Henry Roth, rediscovered and reborn

Literary Biography


Redemption: The Life of Henry Roth

Steven G. Kellman

W.W. Norton / 371 pages

In 1934, the depth of the Depression, Henry Roth published a novel, Call It Sleep, that did not even sell the first edition of 2,500 copies. Reviews were good, but times were terrible, and the author wrote little of interest for another 50 years. Why would anyone bother to write his biography?

Ultimately, because when the biographer, Steven G. Kellman, first read Call It Sleep in the 1960s, he read "avidly, compulsively ... sitting in the back of a bus returning me from college to my own family," and felt that Roth's "brutal domestic drama could have been my own." Over the years many readers experienced what Kellman did, and some of them republished and recommended the book into the literary equivalent of immortality.

Why? Through the unblinking eyes of an immigrant Jewish child, readers of Call It Sleep watch David Schearl come to awareness in a hostile, slum tenement. His character and the world form out of the hatred between him and his father and the love he shares with his mother. To keep the stark oppositions from making the story a tear-jerker, Joyce's Stephen Daedalus, Freud's Oedipal patients and Marx's uncrushed proletarians combine to make a raw, fresh vision of reality. The inner life that David shares with his mother comes in a supple, nuanced English translation of their actual Yiddish; it contrasts with realistic recording of the ugly immigrant English that outsiders heard.

Roth could not imagine writing any novel until he left his family in Harlem and eventually moved in with Eda Lou Walton, a poet and teacher at NYU. A generous friend and lover, she introduced Roth to intellectual life in Washington Square and supported him while he wrote Call It Sleep. In 1938, Roth met and married Muriel Parker, a musician and composer. During their 50 years together, Muriel and Henry had two sons and were, by all accounts, happy in a difficult life. Henry abandoned writing and became, in turns, a machinist, a substitute schoolteacher, a tutor of math and Latin, and, as proprietor of Roth's Waterfowl, in Maine, a slaughterer and plucker of ducks.

During those years, the immigrant experience became distant, a subject for nostalgia. Nevertheless, readers like Steven Kellman kept discovering Call It Sleep and reviving it. Translated into Italian, reprinted in Britain, and reissued in an American paperback in 1964, the novel finally reached a mass readership, which continues to grow. The novel is now a classic of immigrant literature and the pivotal book of Jewish-American fiction between the immigrant writers, Abraham Cahan and Anzia Yezierska, and native English speakers such as Arthur Miller, Saul Bellow and Bernard Malamud.

Roth's frozen career began to thaw in the mid-1960s when he abandoned communism, affirmed his Jewishness and moved to New Mexico. During the 10 years before he died, in 1995, Roth wrote energetically to complete the story of David Schearl. The transparently autobiographical writing in four novels that appeared under the overall title Mercy of a Rude Stream revealed a shocking secret from Roth's life: an incestuous relationship with a sister over several years of the hero's adolescence.

After Roth died, Kellman says, the impression formed that he had been "American literature's spurned prodigy, whose debut was dazzling and departure luminous, but whose center was a black hole." The biography is Kellman's attempt to correct that impression.

Kellman's task is to give Roth's life and writing career a convincing narrative and a satisfying judgment. In the end, does Roth's life justify the title, Redemption?

Roth never had Yeats' luxury of choosing between "perfection of the life or of the work." The grave imperfections of his life apparently first "hurt him into" fiction, then cast him into 50 years of silence, and finally impelled the old man to devote his last years to a sustained effort of confessional writing, in which he completed his self-portrait of the artist as a young and guilty Jewish man.

George Orwell wondered whether writers deserve some extra immunity from common moral judgment, a "benefit of clergy" because, whatever their crimes, they also discover for the rest of us what our normalcy could never know. As Auden's memorable doggerel put it, "France, which pardoned Paul Claudel, pardoned him for writing well."

When Henry Roth died, as he wanted, "with his books on," he hoped that writing well would earn him, beyond immortality among grateful readers, a degree of redemption.

Arthur M. Lesley teaches Hebrew and Jewish literature at Baltimore Hebrew University.

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