Call It Sleep | Critical Review by Fred T. Marsh

This literature criticism consists of approximately 5 pages of analysis & critique of Call It Sleep.
This section contains 1,449 words
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Critical Review by Fred T. Marsh

SOURCE: "A Great Novel About Manhattan Boyhood," in New York Herald Tribune Books, Vol. II, No. 24, February 17, 1935, p. 6.

In the following review, Marsh praises Roth's Call It Sleep and asserts that the novel should win the Pulitzer Prize.

This is a novel about a New York childhood, the story of a small boy from the ages of six to nine in Brownsville and Jewish East Side Manhattan. It is a first novel. I believe it to be the most compelling and moving, the most accurate and profound study of an American slum childhood that has yet appeared in this day when, be it said to the credit of our contemporary critics, economic color-lines are no longer drawn in literature.

It has been a long-drawn-out campaign of guerrilla warfare involving the clergy, the law, the press and the academicians; and the young men who bite the hands of the pioneers in the field—from the early Dreiser through the realists of the twenties—show a marble-hearted ingratitude. It is safe to assume that this novel would never have been published if Ulysses had not won the decision in our courts. And the law trails enlightened public opinion.

But this book is a novel, a work of superior craftsmanship, more than that, a work of significance, authority and depth. Horace Gregory speaks of it as no mere "human document" and that it seems to me, is one of the first things to be said about it. Michael Gold's autobiographical Jews Without Money was a rich human document emerging from the same background; but Henry Roth writing in the third person, has achieved the detachment and universality of the artist.

Curiously, Roth has succeeded in making his David both a more individualized child and a more representative protagonist than most of the boys and girls whom our best younger novelists of metropolitan life have written about. The comparisons here are not invidious, for both Farrell and Dahlberg have concentrated on the years of adolescence and young manhood, rather than on childhood. But the "Studs Lonigan" of Farrell's novels is a product of the extraneous environment of the streets, and the Lorry Lewis of Dahlberg's Bottom Dogs and From Flushing to Calvary is a waif, egotistic, introspective, unhappy but self-sufficient.

David is bound to his home and to the Father-Mother-Son relationship which here takes the normal turn of the child clinging to the mother while fearing the father. This factor gives the story depth, roots that grow deep into the soil from which human life springs. All three, Studs and Lorry and David, are individuals who are yet representative of thousands of others. And we do not know what happens to David later when the dangerous and rebellious age of puberty is reached. But this novel, within its limited scope, is absolutely true to universals. One thinks immediately of any number of other childhoods—of Vardis Fisher's Vridar, whose boyhood was spent on a remote and impoverished Idaho ranch; of Penrod in his smug suburban town; of the young David Copperfield as a waif on London streets; of Plupy Shute's "Real Diary" of a nineteenth century small-town New England childhood; of Tolstoy's "Boyhood and Youth"; of the boy who was Proust at Combray; of the early chapters of Sons and Lovers. David is not like any of these others but this novel has captured more than its share of the essence of boyhood in the rarest and most volatile phases.

But to be more specific, David's father had been in America two years saving money in order to have his wife and son come over and join him. When he meets them at the dock, however, he is in one of his worst moods. And the antagonism between father and child begins there. The father, Albert, is a printer, a powerful man physically but almost unbalanced mentally, complex, a paranoid, suffering from a sense of guilt, violent and moody.

In Brownsville the father goes from one job to another, loses his only man friend, finds in violence the only outlet to his repressed emotions. But he is competent, hard-working and thrifty; would be a good husband and father if he were not ridden by his demons.

The mother is a woman of instinctive grace, resilience and tact, warm and comforting and gentle to her sensitive little boy, managing, providing, pouring oil on troubled waters at all times. The boy and the mother find that vast comfort in each other, that solace for all wounds, that play, full of humor, irony, wit, affection, indulgence, understanding, pathos and beauty, that marks all great fundamental relationships. One sympathizes with the father who remains an outsider. That is owing to his own perverseness; but that perverseness is defensive. To this reader, he stands out as a notable and clean creation. For all the bitterness, David is fortunate in having such a father, rather than a commonplace one.

Of the boy, himself, what can one say! A summary in a review would rob him of that subtlety and those nuances, that unique essential verity which is his, together with his common childishness, which only his creator should be allowed to portray. One must read the novel. But, on the surface, David goes to school, goes to cheder, meets life on the boyhood plane, on the roofs, on the streets, in the alleys, through the neighborhood as many another little boy has done. He runs into dangers, into puppy sex, into and out of boyhood friendships and cruelties. David is an imaginative and clever and sensitive little punk. But he also knows what's what on the realistic plane. Only, he cannot adapt himself to it. And always waiting are his mother's arms, his sovereign remedy against his small world's harshness.

The language of this novel is nothing short of the highest talent. It moves from a kind of transmutation of picturesque, warm, emotional and gentle Yiddish, to the literal English argot of the Ghetto, an ugly, fascinating, and expressive speech. It moves from the delicate attempts at translating refined sentiments from Yiddish into English, into free translations of the coarsest Yiddish into English. Roth has traversed these paths, with a little Hebrew thrown in to perfection. His ear, with all due respect to Arthur Kober, is, I think, the best attuned of all the writers in the field. This, of course is a mere technicality. But it seems to me noteworthy here because it all fits into a serious and outstanding novel. Neither the language nor the license in physical, including sexual, details, nor the various jargons and extraneous incidents with which David comes in contact, are dragged in for the sake of virtuosity. Always they are incidental, natural, implicit, simple and effective. And the next to the last section—where David creates a short-circuit on the trolley line almost to his own destruction—is a little masterpiece, in its asides, of the talk of any congested section in the City of New York. And that talk, except that it is intensified, varies in no way from the talk familiar to every city, large or small, in the United States.

Some will object to the fact that there is a plot running through the novel, that after the plot is resolved one discovers that certain matters have been "planted" anticipating the denouement. I do not think this business adds anything to the story. But this factor is relatively unimportant; and for some readers it will serve as a spur to an already swift-running exciting and tremendously stirring novel.

Expressions used here will shock only because they appear in print. If one had never heard them he would not know what they meant. But, of course, every one has heard them; or almost every one. I learned most of them at the age of eight in the remote little hamlet, twenty houses strong, of Thornton's Ferry, New Hampshire, over thirty years ago. But country children, of course, are more realistic, though less articulate, than the kids I knew when I lived in a big city. Henry Roth's great virtue in this particular field is that he stands aside and lets the whole outpouring of David's emotional reactions, his revulsion, wonder, terror, run its course.

This is a review about the book rather than one of the book. I have sidestepped the main issues because I have nothing to say about them, beyond what is in the book. To discerning readers, I believe, for its profound intensity, its rare virtuosity, its sensitive realism, its sheer weight, its power, circumference and depth, this first novel of this Mr. Roth will be remembered for some time to come. I should like to see Call it Sleep win the Pulitzer prize—which it never will.

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This section contains 1,449 words
(approx. 5 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Fred T. Marsh
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