Call It Sleep | Critical Review by Joseph Gollomb

This literature criticism consists of approximately 3 pages of analysis & critique of Call It Sleep.
This section contains 716 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Review by Joseph Gollomb

SOURCE: "Life in the Ghetto," in Saturday Review of Literature, Vol. II, No. 35, March 16, 1935, p. 552.

In the following review, Gollomb complains that in Call It Sleep, Roth magnifies the foulness of life on the east side of New York instead of accurately portraying it.

By this time it is probable that New York's great ghetto of decades ago has been written up as amply as any other equally small segment of the modern world; yet Call It Sleep shows once more how rich for the writer has been the yield on New York's lower east side. Here is a novel twice the average length, yet it records only two to three years of a small boy's life down there, and records it with what amounts to a congestion of material.

Part of this is due to the rich soil of the scene itself; it would seem that a writer needs only "tickle it with a hoe, and it laughs with a harvest." But the novel owes most of its plethora of sensation and emotional tension to the author's sensitivity, which is acute to the point of painfulness; and the minutest impact on him seems to him indispensable in his report.

The setting and the people of the novel are by now familiar enough to readers of east side novels; the "stench and throb" of the tenements; tenement Jews writhing in poverty and crowded together beyond endurance; and a central character, a little boy, who bears the brunt of life with only a fine and sensitive mother to help him bear it. But the treatment of all this in the book, for all its wealth of photographic detail, renders Mr. Roth's east side quite an alien, somewhat unreal land, especially to those who have known it at first hand.

Partly the defect is due to reporting. Although poverty, for instance, is the all-embracing, brutally dominating fact in slum tenement life, its climate, so to say, and its very soil, the author in his depiction almost completely ignores its role. What also helps to make the novel seem unreal as a transcript of life is the author's injection of passages and chapters of stylized writing in the ultramodern tradition.

But the distortion of the picture—for, by and large, his picture is distorted—must be laid to the author's temper, which casts over familiar scenes and people a hectic light and creates an atmosphere in which human beings could not long survive. Mr. Roth's east side is an extremely violent and febrile world; rarely a moment of peace there, a breath of respite; nothing but poisonous life goes on. Now anyone who has spent even part of childhood on the lower east side knows how brutal and hectic life can be there even for a youngster of tough fibre, and David, the, boy in the novel, is fragile to an extreme. But a conscientious report of that life would include contrasts to Mr. Roth's picture of it and even triumphs over the undeniable brutalities he depicts. Let anyone who doubts it ask, for example, librarians on the east side how much the children there for generations have found reading almost as much as food a part of life.

There is much, to be sure, that is true in Mr. Roth's novel; he has a sensitive ear for speech; his characters speak from character and in the idioms of their land; he remembers amazingly and reports photographically; still, let me repeat, the book in part and as a whole does violence to the truth. Someone once wished that novels of east side life did not have to be so "excremental." Call It Sleep is by far the foulest picture of the east side that has yet appeared, in conception and in language. Certainly there was and is foulness down there as in other places; but Mr. Roth treats it not with the discriminating eye of the artist but with a magnifying glass, and if not with a relish, certainly with no effort to see what Emerson saw, that "even in the mud and scum of things there always, always something sings." Whoever omits that something in his picture of east side life omits the very thing which has kept that life so long a fertile field for the creative writer.

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This section contains 716 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Joseph Gollomb
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