Like Edgar Allan Poe and Emily Dickinson, Henry Roth has become one of the great legends of American literature, Steven G. Kellman writes in the introduction to his engrossing new biography, Redemption. A Galician Jew growing up on the lower East Side of Manhattan in the first years of the twentieth century, Roth created one of the most memorable accounts of that immigrant childhood before he was thirtyand then fell into sixty years of almost complete literary silence. Call It Sleep was rediscovered in 1964, when Avon brought out the first paperback of the novel which would sell more than one million copies in thirty subsequent printings. Like a phoenix, Roth at the age of fifty-eight began to rise out of the ashes of his tortured life and burnt-out career. By the 1990’s he was completing a tetralogy to continue the fictional retelling of his early life. He died at the age of eighty-nine, just as the final two volumes were being published.
What Kellman has done, in this first book-length study of the writer, is strip the legend of its fabrications, to sort out fact from fiction. In the process, he has uncovered a tormented literary life steeped in guilt and suffering but saved in the end, as his title describes it, by the author’s final redemption, a redemption which pulls together the broken fragments of Roth’s life into something almost whole.
Roth was born in Tysmenitz, Galicia, in 1906an area of what had historically been Poland, and today lies in western Ukraineand emigrated with his mother, Leah, to the United States the following year, to join his father. His early life was not happy, for his parents were horribly unsuited for each other. Roth’s father, Herman, was an insecure, violent man who failed at a number of careers, his mother a woman who teetered on the edge of mental instability for years before falling over in the late 1950’s. The family was Roth’s whole life, for four years on the lower East Side and then for more years in Harlem, and its anxieties and tensions became his own even after he escaped its hold in his twenties.
Roth, never a very good student, was expelled from Peter Stuyvesant High School. He was at best a mediocre student later at City College New York. His life changed in 1924, however, when he met Eda Lou Walton, a poet, editor, and English instructor at New York University, and for the following thirteen years she would be his mother, his teacher, and his sometime lover. Most important for Roth’s career, Walton introduced him into her circle of writer friendswhich included Hart Crane, Thomas Wolfe, Horace Gregory, Margaret Mead, and Ruth Benedictsupervised his reading, and led him to literary influences such as T. S. Eliot and James Joyce. Writing Call It Sleep, which was dedicated to Walton, actually liberated Roth from his dependency on her, for in reconnecting to his childhood roots through the novel, Roth finally found his own adult identity.
The novel met mostly favorable reviews but, published at the bottom of the Depression, it went the way of a number of serious works of the 1930’s. Call It Sleep tells the story of the young David Schearl, from his arrival at Ellis Island in 1907 at the age of two until when, as an eight-year-old in August, 1913, just before the outbreak of World War I, he pushes a metal milk ladle into the electrical streetcar line and is knocked unconscious. Roth, Kellman shows, pioneered Joycean literary techniques such as stream of consciousness and Freudian themes such as the Oedipal conflict. In retrospect, critics and literary historians now recognize the role the novel also played in laying the foundation for the Jewish American novel which would become so important in the second half of the twentieth century in the work of Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, Philip Roth, and many other writers.
Call It Sleep immortalized the lower East Side and recorded the traumas the Old World underwent coming to the New, in an English that was “a subtle instrument for...
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