main page, here
(1906 - 1995)
By Merle Rubin
August 15, 2005
Few novelists have drawn more directly on their own lives than Henry Roth, first in his powerful portrait of an immigrant family on New York's Lower East Side, "Call It Sleep" (1934), and much later, after decades of writer's block, in the four published novels of his even more overtly self-revelatory roman-fleuve, "Mercy of a Rude Stream." Why then do we need a biography?
The same question occurred to the author of this one. A literary critic who's written on Camus, Steven G. Kellman says he was reluctant to take on the job when Roth's editor, Robert Weil, and agent, Roslyn Targ, approached him: "For a year and a half, I pondered the many reasons that I, originally trained in the New Criticism to trust the tale and not the teller, ought not to proffer chatter about the author of 'Call It Sleep.' " In some ways, as Kellman notes, "all literary biography is redundant. Dante already delivers himself, more than anyone else could, in his 'Commedia.' " But in Roth's case, the connection between characters and incidents in life and those in his novels is so direct, a biographer well may wonder what there is to add.
Fortunately, as Kellman goes on to demonstrate in his thoughtful and enlightening "Redemption: The Life of Henry Roth," there is much that a good biographer can do to enhance our appreciation of literature and our understanding of the circumstances of a writer's life. One of the most valuable things that Kellman brings to the story of this fiercely emotional, painfully self-analytical writer is distance and objectivity: a sense of perspective as welcome as flowers that bloom in the spring.
Not only does Kellman track down details, enabling us to discern the difference between what happened and Roth's often overblown, more lurid fictional versions of the past, but this biographer's calm, orderly and generally sympathetic manner of telling Roth's story serves as a nice balance to the anguished, self-lacerating, tortuous convolutions of Roth's later work.
Roth's life (1906-1995) was a hard road, pretty much from beginning to end. The only son of an ill-matched Jewish couple from Eastern Europe, Henry came to America as an infant in his mother's arms. His most poignant early memories were of New York's crowded, squalid Lower East Side, the setting of "Call It Sleep." Although enveloped in the love of an overprotective mother, his childhood was far from secure. His father was hot tempered and unpredictable, and, like countless other immigrants who came to America dreaming of a better life, he did not find it.
The first big upheaval of Henry's life, however, was the family's move to Harlem — to the outward eye, a somewhat better neighborhood. For Henry, then in the third grade, the move was traumatic, uprooting him from a secure, safely all-Jewish environment, to a more threatening one featuring tough Italian and Irish kids. Thanks to public schools and libraries, Roth received a good education, including a degree from City College of New York. And thanks to the love and support of an extraordinary woman, Eda Lou Walton, a denizen of Greenwich Village who introduced him to the Modernist masterpieces of T.S. Eliot and James Joyce, Roth was inspired by Joyce's example to turn the dross of his childhood woes into the gold of art in "Call It Sleep."
Contrary to the myth that later developed, Kellman points out, Roth's first novel, far from being ignored, garnered critical praise even then. Roth, however, was unable to supply his publisher with a second book. A significant factor that Kellman slights may have been money: The book didn't make much, despite good reviews. Not coincidentally, that same year, 1934, Roth joined the Communist Party and became caught up in misadventures that didn't even furnish him with the ideologically appropriate material he'd hoped for.
Roth's life became a succession of menial jobs, some skilled, some not, although he had enough of a literary reputation to be invited to the prestigious writers colony Yaddo in 1938, where he met Muriel Parker, a promising composer and Mayflower descendant who became a devoted wife. A hard life it was for them both, but Roth was entirely faithful.
Roth was resurrected, so to speak, in 1964 with the reissue of "Call It Sleep" and Irving Howe's front-page piece in the New York Times Book Review enshrining it as "one of the few genuinely distinguished novels written by a 20th-century American." Returning after so much time to his lost literary vocation, Roth spent his final years probing the causes of his writer's block and getting on with the task of transforming his life story into art. Ruthlessly honest, he dredged up homosexual anxieties, guilty memories of (heterosexual) incest, Jewish self-hatred and anger at himself for his naive involvement with communism.
Many writers have only managed to write a first novel based on their own experience because they lack the imagination and inventiveness to go beyond that. Bernard Malamud once suggested that what caused some prolific writers, like Hemingway, to decline into shallowness in their later years was a failure to confront their personal demons. Kellman's book shows us, more simply and clearly than Roth himself, how this courageous and cantankerous man resurrected himself as a writer by returning to his roots and engaging with those demons.
Merle Rubin is a contributing writer to Book Review.
Redemption: The Life of Henry Roth
By Steven G. Kellman
Norton, 371 pp., illustrated, $25.95
Henry Roth's ''Call It Sleep" stands as an astonishing achievement in American letters, a modernist meditation on the ordeals of childhood and assimilation. It might also be the best Jewish novel ever written in the English language. Innocence, however, long an essential fixture of the story, is no more.
Originally released in New York in 1934, the novel was received with a modicum of enthusiasm and sold 3,000 copies. The protagonist, a boy called David Schearl, ''wanders as he wonders," to use an image by Langston Hughes, in the Lower East Side tenements, where the author, a Polish-born communist, spent his early years. The abuse he was a target of from his father, Herman Roth, and the exposure he underwent to American values (he arrived at the age of 1 with his mother, Leah Farb, at the Brownsville section of the Bronx), pushed Roth to introspection, which he uses as a drawing board for his semiautobiographical narrative. Although ''Call It Sleep" takes place at the outset of World War I, Roth's ideology suits the post-Depression age: He draws attention to the poverty of immigrants without letting his political views metastasize into propaganda.
People wondered: Could the author replicate his accomplishments in a second novel? The answer, it turned out, wouldn't be available for another six decades. ''Call It Sleep" went quickly out of print. While fewer than half a dozen stories appeared in The New Yorker and other periodicals from the '30s to the '40s, Roth was struck by a severe writer's block. Steven G. Kellman has written a full-fledged Roth biography, ''Redemption," brought out on the occasion of Roth's centennial.
The picture of Roth that emerges in ''Redemption" is far from a pleasant one. Educated at DeWitt Clinton High School and, briefly, at City College of New York, he befriended Eda Lou Walton, the force behind the completion of ''Call It Sleep." He was a card-carrying member of the American Labor Party who later replaced communist sympathies with an endorsement of Zionism. He lived in New York, Massachusetts, Maine, and New Mexico. To support himself and his family he was, among other things, a substitute teacher, a tutor, and a social worker. Kellman explains Roth's odyssey with scientific patience. He doesn't lose his composure even in the darkest segments of the volume, when Roth's alarming secret -- his alleged incest with his sister, Rose, and a cousin -- comes into focus. Parts of these allegations became public a few years ago. Kellman scrutinizes them and attempts to dissect possible reverberations on the lives of those implicated.
The title Kellman chooses is a fitting one: Roth's quest for an identity of his own does appear to follow the pattern of redemptive journey. At the literary level, the redemption was a three-step process. The first step was a 1956 roundtable discussion in The American Scholar, titled ''The Most Neglected Books of the Past Twenty-Five Years," that mentioned Roth's novel twice. By then he was in Maine, married and a father. Although his story ''Petey and Yotsee and Mario" appeared in The New Yorker the same year, he seemed to have vanished from the literary consciousness of the period.
Step two occurred in the '60s, when Avon reissued ''Call It Sleep." In a stunning 1964 front-page piece in The New York Times Book Review, critic Irving Howe declared Roth's novel a superb work of fiction. Soon a first printing of 25,000 copies sold out. A classic had been born. In and of itself, Howe's piece deserves scrutiny. It was around the time when the critic had seen the Broadway production of ''Fiddler on the Roof," based on the Sholem Aleichem installment novel. The adaptation, Howe argued, was saccharine -- a farfetched tour of nostalgia designed for a generation of American Jews moving far away from their roots. The invitation to appraise Roth's novel was for Howe an opportunity to show that, artistically, American Jewish culture wasn't an altogether downhill ride.
The third step took place in 1994, when Roth, at age 88, released the first of four installments of ''Mercy of a Rude Stream," a tedious and rowdy novel with Ira Stigman, a mature character, functioning as the author's alter ego. Kellman explains the way the volumes came to be (the mechanics, the insufficient editing) while discussing the alleged incest, which Roth never admitted. As it happens, his sister threatened to sue him and Roth paid her $10,000, the same amount St. Martin's paid for the whole manuscript. He also agreed not to portray Ira's sister, Minnie Stigman, as ''having any further sexual relationship with her brother."
Kellman paints a picture of Roth as paranoid, self-centered, and vengeful, a novelist ''lifted out of himself" by a second chance. I fear that second chance might eclipse ''Call It Sleep," a novel whose power is only enhanced by time. Is the redemption Roth went through necessary to understand it? Maybe not, but Kellman makes sure the reader's naivete is no longer possible. David Schearl is a complex child, but is he a monster? From now on, delving into his tale involves deciphering the shadows on the wall.
Ilan Stavans, the Lewis-Sebring Professor in Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College, is the author, most recently, of ''Dictionary Days."
writer haunted by the pain and remorse of his childhood
By Donald Weber, the Lucia, Ruth and Elizabeth MacGregor professor of English at Mt. Holyoke College and the author of "Haunted in the New World: Jewish American Culture from Cahan to 'The Goldbergs.'
Published September 25, 2005
Redemption: The Life of Henry Roth
By Steven G. Kellman
Norton, 371 pages, $25.95
Well before Henry Roth died in 1995 at age 89, after living in relative obscurity in Albuquerque and in exile from his Lower East Side homeland in New York City, the story of his literary career had become the stuff of legend. Roth was famous for what he had not been able to achieve: a sequel to "Call It Sleep," his harrowing, coming-of-age novel about immigrant family life in turn-of-the-century New York.
Published to substantial acclaim in 1934, when Roth was only 28, this now-canonical novel--by consensus among the great books of modern American literature--soon disappeared from view, along with its author. The achievement of Steven G. Kellman's "Redemption," his authoritative yet relentlessly chronological biography of Roth, is its impressive recovery of so many rich and sometimes startling details concerning Roth's strange career--an eccentric life that nonetheless refracts many of the core literary, political and religious experiences of the 20th Century.
Kellman explains his fascination with Roth in personal terms:
"I had initially read 'Call It Sleep'--avidly, compulsively--in 1964. . . . The story seemed written in my blood."
The novel leaves an indelible mark on many of its readers. In "Call It Sleep," Roth transcribes in lyrical--at times almost visionary--language the journey of little David out of the hellish House of Schearl, an Oedipally charged tenement world lorded over by a paranoid father who is constantly threatening the son with violence; he seeks protection from an emotionally nourishing mother.
A city boychik, David is a mystic yearning for evidence of a spiritual world. Ultimately David discovers redemption not in the sacred words of the Bible that he reads in religious school, but through the Babel of multicultural voices that, at the very end, in a semiconscious state of aural reception (as a result of an electric shock from the third rail of the city cable-car tracks), ultimately stir his awakened soul. " 'There is one theme I like above all others,' " Roth said in 1960, " 'and that is redemption, but I haven't the fable.' "
Of course, Roth already had written the fable, rendered years before in the figure of sensitive David Schearl, a solitary walker in the city seeking redemption on the grimy streets of New York. Unfortunately, after its publication, "Call It Sleep" and its author lapsed into virtual obscurity. Roth took on a series of odd jobs, from substitute high school teacher in the Bronx to machinist in Boston, to math and Latin tutor, to hospital attendant in Augusta, Maine, where he had settled with his young family in the late 1940s. When "Call It Sleep" was reissued in paperback in 1964, Roth was living in a small town north of Augusta and making a living slaughtering ducks.
It took a subsequent generation of literature-mad Jewish sons like Alfred Kazin, Leslie Fiedler and Irving Howe to revive Roth's reputation. In his now-famous front-page review of the paperback edition in The New York Times Book Review of Oct. 25, 1964, Howe succinctly voiced the novel's ultimate theme: At the end of "Call It Sleep," Roth's young hero finds "a way of containing the terrors of the world."
Kellman's biography deepens our understanding of "Call It Sleep" by unearthing the palpable terror that marked Roth's childhood, upon which he drew in "Call It Sleep." We learn that one rejected title for the novel was "Escape Little David"--a fitting phrase to describe Roth's life.
Born in 1906 to Chaim (later Herman) Roth and Leah Farb in the Old World shtetl of Tysmenitz, in the Austro-Hungarian province of Galicia, Herschel (later Henry) settled in 1909 with his family on 9th Street and Avenue D on the Lower East Side. In his 1995 memoir-novel "A Diving Rock on the Hudson," Roth describes his father as a "deeply troubled little man . . . scared, resentful, unstable." Roth, it seems, never overcame the filial scars inflicted by Herman; in Kellman's view the often-psychically unhinged father bequeathed the son "a lifetime of depression and insecurity"
Another core theme in "Redemption" is Roth's chronic sense of exile and displacement, above all his alienation as a Jew. For Roth, the family's 1914 uprooting from the East Side uptown to East 119th Street in Irish Harlem was a symbolic turning point. Roth claimed that his notorious writer's block could be traced to the trauma of physical displacement. "I felt at home there," the garrulous narrator of "A Diving Rock on the Hudson" recalls about the organic world of his childhood, "shored and stayed by the tenets I imagined inhered in the nature of things."
"[E]motionally," Kellman observes of Roth's deeply nostalgic attachment to the Lower East Side, "Roth never left its tenements."
Eventually the son sought refuge from the incestuous--literally, as it apparently turned out--Roth family nest in the bohemian world of New York's Greenwich Village, in whose heady intellectual circles Roth moved in the early 1920s. There he met Eda Lou Walton, a free-spirited professor of American Indian literature and modern poetry at New York University. Twelve years older than her greenhorn pupil, she nurtured his latent artistic talent and served as his literary and sexual muse. It was under Walton's tutelage that Roth wrote the first drafts of "Call It Sleep" in longhand on NYU exam books. He wrote most of the novel (which is dedicated to Walton) while living in rural Maine in the early 1930s. Roth mailed scores of blue books home to his always-generous sister, Rose, who typed the original manuscript.
For more than half a century, students of modern American literature who cared about Henry Roth could only point to his great first novel. Then, beginning in 1987, with the publication of "Shifting Landscape," a gathering of early stories, interviews and reflections (about his tenement life, the political '30s, art, the birth of Israel and other subjects), readers witnessed what short-story writer Leonard Michaels called "the long comeback of Henry Roth." After languishing for decades in silence, Roth, in his 70s, began typing with arthritic hands on a computer keyboard in Albuquerque. He produced thousands of manuscript pages that continued the story of David Schearl, now named Ira Stigman, starting out in his early teens in Irish Harlem. That saga was published from 1994 to 1998 as a series of novels under the collective title "Mercy of a Rude Stream." Roth's miraculous recovery excited many critics and scholars. Could he recover what social critic Marshall Berman called the "visionary gleam" of "Call It Sleep"?
The critical consensus, more or less, was no. Perhaps the most insurmountable challenge facing the biographer of Henry Roth is that his subject achieved a relatively brief interval of fame and importance at so young an age. By adhering to a strict chronological structure--charting Roth's life in terms of spatial movements over the years, from one site of exile to the next--Kellman's story must, almost by entropic necessity, lose momentum and focus.
Although filled with rich biographical details distilled from the huge Roth archive at the American Jewish Historical Society--above all the still-stunning revelation of Roth's confession of having committed incest with his sister as a young boy (the relationship began when she was 10 and he was 12)--Roth's life ultimately resists the biographer's powers of empathy. Given the blurring of art and life in Roth's last confessional volumes (the aged narrator offers a continuous metacommentary on the younger Ira's story in what feels like unmediated reflections, voicing the raw truths of shame-ridden experience), it is not surprising that "Redemption" cites the late fiction as if it contained the authority of hard evidence.
In the end, Roth was released from his famous block; immobilized for half a century by self-lacerating shame and disgust, he somehow sum-moned the psychic energy to resume his story, confronting his past--what he calls in "A Diving Rock on the Hudson" "a canker in the soul." Visitors who made the pilgrimage to his Albuquerque mobile home (the address was "New York Avenue") in the early 1990s noted the enlarged photograph of the Lower East Side looming over Roth's desk, an emblem of his warmly remembered life on 9th Street and Avenue D. Yet he never could make peace with his past. Henry Roth was, it now seems, forever haunted by the immigrant world of his childhood, a landscape of pain and remorse that trailed his every move in a helpless search for redemption.
The TLS n.º 5371 March 10, 2006
Sisters and brothers
Steven G. Kellman
The life of Henry Roth
372 pp. New York: Norton. $29.95
(U.K. £ 16.99)
0 393 05779 8
Henry Roth is probably as famous for his literary silence as he is for his literary success. Having written in 1934 Call It Sleep, a semi-autobiographical Joycean treatment of the chaotic neurotic Jewish New York immigrant experience from the eyes of a young child, he then took sixty years to produce its sequel. Mercy of a Rude Stream, a four-volume novel sequence published during the mid-1990s, picked up exactly where Call It Sleep ended, following its protagonist into adolescence and adulthood. The name was changed - David Schearl became Ira Stigman - but the character remained at core Roth himself. “There is not a single line in my novels”, Roth once claimed, ‘that is not based on reality.”
II is always a challenge to write a biography of an author whose distinction rests on writing about himself; but, in Redemption, Steven C. Kellmau achieves a just balance, using his dose reading of Roth’s small corpus to bolster his portrait of the artist, without becoming enmeshed in the details of discrepancies between fact and fiction in Roth’s writings . The story starts in Tysmenitz, Galicia, where Roth’s “fierce but feckless father” Herman shares a birthplace with Jacob Freud (the father of Sigmund). After one failed attempt, Herman arrives in New York in 1907 with his wife, Leah, and their one-year-old son, Herschel. Of the 1,285,350 people who reached Ellis Island that year, over 10 per cent of them were Jews.
As Kellman notes, “popular immigrant success stories have eclipsed the trauma of relocation”, but the strained life of the Roths seems more likely to have been the norm. Herman, immortalised as the monstrous Albert Schearl in Call It Sleep, was a bitter, scheming failure, who was unable to strike it rich in the land of the free. Leah was a fussing, indulgent mother and weary wife who never felt at home and did not master English. Caught between the two, was a podgy, mewling Herschel, soon anglicized to Henry. Kellman quotes the Southern novelist Pat Conroy as an epigraph to one of his chapters on Roth’s early years: My mother’s voice and my father’s fists are the two bookends of my childhood, and they form the basis of my art”.
But it was arguably Roth’s sister, Rose, who had the greatest impact on his psyche -. and on his writing. By the time Henry was sixteen and Rose fourteen, the two had started to sleep together -. an arrangement that was to continue for several years. Kellman writes sensitively about the prevalence of incest in immigrant communities where newcomers found it difficult “to invest their emotions in anything beyond the reassuring confines of the clan”. He fails, however, to distinguish fully between the taboo of sibling incest and that of sexual relations between cousins, which was not uncommon to the culture at the time. Roth also indulged. in the latter, but it was his “playing bad” with Rose that was to cast a pall of guilt and self-disgust over his entire life.
In Mercy, Roth writes of the “prolonged infantilism” of Ira Stigman. Roth himself remained something of a mummy’s (and a sister’ s) boy until, in his early twenties, he fell in with a New York literary crowd. Up until then, his intellectual development had been sluggish and his achievements at college scarce. (Kellman notes that, at roughly the same time, William Faulkner, John Steinbeck and Langston Hughes were all dropping out of college.) It was his meeting, and subsequent relationship, with Eda Lou Walton that was to spur him into creative action.
Sexually promiscuous, wealthy and very well connected Walton was au academic who delighted in nurturing talent; with her support Roth started to write copiously and in 1934, Call It Sleep was published to some positive reviews. Many compared Roth favourably to Joyce, who had been a key influence both in theme (Call It Sleep is the portrait of an artist as a Young man) and style (ii is permeated by stream-of-consciousness writing and recurrent Symbolist imagery). “What I gained from Joyce”, wrote Roth, “was this awed realisation that you didn’t have to go anywhere at all except around the corner to flesh out a literary work.” But despite some critical success, Call it Sleep sold under 2,000 copies; and as Roth began to flirt with a hardline brand of socialism he fell out of love with creation. Though Michael Harrington a leading socialist intellectual, would later describe Call It Sleep as “the finest proletarian novel of the Thirties” Roth believed his book to be “bourgeois”.
Roth also drifted from Walton. She had always been something of a mother substitute and now it was time to grow up. Much to her fury, he began to court a gifted composer called Muriel Parker, whom he soon married. An abortive novel about a working-class hero signalled (despite the odd dabbling) the end of Roth’s literary ambitions. “There were easier forms of making a living”, he later commented, “so I gave it up.” Precision metal-grinding followed storm drain-digging and, after the war, the Roths settled in Maine and became farmers. They were poor but deeply devoted to each other. “My life might not be easy”, Muriel told a friend, “but I have au interesting husband.”
Kallman skilfully maintains the reader’s interest during these wilderness years. There are insights into Roth’s depression, his rages (at one point he brutally kills the family pet) and his difficult relationship with his ageing parents. Though an uxorious husband, he was never a good father, lashing out at his two sons much as his own father had done with him. Kellman keeps at the forefront Roth’s overwhelming sense of personal disgust. The shame that had impelled him to write also now silenced him. Call It Sleep resonates with the sexual revulsion and bewilderment of its young protagonist; but Roth could not bear to take this protagonist into adolescence (and thus directly confront his own exploits) until he was well into old age.
In 1964, aged fifty-eight, Roth suddenly became famous for being unknown”. Despite a 1960 reprint, after Call It Sleep was ‘rediscovered”, it was not until the Michael Joseph paperback came out in 1963, featured on the front of the New York Times Book Review, that success came. It had taken thirty years, but it arrived with a vengeance. Following rapturous reviews, the book sold one million copies; suddenly it was hailed as a masterpiece.
Redemption then follows Roth’s bemusement at being thrust into the limelight and his gradual literary reawakening. His growing interest in Judaism and Zionism helped to spur the intellectual flow, though he did not begin to write Mercy until 1979; and in 1993, aged eighty-six, he was still a one-novel author. By this time, Muriel had died. Roth had previously allowed excerpts of Mercy to be published in Italian, but he did not wish to expose his wife to its painful (incestuous) contents. He was less thoughtful about his sister. After Volume One of Mercy went on sale in the US in 1994 (to more rapturous reviews), Rosa became distraught. A year later, Roth gave her a cheque for $10,000 and both signed an agreement: “In future volumes of the fictional work entitled Mercy of a Rude Stream”, there was to be no more sibling incest.
Roth’s output in his eighties, described by a friend as cacoethes scribendi, was extraordinary. Crippled by arthritis, he carried on tapping away until his death in 1995, aged eighty-nine. Though he lived to see the cuts made to Volume Three, both this and Volume Four were published posthumously. Almost 2,000 pages of his elderly jottings remain unpublished. Maybe, just as Roth himself was, they will one day be resurrected, For now we must be grateful for Steven Kellman’s absorbing portrait of this virtual embodiment of twenty-century writing – “ a cohort of Don DeLillo and Thomas Pynchon as well as James Joyce and Virginia Woolf”.
Posted Thursday, June 10, 2010, at 9:57 AM ET
I can't think of another novelist as skinless as Henry Roth. The author of Call It Sleep (1934), a triumphantly bruised account of a greenhorn's childhood on the Lower East Side, was a shy man, Galician-born, who never developed the hide that would have protected him against fame and its expectations. Instead of publishing a second novel, he fell more or less silent. When he managed to write again after 50 years of poverty and anonymity, he released a stream of confessional narrative that feels like it built up during a lifetime of being rubbed raw. Self-revelation, for Roth, was a matter of compulsion, not policy. Had he been cannier, savvier, a better career manager, he would have cleaned up these late-in-life effusions before the machinery of posthumous literary reputation went to work cleaning them up for him.
The first four volumes extracted by an editor from that flow were published as Mercy of a Rude Stream. Roth saw, and was pleased with, three of the volumes, though he lived to see only two published. The third, and a fourth volume he never saw, appeared after Roth's death in 1995 at the age of 89. The quartet recounts in barely fictionalized form the story of Roth's youth, from the age of 8 till the age of 19, most of it spent in a hostile, mostly Irish Harlem. Names are all that Roth changed, and he barely changed those. Here, under the pseudonym Ira Stigman—the name seems almost to form the sentence, I are a stigma, or maybe a stigma-man—we have Roth the mama's boy shrinking from Jew-baiting street toughs; Roth the delivery boy shuttling embarrassed between his bewildered, barely functional parents and the gleaming goyishe world; Roth the envious purloiner of his wealthier classmates' fountain pens; Roth the self-castigating but compulsive seducer of first his sister, then his cousin; Roth the bumbling squire of a much older professor of poetry at New York University. Whatever the guise, the Roth beneath it remains the same: self-absorbed, ashamed, a shlemiel.
There's something flesh-crawling about being in the presence of so much self-loathing, and it's particularly unsettling when the self-loather trumpets his humiliations. This, I have always thought, is why the majority of publishers and critics have dismissed the work of Roth's old age as boring, squalid, shapeless, devoid of the artistry that made his first novel a classic.
Squalid and shapeless it can be; boring and artless it is not. We may not always know where Roth is going, but we know that his descriptions and dialogue feel ripped from the gut, as if his skinlessness deprived him of the usual filters. Now another slice of Roth's life has been culled from the heap and published as An American Type, and we are reminded again of just how alive his writing is and how acute an observer he was. Roth recreates with remarkable immediacy—all the more so given that he was looking back after half a century—both the excitement and the degradation of bohemian life during the Great Depression, at least as he stumbled through it, a quintessentially picaresque figure, forever insecure, characterologically incapable of seizing the main chance.
It is 11 years since the college-age Ira has left Harlem and moved into a Greenwich Village apartment with his mentor and patron, the poetry professor Edith. He has published his acclaimed novel and begun to develop writer's block. During a stay in the artist's colony Yaddo, he meets M., a tall, blond pianist and composer whose gentle manner and disciplined artistry seem to him to incarnate the best of Americanness. Naturally, he feels unworthy of her: "Hers was an inherent nobility, hers all the virtues and amenities of breeding and tradition. What the hell would she want him for, or want with him?" To be with M., he must end his financial dependence on Edith, but such is Edith's hold on him that he can do that only if he leaves New York altogether. How will he support himself? By becoming a screenwriter in Hollywood, of course. "You're the most unfitted person for Hollywood I have ever known," Edith observes, bitterly but accurately.
What follows is a dive into the extinguishing reality of American pennilessness. Ira inches across the country in a run-down Ford Model A, accompanied by Bill, an illiterate Communist whom Ira, during a proletarian-worshipping phase, had tried and failed to make the hero of a second novel. On the road, Bill reveals himself to be a blowhard and bully, while Ira reverts to masochistic type, cowed and disgusted by how easily intimidated he is. Edith is right about Hollywood. Ira drops off his novel at a theatrical agency whose Jewish partners gleam with American politesse and "the alchemy of expensive garb." But when he returns on the appointed day,
his reception was stripped of all punctilio; it was Jewish, or squeamish, or both. They wanted nothing to do with the book and could scarcely conceal their aversion. They both seemed pained, almost stiff with alarm, as if their interests were threatened by the book on the elaborately bracketed desk. They wanted the taint removed as soon as possible.
This is visceral stuff, unflinching in its anatomy of ignominy, particularly if that ignominy happens to be Roth's. Given that he writes like a man doubled over from a blow to the stomach, it must be said that Roth does an impressive job of taking in what goes on around him. At its best, his prose has a manic sketchiness, an observational shorthand, that feels as intimate as thought yet has the power to startle back to life a poignant variety of vanished things. There are the Dobos-torte-like layers of Ira's immigrant self-doubt, but also the weird quackery of a small-town barber (he tries to convince Ira he has "pore worms") and the intestinal workings of Ira's uncle's greasy-spoon cafe: "The small kitchen was hot and close, the walls brown as a roach, and humid. Ira watched him while he filled a couple of orders, fingering the meatballs and positioning the pork chops on the plate. 'What do you think they do at the Waldorf?' he replied to Ira's unspoken question. 'Different?' "
Another pleasure is eavesdropping on Ira's ruminations on his writing, which can give you some inkling of method underneath the maddening sprawl. Rocking ungently on some sharp steel bars covering the floor of the refrigerator car of a freight train, Ira lets his familiar mix of self-recrimination and grandiosity resolve itself into a free-verse nursery rhyme, beaten out to the rhythm of the tracks. It seems to add up to a literary credo: "Come to nort, all abort … sternly bring your faculties to a focus by composing an autobiography, freely associative … but governed by implicit rules of narration … augment suspense toward a climax … a climax that would exclude present distress."
If you know anything about Roth's subsequent life, you know that there would be no excluding of distress, and no real climax either. He and M. (Muriel Parker, who became his wife) would have children, move to Maine, and subside into an even more devastating, because more rural, poverty. An American Type does have a climax, Ira and M.'s marriage. This was put in place not by Roth but by the volume's editor, a young fiction editor at The New Yorker named Willing Davidson, who culled from a 1,900-page manuscript a work that feels very much like a novel. According to an afterword, he mostly put the events back into chronological order and cut out most of the material about Roth's later life.
All this reshaping was skillfully done—Davidson wields a sharper scalpel than the editor of Mercy did, and the prose in An American Type reads more cleanly as a result—and yet this volume raises anew the questions that, 15 years after Roth's death, are starting to become urgent: Do Roth's confessions have an internal integrity that is getting lost as pieces continue to be sliced off and honed and brought out as "novels" and "stories"? Is it utterly impossible that he came up with a new form of autobiography, one that was "freely associative" and had "implicit rules of narration"? It's worth noting that the same batch of material Davidson has drawn on for An American Type yielded two excerpts in The New Yorker, and that they read like the work of a completely different writer. The New Yorker Roth is a much perkier, wittier fellow, exactly the sort of New Yorker author Roth dreamed of being and on a very few occasions was able to be. What does the variation in tone among all these "novels" and "stories" tell us about Roth, exactly, other than that his prose is malleable and susceptible to "improvement"?
Maybe it's just that Roth's haplessness arouses my protectiveness, but I can't help bristling at these repeated attempts to impose a conventional morphology on an artist who seems to have been determined to eschew one. Not having access to the manuscripts, I can't tell you whether Roth succeeded in what he set out to do. But I can pass along some hints that Roth drops about what he thinks he's up to. Or, to be more precise, what he isn't up to. He isn't writing a finely wrought, Joycean novel like Call It Sleep. As he tells us in Mercy, he has turned against T.S. Eliot and Joyce, the dominant influences of his youth, particularly the character of Leopold Bloom, whom he denounces as a deracinated Jew. Roth isn't writing anything that would aesthetize and mythologize the petty miseries of his childhood, as he did in Call It Sleep.
And he is not selling his soul to the literary world. This is one of the dominant themes of An American Type. Roth had tried to rebel against his literary-insider mistress and his own seemingly unearned success by becoming a Communist, but the propaganda the Communists prompted him to produce was even more intolerable to him than whatever he felt guilty of in Call It Sleep. (In real life, Roth burned the manuscript of the novel that glorified a character like Bill.) He further refused, or was unable, to craft the kind of plot-driven, marketable prose that would have earned him a living. Or so we deduce from scenes in American Type involving an agent named Virginia N., who tells Ira he's got to come "to the point" and leave "sensibility out of the picture." Ira muses: "She discarded the life for the scheme. The scheme Ira had never mastered; he thought he had a sense of life."
short, was a literary refusnik. So what did all that rejecting leave him with?
Very little but his "sense of life"—but that he had to a degree most writers can
only dream of, and few could tolerate. I imagine (though I
don't know) that that "sense of life" is what he meant to leave us
with. I very much doubt Roth would have had American Type climax with a
Indeed, Davidson tells us he didn't. Roth may have had a problem with the very
idea of endings. In Mercy of a Rude Stream he quotes more than once a
Talmudic saying to the effect that you are not required to finish, but you are
not allowed to stop, either. Life, unlike fiction, has neither crisp beginnings
nor redemptive endings. It endures, as Roth did, until it doesn't. The saddest
ending of all would be if Roth's amorphous, neurotic, miraculously unquashable
"sense of life" was precisely what got polished out of his work.
Correction, June 10, 2010: This article originally implied that the novel American Type ends with a marriage. That's the novel's climax, but it ends with the death of Ira's wife and Ira's determination to keep writing.
Judith Shulevitz is a former culture editor of Slate and the author of The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time.
Read this article here