Henry Roth lived one of the most astonishing writer's lives of the 20th century, though, ironically, the most salient feature of the life was that not much writing was actually done during the bulk of it. As those conversant with literature know, Roth, his first time up at bat, wrote one of the great novels of the American Jewish experience – some might even say the greatest – in Call It Sleep. It appeared at the height of the Great Depression, issued by a small New York press, garnered some respectful reviews, then sank from sight, mostly because the publisher went belly-up.
In addition, by the time Call It Sleep was published in December 1934, its author had fallen under the sway of the Communist Party, had transformed himself into a true believer, and had begun work on what one editor judged would be the greatest proletarian novel in American letters. But soon after this news was imparted, the writer burned what little there was of the manuscript, sank into despair, then decided to leave New York City and head for the wilds of Maine. There, he began raising waterfowl and nursed his sense of resentment, watching over the decades as his writer's block ballooned to massive proportions.
But then, late in life, he was stirred again, and managed in his last years to bang out a four-volume autobiographical novel through a sheer act of will. Some critics took the final product to be an extraordinary feat in and of itself; others considered it a colossal waste of time as literature. But in recounting Roth's life story, it makes for an astonishing final act to a complex and tragic existence.
The first biography of Roth has recently appeared, the work of Steven G. Kellman, who teaches comparative literature at the University of Texas at San Antonio. TitledRedemption, the book was published by W.W. Norton.
Kellman is thorough without being encyclopedic. And though he hasn't the most compelling prose style, the particulars of Roth's life carry his book straight to the end. The sheer facts make for compelling reading.
Before Roth returned to writing in his ninth decade, he had provided several different explanations for why he'd fallen silent. At times, he would say that the indifference shown to his masterpiece, Call It Sleep, had embittered him to the point that he refused to take up his pen ever again. Other times, he would say that his love affair with communism had taken him too far from the only milieu he knew as a writer – the world of his childhood in New York's Jewish ghettos, the locale that pulses with life and danger in his first novel. When he tried writing about a worker's life, he found that he knew nothing about it and was stopped in his tracks by his manuscript's lack of authenticity.
Still, other times he would blame the literary society he had fallen into in Greenwich Village, where he wrote his first novel, under the tutelage of his mistress – an older, non-Jewish woman, Eda May Walton, an English professor at New York University to whomCall It Sleep is dedicated. The Village was so far beyond the world of Jewish immigrant life that Roth said he felt crippled by the atmosphere and every piece of writing he took up after Call It Sleep turned to dust.
In the end, all of these forces may have contributed to his writer's block. But there was one true dark secret Roth was suppressing that had stopped him dead in his tracks – that is, until in his 80s, he was able to face it, stare it down, and commit it to paper.
A Legacy of Anxiety
As it turned out, what curtailed Roth's creativity was his repeated incest with his younger sister, Rose, and then as well with his cousin Sylvia. He could not control his urges, and took advantage of both women again and again. If, like most autobiographical writers, he was to continue the story of his life, the story he'd begun in Call It Sleep, then how was he to confess to such depravity? Roth's self-loathing was as awesome as his writer's block. Only in the third of his four late novels, collectively titled Mercy of a Rude Stream, did he broach the subject, and it shocked the literary community. It also explained a great deal.
But Roth's life was marked by a number of astonishing resurrections and revivals – rebirths, actually – and this refers not only to the rekindling of his creative spark in the 1980s. The rejuvenation of the artist known as Henry Roth truly began in the 1960s when publisher Peter Mayer reprinted Call It Sleep as an Avon paperback, and it was reviewed on the front page of The New York Times Book Review by influential critic Irving Howe. Till then, no paperback of any sort had ever been reviewed in that space.
Readers flocked to the novel and made it one of the most talked about works of fiction of the period. The hunt then began to find the mysterious Henry Roth. But when it was discovered that this great artist was tending ducks in Maine, many in the artistic community were horrified, then dismayed. Roth, for his part, attempted to cling to his anonymity; and as was his way, it took another 15 or 20 years before he got the courage to put words on paper – or, rather, pluck away at his computer. That also occurred only after he fled Maine and was reborn in the warmer climate of New Mexico, where he and his wife lived out the remainder of their days.
So, if little writing was done during the long middle stretch of Roth's 89 years, just what does Kellman talk about in the more than 300 pages of his biography? He's done a masterful job of research, and is equally good at delving into Roth's motives. He never overdoes the psychologizing, which is very much to his credit.
What he does write about, though, is often not pretty. Call It Sleep deals with a child, David Schearl, his deep love for his mother, and his unmitigated fear and hatred of his bullying father. As it turns out, the details of the novel closely parallel the author's life. Roth was as tyrannized by his bullying father as was poor, sensitive David. But one of Kellman's interesting revelations is that the elder Roth was a puny, mean little man, not the towering evil giant of the novel. His small, weaselish bearing makes his misdeeds seem even more repulsive.
What is worse is that Roth perpetrated the same horrors upon his two children. His sons, Hugh and Jeb, saw only their father's rage and depression, and never knew about the "gregarious" literary life he'd led in Greenwich Village; what they knew was only the sad, morose man who took his anger out on them, while often forcing them to assist him in the bloody, miserable work of slaughtering ducks. Both sons eventually became estranged from their parents.
Roth's life – and its legacy of anxiety – could not have been easy. This is not said to excuse his behavior, merely to state a fact. The description of his life in Maine is particularly grim, even grizzly, as is Roth's deepening sense of isolation. Again, these are not excuses, simply facts. Roth didn't become an indulgent father once creativity started flowing in him again. Art rarely makes individuals saints.
Roth's one constant blessing was his wife. Muriel Parker was herself a talented musician; the couple actually met at Yaddo, the artists' colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. Parker also happened to be the product of a very white-bread WASP family, and her ancestry was another thing that attracted Roth. (Parker's parents, though, disinherited her when she married her penniless, artistic Jew.) Parker set aside her career until much later in life, and stood by her husband, whose gift she never doubted, no matter his crippling problems or his inept parenting techniques. She took his side in all things.
Redemption faces all of its difficult material head on, and so doesn't make for easy reading. But all those who cherish Call It Sleep will likely seek it out to learn all they can about the difficult man behind the novel, no matter the sordid particulars of his life.