sometimes they hummed, sometimes they groaned. That was cheering." In one scene after another, David's ears register the sound of human crowds:
Curtains overhead paddled out of open windows. The air had shivered into a thousand shrill, splintered cries, wedged here and there by the sudden whoop of a boy or the impatient squawk of a mother…. In the shelter of a doorway, across the gutter, a cluster of children shouted in monotone up at the sky:
"Rain, rain, go away, come again some oddeh day. Rain, rain…."
The yard was gloomy. Wash-poles creaked and swayed, pulleys jangled. In a window overhead, a bulky, bare-armed woman shrilled curses at someone behind her and hastily hauled in the bedding that straddled the sills like bulging sacks.
"And your guts be plucked!" her words rang out over the yard. "Couldn't you tell me it was raining?"
Even when David, near the beginning of "The Rail," retreats to the freedom of the rooftop—"that silent balcony on the pinnacle of turmoil"—he remains eerily aware of the humanity below: "What sounds from the street, what voices drifted up the air-shafts, only made his solitude more real." Human crowds provide what Schafer calls the "keynote" sound of the novel, the sound that acts as a constant point of reference like tonality in a piece of music; or to borrow Schafer's figure-ground analogy from visual perception, they provide the ground against which more meaning-laden figures are heard. This crescendo of voices accompanies David through the latter half of the novel to his climactic action at the trolley rail. It amply prepares for the daring divided narration of Chapter 21, in which David's self-enclosed consciousness is surrounded by this keynote chorus of human voices, even though he no longer hears them.
Reading Call It Sleep with Schafer's account of past and present soundscapes in mind, one is struck by the predominance of human over mechanical sounds in Roth's city. If this is in fact the noisiest novel ever written, the reason is the narrating character's sensitivity and the author's vivid aural memory; for the soundscape in the New York of 1907 was hardly as noisy as the modern city's, where the keynote, as Schafer observes, is that of the internal-combustion engine. Despite Roth's occasional mention of automobiles, they play little role in the novel; and despite his references to horse-cars, smithies, boat horns, and trolleys—all of which assume important symbolic functions—the human presence dominates; there is a feeling of perspective, of sounds near and far, which is largely obliterated in today's city. Absent from this intensely urban novel too are most natural sounds, apart from the domesticated horses, chickens, parrots, and canaries. And absent, of course, from Roth's indoor settings are modern intrusions like telephone or radio—or any electronic or amplified sound (though curiously enough, Roth's text registers the whine of power lines, the so-called "corona noise" that power companies have just recently begun to study).
In fact, for such a noisy book, there is notably little music of any kind. The music is not set apart as an aesthetic object, but is integrated into the lives of the characters, like the children's game song that arouses David's dim memories of Europe, or the work song that Genya absently sings as she washes windows. Mention is made of a gramophone (Genya had heard one in Europe): "I never heard anything labor so or squawk," she says. "But the peasants were awed. They swore there was devil in the box." The Schearls possess one, but it remains an empty possession, "mute and motionless as the day before creation," as Aunt Bertha chides—though she desires to possess one herself.
But Roth does not treat sonic imagery simply as part of the neutral background of the novelistic world. One cannot consider sound in Call It Sleep without quickly becoming entangled in David's emotional responses to it; nor can one consider sound apart from silence. David reacts to both sound and silence at first mainly with aversion, with fear. But gradually in the course of the novel he learns to overcome his fears, to find his place in the apparently hostile environment of the New World. Ultimately, he challenges the noise of power, and he acquiesces in the silence of sleep.
In the important passage near the beginning that establishes David's fear of sudden extinction, symbolized by the dark cellar, critics have noticed Roth's use of darkness and light, but they have failed to comment on his use of sound and silence:
David never found himself alone on these stairs, but he wished there were not carpet covering them. How could you hear the sound of your own feet in the dark if a carpet muffled every step you took? And if you couldn't hear the sound of your own feet and couldn't see anything either, how could you be sure you were actually there and not dreaming? A few steps from the bottom landing, he paused and stared rigidly at the cellar door. It bulged with darkness. Would it hold?… It held! He jumped from the last steps and raced through the narrow hallway to the light of the street.
The incident vividly dramatizes what R.D. Laing would call David's ontological insecurity—his failure to feel secure of his own presence in the world as a real, whole, and continuous person. Thus a few pages later, when David again ventures the same route, he begs his mother, "Mama, will you leave the door open till—till I'm gone—till you hear me downstairs?"
Being heard is assurance of being. As Schafer remarks, silence, in the Western world at least, has mainly negative connotations: "Man likes to make sounds to remind himself that he is not alone. From this point of view total silence is the negation of human personality. Man fears the absence of sound as he fears the absence of life." This fear is observable in other characters as well. Bill Whitney, the watchman who appears briefly in Chapter 21 of "The Rail," mutters to himself—"and this he did not so much to populate the silence with ephemeral, figment selves, but to follow the links of his own, slow thinking, which when he failed to hear, he lost." And the irrepressible Aunt Bertha, perhaps the only character besides David who fully senses the soundscape around her, embraces the turmoil—"I hate quiet and I hate death"—as roundly as she rejects the Old World she has left behind: "But there's life here, isn't there? There's a stir always. Listen! The street! The cars! High laughter! Ha, good! Veljish was still as a fart in company. Who could endure it?"
Many scenes dramatize David's equation of silence with death and sound with life. When he witnesses a passing funeral, he tells himself, frantically:
Make a noise. Noise…. He advanced. What? Noise. Any. "Aaaaah! Ooooh!" he quavered. "My country 'tis of dee!" He began running. The cellar door. Louder. "Sweet land of liberty," he shrilled, and whirled toward the stairs…. "Land where our fodders died!" The landing; he dove for the door, flinging himself upon it….
The land where David's forefathers actually died, of course, is not America but the Old World, though his choice of lyrics ironically underlines an oedipal wish for his father's death here. A much later scene again equates silence with nonexistence. David drops a rosary gotten from his Catholic friend Leo on the floor of a different cellar: "At the floor of a vast pit of silence glimmered the rough light, pulsed and glimmered like a coin." He gropes for it: "'I'm gonna get it,' almost audibly. 'I am!' His teeth gritted, head quivering in such desperate rage, the blood whirred in his ears … 'I am.'" But with the whir of his own life processes in his ears, David's desperation is interrupted by the precocious sexual experimentation of Leo and cousin Polly—sounds that signify not the extinction but the creation of life. At yet another point in the book, David thinks of himself in his mother's womb, a memory, possibly even a prenatal memory, triggered when he overhears the mysterious word "Benkart," Polish for bastard: "—Benkart! (Beside the doorway David fastened on the word) What? Know it. No, don't. Heard it. In her belly. Listen!"
David learns early that where there is life there is sound: pure silence is unattainable. Hiding himself in the cellar darkness after a fight with playmates, he discovers
there was no silence here, but if he dared to listen, he could hear tappings and creakings, patterings and whisperings, all furtive, all malign. It was horrible, the dark. The rats lived there, the hordes of nightmare, the wobbly faces, the crawling and misshapen things.
The composer John Cage similarly learned that there is no such thing as pure silence: when he entered an anechoic chamber and reported two sounds, one high and one low, he was told that one was his nervous system in operation, the other his blood circulating. David likewise experiences sound as part of his most intimate bodily rhythms; his system vibrates with the world around him. Helping with his father's milk deliveries, he is physically oppressed by the jangling bottles: "Louder, louder, nearer, they seemed to clank in David's heart as well. With every step his father took, the breath in his own body became more labored, more suffocating." Sonic metaphors enter Roth's language: "His blood, which a moment before had been chiming in bright abandon, deepened its stress, weighted its rhythm to an ominous tolling." As David flees the violent family confrontation in "The Rail," "every racked fibre in his body screamed out in exhaustion. Each time his foot fell was like a plunger through his skull."
Call It Sleep depicts many scenes in which David detects others by sound, or lurks out of sight eavesdropping on an adult world otherwise closed to him: "He crept to his doorway, stiff ankle-joints cracking like gun-shots. A blur of voices behind the door…. Hope clutched at it." David's instinctive recoil from Luter includes a disjunction of sight from sound: "But chiefly he found himself resenting Mr. Luter's eyes. They seemed to be independent of his speech, far outstripping it in fact; for instead of glancing at one, they fixed one and then held on until the voice caught up." Elsewhere, David notes "a short chuckle that pecked like a tiny hammer," or a frown and "a faint smacking sound from the side of his mouth." Indeed throughout the novel, Roth's dialogue is loaded with stage directions in what may seem an excessive way. Within the space of a page we read: "said Luter sympathetically … said Luter meditatively … she laughed, straightening up … said Luter with a sigh … she agreed … he said warmly … said Luter with conviction … his mother laughed condoningly … he assured her … said Luter with the hesitance of careful appraisal." This is a mannerism to be sure, but it is consistent with David's sensitivities. As he constitutes his world through listening, he is alert not just to what is said, but even more to the intonations and intentions behind what is said.
Roth seems unusually aware of the relationship between sound as phenomenon and sound as sign. This is clear in his treatment of languages—such as the Hebrew instilled phonetically before it is joined to "chumish," or translation. And when Genya and Aunt Bertha converse in Polish to close David out of the conversation, he strains to follow: "But though he pried here, there, everywhere among the gutturals and surds striving with all his power so split the stubborn scales of speech, he could not." But nonverbal signals, too, clutter David's world—from the "familiar tinny jangle" of a shopkeeper's bell, to the factory whistles and school bells by which he keeps time.
The factory whistle, however, serves not only as a timekeeper but, to borrow another of Schafer's coinages, a "soundmark" as well. Schafer defines a soundmark as "a community sound which is unique or possesses qualities which make it specially regarded or noticed by the people in that community." In other words, the sound is not merely registered but invested with particular meaning or feeling. During the episode in which David, lost, is taken in by sympathetic policemen, Roth makes it plain that he has learned to orient himself, to interpret his environment, not through his eyes but through his ears. When he loses his way, he first tries to find himself visually: "Though he conned every house on either side of the crossing, no single landmark stirred his memory. They were all alike—wooden houses and narrow sidewalks to his right and left." But when at the police station he hears the familiar whistle, he immediately comprehends the distance he has traveled and panics at the thought of his mother: "Whistles? He raised his head. Factory whistles! The others? None! Too far! So far she was. So far away!—But she heard them—she heard the other whistles that he couldn't hear." The policemen notice, but Genya soon arrives and, as the two walk home, the process of sensory orientation is repeated. David is again deceived by his eyes:
"That way, Mama?" He started incredulously. "This way!" He pointed to the right. "This way is my school."
"That's why you were lost! It's the other way."
But he knows he has arrived in the right place through the aural and tactile sensations of the wind: "They neared the open lot. He knew where he was now, certain of every step. There was a wind that prowled over that area of rock and dead grass, that would spring up at them when they passed it. And the wind did."
This sonic orientation is repeated in "The Picture," where David again secures his place in the new East Side neighborhood largely through sound:
He knew his world now. With a kind of meditative assurance, he singled out the elements of the ever-present din—the far voices, the near, the bells of a junk wagon, the sign-song cry of the I-Cash-clothes-man, waving his truncheon-newspaper, the sloshing jangle of the keys on the huge ring on the back of the tinker.
Indeed throughout the novel, from the bellow of the steamer on the first page to the climactic moment when David regains consciousness at the end, whistles and boat horns—which "set up strange reverberations in the heart"—gather symbolic associations having to do with orientation in time and place.
In Call It Sleep, one can observe this process by which a sound signal becomes a sound symbol, or to repeat Naomi Diamant's terms, by which David learns not only to decode but to encode his environment. As Schafer puts it, "a sound event is symbolic when it stirs in us emotions or thoughts beyond its mechanical sensations or signalling function, when it has a numinosity or reverberation that rings through the deeper recesses of the psyche." Whistles and boat horns are the most obvious examples in the novel, but many other sonic motifs are developed and interrelated in complex ways. Furthermore, although the factory whistles suggest David's increasing security in his surroundings, other symbols take on more mysterious overtones. As Walter Allen remarks, Roth's novel captures "better than it has ever been done in English before what might be called a child's magical thinking, which is clearly allied to the thinking of the poet." Like his literary precursor Huck Finn, who hears "an owl, away off, who-whooing about somebody that was dead, and a whippowill and a dog crying about somebody who was going to die," David Schearl hears certain sounds, like the Hebrew words of Isaiah, that trigger feelings of the supernatural.
All his senses dissolved into the sound. The lines, unknown, dimly surmised, thundered in his heart with limitless meaning, rolled out and flooded the last shores of his being. Unmoored in space, he saw one walking on impalpable pavements that rose with the rising trees. Or were they trees or telegraphpoles, each crossed and leafy, none could say, but forms stood there with footholds in unmitigated light.
Here Isaiah's coal, which purifies his unclean lips and makes him a prophet of God, is associated not only with telegraph poles (and thus with David's earlier venture into the unknown), but also with the cross of the Christian Messiah, the thunder of Yahweh (see below), and the blinding light of unlimited power. It is associations like these, formed in David's mind, that drive him to the apparently irrational but quite explicable act of the penultimate chapter.
Because David, a young boy in a new world, must invent his own symbols, Reb Yiddel Pankower asks himself a key question: "What was going to become of these Yiddish youth? What would become of tis new breed? These Americans?" This process of becoming is what Call It Sleep reveals. There may be, as Meyer Levin suggests, "no more perceptive work in any literature dealing with a child's conditioning." But just as the melodramatic convergences of "The Rail" reveal this positive process of conditioning, of encoding and creating new meanings, so do they join them to a mounting series of betrayals—betrayals of his mother's sexual secret and his father's presumed disgrace, of his sympathetic aunt and her stepdaughter's honor, of his religion and his rabbi. The betrayals are psychological, moral, cultural, and religious.
David's climatic act then, is simultaneously an effort to atone for them and an effort to seize power—literally the electric power of the trolley rail, but symbolically the sexual power of his father and the religious power of his private messianic vision. The scene is a confluence of interrelated symbols in which the psychological battle between father and son stands for conflicts on several other levels: it suggests a battle between Old and New Worlds, between Old and New Testaments, between captivity and freedom. As Roth's punning reference to Ahura Mazda suggests ("Vus dere a hura mezda, Morr's?"), it is a Manichaean battle between symbols of light and darkness. To these conflicts, which a number of Roth's critics have explored, I would add that it is a battle between sound and silence.
As Schafer says, "Noise equals Power." The loudest noises in the soundscape are created by those who hold greatest power over it. Thus the factory whistles, boat horns, and trolley noises dominate a society controlled by industry and commerce. It is a society David wishes to enter. This equation of loudness with power is understood instinctively by David's peers:
"Yuh don' make enough noise, dat's why. Yuh oughta ha' Wildy."
"Who don' make enough noise? I hollered loud like anyt'ing. Who beats?"
At various points, David's Brownsville playmate Yussie imitates the noise of a gun: "Bing! I'm an Innian"; a firecracker that exploded prematurely in a man's hand: "Kling! Kling! Kling! Jos' like dat! Kling! Kling! Kling! Cauze de fiyuh crecker wen' bang by his ears!"; and the printing press that injures Albert's thumb: "Id don' go boof?" David, whose sensibilities are clearly more delicate, at first recoils from such noisemaking; but when he discovers a source of mystical power between the trolley rails, he experiences it as an overwhelming fusion of light and sound, as Roth's language resorts to the figure of synesthesia:
From open fingers, the blade plunged into darkness.
Like a paw ripping through all the stable fibres of the earth, power, gigantic, fetterless, thudded into day! And light, unleashed, terrific light bellowed out of iron lips. The street quaked and roared, and like a tortured thing, the sheet zinc sword, leapt writhing, fell back, consumed with radiance.
This first electric shock has resulted from anti-Semitic hounding by a group of street bullies; that is, it is tied to David's difficulties in making a place for himself in the Gentile-dominated world that he struggles to understand. But after the event, he discovers that his fear of the darkness has been lifted: "Gee. Used to be darker…. Ain't really there. Inside my head. Better inside. Can carry it." And soon after, he discovers the relative freedom of the rooftop, where the sunlight again is felt in terms of synesthesia—"a trumpet, triple-trumpet bearing light"—and where he can actually strike up a friendship, though an unequal one, with a kite-flying Christian. (Leo's kite, of course, recalls that prototypical American Ben Franklin, who tapped the sources of electric power directly from the sky.)
The second and climactic electric shock again reaches for the language of synesthesia, but it takes on more intricate symbolic associations, including a fusion of the sexual and the religious. As if to underscore the religious dimension of Roth's sound symbolism, Schafer advances a concept that he calls "sacred noise." "Wherever Noise has been granted immunity from human intervention," he writes, "there will be found a seat of power":
The association of Noise and power has never really been broken in the human imagination. It descends from God, to the priest, to the industrialist, and more recently to the broadcaster and the aviator. The important thing to realize is this: to have the Sacred Noise is not merely to make the biggest noise; rather it is a matter of having authority to make it without censure.
When David shoves the metal milk dipper—a symbol associated with both his father's penis and his mother's breast—into the trolley track, his quasi-sexual act ("in the crack be born") seems to him "as though he had struck the enormous bell of the very heart of silence." When the circuit is completed, amid allusions to the virgin birth of Jesus and Peter's betrayal, David experiences the shock as "a blast, a siren of light within him … braying his body with pinions of intolerable light," while onlookers witness "a single cymbal-clash of light" and the milk dipper "consumed in roaring incandescence." Significantly, David seeks this sacred noise not in the cheder but in the power circuit of the commercial world. His privately coded symbolic act brings him into contact, literally, with the true sources of social power.
Roth's cumulative technique builds complex symbolic chains: David's final self-immolation is anticipated in the doll-burning scene of "The Picture," and the incandescent milk dipper by the ritually burned Passover spoon of "The Coal." Likewise, the whistle that brings David back to consciousness is invested with symbolic and magical properties from many earlier scenes; most prominent is the hallucinatory waterfront scene in which David, transfixed by "fire on the water," is saved from falling by the blast of a tugboat:
Minutes passed while he stared. The brilliance was hypnotic. He could not take his eyes away…. And he heard the rubbing on a wash-board and the splashing suds, smelled again the acrid soap and a voice speaking words that opened like the bands of a burnished silver accordion—Brighter than day…. Brighter…. Sin melted into light….
Uh chug chug, ug chug!
—Cucka cucka…. Is a chicken
Ug chug, ug chug, ug—TEW WEET!
What! He started as if out of a dream. A tremor shook him from head to foot so violently that his ears whirred and rang. His eyes bulged, staring.
David then sees the man on the tugboat who has saved him, "a man in his undershirt, bare, outstretched arms gripping the doorpost on either side. He whistled again, shrill from mobile lips, grinned, spat, and 'Wake up, Kid!' his sudden amused hail rolled over the water, 'fore you throw a bellyw'opper!'"
This complex scene is mentioned by most of Roth's commentators, but again the auditory imagery has been largely ignored. As Lyons observes, the man's "Wake up, Kid!" links David to the sacrificial kid of the Chadgodya, and the man's pose with outstretched arms suggests the Crucifixion. But this pose also links him to David's father emerging from his bedroom in the previous chapter: "His stretching arms pressed against both sides of the door-frame till it creaked. 'We need some light.'" And the sound of the washboard and splashing suds recalls his mother in the same scene, pronouncing the mystical words "Brighter than day" as she sits in the dark, washing curtains for Passover—surreptitiously breaking the Sabbath after sundown on Friday. The image is thus colored by both oedipal and religious guilt. Furthermore, the "cucka cucka"—a sonic rendition of the chugging tugboat—recalls through a sonic pun an earlier visit with Genya to a chicken market:
It's a sin…. So God told him eat in your own markets…. That time with mama in the chicken market when we went. Where all the chickens ran around—cuckacucka—when did I say? Cucka. Gee! Funny. Some place I said. And then the man with a knife went zing! Gee! Blood and wings. And threw him down. Even kosher meat when you see, you don't want to eat—
Although the market was kosher, as David recalls while seated in the cheder, Genya's laxity is disturbing: "Mama don't care except when Bertha was looking." The chicken reference furthermore looks forward to the icon David notices in Leo's apartment, Jesus of the Sacred Heart holding his breast open and pointing to his inner organs: "Guts like a chicken, open. And he's holding them." This scene, in which Leo lectures David on the restrictiveness of the Jewish diet and the superiority of "Christchin light"—"Bigger den Jew light"—is the same in which David also gathers information about the mysterious occupation of Genya's Gentile lover, a church organist. Leo describes a church organ: "Dey looks like pianers, on'y dey w'istles." Chickens, organs, whistles, breaking the Mosaic law, taking a Gentile lover, and the superior power of Christian light—all conspire in the subterranean linkages of Roth's text and David's mind (and the reader's) to drive him to question his own origins and to emulate the freedom of the Christian boy whom he first saw flying a kite and "whistling up at the sky": "Not afraid! Leo wasn't afraid!"
Furthermore, in David's hallucinating mind at the waterfront, the tugboat whistle and the whistling man aboard her together fuse with a different bird sound:
E-e-e. Twee-twee-twee. Tweet! Tweet! Cheep! Eet! R-rawk Gee! Whistle. Thought it was that man. In the tugboat. In the shirt. Whistling. Only birds. Canary. That lady's. Polly too—Polly want a cracker—is out already. On the fire-escape. Whistle.
Behind this stands an episode in which David has heard two caged birds in his East Side neighborhood:
A parrot and a canary. Awk! Awk! the first cried. Eee-tee-tee—tweet! the other. A smooth and a rusty pulley. He wondered if they understood each other. Maybe it was like Yiddish and English, or Yiddish and Polish, the way his mother and aunt sometimes spoke. Secrets. What?
David clearly associates the bird sounds with the Polish-encoded secrets of his mother, and thus with his own possibly illegitimate origins. The canary, furthermore, looks forward to the escaped canary the boys pursue in Chapter 4 of "The Rail," and thence to the "yellow birds" that symbolize freedom throughout the climactic scene. Though the boys fail to catch the canary in the chapter, they do catch sight of Genya, naked, bathing in the washtub, much to David's anguish. In addition, the parrot bears the name of David's cousin Polly, whom he betrays to Leo's sexual predation in the candy-store cellar, thus repeating the forbidden liaison of Jew and gentile begun by his mother. Leo, in fact being Polish, acts as a double for David, suggesting to the reader and perhaps to his own subconscious the boy he might have been if he were truly the son of Genya's lover. Thus the birds and their sounds are circuitously related to David's awareness of his mother's sexuality and his own, to their mutual need for atonement and purification, and at the same time—even at the cost of betraying his Jewishness—to the desirability of the freedoms allowed to Gentiles.
One other significant though less intricate sound symbol reinforces the association of Leo with freedom of mobility and freedom from fear. Again an early memory is involved. In "The Cellar," David, returning home through the snow with a newspaper for his father, began to run: "He had only taken a few strides forward when his foot suddenly landed on something that was not pavement. The sound of hollow iron warned him too late—A coal-chute cover. He slipped." The ruined paper rouses his father's anger, leading soon after to the brutal beating with a coat hanger. The hollow iron sound of the coal-chute ties together his fear of the cellar with his fear of his father, and relates as well to his desire for Isaiah's purifying coal. Near the end of the novel, the same sound alerts David to Leo's approach behind him—on the coveted roller skates: "The sudden whirr of wheels behind him—nov louder on the sidewalk now roaring momentarily over the hollow buckle of a coal-chute—." Leo, the liberated and potent Gentile, flies over coal-chutes as he flies over rooftops. This sound is closely allied to the hollow metallic sound of the phallic milk dipper as David pries it loose: "It bulged, sounded hollow. Again he braced himself, thrust—Clank!" And again when he strikes it against the trolley rail: "Only in his ears, the hollow click of iron lingered. Hollow, vain."
Roth weaves together these sound symbols with many other motifs in the climactic scene to suggest David's reaching out for purification and freedom; but he introduces a number of others, as well, linked with the negative psychological forces embodied in David's father. Bonnie Lyons traces one of these, the Zwank motif, and though she concentrates on its semantic meaning—the Yiddish word for tongs, connecting his mother's sugar tongs with those of Isaiah's angel—she recognizes that when the word first appears in the scene at the rail, "the sound itself seems most important"; the word "assumes its semantic and imagistic significance" only gradually, as David's mind recollects. She does not explain, however, why the word appears not with the angelic tongs but together with David's terrifying vision of his father leaping godlike over the rooftops and swinging his hammer. This recollection goes back to a glimpse inside a blacksmith's shop, just before David burns his Passover spoon and becomes hypnotized by the "fire on the water," where tongs and hammer are combined:
Acrid odor of seared hooves lingered about the place. Now a horse-shoe glowed under the hammer—ong-jonga-ong-jong-joing-jong—ringing on the anvil as the pincers turned it.
—Zwank. Zwank. In a cellar is—
He passed the seltzer bottlery—the rattle and gurgle-passed the stable.
Thus, like the milk dipper, the tongs are associated not only with the mother and her sugar tongs, but also with the father and his hammer, and also therefore with the fear and guilt that both parents arouse. But this passage also links the hammer and tongs to horses and jangling bottles—sounds later invested with terrifying associations in the milk-delivery episode. These sounds at first seem relatively neutral, even positive, since the event promises an adventure into the outer world as his father's helper; but disaster strikes when David first disobeys instructions to wait with the wagon, and then watches helplessly as two bullies steal milk. His father's rage is soon inscribed into the sounds of the wagon, the bottles, the horses—and above all the whip, with which Albert almost beats to death one of the offenders:
The crunch of heels on the gravel. Terror! His eyes snapped open.
Dwarfed between the huge gas tanks, his father rounded the path. Eyes downcast as always he hurried, jangling the empty grey bottles in their trays….
"Paid yourself again!" he snarled. "Giddap! Giddap, Billy!" He snatched the whip out of the socket, lashed the horse. Stung, the beast plunged forward. The wheels ground against the curb. "Giddap!" Again the whip. Hooves rang out in a pounding, powerful gallop. The wagon lurched, careened around the corner on creaking axle, empty bottles banging in their boxes….
These sounds, incidentally, are among those identified by Schafer as the most aversive in the pre-automotive urban soundscape; but David's response to the cracking whip needs little explication when he presents it to his father for punishment at the end of the violent quarrel in Chapter 19 of "The Rail." For although David is not physically whipped for the stolen milk, he is verbally disavowed by his raging father—"False son! You, the cause!"—and he is psychologically pressed into silence and nonexistence—"Say anything to your mother … and I'll beat you to death! Hear me?" Little wonder, then, that in David's vision the father appears accompanied by jangling milk bottles, a hammer that "snapped like a whip," and the reiterated Zwank! as he orders his son to "Go down."
One other archetypal sound attaches to Albert Schearl in this terrible vision: twice we read that his voice "thundered." Lyons quite plausibly identifies this thunder motif with the Germanic hammer-wielding god of wrath, Thor; but oddly enough, she omits reference to the one scene in the novel in which we actually hear "a clap of thunder and a rumbling like a barrel rolling down cellar stairs." It occurs when David, in the cheder, has just successfully recited the Chadgodya. The thunder excites the other children: "Bang! Bang what a bust it gave! I tol' yuh I see a blitz before!" The only characters frightened by the din are David himself and Reb Yiddel Pankower, who ducks his head and exclaims "Shma yisroel…. Woe is me!" Both regain composure:
"Before God," the rabbi interrupted, "none may stand upright."
"But what did you think?"
"I thought it was a bed before. Upstairs. But it wasn't."
There is ample precedent in scripture for the rabbi's association of thunder with the wrath of Yahweh. But David's unexpected linking of thunder to the sound of a bed upstairs relates both thunderclap and God's wrath with his oedipal antagonism to his father. The rabbi underlines this association unknowingly, when he derides David's visionary account of Isaiah's coal in the trolley rail: "Oy! Chah! Chah! Chah! I'll split like a herring! Yesterday he heard a bed in the thunder! Today he sees a vision in the crack!" Failing to grasp David's mystical and quasi-sexual symbolic language, the rabbi disqualifies himself in David's mind as an authority: "The rabbi didn't know as he knew what the light was." Thus when the milk dipper makes contact with the rail, it appears (amid cries of "Jesus!," "Schloimee, a blitz like—," and "Holy Mother o' God") as a burst of flame that "growled as if the veil of earth were splitting," and the Old Testament thunder is exchanged for that which rends the veil of the temple at Christ's Crucifixion in the Gospel of Matthew.
The father's appearance in David's vision enacts the psychological conflicts that the boy is struggling to resolve, a life-and-death struggle partly figured in symbolic language of sound and silence. Before such a God, none may stand upright—and as the visionary father order David to "Go down," his consciousness approaches "nothingness," "oblivion," and "silence." But the sounds of life prevail. We hear the "Kh-r-r-r-r-f! S-s-s-s" of David's breath, supplied by artificial respiration, but also, certainly, by his will to survive. And we hear the wires that "whined on their crosses" and the groans of the "man in the wires" whose "purple chicken-guts slipped through his fingers," as David's imagination fuses the two episodes in which he is saved by a whistle into a single image of a messianic Savior.
Although the critics are divided, and Roth himself seems uncertain whether the ending of his novel is positive or negative, my own view is close to those of Naomi Diamant, Maxwell Geismar (in his introduction to the Cooper Square edition of the novel), or William Freedman, who writes:
The myths of redemption and rebirth are implicit in the story of David Schearl, and both are rendered largely by means of symbolic image pattern that is part of David's own conscious awareness and that is viewed symbolically by his own fertile imagination as well as by the reader.
David, whose name allies him to the messianic family of scriptural tradition, clearly emerges from his ordeal as victor, having undergone an almost literal death and rebirth. Though Leslie Fiedler contends that David's "intended sacrifice redeems no one," it does, I think, redeem himself, and by extension the population that he stands for—that of the newly assimilated immigrant. The novel portrays in the intensity of David's vision not a passive sensibility but an emerging poetic imagination capable of shaping an imperfect world to its own uses.
As readers of this climactic scene, we witness David's unconscious mind constitute a "self" in terms of a symbolic narrative woven out of its own experience. This narrative functions, in a paradigmatic Freudian way, to exorcise the parental demons and reassert the unconscious self on new ground; for as Paul Jay has noted, the whole idea of Freudian analysis "depends on the subject's ability to fashion a narrative, a discursive formulation of the meaning of past events identified in the process of analysis as significant." The outcome of this narrative is, to be sure, provisional, for it almost ends in David's death. But his recovery signifies, in psychological terms, a readiness to assert his independent being in the face of his father's rejection, and in social terms, his ability to assume a place in the loud world. At the novel's end, David Schearl is a successful adult and assimilated American in posse. Thus he can finally accept the natural rhythm and natural silence of sleep without fear:
It was only toward sleep that his ears had power to cull again and reassemble the shrill cry, the hoarse voice, the scream of fear, the bells, the thick-breathing, the roar of crowds and all the sounds that lay fermenting in the vats of silence and the past … and feel them all and feel, not pain, not terror, but strangest triumph, strangest acquiescence. One might as well call it sleep. He shut his eyes.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7199
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 experience of his immigrant child protagonist and others designed to translate these experiences for his general American reader. Call It Sleep is a classic example of a work in which several cultures interact linguistically, thematically, and symbolically, and it is also an interesting case of ethnic literature, the Jewish-American novel.
Henry Roth offers a classic example as well of the author of a brilliant first novel who keeps the critics speculating as to whether his second work will live up to the first. In his case, the silence that followed that first dazzling performance could be interpreted as a larger cultural phenomenon than a mere individual writer's block. Occasionally what appears to be one artist's dilemma can also be a symptom of a cultural cul-de-sac. Such was the case of Thomas Hardy's last novel, Jude the Obscure, which carried the bleakness of the Victorian age and the Victorian novel to its limits, and such was the case of Henry Roth's Call It Sleep, which embodies the paralysing ambivalence of the Jewish immigrant writer in America, although not every writer's response to this conflict has been silence. Throughout Jewish literary history, writers have developed different narrative strategies for representing the multilingual and multicultural world which they inhabited.
As early as 1918, the Yiddish literary critic Baal Makhshoves argued that the mark of Jewish literature is its bilingualism. Although he was taking this position within the cultural context of the Czernowitz conference and the antagonism between Hebrew and Yiddish, he made claims for the status of Jewish literature from biblical times to the present. In every text that is part of the Jewish tradition, Baal Makhshoves wrote, there existed explicitly or implicitly another language, whether it be Chaldean in the Book of Daniel, Aramaic in the Pentateuch and the prayerbook, Arabic in medieval Jewish philosophical writings, and, in his own day going back as far as the fifteenth century, Yiddish. "Bilingualism accompanied the Jews even in ancient times, even when they had their own land, and they were not as yet wanderers as they are now," he wrote. "We have two languages and a dozen echoes from other foreign languages, but we have only one literature." When Baal Makhshoves refers to bilingualism, he means not only the literal presence of two languages, but also the echoes of another language and culture detected in the prose of the one language of which the text is composed. "Don't our finer critics carry within them the spirit of the German language? And among our younger writers, who were educated in the Russian language, isn't it possible to discern the spirit of Russian?"
Bilingualism and diglossia, in their strict linguistic sense and in their broader cultural meanings, have always been distinguishing features of Jewish culture and one major aspect of that enigmatic concept, Jewish literature. By bilingualism, I mean the alternate use of two or more languages by the same individual, which presupposes two different language communities, but does not presuppose the existence of a bilingual community itself. Diglossia, on the other hand, is the existence of complementary varieties of language for intragroup purposes, and therefore it does not necessitate bilingualism, as the linguistic repertoires are limited due to role specialization. In short, as Fishman has pointed out, bilingualism is essentially a characterization of individual linguistic versatility whereas diglossia is a characterization of the societal allocation of functions to different languages. Diglossia is obviously not unique to Jewish civilization. In European culture, for example, the idea that certain languages were specially proper for specific purposes lasted into the sixteenth century, with one of its literary products being macaronic verse. But both bilingualism and diglossia are central concepts in any discussion of Jewish literature, for they presuppose that a truly competent reader of the text must be in command of more than one language, and consequently of more than one culture. When Henry Roth used Hebrew, Yiddish, and Aramaic for specific purposes in his novel, he was employing a device used widely within Jewish literature, and within what has come more generally to be called ethnic literature.
The centrality of both bilingualism and diglossia in Jewish culture has been explored extensively by scholars and literary critics, among them Max Weinreich, Uriel Weinreich, Joshua Fishman, Itamar Even-Zohar, Binyamin Harshav, and Dan Miron. The extent to which bilingualism is rooted in European Jewish life is expressed by Max Weinreich in his History of the Yiddish Language: "a Jew of some scholarly attainment, born around 1870, certainly did not express only his personal opinion when he declared that the Yiddish translation of the Pentateuch had been given to Moses on Mt. Sinai."
Both the diglossia and bilingualism of Jewish literature are particular variants of Bakhtin's concept of heteroglossia in the novel. According to Bakhtin, prose fiction maintains an inner dialogue among different languages, so that a text in one language, from the linguistic perspective, contains within it other languages, which can be social, national, generic, and professional, among others. These languages do not exclude one another, but intersect in a variety of ways. "All languages of heteroglossia, whatever the principle underlying them and making each unique, are specific points of view on the world, forms of conceptualizing the world in words, specific world-views, each characterized by its own objects, meanings, and values."
Bilingualism and diglossia pose interesting mimetic challenges for the writer who aims for a community of readers beyond those who are competent in all of the language variants employed in his text. Moreover, in the Jewish literary tradition, multilingualism often means allusions, metaphors, and tropes that are derived from at least two widely divergent traditions, the Jewish and the non-Jewish worlds. This cultural situation necessitates various translation strategies for the author, ranging from literal translation from one language to another in the text (sometimes consciously underscoring the differences in world-view of the languages) to the felt sense of translation, as the language of the text contains within it the shades of the other absent language or languages. All authors dealing with a multilingual and multicultural reality have had to devise mimetic strategies for conveying a sense of foreignness, whether it be explicit attribution of speech in "translation," selective reproduction of the source language, or more oblique forms, such as verbal transpositions in the form of poetic or communicative twists. The most challenging for the reader has been the transposition of a different set of values, norms, images, or allusions from an alternative culture.
The strategies for presenting this multicultural reality are varied within Jewish literature. In the case of Jewish-American writing of which Henry Roth is a striking example, those writers who actually have some knowledge of an alternative Jewish literary tradition, in Hebrew or in Yiddish, have located their own works between two traditions, the English and the Yiddish, the Christian and the Jewish. This can express itself not only in linguistic borrowings by incorporation of phrases from the other language, but also by allusions to the other traditions, or to the borrowing of models and types from the other canon. Just as Yiddish poets in America placed themselves in the line of Whitman and Emerson, so writers like Henry Roth, Abraham Cahan, Saul Bellow, and Delmore Schwartz, composing in the English language, often draw on quotations from Jewish sources, intersperse Yiddish words, and turn their characters into types within two cultural frames of reference.
In Abraham Cahan's landmark novel, The Rise of David Levinsky, the alternative tradition is the very theme of the work; the central protagonist traces his intellectual assimilation to the English world to his reading of a Dickens novel, but he continues to measure his moral development against the Jewish world that he has abandoned. In the writings of Saul Bellow, for example, this alternative tradition is evident in the intellectual repertoire of his central protagonists, who are repeatedly invoking European figures as predecessors, muses, and mentors. Just as Augie March is clearly a literary grandchild of Huckleberry Finn, so Herzog and Sammler are children of Montaigne and Dostoevsky, of Continental European thought and letters. In some cases it is the other language that haunts the English prose, at times artfully and self-consciously, as in the stories of Delmore Schwartz, when the English reads like a translation from the Yiddish; at other times unself-consciously, as in the Yiddishized English of Anzia Yezierska's fiction, suggesting in the language and syntax a merging of cultures. In one of Cynthia Ozick's works, to cite yet another variation, the imminent extinction of Yiddish language and culture is the very subject of the story, as the Yiddish writer is left wholly dependent on translation itself to assure some precarious survival.
In each of the above works, the emphasis is on a divided identification with more than one culture, and while this is not exclusively a Jewish literary characteristic, it has been one very dominant aspect of Jewish literature and culture.
Henry Roth's novel Call It Sleep is a particularly interesting example of the part that multilingualism and translation play in Jewish literature. In that work, Roth uses languages other than English, as well as textual and cultural references outside of the English and American literary tradition. Roth grew up with Yiddish as the language of his home and neighborhood, among the Jewish immigrants on the lower East Side, and along with many of them, he went on to study at City College. There he was introduced to the world of English literature. He obviously created his novel against the entire backdrop of English literature, and more specifically American literature, referring in his interviews to Shakespeare, Joyce, Faulkner, Frost, Steinbeck, Hart Crane, Daniel Fuchs, and James Farrell, among others. Roth writes for an implied reader who is well versed in English literature and the Western Christian tradition; although he has used a number of translation strategies for the non-English language and culture present in his text, his novel requires that the reader be familiar with some aspects of Jewish tradition. The full artistic scope of his work cannot be comprehended without this multiple cultural grounding. I would like to examine how Roth makes use of multilingualism and translation in his masterful novel as a way of identifying how the book partakes of more than one literary and cultural tradition, and how its artistic strategies express Roth's specific response to the dilemma of the self-consciously Jewish author writing in a language steeped in non-Jewish culture.
The book is almost entirely narrated from the perspective of David Schearl, a boy of eight, with the exception of the Prologue and one short section seen through the eyes of the Hebrew school teacher. It is about an immigrant child's quest for a personal and cultural identity apart from his parents; it traces the arduous and bewildering path of assimilation. It is a book written in the English language but experienced by the reader as if it were a translation, for David's main actions and thoughts are experienced in Yiddish. The original experience in the source language is almost entirely absent. When the original language is reproduced, it is rendered in transliteration, a phonetic transcription, rather than an authentic recording using the actual alphabet, so that from the American reader's perspective, the original language is both irretrievable and incomprehensible. Everything is experienced at a remove linguistically. While the Yiddish language is "home" for David and is associated with his parents, particularly with his mother, it can be an alien language for the reader. Occasionally Roth will provide a translation for the reader who is not familiar with Yiddish, but he will also reproduce the Yiddish for its own sake.
Although one does not have to know Yiddish to understand the book, one does have to be familiar with Jewish culture to understand all of the motifs and to appreciate the artistic pattern. From the point of view of the reader, "foreign" languages intruding on the English text are Yiddish, Hebrew, and Aramaic. While Yiddish is the spoken language of the home, the other two languages are reproduced only as liturgy, as quotations from Jewish textual sources. In other words, Roth treats Hebrew in the Jewish traditional sense of the sacred language or loshn-koydesh. As Max Weinreich has noted, for Ashkenazic Jewry Hebrew was the language of the sacred texts, of the immovable basis of study. Just as Yiddish was the language of speech, so Hebrew was the language of whatever had to be committed to writing. Just as Yiddish was the unmediated language, the one that the people used for face-to-face communication, so loshn-koydesh (non-modern Hebrew) was the mediated and bookish language. For the central protagonist, Hebrew and Aramaic are also foreign languages, the sounds being as incomprehensible to his ear as they would be to that of the English-speaking reader. Yet they are part of his home culture, because they are central components of his Jewish identity. Thus, David is bilingual and multicultural, his bilingualism consisting of Yiddish and English, and his multiple cultures consisting of Yiddish as home and everyday life, English as the street and the culture to which he is assimilating, and Hebrew and Aramaic as the mysterious languages, the sacred tongues, that represent mystical power to him and that initiate him into the Jewish world. Moreover, Yiddish, Hebrew and Aramaic are all languages of his Jewish culture, while American English, the language of the author's primary literacy, is the language of the "other" in that it is the language of Christianity. Roth's novel charts the struggle with this linguistic and cultural "other," as it speaks through the author and his Jewish child protagonist.
The book maps David's movement outward, away from home both psychologically, as he experiences his oedipal phase, and sociologically as he moves out of his Yiddish environment toward American culture. While Roth's implied reader may not know either Yiddish or Hebrew, he is expected to know the broader cultural significance within Judaeo-Christian civilization of the liturgical passages reproduced in their original, and as a result will be aware of David's location at the nexus of several cultures, far beyond anything that the child can ever comprehend. Furthermore, the book's theme of the irrevocable move away from home, both socially and psychologically, and the concomitant irretrievable losses, is evident in the mimetic strategem as well, for the reader experiences the actions at a linguistic remove, as if it were a translation with a missing original, or from a forgotten language.
Because Yiddish is the absent source language from which the thoughts and actions in English are experienced, it competes with English as the "home" language, or to put it another way, Yiddish is the home culture and English is an everyday language for David, but a foreign culture. Consequently, while actual transliteration from Yiddish is an intrusion in the English text, English intertextual references can also be an intrusion in the cultural context, because the world of English culture is alien to the text's cultural environment. The odd result is that English, the language in which the text is written, can itself be experienced as alien by the reader as well as the characters, as a type of self-distancing or reverse interference. Yiddish reproduction in the English text, in contrast, causes no discomfort to the characters for the selective reproduction is a mimetic device experienced only by the reader, and it brings an alien element to the text for readers unfamiliar with Yiddish. Hebrew reproductions are experienced as alien by the characters and by the American reader, but as less so by the reader who has the cultural background to identify them and to comprehend their cultural implications.
The Prologue, one of the only passages in the book rendered from an omniscient narrator and not through David as focalizer, introduces the main themes as well as the problem of translation, of bilingualism and biculturalism. It begins with a homogenous English text and moves toward Yiddish; it moves inward, from the general description of New York Harbor and the mass immigration as part of the American experience, to the specific characters and their Yiddish world. The Prologue opens with an epigraph in italics: "I pray thee ask no questions / this is that Golden Land." Traditionally, epigraphs provide a motto for a chapter or for an entire work, and they are often quotations from another text. In this case, the epigraph sounds like a quotation, and with its archaic second person singular, it can be associated with English prose of an earlier period. But it is not attributed to any source, nor is it a quotation that is easily recognizable on the part of a literate English reader. Moreover, the capitalizing of "Golden Land" draws attention to that phrase, di goldene medine, which in Yiddish is a popular way of referring to America, standard fare on Second Avenue but also echoed in Yiddish poetry as in Moshe-Leyb Halpern's poem, In goldenem land. The epigraph is a purely invented quotation, one that seems to be part of English literature, but at the same time seems to be a statement from Yiddish, just as the novel itself, written in English and in the modernist experimental tradition of Joyce, also partakes of the world of Eastern European Jewish culture.
Furthermore, the epigraph itself is repeated three pages later as the reported first utterance of David's mother, "And this is the Golden Land." Roth adds, "She spoke in Yiddish." This explicit attribution of a different language to her speech is the first indication, after the general portrait of newly arrived immigrants, that the novel takes place in a Yiddish-speaking environment, and it provides what Sternberg has called "mimetic synechdoche." Once again, after all of the dialogue conveying the miscommunication and tension between the newly arrived immigrant mother and the settled immigrant father who perceives himself to be partly Americanized, there is a further repetition of the golden land motif near the end of the prologue in the narrated interior monologue of Genya, "This was that vast incredible land, the land of freedom, immense opportunity, that Golden Land." But the prologue actually ends with a short dialogue in Yiddish without any translation:
"Albert," she said timidly, "Albert."
"Gehen vir voinen du? In Nev York?"
"Nein. Bronzeville. Ich hud dir schoin geschriben."
In short, the prologue ends with establishing the literal location of Albert and Genya, not in the golden land, but in a real place called Bronzeville. And it is accessible only to the bilingual reader.
The movement of the prologue is inward, from English to Yiddish, from the general depiction of immigration with the image of the Statue of Liberty and the synoptic view of the couple to the individual characters and their specific plans. It moves from the metaphor of the Golden Land, first appearing in an English epigraph, to identification of the golden land with the dreams of the Jewish immigrant conveyed in English translation, to the final exchange in Yiddish, which displaces the figurative America with a literal geographical location. With each new repetition, the golden land slips into an ironic tone, reinforced by the very tarnished, industrial and demystifying description of the Statue of Liberty marking the entry to America.
The rest of the novel moves in the opposite direction as that of the Prologue, namely outward, from David's mother's kitchen, the realm of Yiddish, to the street and the English world. David's first word, "Mama," rather than "Mommy" or "Mother" marks him as an immigrant. For the first several pages the dialogue between David and his mother takes place in refined, sensitive, and normative language. "'Lips for me,' she reminded him, 'must always be cool as the water that wet them.'" Only when David descends to the street and his speech in English dialect is reproduced—"Kentcha see? Id's coz id's a machine"—does the reader realize that the previous pages were all taking place in Yiddish. The next stage in the movement toward English is the introduction of English folklore in the form of children's street chants, transported onto the streets of New York: "Waltuh, Waltuh, Wiuhlflowuh / Growin' up so high; / So we are all young ladies, / An' so we are ready to die." Not only is the dialect comical, but the refrain is clearly a foreign element in David's world: Walter is not a Jewish name; wildflowers, even figuratively, are not in evidence anywhere in the urban immigrant neighborhood, and the rest of the book demonstrates that romantic love, young ladies ready to die, is a concept alien to David's world. The additional irony in this folklore is that its sexual connotations are not evident to the children who are chanting the rhyme.
Allusion to English sources, whether they be street chants, fairy tales, or songs, are always experienced as foreign, and are always ironic. When David perceives their boarder Luter as an ogre, he places him in the folk tale of Puss in Boots, in a world of a marquis who marries a princess; and when he tries to keep himself from fearing the cellar door, he repeats stanzas from an American patriotic song, "My country 'tis of dee!" only to reach the refuge of his mother's kitchen with the line, "Land where our fodders died!" Quotations or allusions from English culture, despite their being embedded in an English text, appear as something foreign, as translation from another place.
The felt presence of an absent source language, then, which occasionally makes the English text read as if it were a translation, is conveyed in a number of ways: by explicit attribution of phrases as Yiddish in "reality"; by selective reproduction of Yiddish phrases, by English rendered in Yiddish dialect; and by references to English culture as if it were an intrusion into the main cultural environment of the text. Before looking at intertextual elements from Jewish culture, we need to examine three other strategies for conveying the multilingualism of the text and its cultural world: interlingual homonyms, self-embedding, single word cultural indicators.
In the first instance, English words are perceived to be homonyms for Yiddish words, and are therefore either accidentally or deliberately misunderstood. When David hears the word "altar," he thinks it means "alter," the Yiddish for old man. When his aunt announces that her dentist is going to relieve her of pain by using cocaine, the others hear "kockin," the Yiddish equivalent for defecating. And Aunt Bertha herself plays on the similarity between the molar which her dentist is going to extract, which she pronounces as "molleh," the Yiddish word for "full," to invent a vulgar pun. "I am going to lose six teeth. And of the six teeth, three he called 'mollehs'. Now isn't this a miracle? He's going to take away a 'molleh' and then he's going to make me 'molleh'." David makes the mental note that "Aunt Bertha was being reckless tonight."
In the case of self-embedding, a word, phrase, symbol, or archetype which is actually in English is imported into the dialogue, rendered as verbal transposition of Yiddish into English, and this English element appears to be foreign, as "other" within the rest of the English text. Here is an example in a dialogue between Aunt Bertha and David's mother Genya:
"I'm not going to the dentist's tomorrow," she said bluntly. "I haven't been going there for weeks—at least not every time I left here. I'm going 'kippin companyih'!"
"Going what?" His mother knit her brow. "What are you doing?"
"Kippin companyih! It's time you learned a little more of this tongue. It means I have a suitor."
Finally, occasionally a single word, because it has no referent in the home culture, evokes the entire alien culture. This is true of the word organist when David overhears his mother and aunt speaking in Yiddish. "What was an 'orghaneest'? He was educated, that was clear. And what else, what did he do? He might find out later if he listened. So he was a goy. A Christian…. Christian … Chrize. Christmas. School parties." The world "altar" also functions as one of these single word indicators, as well as a homonym. In fact, in each of the above three types of bilingual strategies, there is a conflict of cultures, for obviously both the church and romantic courtship are alien to much of the Eastern European Jewish world of the turn of the century.
The absent home language, then, is an exacting and even persecuting presence as it turns David's Americanness, through English, into an agent of the "other." This is developed further in the motifs that accompany the other "Jewish" languages in the text. The most complex and significant instance of diglossia in the book is the infiltration of Hebrew and Aramaic, of loshn-koydesh, for David is bilingual when it comes to Yiddish and English, but diglossic when it comes to the sacred languages used only in connection with liturgical texts. In David's heder class he is introduced to Hebrew, first through the learning of the alphabet which is reproduced in the text, and then through the study of a passage from Isaiah recounting the angel's cleansing of the prophet's lips with a burning coal. Roth solves the problem of the reader's incomprehension of the transliterated passage by having the rabbi explain it to the children in Yiddish, which appears in the text in English, thus by translation twice removed: "And when Isaiah saw the Almighty in His majesty and His terrible light—Woe me! he cried, What shall I do? I am lost!" David identifies the fiery coal with an object in his own natural environment, and therefore with the possibility of revelation in his own life. This is communicated in quoted interior monologue: "But where could you get angel-coal? Hee! Hee! In a cellar is coal. But other kind, black coal, not angel coal. Only God had angel-coal. Where is God's cellar I wonder? How light it must be there." As the cellar has previously been the dark place which David fears, particularly because it is associated with the children's sexual games, David is now faced with the sacred and the profane in one image.
Since David does not understand Hebrew, the Aramaic passage is functionally the same as the Hebrew one, another aspect of loshn-koydesh: it introduces him to a popular and significat document in Jewish culture, namely one of the concluding songs of the Passover seder, Had gadya. Roth gives the reader who is unfamiliar with the Passover liturgy the translation of the song by having the rabbi ask, "Who can render this into Yiddish?" David responds with the last stanza which repeats all of the preceding ones: "And then the Almighty, blessed be He … killed the angel of death, who killed the butcher, who killed the ox, who drank the water, that quenched the fire, that burned the stick, that beat the dog, that bit the cat, that ate the kid, that my father bought for two zuzim. One kid, one only kid!"
Although the reader is provided with translations of these two texts, in one case a loose paraphrase and in another an exact translation, the significance of these passages in the novel are clear only when they are perceived within both Jewish and Christian tradition, for they reappear in the final brilliant mosaic, chapter XXI. Both passages are associated with the spring, with Passover, and with the theme of redemption. In Had gadya the lyrics are cumulative, as the song runs through a hierarchy of power with each succeeding element overpowering the preceding one, until it reaches an omnipotent god. The kid is purchased for slaughter and ceremonial feasting, to recall the slaughter of the paschal lamb by the Hebrews in ancient Egypt, providing the blood on the doorpost to identify the Hebrew homes for the Angel of Death to pass over during the smiting of the Egyptian first-born. The one only kid about whom David sings is David himself, an innocent sacrifice either for his parents' "sins" (mother's affair with a Gentile and father's passive witness to his father's death) or for those of the tough technological and vulgar city in which he finds himself. But as the languages of the climactic chapter indicate, he is also that other paschal lamb, namely Christ. Two cultural traditions, in some sense complementary and in others oppositional, co-exist in this section, as they do in David's and Roth's world.
The book of Isaiah prophesies redemption through the coming of the Messiah. In Christian hermeneutics, it is read as prefiguring the birth of Christ. Moreover, in Christian tradition, Easter is linked with Passover, with the Crucifixion, with redemption through the sacrificial offering of the one only kid, Christ himself, the sacrificial lamb who takes the sins of the community upon himself. In historical terms, Easter was also when tensions between the Jewish and Gentile communities were at their height in Eastern Europe, often taking the turn of blood libels and pogroms. All of this is eventually evoked in the final scene, when the multilingualism and biculturalism are placed in social, historical, religious, and psychological contexts.
In the last section, David runs from his father's wrath after the rabbi discloses the child's story denying Albert's paternity, insisting that his real father was a Christian organist, his mother's first love. To protect himself, David grabs his father's zinc milk ladle, and rushes to the crack in the trolley car tracks where, in an earlier scene with neighborhood boys, he witnesses the release of electric light from a short circuit. Associating the light between the tracks with God, David seeks refuge from the parents he believes have betrayed him. The electric charge is conducted through his body and he falls unconscious onto the cobblestones.
What follows is the most artistically innovative section of the book, as his loss and subsequent regaining of consciousness, his death and rebirth, are depicted among the cries of urban immigrants in the accents of their native tongues. Here social and spatial boundaries are transcended as a mass of individuals from diverse backgrounds fear and grieve for the prostrate child on the city street. With a minimum of omniscient narration, Roth uses two alternating modes in this climactic scene—reported speech of witnesses to David's suffering, before, during, and after the event and italicized sections which are psycho-narration, rendering David's perceptions in formal and self-consciously poetic language. The former are multi-lingual and multi-dialectical; the latter are self-conscious literary English. The alternation between the styles creates ironic contrasts as one mode spills over into the other. The dialogue of the street is marked by its vulgarity and preoccupation with sex. "Well, I says, you c'n keep yer religion, I says, Shit on de pope," says O'Toole in Callahan's beer-saloon at the start of this section."… [w]'en it comes to booze, I says, shove it up yer ass! Cunt for me, ev'y time, I says." When David's thoughts as he runs toward the rail are juxtaposed to O'Toole's declaration, they resonate with sexual as well as religious connotations. "Now! Now I gotta. In the crack, remember. In the crack be born." The italicized report of his consciousness, occurring simultaneously, is marked by its epic and lofty tones.
More than any other section of the book, this final sequence, with its Joycean epiphanies and stream of consciousness and with a collage of disembodied voices reminiscent of Eliot's Wasteland, identifies Roth as a modernist writer. The italicized section is very deliberately artistic in the tradition of English and European literature, with languages and constructions that are borrowed from medieval romance quests and from epics. The dipper is like a "sword in a scabbard," "like a dipped metal flag or a grotesque armored head," his father is a mythical figure, "the splendour shrouded in the earth, the titan, dormant in his lair," and his action of inserting the dipper is compared to the end of a romantic quest, "the last smudge of rose, staining the stem of the trembling, jagged chalice of the night-taut stone with the lees of day." The moment of his electrocution is filled with "radiance," "light," "glory," and "galaxies." It is self-consciously literary to the point of even tunneling into the "heart of darkness." In this section of the book, Roth demonstrates clearly his identification with a tradition of English literature. There is only one reference to another culture, and it is to "Chad Gadya" and also to the father's command to "Go down," with Moses clearly implied.
In the reported speech of the bystanders, Roth makes use of dialect: Yiddish, German, Irish, and Italian, and selective reproduction of other languages, namely Yiddish and Italian. But most importantly, he depicts the convergence of the English/Christian tradition and the Yiddish/Hebrew Jewish tradition, and their equivalents in the social/historical and psychological motifs of the book.
In psychological terms, David's thoughts about the crack between the car tracks where he seeks a spiritual rebirth through contact with a masculine God, also evoke his desire to return to the womb, to the mother and the source of that oceanic oneness that he now seeks in a sublimated form. It is his mother who forces the separation by sending him into the street to escape his father's tyranny, and therefore David is both running away from his actual mother and running toward an image of that mother in the crack between the car tracks. The electric force between the tracks is thus the power of both the male and female principles, his father and his mother, the God of Isaiah and the mother image at once. At the same time, as David flees from his wrathful father brandishing a whip, and he seeks refuge in the divine power between the cracks, in a paternal God who will punish his punitive father, he also imagines his own father as that male God who will punish him for his sin of denying his real fatherhood and taking on a Christian past. David dies a symbolic death as he imagines that he no longer sees his own face when he peers into a series of mirrors reflected infinitely. As he is driven out of his home and exposed to the electric charge, he feels himself become "the seed of nothing. And he was not…." Bystanders conclude that he is dead. The first glimmer of regaining consciousness—"and nothingness whimpered being dislodged from night"—occurs as he recalls coal in the cellar below the city streets, the light of God powerful enough to strike down his father, to still "the whirring hammer." Just as David had symbolically killed his father when he invented a story about a Christian father who was an organist, so in his semi-conscious state, a divine power greater than that of his father stills the dread hand and voice and frees him. The psychological dimension of his ordeal is one of a transformation of identity away from the parental and toward the spiritual.
While the social backdrop for this scene of death and rebirth is multilingual, the individual experience as rendered through David's semi-conscious monologue is entirely in a lofty and literary English, as if David dies out of his immigrant life and is born into the world of English literacy and culture, the world of Henry Roth's literary identity, but at the cost of killing both the father and the mother. In traditional Ashkenaz Jewry, Yiddish is referred to as the mother-tongue, mame-loshn, and the sacred language Hebrew as the father language or fotershprakh. In this case, David abandons both Yiddish and Hebrew, and the multilingual immigrant din of the street, for an English literary language that speaks through him. It is presented as an accident brought on by multiple misunderstandings in a multicultural world. David becomes an emblem of Henry Roth, the bilingual immigrant and Jewish writer, who is cut away from the mother-tongue, whose proficiency in the newly acquired language exceeds that of the mother-tongue, but who cannot transfer his emotional involvement to that acquired language. Furthermore, the loss of the mother-tongue in the process of Americanization carries an additional hazard for the Jewish writer, namely the Christian culture with which English is imbued. This is developed in the liberation from slavery theme which Roth pursues throughout the last section of the novel.
This theme is cast in language beyond the boy's personal plight, language with social, historical, and religious dimensions. The social and historical motifs are conveyed in references to the class struggle, as expressed in the dates of attempted revolutions and periods of worker oppression; recent Jewish history in the form of the pogrom; and the American dream as a form of liberation from bondage for the immigrant. An unidentified voice proclaims the message of socialist ideology: "'They'll betray us!' Above all these voices, the speaker's voice rose. 'In 1789, in 1848, in 1871, in 1905, he who has anything to save will enslave us anew!'" Such passages are often cited as evidence that Call It Sleep is truly a proletarian novel. In addition to the class struggle, Roth also refers to the Eastern European background of his characters in the Yiddish calls for rescue, quoted in Yiddish and without translation, "Helftz! Helftz! Helftz Yeedin! 'Rotivit!'" Finally, the same soapbox orator alludes to the national American context in the mocking evocation of the Statue of Liberty, symbol of the Golden Land: "And do you know, you can go all the way up inside her for twenty-five cents. For only twenty-five cents, mind you! Every man, woman and child ought to go up inside her, it's a thrilling experience." That David's oppressive life and near-death run parallel to the lives of these immigrant bystanders is further emphasized by Roth's reference to them as "the masses … stricken, huddled, crushed by the pounce of ten-fold night." All of this is rendered in a multilingual collage.
The Christian strain in this entire last section is very bold, with numerous references to the New Testament, and primary focus on the betrayal of Christ. The poker players rejoice "T'ree kings I god. Dey come on huzzbeck"—and vulgar jokes are cast in biblical terms—"How many times'll your red cock crow, Pete, befaw y'gives up? T'ree?" The red cock metaphor condenses the religious and the sexual connotations, and even refers to a historical one, for Emma Lazarus, the Jewish poet whose poem appears on the base of the Statue of Liberty, was the author of a poem entitled "The Crowing of the Red Cock," which reviews the persecution of the Jew by the Christian through the ages. The satiric treatment of these Christian elements is also evident in the reference to the woman Mary who was with child, but had an abortion. In this climactic chapter, David becomes the paschal lamb, the one only kid in Had gadya, but also a Christ figure, as the Jewish and Christian traditions are conflated. When he is first noticed by the people, a bystander shouts, "Christ, it's a kid!" When the hospital orderly administers ammonia, a member of the crowd claims that it "Stinks like in the shool on Yom Kippur."
David thinks of himself as the kid in the Passover liturgy, and he seeks the God of the Book of Isaiah in the Jewish scriptures. But he is perceived by the crowd of immigrants, by America's melting poet, as a Christ figure. As he leaves Yiddish behind, the mame-loshu, the language of nurture but not literacy for him, and Hebrew and Aramaic, loshnkoydesh, the "foreign" languages of his liturgy and his spiritual identity, he is left with English, his genuine native language, which is at the same time the language of the "other," the language of Christianity. At the end, in his semiconscious state, the English language speaks through him, as it does throughout the book, and it kills the kid who is reborn as Christ. To assimilate, for Roth, is to write in English, to become the "other," and to kill the father. At the time that Roth wrote Call It Sleep, he identified as a Communist and he consciously embraced a vision of assimilation into a larger community beyond that of religion and nationality. In 1963, he made his often quoted and later recanted statement that the best thing that Jews could do would be "orienting themselves toward ceasing to be Jews." In Call It Sleep, Roth's central protagonist, a Jewish child, is shown to be overly assimilated, to become Christ. This is not what he consciously seeks; it is an imported self-image, an archetype taking root in his consciousness as the English language becomes his sole means of expression. In the climactic linguistic and cultural collage of the last section, David becomes a naturalized American by becoming a Christ symbol, and the English language is experienced as a foreign tongue and a foreign culture inhabiting his psyche. Whether he desires it or not, David is destined to live a life in translation, alienated from the culture of his language. It is no wonder that Roth could write no second book.
Among the few stories and sketches that he did write in later years, now collected in Shifting Landscapes, are two that further demonstrate this dilemma of the Jewish writer in his relation to his languages and culture. In "Final Dwarf" a naive Maine farmer (Roth's occupation at that time) nearly kills his immigrant New York father, but he cannot bring himself to do so. But more significantly, in "The Surveyor" an American Jewish tourist to Spain is apprehended for attempting to determine, with precision, the exact site of the auto da fé in Seville in order to lay a wreath. When asked by the police about his action, he says, "I was attempting to locate a spot of some sentimental value to myself … A place no longer shown on the maps of Seville."
In Call It Sleep, Roth's fiction conveys the cultural ethos of immigration, of ethnicity, of living at the nexus of several cultures, of being haunted by missing languages, of being intellectually estranged from the mother-tongue and emotionally estranged from one's native language. He did so by various techniques of translation, linguistic and cultural, woven throughout his novel. But to write another novel, he would have had to kill his father and to embrace the Christian world, the one of the Inquisition in Seville, of the rosary innocently cherished by David. This he could not do. Yet he gave his readers a brilliant artistic document of a cultural dead end. Yiddish has the last word in the street chorus, and it is a disembodied and anonymous voice, "Gott sei dank." It speaks for Roth's readers.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4818
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 experienced by a very young boy, really a child, who depends on his imagination alone to fend off a world so immediately hostile that the hostility begins with his own father.
Henry Roth's novel was first published in 1934, at the bottom of the Great Depression. Looking at the date and marveling at this book, which apparently consumed so much of Roth's central experience that he never published another novel, many readers will be astonished. Surely the depressed 1930s produced little else but "proletarian literature" and other forms of left-wing propaganda? A fashionable critic writing in the opulent years after 1945 scorned the 1930s as an "imbecile decade," and explained—with the usual assurance of people who are comfortably off—that the issues in literature are "not political, but moral." Anyone who thinks "political" issues and "moral" ones are unrelated is living in a world very different from the 1930s or the 1990s.
The art fever of the modernist 1920s, in which more first-rate work was produced than in any other single period of American literature, continued well into the 1930s and did not fade until Hitler's war. Henry Roth, twenty-eight when Call It Sleep was published, was as open to the many strategies of modernism as he was to political insurgency. (The book owes a great deal to the encouragement of Eda Lou Walton, a remarkable woman who was teaching modern literature at New York University.)
Though Call It Sleep was not adequately understood or welcomed until it was reissued in paperback in 1964, it has become popular throughout the world with millions of copies in print. We can see now that the book belongs to the side of the 1930s that still believed that literature was sacred, whether or not it presumed to change the world. Those who identify the 1930s with works of political protest forget that it was the decade of the best of Faulkner's novels, from The Sound and the Fury to The Wild Palms, Eliot's Ash Wednesday, Hart Crane's The Bridge, Dos Passos's U.S.A., Katherine Anne Porter's Flowering Judas, Edmund Wilson's Axel's Castle, Fitzgerald's Tender is the Night, Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer, Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, Thornton Wilder's Our Town, Nathanael West's The Day of the Locust, Richard Wright's Native Son, Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls.
What Call It Sleep has in common with these works is its sense of art sustaining itself in a fallen world, in a time of endless troubles and of political and social fright. The world was visibly shaking under the blows of economic catastrophe, mob hysteria, the fascist domination of much of Europe, fear of another world war. And no one was likely to feel the burden of the times more keenly than a young Jew starting life in a Yiddish-speaking immigrant family and surrounded by the physical and human squalor of the Lower East Side.
That last sentence could describe Michael Gold in his autobiography Jews Without Money, an eloquent but primitive outpouring of emotion that concludes with a rousing call to communism as the new Messiah. What from the very beginning makes Call It Sleep so different from the usual grim realism of Lower East Side novels is the intractable bitterness of the immigrant father, Albert Schearl, toward his wife, Genya, and their little boy, David. The father is an uncompromisingly hostile workingman, a printer by trade, driven from one shop to another by his ugly temper. "They look at me crookedly, with mockery in their eyes! How much can a man endure? May the fire of God consume them!" Roth makes this complaint sound loftier than it would have in Albert Schearl's Yiddish. He has been driven almost insane by his memory and resentment of his wife's affair with a Gentile back in Austrian Galicia. It pleases him to suspect that David is not his son.
This obsession, the dramatic foundation and background of the novel, may not be enough to explain Albert's unrelenting vituperation of his wife and his rejection, in every small family matter, of the little boy. David is not just unloved; he is violently hated by his father. The father shudderingly regards him as a kind of untouchable. The boy not only depends exclusively and feverishly on his mother but, in the moving story of his inner growth, becomes a determined pilgrim searching for light away from his tenement cellar refuge whose darkness pervades the first section of the novel, away from the dark cave in which the father has imprisoned mother and son.
Albert Schearl is at times so frenzied in his choked-up bitterness and grief that the introspection at the heart of his son's character—the boy wanders the neighborhood and beyond in search of a way out—must be seen as the only rebellion open to him. Whatever the sources of Albert Schearl's madly sustained daily war on his wife and son—he is perhaps less a jealous husband than a crazed immigrant unable to feel at home in the New World—Roth's honesty in putting the man's hatefulness at the center of the book is remarkable. It reminds us that the idealizing of the family in Jewish literature can be far from actual facts. Jews from Eastern Europe did not always emigrate because of anti-Semitism. The enmity sometimes lay within the family itself, as has been known to happen everywhere. Instead of sentimentalizing the family situation, Roth turned husband, wife, and son into the helpless protagonists of an obvious and uncompromising Oedipal situation. I can think of no other novel except D.H. Lawrence's Sons and Lovers in which mother and son are so fiercely tied to each other. The father is the outsider he has made of himself, and plainly wants to be.
In Sons and Lovers (as in lesser works on the same theme) the father is extraneous because he has lost for the mother the sexual charm that first attracted her. In Call It Sleep Genya timidly loves Albert for all his brutality. She is prepared to love him more freely if only he would stop berating her, but he is so unremittingly nasty that he virtually forces mother and son on each other. Albert in his daily rage somehow reflects his unconscious bitterness at being held down in "the Golden Land." But it is also clear that, notwithstanding Albert's dominating airs, Genya married him because she had no other choice. Her father had disowned her for her past infatuation with a Gentile.
Albert's war against his wife and son sounds an alarm at the very opening of the novel that continues to dominate these three lives until the last possible moment, when the shock produced when David is burned in a bizarre accident brings about a necessary but inconclusive pause in Albert's war on his family.
The book begins in 1907, the peak year of immigration to the United States. Wife and son have just been delivered from the immigration station at Ellis Island to be greeted by a somber, frowning Albert. Not in the least prepared to be amiable, he is quickly incensed because his wife doesn't recognize him without his mustache.
The truth was there was something quite untypical about their behavior…. These two stood silent, apart; the man staring with aloof, offended eyes grimly down at the water—or if he turned his face toward his wife at all, it was only to glare in harsh contempt at the blue straw hat worn by the child in her arms, and then his hostile eyes would sweep about the deck to see if anyone else was observing them. And his wife beside him regarding him uneasily, appealingly. And the child against her breast looking from one to the other with watchful, frightened eyes…. The woman, as if driven by the strain into action, tried to smile, and touching her husband's arm said timidly, "And this is the Golden Land." She spoke in Yiddish.
Astonished by her husband's haggard appearance, Genya apologizes for not having known him instantly. With the gentleness that she sustains in all the many crises he creates; she says, "You must have suffered in this land." Indeed he has, and will continue to suffer from himself in a way that turns his harshness into their immediate, their most perilous environment. Albert is his wife's only New York. She never attempts to learn English; she is content just to look after her family and is afraid to move beyond the streets of her neighborhood. Her deepest feeling for Albert is not the passion which unsettles him but a concern that comes from a sense of duty. Anything else would be unthinkable to her. Deprived of actual love, since Albert's quarrelsomeness isolates her, she is free to give her entire soul to her little boy.
David observes, very early, that his mother is attractive to a Landsman, "a fellow countryman," of his father's, Luter. Albert notices nothing, finds Luter one of the few people he can talk to, and insists on repeatedly inviting him to dinner. When Luter is alone for a moment and no longer has to keep up his pose of formal amiability, it is little David, studying his face, who realizes without knowing the reason that the man has been playing a part.
And the eyes themselves, which were always so round and soft, had narrowed now … the eyeballs looked charred, remote. It worried David. A faint thrill of disquiet ran through him. He suddenly felt an intense desire to have someone else present in his house. It didn't have to be his mother.
His still unconscious gift of observation will soon provide the way out of the cave in which his father has shut his up.
Call It Sleep is not a naturalist novel, in which character is shaped largely by environment. Jews are generally so conscious of the pressure of history that it was a notable achievement for Henry Roth, coming out of the Lower East Side at a time when it was routine for people to dream of transforming the "conditions" in which they found themselves, to see character as more important than environment. As lower New York in the teens of our century comes alive in David Schearl's anxious but eager consciousness, Roth presents the city not in an external documentary but as formed, instant by instant, out of David's perceptions. David Schearl is portrait of the artist as a very small boy. In this novel we are in the city-world not of Sister Carrie but of Joyce's Ulysses.
Here is little David groping his way into New York as winter comes:
The silent white street waited for him, snow-drifts where the curb was. Footfalls silent. Before the houses, the newly swept areas of the sidewalks, black, were greying again. Flakes cold on cheek, quickening. Narrow-eyed, he peered up. Black overhead the flakes were, black till they sank below a housetop. Then suddenly white. Why? A flake settled on his eyelash; he blinked, tearing with the wet chill, lowered his head. Snow trodden down by passing feet into crude, slippery scales. The railings before basements gliding back beside him, white pipes of snow upon them. He scooped one up as he went. Icy, setting the blood tingling, it gathered before the plow of his palm…. Voices of children. School a little ways off, on the other side of the street…. Must cross. Before him at the corner, children were crossing a beaten path in the snow. Beside him, the untrodden white of the gutter.
The succession of sweet, melodious words recalls Joyce, the most musical of twentieth-century masters. In Ulysses Dublin exists through the word-by-word progression of the subliminal consciousness. This is the mental world that is most ourselves, for nothing is so close to us as our inner thinking. Yet in Ulysses the sources of this interior world remain mysterious.
Roth never falls into lyrical expansiveness for its own sake, the usual style of romantic autobiographical novels (say, Thomas Wolfe's Look Homeward, Angel). Roth's book is always under control. Perhaps the novel is almost too tightly plotted when we come to the seemingly final explosion between the parents which causes David to run away and to seek a burst of light in a trolley barn when he inserts a piece of metal in the third rail. This is meant to be his epiphany, the self-discovery leading to the artist he will become. Roth wishes to show character as fate, character as dominating the most intimate relationships within the family.
He also shows that Genya's enveloping tenderness toward her son is not just "Freudian," theoretical, but a protectiveness that is a part of Jewish history. Its key is the Yiddish that mother and son speak together. David's English is made to sound effortlessly noble, beautifully expressive, almost liturgical, by contrast with the gutteral street English that surrounds him. We are startled to hear him speak a horrible mutilated street dialect when he is away from Mama. Then he is with strangers; and in this novel of New York, English is the stranger, the adopted language, tough and brazen. It expresses the alienation from the larger world of kids competing with each other in toughness. "Land where our fodders died" becomes a parody of a national hymn that shows how derivative and meaningless the line can be when sung by immigrant street urchins.
The young David, searching for experience beyond his immediate neighborhood, discovers that he is "losted," and he tells a baffled woman who cannot make out where the boy lives, "A hunner 'n' twenny six Boddeh Stritt." Later in the novel David is enchanted by the Polish boy Leo flying a kite from the roof. Like Tom Sawyer encountering Huckleberry Finn, David is astounded by the boy's freedom. Hoping to see this marvel again, David asks, "Yuh gonna comm up hea alluh time?" Leo carelessly explains; "Naw! I hangs out on wes elevent'. Dat's w'ea we lived 'fore we moved."
Maybe street kids once talked this way, maybe not. Roth caricatures the terrible English of the street—a "foreign," external, cold-hearted language—in order to bring out the necessary contrast with the Yiddish spoken at home. This is the language of the heart, of tradition, of intimacy. Just as Roth perhaps overdoes the savage English spoken in the street, so he deliberately exalts the Yiddish that he translates at every point into splendid, almost too splendid, King James English. Even when Albert almost comes to blows with his vulgarly outspoken sister-in-law Bertha, he cries out: "I'm pleading with you as with Death!" Storming at his son, he menacingly demands "Shudder when I speak to you!" The English doesn't convey the routine, insignificant weight of the word for "shudder" in Yiddish. The people speaking Yiddish in this book are not cultivated people carefully choosing their words. They are hard-pressed, keyed-up, deeply emotional. There is nothing about the lives in the "Golden Land" that is not arduous, strange, even threatening. So they talk as extremely vulnerable Yiddish speakers from the immigrant working class have always done. It is a verbal style, even a routine, in which people expostulate with one another as if they were breaking all the windows in order to let a little air into the house.
In Roth's translation, with its implicit meanings, Yiddish often sounds the language of family love and respect for God. The reader from another culture should know that when Albert returns home and, not seeing his son, curtly asks his wife, "Where's the prayer?" he is referring to his son as his "kaddish," the Hebrew prayer over the dead, which is the highest obligation of a son to say in memory of his father.
Yet Albert gives no evidence of being a believer. Genya faithfully lights the Sabbath candles Friday at sundown, but, describing her own grandmother to her son, she admits: "But while my grandfather was very pious, she only pretended to be—just as I pretend, may God forgive us both." That last phrase is entirely characteristic. You don't have to be pious in order to be a faithful Jew—you just have to honor the tradition, as Genya does, with her separate dishes for Passover and the lighting of the Friday-night candles. The Yiddish of such poor immigrants as the Schearls was often quite homely and full of small mistakes. In Roth's text, however, they speak with grace, longing nobility. Yiddish is their real home. When life is fiercest, their language conveys a longing for a better world than this, a longing for spiritual heights that had become customary to people who regard themselves as living under the eye of God.
Yet Roth has no love for the rebbe (teacher) who for twenty-five cents a boy tries to drum the actual language of the Hebrew Bible into his cowed pupils. The "cheder," the primitive Hebrew school in which the boys are pinched, driven, insulted so they will at least pronounce the Hebrew words without necessarily understanding them, is presented with harsh realism as a Dickensian schoolroom of torture. The rebbe is the fat, irascible, ill-smelling Yidel Pankower. Even his first name, meaning "little Jew," brings out Roth's scorn for the place, the practices of the old routine. The rebbe despises his "American idiots." Everything was better in the Old Country. Teacher and pupils talk Yiddish by contrast with the sacred Hebrew text. Throughout Call It Sleep the sacred is shown side by side with the profane, as was usual among deeply observant old immigrant Jews. They ignored the actual sordidness of the life surrounding them in their adoration of the holy word itself.
Awful as Reb Yidel Pankower is, he discerns David's abilities. He benevolently brings in an old, kindly sage to hear David recite his lesson. Think of it, he observes, a kid brought up in New York's heathen atmosphere who can come so close to the ancient text! David has his first moment of spiritual illumination when he hears Reb Yidel say the following to another boy:
"Now I'll tell you a little of what you read, then what it means. Listen to me well that you may remember it. Beshnas mos hamelech." The two nails of his thumb and forefinger met. "In the year that King Uzziah died, Isaiah saw God. And God was sitting on his throne, high in heaven and in his temple—Understand?" He pointed upward …
"Now!" resumed the rabbi. "Around Him stood the angels, God's blessed angels. How beautiful they were you yourself may imagine. And they cried Kadosh! Kadosh! Kadosh!—Holy! Holy! Holy! And the temple rang and quivered with the sound of their voices. So!" He paused, peering into Mendel's face. "Understand?"
David is stimulated by this but he does not find holiness in the Hebrew letters. He is startled by the reluctance of the other boys to use strips of Yiddish newspaper, written in the Hebrew alphabet, in the communal toilet. What is sacred for him is mother love. Eventually, we can guess, the radiance of this central relation in his life is what he will seek later on by bending the recalcitrant world into words. "Outside" this love, especially in the cellar, is the world of fear he must learn to master. The first section of the book is called "The Cellar" because it deals with the underground side of life—physical, aggressive, sexual. A crippled neighborhood girl wants him to play "bad" with her. She explains that "babies come from de knish."
"Between de legs. Who puts id in is de poppa. De poppah's god de petzel. Yaw de poppa." She giggled stealthily and took his hand. He could feel her guiding under her dress, then through a pocket-like flap. Her skin under his palm. Revolted, he drew back.
"Yuh must!" she insisted, tugging his hand, "Yuh ast me!"
"Put yuh han' in my knish," she coaxed. "Jus'once."
"I'll hol' yuh petzel." She reached down.
She tells David that they have been playing "bad." "By the emphasis of her words, David knew he had crossed some awful threshold. 'Will yuh tell?' 'No,' he answered weakly." When he is back home with his mother, "she didn't know as he knew how the whole world could break into a thousand little pieces, all buzzing, all whining, and no one hearing them and no one seeing them except himself."
David is now a fallen creature, out of Eden, who must confront the terrible but fascinating city by himself. What had occurred to him in earliest childhood is now a dead certainty: "This world had been created without thought of him." By the same token, he is free. The joy of being a boy in the city is that discoveries are to be made everywhere. In a box kept in the pantry he collects
whatever striking odds and ends he found in the street. His mother called them his gems and often asked him why he liked things that were worn and old. It would have been hard to tell her. But there was something the way in which the link of a chain was worn or the thread of a bolt or a castor-wheel that gave him a vague feeling of pain when he ran his fingers over them…. You never saw them wear, you only knew they were worn, obscurely aching.
This intense observation of the variety of things around him marks the novelist-to-be. The city becomes the web of life in which, even when he is "lostest," David senses his destiny. It is the writer's city of instant and continuing perception, the Joyce-inspired city of wonders as they come to us through the sensations of the very young David:
When he had come to the end of the dock, he sat down, and with his feet hanging over the water leaned against the horned and bulbous stanchion to which boats were moored. Out here the wind was fresher. The uncommon quiet excited him. Beneath and under his palms, the dry, splintering timbers radiated warmth. And beneath them, secret, unseen, and always faintly sinister, the tireless lipping of water among the piles. Before him, the river and to the right, the long, grey bridges spanning it—
A bridge makes David think of the sword with the "big middle" that used to appear on the Mecca Turkish cigarettes, of the bridge clipping the plumes of a long ship steaming beneath it, of gulls whose faces are as ugly as their flight is graceful, as they wheel through the wide air on wings that cut like a sickle. A tug on the other side of the river peers at a barge, stolid in the water. After a sluggish time, the tug is yoked to the barge, which gives the barge the look of a mustache. The water is sunlit rhythmic spray sprouting up before the blunt bow of the barge. The spray hangs "whitely" before it falls. Now David associates the blunt heaviness of the barge with a whole house of bricks as "a cloud sheared the sunlight from the wharf." His back feels cooler in the sharpening of the wind, smokestacks on the other bank darken slowly, "fluting filmy distance with iron-grey shadow."
The Polish boy Leo, whom David admires beyond words for his defiant show of independence, carries a rosary. The black beads become "lucky beads" to David. In his Jewish innocence the links of the rosary drive him wild with envy. He is always the outsider. The sight of the boys on the block grabbing a girl makes him feel all the more isolated in his cruelly won sexual "knowledge." "I know … I know … I know," he repeats to himself. In one of Roth's most telling images, David in sluggish thought resembles "a heavy stone pried half out of its clinging socket of earth." Leo's rosary must belong to him, because the beads give out a light like the marbles which other boys roll along the curb.
As a Jew, David is now transgressing, and there may be no safe place at home in which to hide a rosary. In counterpoint to Leo playing "bad" with David's cousin Esther, David watches Esther, who is afraid of being detected; he hears her squeals at being handled by Leo, and Leo then insists that David "lay chickee" (be a lookout) for him and Esther. Leo pays him off with the rosary David so longs for. The crucifix attached to the rosary frightens him; he recognizes something that may be hostile to him as a Jew. The gold figure on the crucifix swings slowly and David lets the glistening beads fall one by one, in order to see how they light up the dark cellar. Suddenly Esther's sister Polly appears and accuses Esther: "Yuh wuz wit' him in dere!" In the violent dispute between Polly and Leo that follows, the Catholic Leo cries, "Yuh stinkin' sheeny!" The Jewish girl is outraged that her sister not only has been petting, but petting with a Christian! "Her voice trailed off in horrified comprehension. 'Ooh w'en I tell—He's a goy too! Yuh doity Chrischin, get oud f'om my cella'—faw I call my modder. Ged out!'"
David flees the cellar, flees the frightening transposition of sexual taboo into religious taboo. In the streets he wants to get back to his own familiar world. He reaches the cheder, performs brilliantly in his Hebrew reading for the visiting rabbi, then in an excited leap of fantasy, owing to his fascination with the rosary, tells Yidel Pankower that his mother is dead and that he is really half-Christian, the son of a European organist who played in a church. The rebbe, alarmed and curious, intrusively carries the strange story to David's parents. There is a violent altercation with his father, who is all too willing to believe that David is someone else's son and beats him.
The scene is mixed with violent humor because it is at this moment that Genya's sister Bertha and her husband have chosen to come by to ask for a loan. As he is shaken by his father, David drops the rosary on the floor. Totally beyond himself now, Albert hysterically takes this as proof of David's supposed Gentile parentage. "God's own hand! A sign! A witness! A proof of another's! A goy's! A cross! A sign of filth!"
David runs away in earnest this time, ending up at the trolley car barns, where at the foot of Tenth Street,
a quaking splendor dissolved the cobbles, the grimy structures, bleary stables, the dump-heap, river and sky into a single cymbal-clash of light.
David has inserted the metal dipper of a milk can "between the livid jaws of the [third] rail, [where it] twisted and bounced, consumed in roaring radiance, candescent." As a long burst of flame spurts from below, sounding "as if the veil of earth were splitting," David is knocked senseless and the hysterical crowd that gathers around his body thinks he is dead. But only his ankle is partly burnt, and in a rousing conclusion to the book he is brought back to his family. The near-tragedy somehow brings Albert to his senses. As his mother weepingly puts David to bed, David finally has some slight sense of triumph, for he is at last at peace with himself.
It was only toward sleep that every wink of the eyelids could strike a spark into the cloudy tinder of the dark, kindle out of shadowy corners of the bedroom such vivid jets of images—of the glint on tilted beards, of the uneven shine on roller skates, of the dry light on grey stone stoops, of the tapering glitter of rails, of the oily sheen on the night-smooth rivers, of the glow on thin blonde hair, red faces, of the glow on the outstretched, open palms of legions upon legions of hands hurtling toward him. He might as well call it sleep.
The light he made for himself in the darkness of the cellar was real. David has won his essential first victory. He is on his way to becoming the artist who will write this book.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1741
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 novelist Leonard Michaels.
Call It Sleep, Mr. Roth's stunning first novel, was published in 1934, when he was 28. The reviews were mixed, at least in part because the prevailing political climate put some critics out of sympathy with a novel that was so intensely personal and so exquisitely wrought. In any case, by the time it appeared Mr. Roth had, in the phrase of the era, "gone left," and he dutifully undertook as his next project a novel of proletarian life. Working against the grain of his own sensibility, he was soon compelled to abandon the book. He produced three uninspired stories for commercial consumption in the late 1930's. After 1940, he gave up writing entirely, supporting himself, mostly in New England, through a variety of jobs—factory worker, psychiatric hospital attendant, waterfowl farmer. A reissue of Call It Sleep in 1960 elicited high praise from a few critics.
Then, in 1964, a paperback edition was brought out, was celebrated on the front page of this review by Irving Howe as a major 20th-century American novel and became a best seller. Mr. Roth, resurrected from what he himself had come to think of as his posthumous existence as a writer, slowly began to turn out short stories again. (All of his stories and interviews, as well as excerpts from his correspondence, were put together by his Italian translator and devoted friend, Mario Materassi, in a 1987 volume, Shifting Landscape.) In 1979 Mr. Roth began work on a vast autobiographical novel, Mercy of a Rude Stream (the title is taken from Shakespeare's Henry VIII). A Star Shines Over Mt. Morris Park is the first installment of that novel, of which he has completed five additional volumes.
The new novel is not in the strict sense a sequel to Call It Sleep, but it picks up the author's life more or less at the point where the earlier book ended. The family constellation it portrays—irascible father, tender mother, sensitive only son—is basically the same as that of Call It Sleep. The child David Schearl of the earlier novel reappears here, with minor modifications, as Ira Stigman. At the beginning of the novel, the family has just moved, precisely as Henry Roth's family did, from the Jewish East Side to East 114th Street in Harlem, then a predominantly Irish neighborhood. The year is 1914 and Ira Stigman is 8 years old. The volume ends in 1920 with the protagonist in junior high school, working part time for a fancy-food provisioner, troubled by his own emergent sexuality and the aggressive sexuality of certain of the adults around him. But he is even more troubled by "the desolate breach opened between himself and himself" through these six years in exile from his old Jewish neighborhood, struggling to define himself in the eyes of the ethnic others surrounding him and thus impelled to reject his own origins.
Mr. Roth remains an admirable craftsman, and the scenes of immigrant life in the second decade of the century are evoked with persuasive concreteness: the clamorous extended Jewish family, the street brawls, the rather grim socialization process in school, a poor child's glimpse of the glitter of Manhattan high living after the war as he delivers a basket of food to an apartment where a party is under way. But in style, mood and conception, all this is very different from the superficially similar Call It Sleep.
Mr. Roth's first book was clearly an autobiographical novel emulating Joyce (more Portrait of the Artist, I would say, than Ulysses). Indeed, it is arguably the most brilliant American adaptation of Joycean techniques outside the novels of Faulkner. Mercy of a Rude Stream, by contrast, is less an autobiographical novel than a fictionalized autobiography, and it often seems as though the element of fiction does not go much beyond the substitution of different proper names and whatever invention is required to flesh out memories that lie seven decades back in the receding perspective of the past.
The transparency of the guise of fiction is especially evident in the brief intercut passages in which an aged Ira addresses his computer as he tries to reconstruct his childhood. With his mobile home in New Mexico, his rheumatoid arthritis, his devoted pianist wife, Ira is Henry Roth in all but name. A good many of these intercut passages read more like journal entries than integral elements of a novel. Topics that happened to preoccupy the author from day to day between 1979 and the mid-80's, when he was writing this volume, float up between him and his computer screen: his concern about the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty, the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge, the medical problems he and his wife face and his son's difficulties with his girlfriend. Some of the aged Ira's musings, however—on his silence as a writer, on the elusive task of writing a life, on his attempt to heal the rupture in identity inflicted on him in his youth—are quite suggestive and do throw light on the narrated events.
One way of defining the difference between Mercy of a Rude Stream and Call It Sleep is the systematic renunciation of Joyce in the new novel. Mr. Roth has complained several times in interviews that the seductive allure of Joyce's writing had led him on a course that alienated him from himself, encouraging in him an ideal of pure esthetic fulfillment that turned into a dead end. Here he speaks of Joyce as having "stored up creative static for one supreme discharge" and goes on to say that after following that path of the "hermetic ego" Ira "now was left with the realization that the good heart, the kind and affectionate, the discerning, loyal and understanding heart was far more precious than artistic acclaim."
This book, then, is not a novel about a nascent visionary-artist, like Call It Sleep, though it does include a few evocative representations of the young Ira's romance with language, his excited sense that "if you could put words to what you felt, it was yours." The gorgeous lyric lambency of the early novel inspired by Joyce, has been rigorously excluded from the prose of the new book. With it, a quality of mythic intensity—perhaps as much Melvillian as Joycean—has also been eliminated.
Thus the child in Call It Sleep looks at his father pulsating with anger, whip in hand: "David's father towered above him, rage billowing from him, shimmering in sunlight almost, like an aura." Compare this with a moment early in the new novel when the father ferociously beats his son for supposedly having knocked down Danny True, a smaller child: "Pop had lost all control, and was already treading his son underfoot, stamping on him, so that even Mrs. True's look of satisfaction had turned into one of aversion." The father in the second passage is actually doing something more terrible than the father in the first passage, but the appalling event of an adult tantrum is conveyed as factual report, almost dryly. The hallucinatory sense of the first passage, in which the father looms like some demigod or demon, billowing, shimmering with an aura of incandescent rage, is not intimated in the workaday prose of Mercy of a Rude Stream. The Oedipal triangle of Call It Sleep is still present in the new novel, but it is not permitted to become an electrified zone from which to view the world startlingly enlarged to the proportions of myth. Even a moment of inadvertent sexual arousal when the boy is sharing his mother's bed while the father is off on a trip is presented not as a cataclysmic event but rather as a kind of hormonal ambush, in which the history of Ira Stigman's pubescence makes its own particular contact with the general history of the male of the species.
Mr. Roth's intention everywhere is to set his protagonist in relation to ethnicity, community, humanity, and to avoid the dramatic heightening of the overweening ego even as the boy harbors dreams of an absolute self free of the constricting world that has shaped him. The abundant use of Yiddish here (sometimes a bit garbled in transliteration) is a reminder of the objective existence of a very particular world outside the self of the protagonist. By contrast, Call It Sleep generally renders Yiddish speech as lofty English in keeping with the wrought artifice of the novel.
Mercy of a Rude Stream is absorbing as a meticulous evocation of a now-distant episode of the American experience. The self-critical, self-probing reflections by this author of a single major novel are in themselves quite instructive about the ambiguities of identity and the travails of literary vocation in the American setting. What the book lacks is novelistic tension. Ira Stigman is a focus for experiences without the depth and dynamism of a fully realized fictional character. At one point the aged writer muses over his constant effort "to keep the narrative from falling into separate niches and vignettes," and that seems to me precisely the problem of the book.
One thing comes after another because that is how it happened, or at least that is how the author remembers it, not because there is any inner necessity of imaginative development that drives from beginning to end—as from David Schearl's initial vision of the brass faucets in the tenement sink to his apocalyptic glimpse of the churning fires of the firmament and the dark abyss at the end of Call It Sleep. At least in this first volume of the promised six, Henry Roth has not produced another great novel after 60 years of silence. But the narrative he has fashioned from his life has something to offer as both cultural history and personal insight, and there should be much to look forward to in the five volumes to come.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1582
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 from the most striking instance of writer's block in modern American fiction. Roth's block, like Wordsworth's "long continued frost" (a mere blip or glitch in comparison), dissolves in a work of epic autobiography: A Star Shines over Mt Morris Park is but the first instalment of Mercy of a Rude Stream, a projected six-volume life story. This story, sometimes only perfunctorily fictionalized, was begun in 1979 and is now, its eighty-seven-year-old author assures us, substantially complete, in a manuscript of over 3,000 pages.
Such epic self-absorption, paradoxically, signals a release from selfishness, the sort of writerly selfishness Wordsworth complains of at the beginning of The Prelude, that "with a false activity beats off / Simplicity and self-presented truth"—the chief virtues of Roth's new work. "My high blown pride / At length broke under me, and now has left me / Weary and old with service, / To the mercy of a rude stream", declares Cardinal Wolsey in the novel's epigraph, from Henry VIII. Wolsey, too, in lines Roth doesn't quote, fell victim to "a killing frost", one that nipped his hopes just when, like Roth, "blushing honours" like "blossoms" grew "thick upon him". But Wolsey's "mercy" is ironic; "mine", Roth declares, "is not. It is literal."
The occluding "selfishness" or "false activity" which blocked Roth was already, he believes, discernible at the end of Call It Sleep, the precocious first novel which, after much indirection, made his name. Call It Sleep belongs to two distinct traditions: its subject-matter—Jewish immigrant life on the Lower East Side—recalls other "proletarian" works of the 1930s, notably Mike Gold's Jews Without Money, Clifford Odets's Awake and Sing! and Daniel Fuchs's trilogy of Williamsburg novels. Its manner, though, is high modernist, echoing Joyce, Faulkner, Gertrude Stein, and Hart Crane. Nowhere is this modernist influence clearer than in the novel's penultimate chapter, a sixty-page "chorus" of immigrant and lower-class voices modelled on Crane's The Bridge and the "Game of Chess" section of The Waste Land. This chapter Roth has described as the beginning of the end: "an indication that the form of the novel was being broken, along with the creative psyche of the novelist".
The cause of this breakdown or dissolution was partly political. In 1933, while still at work on the novel, Roth joined the Communist Party. Immediately, he began to doubt what he'd written. Call It Sleep "didn't strike a posture, didn't locate anywhere, defend anything, or attack anything explicitly … and as soon as I realised this 'fact', as soon as I grappled with commitment, I becameimmobilized." Or, as he elsewhere puts it: "it had the effect of making me overly conscious of myself as a writer". Hence the several sorts of discontinuity embodied in the novel's penultimate chapter. Roth had begun to lose his way, under a pressure he saw as historically determined as well as personal: "What had happened to me was common to a whole generation of writers in the thirties. One author after another, whether he was Gentile or Jew, stopped writing, became repetitive, ran out of anything new to say or just plain died artistically."
A Star Shines over Mt Morris Park returns to the world of Call It Sleep, but importantly reconceives it. It begins at almost exactly the moment the earlier novel left off, in 1914, a momentous year for Roth's eight-year-old fictional alter ego, now called Ira Stigman rather than David Schearl. Though the outbreak of war is immediately recorded (and will eventually effect Ira's larger family), the event that matters most in the opening pages is local: Ira's family moves. The exclusively Jewish Lower East Side of Call It Sleep gives way to a tiny enclave of Jewish families within a largely Irish-Catholic neighbourhood in Harlem. The consequences of this removal Roth sees as disastrous: Ira becomes self-conscious about his Jewishness, self-hating, a victim: "he could almost feel the once self-assured East Side kid shrivelling within himself". Hence Ira's embarrassed reaction to the arrival from Europe of his maternal relations, with their "crudity and grimace, their green and carious teeth". Hence, also, Ira's later attraction to goyish strength, as in the choice of a boxer, an Irish-American, as the protagonist of his second, aborted novel—a choice Roth called "the end of my writing life": "after that came the block".
The new novel's rejection of victimhood begins with a more humane and rounded account of Ira/Roth's father, and a less formulaically Freudian conception both of Ira's anchoring mother and of family relations in general. Albert Schearl in Call It Sleep was a monster, a crude literalization of Oedipal fears. Chaim Stigman, though still jittery, paranoid, and violent, is less of a caricature, in part because his creator has come to identify with him. When Chaim complains that work on the trolleys has ruined his stomach, his wife asks how the goyim stand it:
"Because they're goyim", said Pop.
"it's not because they're always on edge like you? It's not because they have a skittish stomach?"
"Why should they have a skittish stomach?… Did they have to skimp as I did until I saved enough money for your passage to America?"
This ignoble blame-shifting is like Roth's demonizing father in Call It Sleep; or, some would argue, like the metaphor of blockage itself, in which the writer's difficulties are externalized and objectified, are seen as the result not of personal lack or deficiency, but of an alien obstacle or impediment. It is a trait shared also by Ira's Zaida or grandfather. "Such a punishment to befall me", Zaida wails when grief and anxiety stop his wife from eating. "If she won't eat, she won't eat. But at least cook. I die of hunger here." Earlier, Zaida offers Ira a "delicacy"; "He picked up a boiled chicken foot from his plate, bit out the one meaty bubble at the base of the toes, and handed his grandson the yellow shank and skimpy talons." That Roth can now find this sort of selfishness comical is a sign of his release from its grip.
The novel's looseness of structure is of a piece with its more relaxed and tolerant eye. The "plot" is the life: in effect, everything the narrator can remember from 1914 to 1920. The only frill in the storytelling is Roth's doubling of narrative voices, in which the main story is periodically interrupted by Ira's adult reflections: on what he's just written, on the causes and cures of his writer's block, on Israel, on characters yet to be introduced, in particular "M" (the composer Muriel Parker, whom Roth met at the artists' colony, Yaddo, in 1938, and who died in 1990). These reflections are addressed to Ira's word processor, named Ecclesias (as in the Biblical book of acceptance and release), which itself sometimes answers back. Though frequently wordy, stilted, repetitive, unsure of tone, and irritatingly enigmatic—easily the weakest sections of the book—they also reinforce central themes, often by virtue of their very artlessness.
For example, when Ira suddenly recognizes an error or misremembering in the main story ("his parents were not the first Jews living on 119th Street … enticing to the writer as that sort of extreme predicament. might be"), he panics and breaks into the main narrative. This panic recalls the "irrational fear" that blocked him long ago and, worse, "unforeseen stretched tentacles into his psyche in the present". Calm down, Ira tells himself: "append the omitted material and go on" which is just what this untidy interruption does.
The impression such moments create is of absolute fidelity to experience. 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. True creation, in Wordsworth's words, is
A balance, an ennobling interchange
Of action from within and from without;
The excellence, pure spirit, and best power
Both of the object seen, and eye that sees.
Though Roth's new work often goes too far in its rejection of "action from within"—is, indeed, insufficiently shaped and worked—the recollections themselves ring true, and make his story utterly absorbing. Here, one feels, is the vanished immigrant world, a world which in turn allows the reader to deduce a prior "old country".
Early in the novel, one of Ira's uncles, newly arrived from Galicia, offers his eight-year-old nephew a bite of raw carrot, something Ira informs him "nobody eats" in America. This moment, the adult narrator recalls, "condensed into the first inference he was ever conscious of as inference…. The moist, orangy, peeled carrot at the core of recollection substantiated all that Mom had told him: about the meagreness of rations, about the larder kept under lock and key, about Zaida's autocratic sway, his precedence in being served." Though Mercy of a Rude Stream may be something less than art, such moments make two things clear: Henry Roth can write, and his story is still worth listening to.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2549
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 lyrical novel to come out of the Jewish immigration to America before and after the turn of the century. Even if we take account of the history of Roth's by now famous writing block or the fact that during the last fifteen years, he has, while crippled with arthritis, been able to write no fewer than six volumes of autobiographical fiction (of which the present volume is the first), the power of his first book unavoidably stays in the mind.
The success of Call it Sleep, it is clear, has become obsessive for Roth himself: "Ira," in the new novel, in asides to his computer which regularly interrupt the narration, reflects on his failure to follow up on his early triumph. "Ah, how could you have let that life, all that life and configuration and trenchancy and conflict escape you? when it was still accessible, still at hand, retrievable, still close." Groping for an answer, he suggests (simplistically, I suspect) that he felt the need to repudiate both the "Olympian mix" of irony and pity that he associates with Anatole France and the Joycean aesthetic of detachment that had (in his view) informed Call It Sleep. He could no longer see himself as "the arrogant, egotistic self-assured author" he had once been—or accept only "a surface perception" of the "Joycean, sordid riches" of the fourteen years that he spent in a Harlem slum after his early childhood on the Lower East Side. What, he asks, made him unable to approach his experience as successfully as he had done in Call It Sleep?
Was it the effect of Marxism? Of the Party's influence? He had to consider, to recognize, somehow to indicate implicitly in his writing the cruel social relations beneath, the cruel class relations, the havoc inflicted by deprivation concealed under the overtly ludicrous.
To write with this new consciousness became impossible for him because of what he calls a "loss of identity," accompanied by a "loss of affirmation," neither of which he fully accounts for. Even in his old age, as he takes up the story where he left off, Ira must still rebel against "Joyce the necromancer himself," his "erstwhile literary liege," and find a different way to deal with the "mountain of copy" he has produced.
Yet despite the comparatively matter-of-fact, more restrained language of the new novel, we are reminded of Call It Sleep on almost every page. The family situation is basically the same, with the fearful, imaginative boy Ira Stigman (instead of David Schearl) still caught between an ineffectual but violent father (Albert is now called Chaim) and a generous and seductively protective mother, Leah (instead of Genya). Once again we accompany a small boy as he ventures from his mother's embrace to confront the terrifying but fascinating streets of Harlem, where he must encounter the goyish "other"—often in the form of tough Irish kids who jeer at his Jewishness and are likely to beat him up. We are drawn into the lovelessness of his parents' forced marriage and watch with the jealous little boy as a would-be suitor (Luter, Albert's Landsmann in Call It Sleep, and Chaim's "Americanized" nephew Louie in the new novel) tries to persuade the mother to open herself to the experience of lyupka ("love"), which she has renounced. As in the first novel, the "tough" spoken English of the street kids and the heavily accented, stumbling English of the immigrants are rendered phonetically, while the Yiddish spoken at home is translated (somewhat misleadingly, as Alfred Kazin has pointed out) into exceptionally pure, even poetic English.
But there are significant differences as well. Though in the early chapters of Mercy of a Rude Stream he is still capable of viciously beating his son, Chaim is not the ogre that Albert was. Rather, he is unstable, frightened, neurotically incapable of ordinary human give-and-take, doomed to bad luck and failure. (When he gets a decent "jop" as a trolley-car conductor, he must give it up because of bowel spasms—the "cremps" and diarrhea—induced by the lurching of the trolley.) Since Ira is eight at the beginning of the novel in the summer of 1914 and fourteen at the end, school now becomes more important than the streets in his education. Vivid portraits emerge, particularly of the elderly priest-like principal of PS 24, Mr. O'Reilly, who drills his students in "the difference between lay and lie, may and can, who and whom, like and as,… as if, Ira reflected afterward, life depended on their correct usage, the life of street urchins, slum adolescents like himself."
Another difference, a major one, becomes apparent at the beginning of Mercy of a Rude Stream when, just before Austria and Serbia go to war, the little family of three is joined by Leah's parents and four of her brothers and sisters who arrive from Austrian Galicia and settle into a six-room apartment on 115th Street. Instead of the almost claustrophobic intensity of Call it Sleep, the milieu of the new novel is greatly expanded, recalling Irving Howe's memorable account of the Jewish immigration in World of Our Fathers. We watch the effort of the younger immigrants to adjust to their harsh new world and eventually rise in it. Initially, Ira is disenchanted by these new relatives. He had imagined that
they would be somehow charmingly, magically, bountifully pre-Americanized, Instead—they were greenhorns! Greenhorns with uncouth, lopsided and outlandish gestures,… speaking "thick" Yiddish, without any English to leaven it …
With their "newcomers' crudity and grimace, their green and carious teeth, the sense of oppressive orthodoxy under Zaida's [Grandfather's] sway," they "produce in Ira a sense of unutterable chagrin and disappointment." In one of the novel's many telling vignettes, Ira goes to his grandparents' apartment after Saturday morning services to light the stove—because he is too young to sin he is allowed to break the Sabbath laws—and to look on while his pious but selfish old grandfather eats his dinner:
Served, Zaida fell to voraciously—halted in mid-mouthful: "Here, my child, before you go, relish this." He picked up a boiled chicken foot from his plate, bit out the one meaty bubble at the base of the toes, and handed his grandson the yellow shank and skimpy talons.
One such scene follows another as the years pass and America enters the war and Ira enters puberty. He takes an after-school job with the grocery chain, Park and Tilford, which then had a branch in the highly respectable neighborhood of 126th Street and Lenox Avenue. Uncle Moe is drafted and leaves for overseas duty after a furlough, accompanied to the bus by his father and brother, who break into frenzied lamentations.
Howling in despair, each one hung onto Moe's arm. And Moe, stalwart,… dragged them along like a tug between two barges…. Each abandoned himself to extremity of grief: Zaida tore at his beard, tore out bunches of whiskers, wailing at the top of his voice. Saul snatched at his hair, flung himself about, screaming hysterically. Passersby stopped to watch, automobiles slowed down, people leaned out of windows.
Moe gently begs them to stop, while Ira, looking on, cringes with embarrassment, especially when he overhears a cop say to a bystander, "Will yez look at them Jews … Didjez ever see the loik? Ye'd think the guy was dead already." Ira announces that he would like to go to West Point and learn to be an officer, but the boy is discouraged by Louie, who tells him, "They don't like Jews at West Point."
There is no conventional plot in the novel, simply a progression of events and encounters. But three preoccupations become clear. One is Ira's feeling of acute estrangement from his heritage. This reaches a climax of sorts at his bar mitzvah, when he realizes "he was only a Jew because he had to be a Jew; he hated being a Jew; he didn't want to be one, saw no virtue in being one, and realized he was caught, imprisoned in an identity from which there was no chance of his ever freeing himself." He feels that he is held to his Jewishness by a single bond: "his attachment to Mom, his love for her, for the artless eloquence that imbued so much of her speech, for her martyrdom on his behalf…." What is not made explicit but will seem obvious to most of Roth's readers is that Ira's alienation is not so much the familiar response of the "second generation" in immigrant families (whether Jewish or otherwise) as it is a specific reaction to his cruel father.
Oh, how different it would be if you loved your father: the Irish kids ran to meet theirs when they came home from work, still daylight in the summer, and hung on to their fathers' hands: "Hey, Dad, how about a nickel? What d'ye say, Dad?" And their fathers smiling, trying not to, but fishing a coin out of their pockets. If he tried that, he'd get such a cuff alongside the head, he'd go reeling.
Another preoccupation is Ira's insatiable appetite for reading. The nearest branch of the public library is not only his refuge but the place where he can educate himself and indulge his imagination. At the age of twelve he loves fairy tales, what his mother calls "stories with a bear." There is sadness in this infatuation: "So often the princesses were not only fair, but they were the fairest in Christendom. You couldn't help that. Maybe they wouldn't mind if he was Jewish." Already the boy has intimations of a calling. With his volumes of myths and legends tucked under his arm, he walks past Mt. Morris Park at twilight and sees the evening star in the western sky:
And so beautiful it was: a rapture to behold. It set him a problem he never dreamed anyone set himself. How do you say it? Before the pale blue twilight left your eyes you had to say it, use words that said it: blue, indigo, blue, indigo. Words that matched, matched that swimming star above the hill and the tower; what words matched it?
Within a short time the boy's taste for the mythic gives way to an even stronger desire for the "true." Huckleberry Finn is a revelation. A little later, he weeps "numberless times" over Jean Valjean in Les Miserables. He loses himself in "'true' stories" like The Call of the Wild, The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo, Poe's tales and Riders of the Purple Sage. In his reading, "Ira submitted to being a Christian. What else could he do when he liked and esteemed the hero?"
Ira's sexuality is, inevitably, another of the novel's concerns. Roth's account of it—much of it in asides to his computer—is enigmatic, confused by incestuous feelings toward his mother. Once, when his father is out of town, Leah invites the surprised Ira to share the parental bed. One night he awakes, horrified, to find himself (in words that echo Call It Sleep) "playing bad"—i.e., "pushing, rubbing, squeezing his stiff peg between Mom's thighs." When he wails that he didn't mean it, that he was dreaming, his mother merely laughs indulgently and tells him to go back to sleep. Thereafter he sleeps in his own bed.
An amiable young "bum," Joe, lures Ira to Fort Tryon Park and orders him to take down his pants: when Joe is thwarted by a couple who happen by, he ejaculates against the trunk of a tree—arousing in Ira a profound disgust for what he thinks of as "lyupka" or "love." His "faggot" teacher, Mr. Lennard, tries to interest him in mutual masturbation, as do several boys of his own age. Ira resists in every case, but in his dialogue with the computer he suggests that these experiences have had a crippling effect on his sexual development—exactly how a later volume will presumably tell us. No doubt it will include something about his affair with Eda Lou Walton, the NYU English teacher who helped him with his writing and to whom Call It Sleep is dedicated.
Roth's addresses to the computer (which he calls "Ecclesias" for reasons never explained) create a wordy and self-conscious diversion from the main narrative. These asides comment on what has just been told, speculate about the future, and ramble on about various "current events" including the difficulties facing Israel. They bewail the lost decades, tell us about Roth's work in progress, about the elderly Ira's suffering from arthritis, and about his strained relationship with his son; above all, they express his devotion to his wife, "M," the composer Muriel Parker whom Roth met at Yaddo and whom he credits with bringing about his sexual salvation and his eventual maturity. In these asides, Ecclesias regularly talks back to Ira, commenting on his comments and often urging him to face matters he would prefer to ignore—particularly matters involving sex.
These passages seem to me unfortunate. Occasionally they are touching in their accounts of the daily struggles of an old and painfully crippled man and of his affection for his elderly but still "girlish" wife. But for the most part, they are slackly written, self-obsessed, and coy, hinting at, and then withholding or obfuscating, what seem to be important revelations. The diction is often stilted, as in the reference to Joyce as his "erstwhile literary liege," or grandiose and obscure, as when he describes himself as "supremely exacerbated, into a veritable virtuosity." The interruptions add to the shapelessness of an already loose-jointed work.
Yet I found myself completely absorbed in the main story being told in Mercy of a Rude Stream. Though hardly a novel in any traditional sense, it is a consistently interesting autobiographical document, richly evocative of its time and place. The writing is sometimes slapdash, but on the whole I did not miss the incandescent language and imagery of Call it Sleep: the plainer and rather old-fashioned language of the new work is colorful enough in the sections that count. While reading Mercy of a Rude Stream, I was often reminded—despite the vast differences in style and ethnic background—of Roth's affinities with Thomas Wolfe and James T. Farrell. It is astonishing to realize that Roth is not much younger than those long-dead and now, I suspect, seldom-read writers and that like them, but at an advanced age, he has been able to tell us vigorously and convincingly what it was like to be a boy living in the first part of this nearly exhausted century.
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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 Jewish hero drawn by the jacket artist, and the scene—stirring, spacious, rugged—corresponds to a lovely page of writing early on in the novel, when we hear how Ira, a walker in the city, rambled along for a mile or so, "until he came to a painted arrow that marked the entrance to a path downhill whose other end opened on an artificially sandy beach. It was a privately owned swimming area on the Hudson, complete with dressing room, lockers, and a diving platform extending into the river."
Here Ira, a teen of roly-poly build, swims out into the Hudson estuary to "the rusting hulks of the Liberty ships," to anchored pontoon planes, ducking Navy patrol boats, willing the cramp away. A leviathan waits beneath him as he floats. At these times, he thinks of his mother, who said "I let you go because you have to learn about America." The novel is an impasto of romantic and American myths. Rites of passage abound, not least that of the lightning-bolt novel that has to wait a lifetime to be written, Roth making Ira wait just as Roth has. The novel uses two type faces, one for the escapades of Ira's school years (almost like something written by J.G. Farrell), the other for the octogenarian novelist looking back on the book's genesis and the shifting literary fashions among which it lingered, going nowhere.
Readers will have to make up their own minds about a non-biographical book that seems confessional. Roth says that "although some characters were inspired by people whom the author knew, the narrative is not intended in any way to be a depiction of any real events." So, what we have here is a simulacrum of an artifice or what Plato, if he didn't first toss the book into the sea, might have called a thoughtful deceit. Here is Ira in the New York of the Roaring Twenties, trapped in Bedford Stuyvesant, stealing pens, making love to his sister, incompetently slaving as trolley-car conductor, Yankee Stadium soda-pop hustler and plumber's mate. This part of the novel, matter-of-fact and straightforward, will be easy to translate, but the only section with any real power or magic is that dealing with incest.
On the other hand, the second type of writing in the novel, essayistic or ruminative, rises to impressive heights and informs us that the sometimes pedestrian teller, Henry Roth, has a shiny, agile, well-stocked mind. I caught myself wishing this were the autobiography of a truly Faustian intellect, with teenage mishaps relegated to the role of an almost unheard reveille. After the halfway mark, Roth seems unable to have his narrator keep at bay the book he clearly wants to write—the woof and incidentals of a self-censoring mind—and lets in all his ideas, which are a joy to have, so much more a literary offering than the de rigueur postcards of stoical immigrants making do in slum tenements worse than those they came from.
It's a matter of contrast. Roth thinks he needs solid realism to counter his elegant woolgathering, but what he truly needs is a style that can render the lower depths of Ira without textually cutting them off from the novel's intellectual hinterland. To be sure, an ethos comes to life: John McCormick singing "Mavoureen" on the phonograph; "colored" said as "cullud"; the cadences of Yiddish; incessant, clandestine talk of condoms, fried bacon and beans at camp. Ira passes through an alien world in which the women wear picture hats and long white gloves, but his true destination is neither home nor work, neither one school nor the other, neither Cornell (which he turns down without so much as a thought of Ithaca's savage winters) nor City College of New York, where he goes to study biology. His journey is to his imagination, long suppressed.
Ira, who is 16 in 1922, personifies for us the aroma of a long-unopened attic and becomes the incessant mourner of an era gone, a life almost lost. Wanting to be a fleur du mal, he ends up ranting against Joyce and his exegetes, taking the diuretic Furosemide, and mentally discussing his novel-in-progress with a guardian-guide he calls Ecclesias. References to T.S. Eliot, S.T. Coleridge, and Thomas de Quincey (misspelled) enliven the text, even though Roth's erratic narrator gives us more information than sensibility.
It is no surprise to receive this time-sliding, constantly interrupted book from Henry Roth, born in 1906, whose first novel, Call It Sleep, appeared in 1934, whose second novel, Mercy of a Rude Stream, took another 60 years. This second volume of that book will set readers comparing it with a biographical outline of Roth's life—and marveling at the closeness of the two. A portion of the novel appeared in the Lavender, a City College of New York journal, in 1925; so too does a portion of Ira's. Roth is the monarch of all he conveys.
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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 masterpiece that told the dark side of the immigrant journey, reminding Americans that their streets were not aved with gold but strewn with victims.
Critics have often marked Joyce's important influence on Call It Sleep. But Henry Roth insists, both in this book and in the interviews and essays collected in Shifting Landscape, that the looming Joyce has paralyzed him. Mr. Roth maintains that he was forced to reject Joyce's model of the artist's being like God, paring his nails at the border of the universe, in favor of a greater ethical and psychological truth. "I'm no super-verbalist, super-designer of irrelevancies, super-scholastic. I'm just striving to restore one individual to himself."
This project of restoration under the collective title Mercy of a Rude Stream centers on a revelation that forms the core of the work. The narrative follows Ira Stigman from his expulsion from Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan in 1922 on to DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx. It covers his beginning days at City College and his introduction to the literary world through a New York University professor who is the lover of one of his friends. Although Mr. Roth states in a disclaimer that the novel is not an autobiography, Ira is clearly identified with Mr. Roth by a series of interpolated conversations between him and his computer. He calls his computer Ecclesias, a name that recalls both the author of the Bible's darkest book and Holy Mother Church.
These interruptions—the Old Man and the Machine—are part of the structure of A Diving Rock on the Hudson, as they were in the first volume A Star Shines Over Mt. Morris Park. The machine allows Mr. Roth to reveal in his ninth decade that as a boy of 14 he began an incestuous relationship with his younger sister that continued for six years, and in addition took up with an even younger cousin.
Not only is incest at the center of the narrative, Mr. Roth believes it is also at the center of his identity as a writer. He tells us that incest is the impetus for breaking the boundaries of conventionality, so the slum boy could become an artist, and the source of the psychic warping that would eventually make the artistic life impossible.
But why after 60 years has the impulse to reveal grown irresistible? Mr. Roth tries to answer this question, but creates only a tenuous web connecting his writing, his sin and his Jewishness. He says that he began to be able to write again after Israel's victory over its Arab enemies in the 1967 war. The connection is never made explicitly. One can only assume that as it became possible for Mr. Roth to stop seeing Jews as the universal victim, he felt free to tell a story in which he himself was not victim but victimizer. In an essay written in 1988, he says that the point of his project, the sequel to Call It Sleep, is "to take the ground from under the innocent victim" of Call It Sleep and to show him as the "victimizer, but more to the point, all of us as victims—in a degenerative society."
This thought splits in the middle, morally. It seems to take in its teeth the question of individual responsibility, then drop it: something too hot to bear, the coal of Isaiah that burns the lips and tongue. In a degenerate world, all men are inevitably degenerate. But what then of the victims of the victims? The fate of Ira's sister, Minnie, and the effect on her of years of incestuous coupling never trouble her tormented brother. Nor does the effect on his still living sister of the publication of a novel whose very form insists on the connection between the fiction and the life. The octogenarian Roth worries about himself, the fate of the Jews, the State of Israel. He never worries about his sister.
Part of the fascination of A Diving Rock on the Hudson is that it is a deliberately unflattering self-portrait of the garrulity and narcissism of old age. This is something we haven't seen before in literature, and if for no other reason, it is valuable as the speech of a tribe until now silenced. Mr. Roth is aware of the position granted him by his infirmity and age: "The journey … couldn't contain any more, anyway ought not to. Maybe interesting stuff, but a plethora. Then what? Delete? All that followed?… Maybe he ought to delete this intervention too, this bit of Nestorian garrulity…. His sense of rightness required this interlude."
Mr. Roth is clear that, this sense of rightness is psychological or spiritual rather than literary. "Would that I had been spared the need to mention these painful events…. The story cannot continue without this admission. And I damn near don't give a hoot about the literary quality…. Oh, a million billion threads, motes, spirochetes—all of which he had to sweep aside to resume, in acceptable prose … the continuity of what be already knew, and knew only too well and grievously, to strive to nurture the masterpiece model he hoped to re-create."
But what is involved in the creation of the masterpiece model? For the modernist master, the writer must get out of the way of his own work, devote his attention to form rather than content, remain disinterested about the backwash of the work on his own life. The modernist writer is heroic in his self-forgetfulness and in his priestly service to the idea of art. Art is the only redemption, formal beauty the only ideal worth serving.
How does this ideal affect a man in his late 80's? A man who is writing against time, literal time, not the time that is another esthetic device the modernist writer shapes, controls, eventually entraps in the amber of his art? Mr. Roth can't be a modernist master because he has not felt redeemed by the creation of beauty. He insists on another kind of redemption: the redemption of confession, of exposure, of a relentless insistence on his own defilement. But this can only take place through writing: "Writing was all that could in some way gain rehabilitation—without his seeking pardon or absolution, but by employing what he was…. He had destroyed, or undermined irreversibly," the central strength of who he was, writing was all there was left to him as justification…. The literary path became thus his 'choice.'"
The problem, for Mr. Roth, is that the road that went before him was paved entirely by non-Jews. In A Star Shines Over Mt. Morris Park, Mr. Roth says: "Those were the stories he prized above all others, stories he loved: of enchantment and delicacy, of princelings and fair princesses…. And King Arthur's knights, they sought the Holy Grail, the radiant vessel like a loving cup out of which Jesus had drunk wine. So everything beautiful was Christian, wasn't it? All that was flawless and pure and bold and courtly and chivalric was goyish."
How then does a Jew, believing what Mr. Roth believes, enter the masterpiece tradition? Particularly the modernist one, with its cult of the priesthood of art, the golden calf to which, rather than to Yahweh, the practitioner must bend the knee? How does he participate in the Eucharist of art? How can be believe himself redeemed by it? Redemption, for a Jew, takes place not through the ritual actions of a priest but through ethical reparations made in the living community by a living soul.
This taste for an ethical dimension might explain Mr. Roth's becoming a Communist after the completion of Call It Sleep. It is usually understood that accepting the party's charge to write Socialist Realism was the cause of his writer's block. But it seems to me rather that Mr. Roth was not silenced by his Marxism, he was driven to Marxism by a Jewishness that could not be satisfied with the anti-communal anti-ethical, almost idolatrous tenets of his modernist models, Eliot and Joyce.
An artist does not choose the frequency he or she hears. The frequency is picked up by an inexplicably constructed mesh of miracle and accident. Mr. Roth picked up the frequency of the brooding dream: poetic, darkly lit and full of whispers. For this lyrical mournfulness, he needed his father, Joyce, to show the way. But Joyce, creator of the most famous Jew in modern literature, was not himself a Jew, and so could only be an uneasy foster father. Harold Bloom tells us that all strong writers kill the father before them. But what if the son murders prematurely, before reaching his full strength? Mr. Roth couldn't bear the yoke of the great high priest, Joyce, and killed him. But without Joyce he was unable to move forward into a tale that would accommodate his obsession with what he believed was the vexed state of being a Jew.
What needed to follow Call It Sleep was a deep dive into the mire of self-hatred. Mr. Roth says that this is what he's doing now. But he insists that his sense of defilement is personal, connected to nothing larger. "I'm not engaged in a sociological tract, but a rendering … of my lamentable past…. I feel bound not to mitigate the behavior of this literary scamp, bound to present him as despicable as he was." His prose rings most true when he takes this risk. He describes his sexual adventures with his young cousin: "Boyoboy, his blazing passion could kill this little, oh, fat little heifer, supine, submissive, inviting murderous sacrifice. Jesus. But where? Where freedom for rut to erupt, where a minute of privacy, innocent-seeming privacy? Think Upstairs. Possibly. Try."
Mr. Roth's description of sex with his sister is an unflinching evocation of the sordidness of lust unleavened by any affection or regard.
"You don't get a thrill, too?"
"You're older, that's why it's your fault. Who started it?"
But Mr. Roth never reaches these heights, or depths, of understanding when he is discussing his Jewishness. A veil comes over his eyes, vital connections aren't made, vital admissions are glossed over. There is a moment when Ira brings sandwiches made of Jewish salami on a picnic with a more genteel Jewish friend and two Christian women professors. Before he meets with the company, however, he throws the sandwiches into the river: they're too heavy, too smelly, too insistent on drawing attention to themselves. But this half-comic scene or metaphor doesn't come to terms with Mr. Roth's conviction that "everything beautiful was Christian." It doesn't sear itself on our memory like the image, in Call It Sleep, of the milk dipper dropped onto the third rail.
In a confused and hypercomplicated way, Mr. Roth finds in the Lower East Side (where he lived as a young child before the family move to largely Christian Harlem) the Jewish mother lode that has fed his art and might, if he'd been allowed to stay there, have kept him whole: "I felt at home there shored and stayed by tenets I imagined inhered in the nature of things. I belonged. And therefore, everything I did, however wicked, was somehow endemic, indigenous, part of the general scheme." Is Mr. Roth saying that if he'd been allowed to live in an environment of wickedness and madness, because it at least had coherence, he would have been spared the wickedness and madness that later marked his life? That in a world of the wicked and mad he would not have had the pain of knowing himself different? This mysterious passage sheds light, I think on the knot of Mr. Roth's relationship to his Jewishness. It is a knot that, at 89, he has not yet untied.
Mr. Roth circles around the topic of Jewish self-hatred by creating a world of Jewishness without charm or humor. Its warmth is only suffocation; its attentiveness surveillance; its bonds, traps. Judaism provides no poetry for Mr. Roth and no spiritual sustenance. Even the beautiful mother of Call It Sleep is replaced by the homely downtrodden mother of Mercy of a Rude Stream. The father, less frightening, is perhaps more pathetic. The upper class Jews represented by the family of one of Ira's classmates are materialistic, grasping and limited in their horizons and imaginations.
In the part of A Diving Rock on the Hudson that is purely narrative, Mr. Roth gives us an enormous number of details, sometimes so many we can't form a coherent picture. Occasionally, though, the old magic of Call It Sleep is there; a street comes alive for us, or a moment. But mostly we are awash in what he has referred to as the "plethora" of details: a pileup of facts rather than concentrated images. Sometimes he lapses into the diction of the "Boys' Own Stories" that must have been his first reading: "the inexorable, irreversible doom that had befallen him—nay, nay, invited to befall him." Boys are referred to as "youths." At moments of stress Ira exclaims "Boyoboy!"
But is this kind of faultfinding appropriate to the enterprise of a man of nearly 90 who says it is part of his goal to include garrulousness, to avoid the trap of beautiful writing? Who says he is doing this, not for literature, but to justify his life? Clearly, this is a different order of work from Call It Sleep and must be read with different standards. Call It Sleep remains a masterpiece; nothing is lost from it, or added to it, by reading its sequels.
And so, how do we read these new works, trailing behind them both a history and a work of literature? We read them on their own clearly articulated terms and, having agreed to do that, we are wholly taken up by the touching and fascinating record of a marred life that insists on pressing on us its pulsing, painfully relentless vitality.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1496
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 College; but in 1934, at the age of 28, he published Call It Sleep, a novel dedicated to Eda Lou Walton, who introduced him to the literary world, became his mistress and detected and fostered a talent hardly perceived by anybody else.
Call It Sleep is a truly astonishing achievement. Written almost entirely from the point of view of a young child, it represents with virtuosity the language of the family, giving to its partly Anglicized representation of Yiddish a great richness and an often comic splendor, Roth borrows form James Joyce the technique of internal monologue for vivid accounts of the boy's bewilderment at the mysteries of his parents' marriage, and of the cold world around him, with its vast hostile streets, its ethnic gangs, its harsh employers and its conflicting notions of holiness. Beneath the fascinating surface there lies a powerful, even melodramatic plot involving the beloved mother, suspected by her husband of an infidelity that produced young David, and the terrifying father, almost mythically violent, who in jealous misery hates and persecutes a boy who has trouble enough already with his own day-to-day life.
Having enjoyed a mild success on its first publication, Call It Sleep surprisingly dropped from view, but it achieved greater fame when published in paperback in 1964 and now has undisputed classic status. Meanwhile Roth suffered what must be one of the longest bouts of writer's block on record. He made his living in many different trades—toolmaker, waterfowl farmer, math tutor—and delayed his return to fiction for over 40 years. From the work of his old age one deduces that he began to write again in the 1970's, and in the 80's, already in the grip of rheumatoid arthritis (R.A. he calls it, reflecting that ra in Hebrew connotes "evil"), reworked the text. He acquired a computer and began to convert the typescripts of the previous decade into a very long novel, planned to occupy six volumes. It is not clear whether he progressed beyond the third volume, though the earlier and fuller draft presumably survives.
Mercy of a Rude Stream is the title of the whole project. The first two volumes, A Star Shines Over Mt. Morris Park and A Diving Rock on the Hudson, were published in 1994 and 1995. Roth died in October 1995, and the posthumously published From Bondage is the third in the series. The central figure in these books is Ira Stigman, a boy with a past not unlike that of David Schearl in Call It Sleep, though at the outset he is three years older and has a milder (yet still abusive) father. We are warned not to treat these books as autobiography; but with the aid of his trusty word processor the author inserts into the narrative passages about his present condition, his love for his wife, his illness, how he has come to quarrel with his erstwhile master Joyce, how his fears for Israel have changed him from one who, like Joyce, chose silence and exile into a Jew again sure of his loyalties. He looks back rather enviously at what he calls his only novel, Call It Sleep, wondering how he was "for five decades … well-nigh immobilized," how he "painted himself into the corner of childhood." He chats with his beloved computer about the difficulty of what he has undertaken—his "attempt at holistic rendering of my lamentable past," at "the shedding of his abominable self," with many reflections on the progress of the story, and hints as to what is to come later. The narrative proper ends even before Ira becomes Edith's lover, and long before the writing of Call It Sleep.
The computer makes cutting so easy—why not press the delete key and abolish such embarrassing diversions? "Why was he doing this, demeaning himself—and perhaps Jews, the multitude of Jews who had transformed one previous novel into a shrine, a child's shrine at that—to the extent he was?" The commentary, which grows more copious as the story unfolds, is given its own typeface, and has a different tone and status from the rest of the narrative, but in view of what it adds it is hard not to see the entire work as fictionalized autobiography; nor does Roth actively dispute the description.
Indeed this huge second novel has a strong confessional aspect (and there are significant allusions to St. Augustine). The aged Ira brings himself with difficulty to the point of explaining the sense of guilt that partly ruined his life and was a cause of his block: his early incest with an under-age sister, and the sexual exploitation of a young cousin. His encounters with these girls are described with a sort of unrelenting, gritted-teeth dedication to the recording of the deceits, delights and disgust they entail. They are blamed for Ira's ignorance of "how to make a pass at someone refined"—at a woman who didn't belong to the family—as well as for his long silence. We can guess that in still unpublished later parts of the narrative Edith, the character based on Eda Lou Walton, and "M," his wife, Muriel, who died in 1990, will help rid him of this inhibition.
When the dialogue is simply in educated English, as it mostly is when Ira begins to move in literary circles—chattering about T.S. Eliot, discussing a smuggled copy of Ulysses—it lacks the vitality and charm of the domestic Yiddish that Roth so beautifully renders in the earlier parts, with its comic lamentation and terrible curses. And the registration of the settings lacks some of the dark, threatening detail of the first book, the old insights into maternal love and into panic, loneliness and lostness.
Yet this third installment of the new one is by no means lacking in energy. The effect is of an old man brooding fruitfully over the details of a youth 70 years past, his memory sharpened by fantasy and enlivened by an apprehension of other personalities now enriched by adult experience. An example is the portrait of his friend Larry, much better off, much smarter, at ease with poets, who in time proves too fragile and too changeable to achieve anything substantial and suffers burnout, atrophy, a fate that almost befell the narrator himself, who lived on ecause, after all, the rude stream proved—to him—merciful.
From Bondage resumes Ira's story at the point where he is closest to Larry, Edith's current lover. He grows more easy in refined company, but he still has to work, especially since his grades at City College aren't good; he has a job in a candy store, hustles soda at the ball park, sweats as a maintenance man or "grease monkey" in a subway repair yard. He does some petty thieving, but also takes his first little steps as a writer and becomes the confidant of Edith.
Ira isn't sure he likes the new direction of his life, but submits almost passively. From what he regards as the dreary company of the poolroom—"the first American-born generation of Jews, the bridge between the poor East European immigrants who landed here and the American Jews their offspring become"—he gradually moves into gentile circles and accepts his vocation as a writer.
It must be said that nothing we learn about Ira in this account by his aged shadow gives much of an explanation of why he became, almost at a stroke, a writer of quite exceptional accomplishment. The impression we are left with is that the chronicler doesn't really know himself. There were, he says, contemporaries much more brilliant and original than he, but he was, in a sense, chosen. He "deserved very little credit. Only that of striving to develop the most preeminent, if not the only gift he had … which was what the others did, also … those more gifted than he who yet failed to win universal appeal. It was all a Calvinist fluke."
That is a wise saying, even if it borrows the doctrine of election from an alien religion. This latest in the sequence Mercy of a Rude Stream does what has rarely been done before; it enhances its brilliant youthful original by casting upon it the calmer, contemplative light of old age. It is clearly indispensable to the appreciation of Roth's unique life and work as a whole.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3517
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, on his first try, wrote a Bildungsroman that was entirely worthy of them. No one has ever written better about how it is to be a child, an immigrant, a Jew. No one has known so well how to use Yiddish and the life of the ghetto to light up the English or the American language.
Then, like a sensational rookie pitcher whose arm just went dead, Roth stopped. For forty years, he and his wife, Muriel Parker, tried everything, or at least everything they could afford, in the hope of getting him writing again. They moved from New York to Boston to Maine to New Mexico—his last address was a trailer on New York Avenue in Albuquerque, where he died. (I met him there in 1980.) Unable to be a writer, he went from being a toolmaker to a farmer to a psychiatric orderly to a schoolteacher, from obscurity to fifteen minutes of fame (in the sixties, when Call It Sleep came out in paperback and sold more than a million copies) to a more comfortable obscurity—this time, he said, at least they had hot and cold running water. They never made it to China, where, after the revolution of 1949, they had hoped to dedicate their lives to the Chinese people; their group fell apart and they couldn't learn Chinese. They evolved (that was their word) from communism to psychoanalysis to a liberal from of Jewish chauvinism. They brought up two children together and lived a decent life. But nothing "worked" for him, nothing lit his fire. From time to time he wrote an essay or short story, but he knew no one would remember those pieces if not for Call It Sleep. Sometime in the seventies, Roth met Ralph Ellison; they traded grim hypotheses about themselves and each other, and about blacks and Jews, and they laughed.
But then, as if to confound all those who say there are no second acts in American lives, Roth resumed his Bildungsroman as if it had been only yesterday that he had stopped. He told me in 1980 that he had recently written hundreds of new pages. He now saw Call It Sleep as the first part of a trilogy. In the second part the hero would "escape from his family by becoming a rat, a real bastard," and moreover, "a Jewish anti-Semite." In the finale, he would at last "grow up and be reconciled with humanity." Yes, his wife said caustically, "in the arms of Eda Lou Walton"—Roth's first love, and the woman to whom he dedicated Call It Sleep.
No one understood the secret of Roth's miraculous renewal, but nobody could deny he was renewed. He poured thousands of new pages down on St. Martin's Press in New York, where editor Robert Weil did a heroic job of transforming them into three roughly coherent volumes (Weil says there are more to come) that Roth anointed with the gloomy Shakespearean title, Mercy of a Rude Stream. Their format is a strange one, cutting back and forth between a Bildungsroman, written in a narrative voice that seems to come out of a past long before Call It Sleep, and (in a different typeface) the author's midrashim and reflections on his characters, his story and himself, composed from the early eighties to the early nineties. Narratologists would probably say it's wrong of me to try to distinguish a "narrator" from an "author," when all the text offers us is two narrators, and neither one should be "privileged" above the other. However, the eighties/nineties narrator discusses many events in his life that are identical with events in Henry Roth's (for example, having a beloved wife, Muriel Parker, a composer who gives up her career for the author of Call It Sleep, and who dies in 1990). So I call the eighties/nineties narrator "Neo-Roth." (Neo-Roth composes on a word processor, which he calls "Ecclesias." He talks to Ecclesias with the same irritated reverence my cousins use when they talk to their Harleys and their fast cars.)
The first book, A Star Shines Over Mt. Morris Park, appeared in 1994; the second, A Diving Rock on the Hudson, came out last fall, just after Roth died (though he did get to work on the galleys); the third, From Bondage, was published this June. The hero's name has been changed from David Schearl to Ira Stigman (=stigma, stigmata; get it?); he is a teenager, and he lives with his quarreling parents in East Harlem, where they have moved from the Lower East Side. East Harlem was then a suburb, largely Jewish until after World War II. (It elected both Fiorello LaGuardia and Vito Marcantonio.) Ira's emotions themselves have a postwar ring: the anger of a city child who felt at home in the old neighborhood, which he idealizes, and who sees the suburban move as a personal betrayal. One of the few things that makes the move bearable is that much of his mother's large family has followed her uptown, and Ira can find a fine assortment of interesting and colorful people who love him just a short walk away. Among them is a 14-year-old girl cousin with whom Ira enjoys fast, rough, domineering sex ("Turn around … bend over …").
It's possible to get into the flow of these narratives, but first you have to reconcile yourself to the fact that Roth's lyrical genius, his visionary gleam, is gone. You will find plenty of fascinating pages here, but you won't find any that will change your life. These new books, especially the first one, read like a midrash (or is it a Monarch Outline?) on The Book. The midrash is full of fascinating background; it may even teach you more about the everyday world of Call It Sleep than Call It Sleep itself. It's as if Neo-Roth is telling us: "Yeah, I knew that neighborhood, I even knew that family, and sure, things were tough, but it's not like there was thunder and lightning and the earth opening up. Those parents were just proste menschen, ordinary people, not mythical gods. There was no big deal about them. Somebody tell that kid to lighten up!"
Ira's life seems to have been written as one work. As a result, the boundaries between From Bondage and Diving Rock are not so clear. Ira steals fountain pens; is expelled from Stuyvesant High (where the teachers are Dickensian sadists); contemplates suicide (diving off the rock when the currents would engulf and drown him) but chooses life ("the river … told him" that he must live and suffer); enrolls at Clinton (where the teachers are slightly less malevolent); forms a friendship with a rich Jewish boy, Larry, who shows him how to be polite and refined; wins a scholarship to Cornell but turns it down because he isn't ready to leave home and goes to C.C.N.Y. instead.
Larry is a poet, and he introduces Ira to the bohemians of downtown, where, for the first time in his life, Ira encounters modern poetry. T.S. Eliot is the star, and the basic idea is "a clean break between what's gone before and now." Downtown is where he meets Larry's girlfriend, Edith, an older (thirtysomething), sophisticated woman, a modern poet, critic and instructor at N.Y.U. She is part of Margaret Mead's circle, and Neo-Roth settles some old scores with Mead (but neglects to explain the original ball games). He tells us to stay tuned: This is going to be his first love. From Bondage features an extended love triangle with Edith/Eda Lou, Ira and Larry, written in an archly comic mode, à la Aldous Huxley. Edith's version of modern love is saturated with modern lit: She examines real and prospective lovers by springing Ulysses on them. Larry doesn't get it, and so, unknowingly, flunks body language; but Ira eats it up. So when are they getting into bed together? Not so fast! After 600 pages (From Bondage plus half of Diving Rock), their love is still unconsummated. Roth draws out the foreplay; if he could wait forty years, we can wait a few hundred more pages. Now there's nothing wrong with these characters or their story, but you have to fight a temptation to call it Call It Sleep-Lite.
But there's a theme laid down in Diving Rock, and carried on in From Bondage, that's unforgettably "heavy": Ira's incestuous affair with his kid sister, Minnie. This affair begins before they even know how to do it (after a while Ira goes to a prostitute, who shows him what to put where and how). It goes on for years; as From Bondage ends, we don't know if it's really over. When Diving Rock came out last year, there was lots of discussion about whether the real Henry Roth and his real sister had committed incest. I don't see why anyone outside their family should care. What we readers should care about is how he writes incest. And he writes it brilliantly, with a remarkable fusion of physical detail and emotional energy. He shows it to us at once from outside, where it's a blatantly disgusting thing to do, and from inside, where it's the one inescapable, perfectly right thing to do. Here his energy level surges up to Call It Sleep-like peaks (remember, there was an incestuous love there too); when he does anything else, his prose sags.
Roth's ambivalent incest vision may be part of a larger conflict about sex itself. Sometimes he considers it just plain disgusting and his writing turns clunky: "He had used Edith basely … to gratify his sexual urge—and in front of a mirror to intensify his gratification—and she, poor woman, had more than acquiesced—had urged him on." (He drags St. Augustine in to legitimize this way of talking.) It is essentially men who are guilty of this abomination. Women apparently have no desires of their own. But women—even saintly women, even Mom, even his wife—pollute and incriminate themselves by going along.
In spite of this, when Roth focuses on the affair between Ira and Minnie, he portrays sex with great empathy for both of them. The fact that this guy over 80 can write so vividly about sex between people under 20 is a stirring tribute to the power of the imagination. He's best on the details: on the experience of losing control, making too much noise and risking discovery, on learning to put on a condom so it won't fall off, on missing a period, on learning to give your partner pleasure along with your own, on depths of rage and hate that love and pleasure can open up—and on how all these classic sexual risks and terrors explode through the roof if the person whose sweat is mixing with yours is your sister. This is both thrilling and unnerving to read—and not only for those of us who love our sisters. In Roth's best writing, both early and late, sex and incest come to symbolize each other. Stated as a formula it sounds absurd, but his gift as a writer makes it feel right.
Ira and Minnie's incest is the source of the best scene in From Bondage: It is the mid-twenties. Ira is a junior at C.C.N.Y.; Minnie, a senior at elite Julia Richmond High School, is planning to go to Hunter and become a teacher. Their affair seems to be winding down, and both are falling in love with people who are not only outside their family (about time!) but outside their people—goyim, non-Jews. One day Minnie bursts into the house sobbing, and throws herself into Ira's arms: "My s…. The speaking test. I failed…. I have a lateral s…. They don't want me…. It was only the Jewish girls."
(Minnie is hysterical, but historically right. Boards of education all over the United States were appalled to find that people who passed their teaching exams were overwhelmingly Jews: They added a speech test designed specifically to keep Jews out. For a couple of decades, this policy kept U.S. school systems effectively Judenrein. It was only after World War II and the G.I. Bill that Jews broke through.)
Ira offers brotherly support, and tells how anti-Semites have hurt him, too. But Minnie wants more: She wants him to fuck her, right here, right now. She talks dirty to turn him on; it works, as she knew it would. She says he has ruined her, now she's just a whore. He says she's not ruined. "So do it to me if there's nothing wrong with me." But their parents will be home any minute. She doesn't care, let them see what she is. Her screaming gets louder, more out of control. "So fuck me and I'll shut up…. You're my brother, so cure me…. You know you can do it in a minute." She lifts her skirt up, and pulls her panties down. "Get your cock out…. I want it."
Breathing heavily, Ira reaches to lock the door. But he can't bring himself to do it. "No. For once, no." Instead, he presses her to get dressed, to wash herself, freshen her face, look normal. In a little while, she is grateful. He steers her and himself back to their books. They look like a perfect brother and sister when their parents come home.
Ira looks back on this harrowing scene, and attacks himself: "He had tainted her forever." But readers are likely to disagree. After years of taking advantage of Minnie, he has fially offered her the protective care a sister might expect from an older brother—for once, Ira has acted like a mensch. It's true that, in the past, Minnie herself was always "consenting"; but she was hardly an "adult." Ira wasn't very grown up either; but he may be on his way now. Whatever it might mean to outgrow incest, this dreadful scene could be a start. The nightmarish moment they have just shared might turn out to be a turning point in both their lives, a moment of overcoming and moral growth.
It might be—but you won't get a chance to decide, because it's vanished from the published book. I read this scene in a set of galleys that I received at the end of March and took it for granted as I imagined my review. Then, some weeks ago, in the Jewish Museum, a man I'd never met saw me carrying the galleys and asked me if the rumor was true that Roth's sister's lawyers had "forced them to take out all the incest." I laughed, read him a little from the scene I've quoted above, and said not to worry. But then I realized I had never seen the book itself. I called the publisher and spoke to Robert Weil, Roth's editor, and to other people in many departments, and to Larry Fox, Roth's lawyer and literary executor. I spent most of the day on the phone. It was a strange day. (Dummkopf, why didn't I at least get it on tape?)
I was told that the rumor was absurd, and apart from typos, there were no changes at all. Still, people were startled to hear I had a set of galleys. Which set of galleys? they asked, thus kindly letting me know there was more than one. I tried to find out if Roth's sister or anyone else was suing or threatening to sue. And who actually made the decision that changes had to be made, and on what basis? I was told that nobody was threatening anybody, and Roth's sister was a very nice 90-year-old woman in a nursing home in the Bronx, and she wasn't disturbing anybody, and why should anyone want to hurt her? I asked the lawyer, So where's the pressure coming from? He said, What pressure? I wondered, What film noir am I in?
At this point I could sense a process I've seen before: Corporate legal departments win the culture wars. Editors—or, as they are always reminded when there's trouble, editorial employees—are hung out to dry and forced to smile. Writers are forgotten (is that guy dead? alive? or what?) and always the last to know.
In the scene you'll find in print, Minnie comes home distraught and tells her sad story, Ira consoles her in decent normal ways and that's just about all. The publishers haven't exactly "taken out all the incest" but they've done their best to clean it up. When Ira curses the anti-Semites who have done Minnie wrong, she says the real reason for her misfortunes in school is that "I let you lay me." Her guilt and magical thinking are not implausible. What's weird is the way her own desires, so active and volatile in the writer's version, are airbrushed out of the publisher's version. In the galleys, as Roth wrote them, the sexual bond between brother and sister is fearfully intense. In the book it's redescribed not only as something he did to her (did they bring in Catharine MacKinnon to rewrite her dialogue?) but as a force that can be eliminated if you simply put it in the past tense. In the galleys, the crosscurrents and contradictions of desire create a harrowing but brilliant scene, a dramatic explosion with transformative power. In the published book, with the woman's desires written out of the script, nothing can happen and there's nothing to remember.
The rewriting is especially sad if we look at it in the light of one of Neo-Roth's most poignant notes to himself. He says he had tried to keep his sister out of his story because he felt guilty toward her. Then he came to see that excluding her would only continue the mistreatment that he felt so guilty about. He asks himself, "When will you admit her to the realm of a legitimate character, acting, active, asserting herself, an individual?" He answers, "I don't know if I'll ever be able to write about her in all the emotional dimensions she deserves. But I have to do something." Roth did do something: He created a compelling girl-woman with inner depth who has grown up too fast and who deserves sympathy and respect. The way in which From Bondage was cut suggests that somebody with power wanted to "protect" Roth's sister from him. But also to "protect" the Jewish people from an incest story by one of its most beloved writers, where the girl is not a helpless victim of male lust (there's always room for more women as victims) but an "acting, active, asserting" individual who wants to do it herself.
Does Henry Roth's sister need such protection? Do the Jewish people? (For that matter, do any people?) What we do need is protection from our protectors, breathing space to live and reflect on our lives. Corporate censorship is a crime against the living as well as against the dead. I hope future editions of From Bondage will be free enough to let Minnie Stigman come into her own, and I hope we will all be free enough to look her in the face and live with her.
Henry Roth was inspired by the audacious, expansive, world-conquering spirit of twentieth-century Modernism. The world that was his to conquer was the claustral world of the modern ghetto: the street, the block, the house, the apartment, the family. Roth, like many writers, saw the social forces that were pulling the modern family and the modern self apart. Bu, as a Jew living through a Jewish family, he also saw something else: the family imploding, crashing in on itself, with a love so intimate it was incestuous, perishing from its very richness of being. He never freed himself from bondage to this tragic vision, except to fall into something even worse: the feel of not to feel it, a life in death. Roth wandered in a desert of paralysis for 40 years. But then he came back, to wrestle with his angel, to try to make a home in the bonds of love. I think all of us are caught up in his struggle: This is what the words "modern life" mean. But there are people with power who want to paper it over. We need to watch out for them and the desert they have prepared for us all.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 511
"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 ultimate survivor."
Farber, Frances D. "Encounters with an Alien Culture: Thematic Functions of Dialect in Call It Sleep." Yiddish 7, No. 4 (1990): 49-56.
Discusses Roth's use of dialect in his Call It Sleep.
Folks, Jeffrey. Review of Mercy of a Rude Stream, by Henry Roth. World Literature Today 68, No. 4 (August 1994): 813-14.
Asserts that "Mercy of a Rude Stream should be recognized as one of the finest autobiographical fictions of our time."
Greenstone, Maryann D. "The Ghetto Revisited: Call It Sleep by Henry Roth." Studies in Bibliography and Booklore IX, No. 1 (Spring 1970): 96-100.
Asserts the importance of Roth's Call It Sleep and provides a bibliography of articles about the novel.
Halkin, Hillel. "Henry Roth's Secret." Commentary 97, No. 5 (May 1994): 44-7.
Discusses how Roth's homosexual encounters affected his self-image and his work.
Harris, Lis. "A Critic at Large: In the Shadow of the Golden Mountains." The New Yorker LXIV, No. 19 (27 June 1988): 84-92.
Offers an overview of Roth's life and career, and asserts that the alienation found in Roth's Call It Sleep came from the author's own experience as an immigrant.
Inge, M. Thomas. "The Ethnic Experience and Aesthetics in Literature: Malamud's The Assistant and Roth's Call It Sleep." Journal of Ethnic Studies 1, No. 4 (Winter 1974): 45-50.
Discusses how Bernard Malamud's The Assistant and Roth's Call It Sleep are both about the "struggle for accommodation and survival of an immigrant family in a new world" and how Call It Sleep gives "special attention to the strains of the relationship between foreign born parents and American bred children."
Review of From Bondage, by Henry Roth. Kirkus Reviews LXIV, No. 8 (15 April 1996): 557.
Criticizes Roth's From Bondage as deeply flawed.
Lesser, Wayne. "A Narrative's Revolutionary Energy: The Example of Henry Roth's Call it Sleep." Criticism XXIII, No. 2 (Spring 1981): 155-176.
Analyzes Roth's Call it Sleep in terms of "how a shared cultural symbolism operates within the text to create an illuminated movement of personal-linguistic history."
Orr, Elaine. "On the Side of the Mother: Yonnondio and Call It Sleep." Studies in American Fiction 21, No. 2 (Autumn 1993): 209-23.
Compares the role of the mother in Tillie Olsen's Yonnondio: From the Thirties and Roth's Call It Sleep.
Rosen, Jonathan. "Lost and Found: Remembering Henry Roth." The New York Times Book Review (10 December 1995): 47.
Discusses Roth's exile from and return to writing.
Rosenheim, Andrew. "Growing up absurd in America." Times Literary Supplement, No. 4802 (14 April 1995): 20.
Praises Volume Two of Roth's Mercy of a Rude Stream for its credible andvivid characters nd its compelling story.