Requiem for Harlem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 287

An elegy for anguished youth, REQUIEM FOR HARLEM begins in gluttony and dyspepsia, wallows in revulsion, and concludes with the prospect of redemption. The opening pages recount Ira Stigman’s arduous trek from Harlem, in upper Manhattan, all the way down to Greenwich Village, near the lower tip of the borough. When he arrives at the apartment of his mentor Edith Welles, a professor at New York University, she is occupied with another man, and Ira returns to his family up on East 119th Street. However, in the final pages of REQUIEM FOR HARLEM, he again makes his way to Edith’s house, as her lover, to stay.

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Both the twenty-one-year-old Ira, a senior at City College of New York, and the octogenarian author summoning up remembrances of sordid things past are burdened by the guilt of continuing incest with his sixteen-year-old cousin Stella. So enslaved is the younger Ira to his squalid pleasures that to pursue them he risks a scandalous pregnancy as well as serious bodily harm.

With a narrower palette of character and incident than the earlier volumes, REQUIEM FOR HARLEM offers an excruciating focus on Ira’s desperate struggle to come of age by breaking free of the toxic snares of family. For the ailing, aging Roth and his fictional alter ego daring to divulge dark secrets of his youth, the novel is the redeeming legacy of a troubled man who was touched by “that unique, unutterable afflatus of creativity,” not just once.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. XCIV, January 1, 1998, p. 744.

Kirkus Reviews. LXVI, January 1, 1998, p. 18.

Library Journal. CXXIII, February 15, 1998, p. 172.

The New York Times Book Review. CIII, April 5, 1998, p. 16.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLV, February 2, 1998, p. 81.

The Washington Post Book World. XXVIII, March 15, 1998, p. 1.

Requiem for Harlem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1858

“Hello, I must be going,” sang Groucho Marx in the 1930 film Animal Crackers—but it is Henry Roth who is at once salutatorian and valedictorian of modern America. His work is contemporaneous with both James Joyce and Don DeLillo. If D. W. Griffith, the inventor of American narrative cinema, had abjured his art shortly after The Birth of a Nation (1915) and then, on the verge of ninety and extinction, had reemerged to create four extraordinary films to send out the century, his career would have resembled Roth’s extraordinary arc.

With his literary debut, Call It Sleep (1934), Roth created the first masterpiece of American Jewish fiction and a classic immigration narrative, as well as prodigious expectations for continued achievement. He rushed into print with his second novel, A Star Shines over Mt. Morris Park, sixty years later. It was the initial installment in an autobiographical tetralogy that the octogenarian author, borrowing a phrase from William Shakespeare, called Mercy of a Rude Stream. The final volume, Requiem for Harlem, appeared two and a half years after its author’s death on October 13, 1995, at eighty-nine. Two other novels, which Roth’s editors and executors have determined not to belong to the Mercy cycle, remain unpublished. “You are not required to finish,” declares the Talmudic dictum that Roth, widowed from his beloved wife Muriel and wracked by rheumatoid arthritis as he tapped out every word, echoes several times in this book. How he exceeded the requirement is itself a heroic chapter in American literary history. “Not thine the labour to complete,/ And yet thou art not free to cease!” proclaims the Mishnaic injunction that the aging, ailing Roth, yearning for consummation but compelled to continue his flawed task, adopts as epigraph.

Requiem for Harlem can be read independently of its predecessors, A Star Shines over Mt. Morris Park (1994), A Diving Rock on the Hudson (1995), and From Bondage (1996), though all four books constitute a single massive Kunstlerroman—a portrait of the artist as young wretch. Even more than the previous installments, this volume both recounts and enacts its protagonist’s humiliation, and he is the literary voodoo doll for his tormented author, Roth. Though Requiem for Harlem begins with a routine disclaimer, “This novel is certainly not an autobiography, nor should it be taken as such,” it is hard for anyone even slightly familiar with the outlines of Roth’s life not to read this story as barely camouflaged confession. In its outer frame, an ancient, invalid author residing in a trailer in Albuquerque, New Mexico—as Roth did in his final years—and grievously widowed from a musician he calls M—as Roth was from Muriel—summons up remembrance of things past. He is keenly aware of how little time is left to perform his arduous task and how the labor that he has undertaken, to reveal a shameful personal secret that kept his writing blocked for sixty years, is destined for posthumous publication.

Roth’s novel begins in gluttony and dyspepsia, wallows in revulsion, and concludes with the prospect of redemption. Yet its title, Requiem for Harlem, suggests nostalgia for an anguished adolescence in the lowly uptown neighborhood on which the final pages close the book. It is an elegy for anguished youth. The year is 1927, and Ira Stigman, twenty-one, is attending his senior year at City College of New York. The opening pages recount Ira’s arduous journey, with weary feet and—after gorging himself on pasta—a bloated stomach, from Harlem, in upper Manhattan, all the way down to Greenwich Village, near the lower tip of the borough. When he arrives at the apartment of Edith Welles, a professor at New York University, she is occupied with another man, and Ira returns to his room up on East 119th Street. However, in the final pages of Requiem for Harlem, he again makes his way down to Edith’s house, to stay. In the novel’s parting, plangent words, Ira, brooding on infernal guilt, takes a squealing subway “downtown and the hell out of Harlem.” He has, at least, been transported into purgatory.

A college examination on John Milton’s Paradise Lost forces the immigrant scholar, afflicted with his own “sinister cyst of guilt that was within the self, denigrating the yontif [holiday], denigrating everything within reach, exuding ambiguity, anomaly, beyond redemption now,” to ponder the vile connections between Satan and his daughter Sin. Yet Ira, who had earlier ceased sexual trysts begun with his younger sister Minnie when she was only ten, continues his own incestuous relationship with sixteen-year-old Cousin Stella, even as his sentimental apprenticeship to Edith, who is older and more accomplished, deepens into something resembling mature love. After one last brazen act of self-degradation, Ira moves out of his family’s Harlem flat and into a Greenwich Village apartment with Edith.

With a narrower palette of character and incident than the other volumes, Requiem for Harlem offers an excruciating focus on Ira’s guilty desperation after he learns that Stella might be pregnant. Anxiety and shame cause him to break, rudely, with his high school chum Larry Gordon, by spurning his beneficent invitation to Thanksgiving dinner. However, Larry is also, not incidentally, the former lover of Edith, whom Ira increasingly covets. The novel also offers revelations about further foulness within the Stigman family, about vile actions by his father. Though they are fewer and shorter than in the previous three volumes, occasional interludes describe an elderly Ira, “goofiest of all scriveners,” struggling, like Roth himself, to record his lacerating memories on the word processor he personifies as “Ecclesias.”

Requiem for Harlem is a document of the 1920’s that happens to have been written seventy years later, in a style, by turns supple and wooden, that recalls both Yiddish melodrama and the audacity of the post-World War I avant-garde. The narrative adopts the form by which the elder Ira imagines life itself: “full of chaotic fragments, discreet, in the mathematical sense, disparate, often dull and banal, but often fiercely engrossing, disparate but often desperate. And as often unexpected and unforeseen.” The book, though, acquires intensity from its searing focus on Ira’s dreadful burden and from its confinement to a single week in November, 1927. In the days preceding Thanksgiving, Ira concentrates his energies on freeing himself from the toxic snares of family.

Like Call It Sleep, Requiem for Harlem is remarkable for its success at representing speech in a language other than English. Some of the conversations that Ira conducts with his parents are understood to be in Yiddish, the native language of Eastern European Jews. Yet, aside from a few Yiddish terms like eytser (advice) and shande (shame) that can be understood from context or from the glossary appended to the back of the volume, Roth constructs an English style for his Yiddish speakers that mimics the tone and structure of their native language. They are not caricatured in fractured English when they are in fact speaking fluent Yiddish.

While trying to study Milton at the kitchen table, Ira is helpless witness to the ferocious squabbles between his mother and his father. Like David Schearl’s father in Call It Sleep, Chaim Stigman is a violent bundle of festering resentments, a man possessed of a permanent sense of personal abuse. Disappointed in his ambitions, unsuccessful in his schemes in Galicia, St. Louis, and New York, Ira’s father cannot hold a job for long before he antagonizes his latest employer. He tyrannizes and terrorizes his only son, who sees him as “a mean, stingy, screwy little louse” yet is afraid to cross him. It is difficult for Ira to understand why his long-suffering mother did not leave her abusive husband years ago.

It is easier for him to guess why Zaida, his maternal grandfather, moves away from Aunt Mamie’s apartment in Manhattan in order to live with other relatives in Queens. In the previous volume, From Bondage, Ira, concluding a late- night visit to Mamie’s place, had brazenly had his way with Cousin Stella within a few feet of their grandfather’s bedroom door. Some ambiguous statements uttered by Zaida lead Ira to conclude that the pious old man knew exactly what was going on between his two grandchildren and was too horrified to remain within that polluted household any longer. Ira begins to panic at the possibility that the entire family will soon learn of his depravity.

Yet his most immediate concern is over the fact that Stella, a pudgy girl who does not appeal to him either physically or intellectually, is four days late for her menstrual period. Ira confides his fears to Edith, who has earlier aborted the fetus resulting from her own affair with a married professor named Lewlyn, and she generously arranges to have her physician examine Stella. When Ira arrives at Stella’s secretarial school in order to escort her to her appointment, she informs him that the pregnancy was a false alarm. Ira’s elation at this unexpected news soon turns to lust, and he talks Stella into slipping with him into a nearby theater. Oblivious to what is on the screen, they begin to grope in the empty balcony, but they are accosted by three hostile black youths and barely manage to escape physical assault. Compounding Ira’s revulsion over his sordid relations with his cousin is the memory of how deliverance from the horror of his cousin’s pregnancy was not enough to cure him of his incestuous compulsions. So enslaved was he to these squalid pleasures that he even risked serious bodily harm to pursue them.

Like Zaida’s decision to move out of Mamie’s home, Ira’s departure from the Stigman household in Harlem is a—belated—assertion of will, the feckless young man’s emergence, as suggested in the title to volume 3, From Bondage. Ira’s continuing servitude to family—his mother and his cousin—has infantilized him, and his departure for Greenwich Village marks a coming of age. Under the tutelage of the Gentile Edith, a mature woman and a writer, he can look forward to advancing outside the constrictive circle of Jewish immigrants and to developing the literary talents already manifested in his college compositions. The elder Ira looks back on a successful first novel that sounds very much like Call It Sleep, even as he struggles to write the cathartic new book whose awful secrets kept him for sixty years from extending his literary career and whose successful completion will provide him with “the Promethean catalytic exercising of his consciousness.” Like Roth, Ira, who exulted in mingling with the artistic avant-garde in New York, can recall years spent secluded in Maine, slaughtering waterfowl when he might have been writing. Roth’s late work, like Ira’s, is the redeeming legacy of a troubled man who was touched by “that unique, unutterable afflatus of creativity,” not just once.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. XCIV, January 1, 1998, p. 744.

Kirkus Reviews. LXVI, January 1, 1998, p. 18.

Library Journal. CXXIII, February 15, 1998, p. 172.

The New York Times Book Review. CIII, April 5, 1998, p. 16.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLV, February 2, 1998, p. 81.

The Washington Post Book World. XXVIII, March 15, 1998, p. 1.

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