Henry Roth | Critical Review by Morris Dickstein

This literature criticism consists of approximately 11 pages of analysis & critique of Henry Roth.
This section contains 3,288 words
(approx. 11 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Review by Morris Dickstein

SOURCE: "Call It an Awakening," in The New York Times Book Review, November 29, 1987, pp. 1, 33, 35-6.

In the following review, Dickstein discusses Roth's Shifting Landscape and his journey of self-discovery.

I had just finished interviewing Henry Roth, the author of Call It Sleep, when as if by some dramatic design, a large, flat package was delivered to his New York hotel room. It was an advance copy of Mr. Roth's first book in 53 years, Shifting Landscape, a complete collection of his shorter writings along with many excerpts from letters and interviews, lovingly assembled by his gifted Italian translator, Mario Materassi.

It was a wonderful moment in a singular and enigmatic literary career. Mr. Roth seemed to take it all in stride, as if, by the age of 81, the appearance of a new book were no uncommon event for him. But the book, and my conversation with him, told a different story: five decades of agonizing conflict with crippling writer's block, a career dotted with the signposts of many small victories and defeats, including what he has described as "an equivalent or approximate nervous breakdown" at the end of the 1930's, followed by long years of complete silence.

Call It Sleep, a subjective, almost poetic novel about growing up on the Lower East Side in the early years of the century, was published in 1934 when Mr. Roth was only 28. Influenced by James Joyce and T.S. Eliot, the novel was modernist in method, biblical in cadence, yet intensely personal in its re-creation of family life and street life in the old Jewish ghetto. The book appeared at the height of the Depression when documentary realism, not Proustian recollection, was the latest literary fashion. Speaking of the novel, the Communist journal The New Masses said, "It is a pity that so many young writers drawn from the proletariat can make no better use of their working class experience than as material for introspective and febrile novels." Though the book was fiercely defended and favorably reviewed by its admirers, Mr. Roth's publisher went bankrupt and he and his novel were soon totally forgotten until the book was revived to great acclaim and impressive sales in the 1960's.

Henry Roth's appearance today is a study in contrasts. His large, impressive head, crowned by stray tufts of gray hair, rests on a stocky yet fragile-looking frame stiffened by arthritis. His hands speak of years of hard manual labor, and his quietly modulated voice radiates dignity and reserve. Mr. Roth's tall, elegant, gray-haired wife, Muriel, a composer, rarely leaves his side, and she gently cut off our interview when she felt he might be tired. He wouldn't stand out in a group of elderly Jewish pensioners, but he speaks gravely—often in the third person—about the bizarre turns of his life.

Henry Roth is his own severest critic. When we first spoke on the phone he worried that his new book might be "oversold, overinflated." He found it "a very meager output for 50-some odd years." Searching always for the exact word, he spoke of the book as if it were someone else's case study or dossier: "It impressed me quite objectively with the rather tragic thread—a trace went through it, I don't know whether it's frustration, a block, or what have you. It's a man fighting or serving his destiny. It had that overtone of a person too obdurate to give up." Ruefully, he added, "I wasn't satisfied. I should have had more wisdom, but I didn't, and the book seems to reflect that kind of tragic struggle."

During a depressed period of complete withdrawal from writing during the 1940's, Mr. Roth worked as a skilled toolmaker and an attendant in a mental hospital, and then, in the 50's and 60's, as a waterfowl farmer in Maine—raising and dressing ducks and geese—returning only gradually to wrest hard-earned sentences from the grasp of his private dybbuk. Meanwhile, his wife worked 17 years as a schoolteacher while caring for their two sons. Since 1968 the Roths have lived in a mobile home in Albuquerque, N.M., even farther from the literary world than Maine. Yet, living in this relative obscurity, he began publishing stories and articles with increasing frequency. Shifting Landscape covers this whole terrain, and includes several pieces that till now have appeared only in Italian translation.

In retrospect, Mr. Roth's long-lasting block seems less remarkable than his refusal to yield to it, although he tells us that he once referred to himself as "this dead author," and even burned his journals and the manuscripts of several aborted novels in the 1940's. His first writing in 14 years—in 1954—was a how-to-do-it article on cheap, homemade farm equipment, written for a trade journal. The Magazine for Ducks and Geese. Two years later Call It Sleep was praised in print by several critics, none of whom knew whether the book's author was still alive.

A chance encounter with Mr. Roth's sister in the late 50's led one critic, Harold Ribalow, to Mr. Roth's doorstep in Maine in the late 50's, and to the resurrection of Call It Sleep by a small press in 1960. Picked up by Avon and reissued in paperback in 1964, it went on to sell more than a million copies, permanently disrupting the anonymity of a man who could not write yet could not give up on writing, and who readily describes himself even today as neurotic, obsessive and bullheaded.

Mr. Roth's new literary fame made life on the farm impossible. Life magazine sent a photographer to take a picture of the best-selling author killing ducks and geese. He refused. "They were doing it to make me a freak," he told an interviewer recently, "and I'm freakish enough without that!" The belated success of the book enabled Mr. Roth and his wife to travel, but it also exacerbated the desire to write, as well as what he calls the "counterdrive not to write," which threatened to make life hellish again. A projected novel set in Spain and Mexico never materialized, but in 1966 The New Yorker published "The Surveyor," the story of an American couple in Seville, searching secretly for the site where Jews were burned in public during the Inquisition. It seems clear that Mr. Roth was unconsciously searching for a Judaism—and a writing life—he had left behind many decades earlier.

The turning point in that search, as he now sees it, came the following year during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, when the Roths were in Mexico. Long ago, almost in another lifetime, Mr. Roth, like many writers who had seen the world break apart in the early years of the Depression, had joined the Communist Party. He was just finishing his novel, and he remembers the woman he lived with, Eda Lou Walton, a poet and English professor nearly 12 years his senior, telling him in anguish, "You are destroying yourself as an artist." Years later, stunned by Khrushchev's revelations about Stalin, Mr. Roth ceased being a party member, but in 1967 he "still adhered very much to party principles," including support for the Arab cause. As the war unfolded in the Middle East, he found himself torn between his political faith, which condemned Israel, and certain buried tribal loyalties that surprised him.

Only four years earlier, Mr. Roth had told the readers of Midstream, a Zionist journal, that Jews in America could serve the world best by assimilating and "ceasing to be Jews." Suddenly, as he deciphered the headlines in the Mexican papers, the survival of the Jews deeply mattered to him. He feared a new Holocaust. Mr. Roth's ideological orthodoxy crumbled. "It was with an enormous sense of guilt that I had to tear myself away," he told me with great emphasis. "We thought that [Communism] would provide us with the answer." But in the end "it was a sterile move," he said. "It was a disaster."

For the ethnic, working-class writers of his generation who had gone through "a transition from a parochial to a cosmopolitan world," Mr. Roth said quietly, Communism seemed to offer an analysis of society that would "provide us with a method, a technique for being able to portray that transition." It was a way into the larger world. But it also distanced those writers emotionally from their own sources and their most authentic material. Mr. Roth sees the tragic thread of his truncated career as part of the common fate of a whole literary generation.

Shifting Landscape returns again and again to the quandary of writers who could not reconcile the esthetic attitudes of the 20's with the social consciousness of the 30's, and others who could not reorient their work after World War II from the proletarian naturalism of the Depression to more personal forms of expression. These include writers who died early and neglected (like Nathanael West and F. Scott Fitzgerald), who could not continue (like Mr. Roth and Daniel Fuchs), who failed to develop (James T. Farrell and John Steinbeck), or who simply disappeared, such as the proletarian novelists.

I asked Mr. Roth how much he felt his problems were ingrained in his own makeup and how much they could be traced to the predicament of his generation, the major shifts of sensibility at the beginning and end of the Depression. His answer had weight and cogency like all his comments on his gloomy, destiny as a writer, as if he had spent many years brooding on just this question. "I feel very much that I was caught in the same tide that they were caught in. I couldn't escape it. The way it caught you was at your weakest point. Each one of us succumbed because of a certain weakness in his character."

Mr. Roth doesn't explain what his own weaknesses were, but he makes it clear that he felt a sense of dependency and passivity, a lack of self-assurance. Call It Sleep is a classic portrayal of the terrors of childhood, a tenement "Sons and Lovers" that sets the sensual warmth of the bond with the mother—and the mother tongue, Yiddish—against the fear and violence associated with the father and the external world. From 1928 to 1938 he lived with Eda Lou Walton, who supported him and encouraged him to write—he dedicated the novel to her. With considerable feeling, he described her to me as "very warm, and very tender, and most maternal." He made an effort to break his dependence on Walton by taking off for the West Coast with a colorful, illiterate working-class character named Bill Clay. But "step by step he assumed a domination over me," Mr. Roth said with astonishment. "As I look back at it I'm amazed. He became my guide, my tutor, my mentor"—exactly what the party itself had already become, the answer to all political and even creative problems.

Mr. Roth now believes the natural successor to Call It Sleep would have been a continuation of the boy's story into maturity, showing his discovery of a broader culture in the Greenwich Village ferment of the 1920's. But, as he writes in Shifting Landscape, "it was never written because Marxism or Communism fell like a giant shunt across his career." Instead, he tried writing a proletarian novel centering on Bill Clay—there is one surviving excerpt in Shifting Landscape. But as Mr. Roth wrote in The New York Times in 1971, the "portrayal of proletarian virtue" was not his natural bent. As a writer, he was "no longer at home." His relationship to the world he knew best was ruptured, just as it had been in his childhood by his wrenching departure from the ghetto.

To explain his inability to go on writing, Mr. Roth looks back to his family's move (when he was 8 1/2) from the "Jewish mini-state" on the Lower East Side to "rowdy, heterogeneous Harlem"—from Ninth Street to 119th Street, where he lost his sense of identity and felt like an alien. When Mr. Roth was recapturing those early years in Call It Sleep, the book took shape for him with a "pattern of unity and inevitability," a phrase he used more than once in conversation, as if it represents his elusive esthetic ideal. For almost four years when he was writing his novel, he told me, it was really writing him: "I was no longer in control. It had taken control. I could not do other, no matter what I wanted."

From a psychological viewpoint, Mr. Roth's unswerving devotion to Israel over the last 20 years could be seen as yet another dependency, replacing his long indenture to Marxism. Mr. Roth's references to Israel are always personal rather than political. They mark his own return to Judaism, his voyage home. As Yeats needed his elaborate system to provide him with "metaphors for poetry." Mr. Roth needs a mythology, including a system of self-explanation, to unlock his exceptional creative powers.

Shifting Landscape is not a political document but an engrossing meditation on the creative process. As Call It Sleep showed long ago, Mr. Roth's imagination is essentially intimate, sensuous and retrospective. Where Marxism promised him a radiant future, yet made his kind of writing impossible, the unexpected return to Judaism has brought him full circle, restored continuity with the world of his childhood and liberated the conjuror's gift for personal recollection.

"Final Dwarf," one of the best stories in Shifting Landscape, chillingly takes up the tense relationship between father and son some 50 years after the conclusion of Call It Sleep, Mr. Roth never resolved the conflict with his father, whose reaction to reading Call It Sleep, as the author later recalled, was simply, "I shouldn't have beat him so much." When the old man died in the early 70's—Mr. Roth cannot remember the exact year—he left his son exactly one dollar.

Another piece in the new book integrates portions of journals dating from 1938 and 1939, when Mr. Roth left Eda Lou Walton and met his wife, Muriel, at Yaddo, the artists colony—journals that fortuitously survived the Maine bonfire. One remarkable memoir, "Last Respects," recalls a 1970 meeting with Margaret Mead, whom he had known in the 1920's, but it is actually Mr. Roth's oblique tribute to Mead's friend, Walton, who had done so much for him as a man and a writer.

All three pieces show what Mr. Roth does best, conveying the unbearable tension that can lie beneath the surface of ordinary relationships. The last two selections will form a part of a memoir-novel called Mercy of a Rude Stream that Mr. Roth has been writing since 1979. In old age, using a word processor, he has been writing this sequel to Call It Sleep which he feels be should have written in the 1930's. He has completed four volumes, but because some of them involve people still living he may not release them for publication in his lifetime.

Instead we have this brilliant mosaic constructed by Mr. Materassi, his translator, a book that Mr. Roth, in his self-effacing foreword, describes as "primarily Mario's, not mine," though Mr. Roth wrote or spoke nearly everything in it. It's typical of the ironies of his career that this biographical "composite" should come to us by way of Italy, where Mr. Materassi's translation of Call It Sleep won a major literary prize as the best foreign novel of 1985, and where Mr. Roth was mobbed by newspaper reporters and paparazzi when he came to collect it.

The collections writers give us instead of their long-awaited novels, books like Norman Mailer's Advertisements for Myself and Ralph Ellison's Shadow and Act, have a special kind of poignancy and appeal. They are holding actions, but also acts of propitiation that lay bare the writer's creative conflicts. As in Mr. Mailer's book (which Mr. Materassi once translated into Italian), many of the selections in Shifting Landscape are less remarkable than the personal prose that surrounds them, which Mr. Materassi has culled ingeniously out of letters and taped conversations.

If Mr. Mailer rescued a sagging career through a bold act of self-promotion, Mr. Roth, anatomizing his own failures, rivets our attention with almost Kafkaesque gestures of self-accusation. Looking back at some long-lost stories that Mr. Materassi has unearthed, Mr. Roth sees only signs of disintegrating talent and loss of control. After one charming sketch, "Many Mansions," Mr. Roth comments, "what a bit of fluff": "The writer," he says of himself, "was no longer capable of treating, of dealing with and transmitting the wonderful narrative signals, so to speak, that the serious novelist would have been sensitized to." In the book these lines are followed eerily by his 14-year retreat from writing.

One of Mr. Roth's problems may have been the exalted standard he brought to his work, which contributed to the anxiety and self-consciousness that developed with his block. Ulike many fiction writers today, who seem to spill their lives directly onto the page, Mr. Roth holds to a notion of art that requires that personal history be transmuted into a text that feels unified, self-contained and inevitable. The real beginning of Call It Sleep came, he told me, when he decided "to leave the realm of strict fact," began treating people and events in his past as "objects that were just mine to use" and grasped the overall fictive shape of his early experiences. For all its human immediacy, Call It Sleep is an intricately textured, literary novel, each of its four sections woven around key symbols and images. Mr. Roth was a Joycean then, but these unifying devices were "mostly intuitive rather than planned or conscious," he said. "I would continually glimpse elements in it that tied in, and they would gratify me very much, but I wouldn't allow them to interfere with the narrative."

But when he tried writing about the later stages of his life, "I no longer saw, in any of the things I tried to do, that kind of unity," be remarked. "I was not able to integrate the new cosmopolitan world into which I was now plunged." As a result, every project petered out and eventually went dead for him. He was "no longer at home," and his imagination couldn't encompass the larger stage he had entered. His proletarian novel was an attempt at a wholly American project—no Jews in sight—but its style is forced and unconvincing. Thanks to the Communist Party's puritan standards, he didn't feel free to deal with sex, though it haunts the edges of Call It Sleep and certainly haunted Mr. Roth himself during this period. "He yearned for the tainted, the perverse, for the pornographic," he wrote in 1971, "and detested himself as degenerate for doing so." "He had a vested interest in the sordid, the squalid, the depraved. He became immobilized."

Today, rediscovered as a classic in America, lionized in Italy where his book is a best seller, Henry Roth is very much a survivor. An Israeli film maker. has taken an option on Call It Sleep, and recently drove its author around the Lower East Side to search for remnants of a buried world. Cortisone and hip-replacement surgery have helped in his struggle with arthritis, and the computer has helped him get words on paper. Muriel Roth began composing again as her husband began writing, and for the last four years ("since I was 75," she said), she has been a serious composer for the first time in several decades.

Whether or not Mr. Roth's current project, Mercy of a Rude Stream, fulfills its high literary promise, the mere fact of longevity has helped supply a happy turn to the Roths' story. Aside from some of the fine pieces collected in it, Shifting Landscape can only excite wonderment as an extraordinary record of an author's stubborn determination to rescue his talent from the clutches of neurosis and the vicissitudes of history.

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This section contains 3,288 words
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Buy the Critical Review by Morris Dickstein
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