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Critical Essay by Lynn Altenbernd
SOURCE: "An American Messiah: Myth in Henry Roth's Call It Sleep," in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 35, No. 4, Winter, 1989, pp. 673-87.
In the following essay, Altenbernd asserts that David in Roth's Call It Sleep is a messiah figure.
Henry Roth's Call It Sleep has moved and delighted—and puzzled—two generations of readers. Sometimes regarded as the best of American proletarian novels or as the best novel growing out of the Great Depression, it is in fact neither proletarian in any strict sense nor directly concerned with the economic depression of the 1930s. Since its publication in 1934 and particularly since its reissue in 1960, a succession of commentators have produced something approaching a consensus that the novel is at its core the record of a religious experience and that the novel is a distinctly Jewish work.
I would suggest that the religious theme developed in Call It Sleep depicts the birth and childhood of a New-World messiah whose story conflates elements of the Jewish and the Christian traditions and is a version of the birth-of-a-hero myth dealt with by Otto Rank in The Myth of the Birth of the Hero and by Joseph Campbell in The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Rank derives his hero myth from what Freud identified as the family romance—the widespread tendency of youngsters to reject their biological parents and to imagine themselves the children of other, usually more glamorous, progenitors. Freud sees this tendency as a struggle of the child to break the bonds of the Oedipal relationship and to establish psychological independence. This is the significance of the quarrel over David Schearl's paternity and of his unusually strong and persistent Oedipal bond. His rejection of the hostile father is consonant with both Rank's myth and Freud's romance; his rejection of his mother is less evident but equally important in his struggle to gain mature freedom. Further, although Call It Sleep is an intensely Jewish novel, it is also very much an American novel in its depiction of the New York scene and as a part of the major tradition that deals with the supposed exceptional mission and destiny of the American people.
Call It Sleep traces the growth of an immigrant child in Brownsville and the lower East Side of New York City from age six to about age eight. Albert Schearl has come to the New World alone in 1905 and is joined in 1907 by Genya and their son David. From the moment of their reunion at Ellis Island, there is tension between the parents—between the gloomy, threatening, vituperative father and the gentle, submissive, but ardently protective mother. David clings so tenaciously to his mother, and is so fearful—and later so resentful—of his father, that the normal Oedipal relationship is aggravated and prolonged. Albert Schearl has some reason to doubt that he is the child's father; his suspicions poison the atmosphere of the home, while David overhears enough adult talk to suspect that he is not the son of the terrifying god of wrath who rules the family. The child proves to be unusually intelligent and sensitive, so that he suffers more than most of his peers from the rough-and-tumble of city street-life. Enrolled in cheder, he is an eager pupil who quickly earns the approval of the rabbi and who shows an unusual interest in the story of Isaiah. Stimulated even by meager religious instruction, the boy has—or believes that he has—a series of mystic experiences that will ultimately lead him to a terrifying climatic adventure in which he is nearly electrocuted by the current in the slotted rail of a street-car track. He survives to achieve a kind of reconciliation with his father and a sense of triumphant acquiescence in the conditions of his life.
The boy's characteristics and experiences are strikingly like those of the hero-messiah as depicted by Rank, Campbell, and others. David's given name means "the elect of God"; it also identifies him with the Old Testament King David, who, according to Ezekiel, was to return as the messiah and rule eternally over the future united and perfected state (Ezek. 34:23-24). Isaiah had foretold a messiah who would be "a shoot from the stump of Jesse," the father of David (9: 1-6; 11: 1-16; 32: 1-5). Centuries later the gospel writers identified Jesus as that messiah and provided a lineage that derived the Saviour from the house of David (Matt. 1: 1-17; Luke 1: 27). John Gabel and Charles Wheeler note that "When the gospels present Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah, they are drawing on Jewish tradition. In Hebrew mashiah means 'anointed one'; the equivalent in Greek is christos, hence 'Christ.' The title refers to the coronation ceremony: The chosen king is … God's choice and reigns with divine backing."
In Hebrew apocalyptic literature, the word messiah was applied to persons of unusual perception deemed worthy of receiving the message and mission of God. Like the opening phases of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and The Education of Henry Adams, (and indeed many a bildungsroman), the earliest passages of Call It Sleep depict the awakening of an unusual intelligence. From precise observation of details the five-year-old boy quickly moves to speculation about their meaning and often to reflections of precocious, although not implausible, sophistication. Having observed that a wedding and a funeral used the same carriages, for example, David concludes that "everything belonged to the same dark"—a proposition that he converts into the paradox, implied but unexpressed: everything is at once both light and dark.
Enrolled as a student in the cheder of Rabbi Yidel Pankower, David displays an unusual facility in pronouncing Hebrew. Although among the youngest, he is the one pupil who can remember all of the "Chad Godyah," a traditional Aramaic song usually recited by a child at the end of the Seder service. It is a text appropriate to a novice messiah, for it was once believed to be an allegory promising the redemption of Israel. Obtuse and vulgar though Reb Pankower is in many ways, he is fully able to appreciate David's eager response to the language of God, to commend the boy as "an iron head," and to speculate, "You may be a great rabbi yet—who knows!" Here is a child, then, of exceptional intelligence and aptitude for penetrating the divine mysteries.
Like the prophet-messiahs of history, David sometimes experiences the mystic state. During the Passover season in 1913, David is "content yet strangely nostalgic"—that is, in the mood that enfolds him at each Passover. Sitting on the edge of a dock fronting the East River, he is dazzled by a broad band of sunlight reflected from the water and falls into a trance: "The brilliance was hypnotic. He could not take his eyes away. His spirit yielded, melted into light." Abruptly he is awakened from his reverie by the noise of a tugboat chugging past and by the whistle of a man on board who shouts, "Wake up, Kid … 'fore you throw a belly-w'opper!" David is alarmed to find himself in danger of falling into the river and lurches backward to safety. His reflection on this experience further identifies it as a mystic spell: "What was it he had seen?… It was as though he had seen it in … a world that once left could not be recalled."
At several points late in the novel, usually when David is running and is under the impress of strong emotion or a powerful sense of purpose, he feels impelled by an irresistible force outside himself. As he is breaking into the locked cheder in a desperate effort to learn more about Isaiah, David reflects, "An enormous hand was shoving him forward." Similar language appears elsewhere: "an ineluctable power tore him from the moorings he clutched"; "an act, ordained, foreseen, inevitable at this very moment." These are David's illusions, and they are those of a servant of God.
David Schearl also meets the traditional expectation that the messiah will appear in a time of distress, when the land is "blighted by suffering, death, sin and other evils" and in an era that "has to be changed and superseded by a new age." Without editorializing, Roth depicts that time in the life of the Golden Land when the "huddled masses yearning to breathe free" swarmed into New York to find persistent poverty, discrimination, and cultural blight as their virtually universal fate. The heartbreaking contrast between the promise of the New World and the grim particularity of Roth's picture of New York slum life makes a comment upon the American Dream no less devastating than the parables of Dos Passos, Fitzgerald, or Hemingway.
This theme is introduced by the wry epigraph of the Prologue:
(I pray thee ask no questions
this is that Golden Land)
and by the immigrants' first disconcerting glimpse of the Statue of Liberty, whose welcoming brilliance is ominously darkened and whose guiding beacon becomes the shadow of a sword.
In this blighted land the debility of traditional religious institutions is epitomized in the condition of the cheder David attends. The rebbe, abusive, imaginatively foul-mouthed, greasy, and tobacco-stained, rules a pack of rowdies whose incapacity for the study of Hebrew is exceeded only by their reluctance. The atmosphere is tainted with sweaty bodies, the rebbe's cigarette smoke, and "gollic fahts," while the racket of scuffling boys and their alternating outbursts of glee and quarreling drown out the recitations of the language of God. David has been carried into a waste land where poverty, crowded tenements, stench, and noise, with their consequent pain, fear, and guilt, are the realities that belie the promise of "that Golden Land."
In yet another way, David's experience parallels that of the prophets of history: he has his time in the wilderness. In a rough-and-tumble street game, David knocks down—and knocks out—a boy who has been tormenting him. Frightened by his antagonist's lifeless appearance, David flees along a street that leads him out into the country. Delighted by the row of telephone poles that stretches endlessly "up the hill of distance," he chants, "Hello, Mr. Highwood…. Goodbye Mr. Highwood." But soon he is bewildered in a frighteningly unfamiliar area. Later David recognizes a parallel with the experience of biblical prophets when he overhears Rabbi Pankower explaining the circumstances in which Isaiah saw God. The child muses, "—Where did he go to see Him? God? Didn't say…. Way, way, way, maybe. Gee! Some place, me too … When I—When I—in the street far away…. Hello, Mr. Highwood, goodbye Mr. Highwood. Heee! Funny!" (first ellipsis mine). Thus David, like Isaiah—and like Christ—has a sojourn in the wilderness.
Like them he experiences temptation as well. Leo Dugovka, the only major gentile figure in Call It Sleep, performs two crucial functions in David's development. As a Roman Catholic, he is the chief source of David's exposure to Christian thought and ritual. In this role he aids David in achieving the ecumenical character that qualifies him as a possible savior of the cosmopolitan American world. But as one who introduces David to the possibilities of sensual delights, he plays the role of tempter, and in this instance is more successful than the devil was in his efforts to corrupt Jesus.
David first encounters Leo on the tenement's roof, "that precinct in the sky, that silent balcony on the pinnacle of turmoil," where they can look out over the neighborhood. With his talk of freedom from a mother's supervision and of kites, roller skates, and distant streets, Leo is, in effect, offering the younger boy "all the kingdoms of the world" (Matt. 4:8). The setting and Leo's street-wise confidence make David eager to learn from the older boy. Recently sensitized by the cheder to things religious, David is especially fascinated by Leo's crude accounts of Catholic doctrine. Leo promises to give him a broken rosary but only at a price. David, eager to obtain the rosary, takes on the role of pander and introduces Leo to his cousin Esther, with whom the older boy "plays bad"—whom, indeed, he rapes, although with the girl's half-willing collusion. This incident in a stinking cellar, as William Freedman has pointed out, is an aspect of David's descent into the underworld—an event that once again places him among the heroes of legend.
The quest of David as hero-messiah is a search for "God's light." Indeed, as a number of critics have observed, the dominant symbol pattern of the novel is the contrast between light and dark, between good and evil. Driven by a child's fear of the dark, David races with pounding heart every time he must pass the cellar door of the Brownsville tenement. Soon he learns that rats, decay, and foul odors as well as the smuttiness of coal belong to the cellar. Again, the darkness and mothball stench of the closet where Annie, the crippled neighbor girl, gives David a crude initiation into the mechanics of sex further extend this set of associations. At a still later stage, Leo's assault upon Esther deepens the evil import of cellar, darkness, stench, and sexual encounter.
But in Book Three, "The Coal," the matter is complicated by David's discovery that coal—a burning coal—was thrust by an angel against Isaiah's lips to purify him. The coal used as the agent of cleansing can hardly be the filthy substance in the cellar; David postulates an "angel coal" in God's cellar as something bright and purifying. Later he discovers, however, that the two converge and eventually coalesce, so that God's coal—brilliant, burning, and cauterizing—is one with the filthy black coal of the foul cellar. In fact he is recognizing that coal has two aspects, as the carriages used for weddings and funerals have two functions. Both conclusions recognize the moral ambiguity of life.
Light also symbolizes the power of God as well as the blinding divine understanding that engulfs the mystic and takes him out of himself. Gazing out over the river, David sees the essence of divinity in "a plain, flawless, sheer as foil to the serried margins…. White. Brighter than day. Whiter. And he was."
Almost immediately after this vision, David is accosted by three Irish toughs who force him to thrust a home-made sheet-metal sword into the crack of the electrified rail on the car-tracks; "power, gigantic, fetterless, thudded into day! And light, unleashed, terrific light bellowed out of the iron lips." Taking refuge in the cheder yard, David muses upon the immanence and power of God and associates them with the river, coal, and whiteness. When the rabbi discovers the boy, David gives a garbled account of his motives for invading the cheder, saying, "'I saw a coal like—like Isaiah…. Where the car-tracks run I saw it.'" The rabbi breaks into derisive laughter: "'Fool!' he gasped at length. 'Go beat your head on a wall! God's light is not between car-tracks.'" But Pankower is wrong: "The rabbi didn't know as he knew what the light was, what it meant, what it had done to him." God's light is indeed between car-tracks—as it is everywhere—unknown to the man of God, known to the child.
But if David is seeking purification, he is also seeking salvation—seeking to be saved from the wrath of a father like an angry, irrational god, from the terrors of the streets, from dangers unknown as well as only too well known. With each recurrence of the Passover season, David feels the renewal of life and of hope for serenity and security. But always there is a relapse from whatever sense of confidence he has acquired and a renewed struggle with dangers and fears. Indeed, his crises intensify as he grows and ranges more widely. Ultimately individual salvation eludes him; David reaches at last a scrutiny that is conditioned upon his acceptance of life in the community of his fellows, rather than upon escape from it.
Paramount among David's qualifications as a messiah is the mystery of his parentage. As Otto Rank and others have shown, heroes, including prophets and messiahs, are often the product of a miraculous or mysterious birth. Like Moses, Jesus, and innumerable heroes of myth and fairy tale, David may not be—but then again may be—the child of his nominal father.
The doubt is prompted by the arrival of Genya's younger sister Bertha, who annoys and frightens Genya by probing an old sore spot—the secret surrounding an early love of the older sister. Moved finally by renewed memories of that concealed and cherished episode, Genya pours out to Bertha the tale—or perhaps most of the tale—of her romance with Ludwig, a Christian organist in the old Austrian village. It is a story of youthful passion, of secret meetings, and finally of intervention by the girl's outraged parents and of betrayl by the young man's opportunism.
David, always alert and inquisitive, has hidden himself so as to overhear this enthralling conversation. Even so, he is tantalized by the occasional drift of the talk from Yiddish into Polish, a language unknown to him. The gaps in the account leave room for his imagination to build beyond what he actually hears. David's embellishment of the narrative harmonizes with his at least latent wish to be rid of his putative father; he concludes that he is the son of the shadowy and romantic Ludwig. At a moment of great stress, the child seeks refuge in the cheder and pours out to his rabbi a garbled tale of disaster compounded of fragments of his mother's secret, with some fanciful additions from his own version of what Freud and Rank have called "the family romance": his mother is dead; he is the son of an organist in a remote unidentified country; the people he lives with are his aunt and her husband. Reb Pankower carries this tale to the Schearls. The story reawakens Albert Schearl's secretly nurtured suspicion that David is not his son; in a bitter confrontation after the rabbi leaves, he accuses Genya of having colluded with her parents to deceive him. Most critics have taken the view that Albert's suspicions are the delusions of a maddened mind. In fact, however, a good bit of evidence supports Albert's contentions.
By her own account, Genya has undoubtedly had a love affair with an impoverished Christian youth named Ludwig. Indeed there is little room to doubt that Ludwig and Genya have had sexual intercourse. Her outraged father had no doubt when he shouted, as Genya tells Bertha, "I tell you she'll bring me a 'Benkart' yet, shame me to the dust. How do you know there isn't one in that lewd belly already …?" When Bertha rails against their father at this point in the conversation, Genya concedes, "Well, I wasn't entirely innocent."
However well disposed the reader is toward the gentle, honest, warmly sheltering Genya, the events that have dropped a bitter seed of suspicion into Albert's soul cannot simply be ignored. His theory that Genya was pregnant at the time of their wedding, that the child was well above average size at the alleged age of twenty-two months, that Albert was hustled off to New York with funds provided by his in-laws so that he could not personally ascertain the date of the child's birth, and that the birth certificate was conveniently mislaid so that it could not bear witness to the misdeed—all these circumstances are plausible and perhaps actual. Indeed, the doubts about David's paternity are never satisfactorily resolved. The effect of this measure of doubt is not to establish that David is in fact the son of Ludwig the Christian organist but rather to introduce some doubt, to envelop the child's birth—and particularly his paternity—in a cloud of mystery, and thus to qualify him further as a hero of myth, as a potential messiah.
In adopting an embroidered version of the story of Ludwig as his own history, David abolishes his terrifying natural or nominal father. But he also converts his mother into an aunt, a maneuver that marks an important stage in his escape from the Oedipal embrace.
David's moment of closest attachment to his mother occurs early in the novel in the warmth of home on the sabbath eve in "the hushed hour, the hour of tawny beatitude." "He was near her now. He was part of her. The rain outside the window set continual seals upon their isolation, upon their intimacy, their identity." But before long this intimacy is invaded by the advances of Joe Luter, Albert's friend from the shop, who is for a short time a boarder at the Schearls' table. Observing Luter's ogling of Genya as she moves about the kitchen and noting an insinuating tone in his conversation, David becomes uneasy about his own loving observation of his mother. This uneasiness, although seemingly arising from a desire to protect his mother's virtue, actually marks the beginning of the child's regarding her with growing sexual curiosity and hence of his separation from her. While playing in the street, David sees Luter heading toward the flat at a time when Genya is there alone and surmises that the two are going to "play bad." Subsequently he believes that they have done so, although in fact the reader understands that Genya has repelled her would-be seducer.
Returning to the flat one afternoon from a disastrous episode with his irate father and from a cheder session where he has for once behaved like a dunce, David discovers the neighborhood in an uproar over an escaped canary. In his distress he ignores this excitement and rushes to the flat. Finding the door locked, he raps furiously until his mother appears, just emerged from her bath, and wrapped in a clinging gown. David seeks her embrace and experiences a bliss that is intensified by his father's absence and novel only in being charged with a half-conscious sexual aura. Learning that his father is soon to return, he flees to the street, where he discovers that the boys have pursued the fugitive canary to the roof-top. Across the light well they have spied upon a woman stepping from her bath in a laundry tub—obviously David's mother, and obviously drawn from her concealment in the tub by his imperious pounding at the door. Outraged at the peepers but tormented by guilt as well, David nevertheless finds a moment to blame his mother: "Why did she let them look…. And she let me look at her! Mad at her!" Seeking to hide his tears, David starts toward the flat but is drawn to the pure air and freedom of the rooftop he has never yet visited. Although he cannot peep into the windows of his own flat, and indeed has no conscious intention of doing so, his movements are stealthy.
As he returns to the flat, he takes care to make noises in the hallway that will imply that he has just come up from the street. At home once more, he finds his mother in what the reader recognizes as a state of postcoital lassitude. David does not understand what has happened, but he does recognize that a pair of decorative bullhorns his father has bought connect the image of a man felled by his father's powerful fist and the spectacle of his mother bemused in unwonted contentment. For the first time he feels shut out from intimacy with his mother.
David continues to vacillate between passionate attachment to his mother and rebellion against her, but never again is the sense of intimacy and identity as close as it had been before he began a career of independent adventures. The bitter despair of these childish tragedies is the true dark night of David's soul; like the anguish of classic mystics and prophets it marks a turning toward self-reliance and serenity, toward ultimate escape from the Oedipal bond. As Freud puts the matter, "Every new arrival on this planet is faced by the task of mastering the Oedipus complex; anyone who fails to do so falls a victim to neurosis."
David's second and nearly fatal encounter with the streetcar tracks takes the form of a death-and-resurrection drama. The prelude and stimulus to this catastrophe is the confrontation between Genya and Albert concerning David's paternity. During this quarrel, David stammers out a confession of complicity in Leo's misdeed and asks punishment from his father. At this point Roth explicitly identifies David with Christ: "And the words he spoke were like staggering burdens he bore up a great steep where his own sighs battered him, where he floundered in his own tears." Albert works himself into a frenzy and claims the right to destroy this "goy's get." While Bertha and her husband wrestle with Albert, Genya rescues the child by thrusting him out the door.
Irresistibly impelled by the same external force that he has experienced several times earlier, David heads again toward the car-tracks, bearing a long-handled milk ladle he has found on the street. Now the action emerges from the confines of the Jewish neighborhood into a nearby area where the cast of characters takes on a thoroughly American diversity of nationalities, occupations, and avocations. Their talk, by turns comic, stupid, obscene, or aggressive, includes references to Christ, His ministry, and the events of the Passion. The result is to underscore the juxtaposition of the ordinary and the divine and to identify David unmistakably as a Christ figure.
Although there are procreative overtones in many of these remarks, suggestive of an impending birth, the reference to the Gospel accounts of the Passion is even more important in strengthening the role of David as an ecumenical messiah figure. The sexual reference of "How many times'll your red cock crow, Pete, befaw y' gives up?" is less important in this chapter than its paraphrase of Christ's prediction to Peter that "Before the cock crows, you will deny me three times" (Matt. 26:34). And after the calamity, Pete, the hunchback on crutches, denies aid to the injured David. The phrase "in the crack be born," however, when considered in conjunction with David's posture as he straddles the slotted rail to insert the dipper's handle between "the long, dark, grinning lips … like a sword in a scabbard" clearly suggests an insemination that will assure the rebirth of the self-created creator close upon his symbolic death in a blaze of the light that has come to symbolize divine power. Upon the discovery of the accident, a rapid series of exclamations all add to the identification of David Schearl with Christ: "Jesus!" "Holy Mother o' God!" "Christ, it's a kid!" "A stick, for Jesus sake!" "Bambino! Madre mia!"
As David fades into unconsciousness, his reverie includes a "swirl of broken images," with the tugboatman in his crucified posture hanging among the wires of the Mr. Highwood telegraph poles and with the sugar tongs (Zwank) that his mother used to demonstrate the limited human grasp of the infinite fusing with the tongs the angel used to seize the burning coal from the altar to purify Isaiah's lips. Driven downward by his father's thundering voice, he diminishes into darkness and extinction.
But then, as the doctor works to revive the stricken boy, "out of the darkness, one ember"; the image that marks his resuscitation is of light emanating from coal. Images of serenity and silence engulf the last glimpse and echo of the terrifying father; finally it is the recollection of the tugboatman who wakened him from his riverside vision—and saved him—that marks his return to consciousness. Thus the David-Christ messiah is resurrected amidst a melange of images drawn from his Jewish background and from the predominantly Christian society in which he is to come of age.
After the melodrama of the immolation-and-resurrection scene, the final chapter of Call It Sleep is relaxed and calm. In this conclusion one critic has seen resignation, whereas others have read it as a parable recording the paralysis of Roth's creative powers. I doubt that the novel is prophetic in this way; rather, I take the author's characterization of David's state at the conclusion as literally accurate: "not pain, not terror, but strangest triumph, strangest acquiescence."
The final stages of the hero-messiah myth usually include either the killing of the hero by his father, the killing of the father by the hero, or their reconciliation. According to Freud, the successful outcome of the romantic fantasy that is the individual psychic parallel of the myth is "the liberation of an individual, as he grows up, from the authority of his parents"; the child who masters the Oedipal relationship and thus escapes neurosis learns, by accepting his real parents, to overcome the fear of the presumably hostile father. Joseph Campbell is emphatic in identifying one outcome of the hero's quest as a recognition that "I and the Father are one" (John 10:30).
In the final chapter of Call It Sleep, a reconciliation of sorts is achieved. Although he has long believed that he wishes such an outcome, Albert is sobered by the real possibility of David's death. In his chastened mood, though with some residual hesitation about the boy's age, he accepts David as his son, in the one English utterance he makes in the novel: "My sawn. Mine. Yes. Awld eight. Eight en'—en' vun mawnt. He was born in—" After the bitter eloquence that has typified his Yiddish speech throughout the novel, this halting language testifies to his reduced condition. No longer is he for David the avenging Yahweh of the child's infancy.
The final paragraph of Call It Sleep is deftly organized. Genya is comforting the injured child, and he is accepting her ministrations, although with the mental reservation that has become characteristic of his attitude toward his mother as he gradually masters his Oedipal connection with her:
"And then you'll go to sleep and forget it all." She paused. Her dark, unswerving eyes sought his. "Sleepy, beloved?
He might as well call it sleep. It was only toward sleep that every wink of the eyelids could strike a spark….
He might as well call it sleep; but it is not sleep and forgetting; it is a state of reverie that lets him recall and evaluate images drawn from all his brief conscious life: images of glitter, sheen, glow—all the varieties of light that have brought his reassurance and delight; scenes from the life of the street; auditory images: "all sounds that lay fermenting in the vats of silence and the past."
All of this reverie leads him to feel, "not pain, not terror, but strangest triumph, strangest acquiescence." The novel ends, then, not in paralysis and defeat, not in the death of the artist, but in serenity, in liberation from the tyranny of a hostile father, the domination of an adoring mother, and the terrors of the unknown. Young though he is, David has come through the worst dangers of an immigrant childhood. After the perils of his quest, according to Campbell, the hero returns to the ordinary world, where as a result of his adventures he can teach his fellow citizens and serve them in a prolonged state of calm. Perhaps David will fulfill Rabbi Pankower's grudging prediction: "You may be a great rabbi yet—who knows!" Having learned the ambiguous moral nature of the world and having accepted life in the less than ideal human community, this obscure child of humblest origins may yet become the teacher, interpreter, examiner, guide, and comforter to the American people. He may become, indeed, the Messiah of the New World.
Roth's novel is a modern redaction of a widely diffused myth, although with significant alterations. The theme of the prince in humble guise is one of the most ubiquitous and enduring motifs in world literature; its usual outcome is the elevation of the apparently lowly to their rightful positions. Often the hero of myth or legend is the scion of wealthy, royal, or divine parents. He has been cast out either by the hostile father or by protectors shielding him from the father and has been adopted by humble parents—servants, peasants, or fishermen. The possible alternate father of David Schearl is neither wealthy, nor aristocratic, nor royal, nor divine, nor otherwise powerful. Roth's attribution of noble qualities to a person of genuinely commonplace origins—that is, one who is not a prince in disguise but who may nevertheless be inspired by the divine afflatus—is fitting in a democracy of common people, whose leaders can emerge from among the most miserable and despised part of its population. In addition, the myth of the messiah in Call It Sleep is distinctive in its violation of old xenophobic taboos to produce an American child. In Roth's parable his potential hero may be the child of a Jewish mother and a Christian father, a mixture that will particularly qualify him as the leader of a polyglot nation of nations where "all tribes and people are forming into one federated whole; and there is a future which shall see the estranged children of Adam restored as to the old hearthstone in Eden." Roth has bestowed American citizenship upon traditional materials to develop a myth for a democratic society.
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