Requiem for Harlem
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.
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
“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...
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