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Critical Essay by Harold V. Ribalow
SOURCE: "Henry Roth and His Novel Call It Sleep," in Wisconsin Studies in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 3, No. 3, Fall, 1962, pp. 5-14.
In the following essay, Ribalow asserts the importance of Roth's Call It Sleep in a discussion of how it expresses the Jewish immigrant experience in America and how it portrays the pains of adolescence.
A phenomenon of contemporary American literature has been the emergence of the "Jewish novel" as a major force on the literary scene in this country.
As recently as a decade ago, novels by American-Jewish writers on Jewish themes were not considered part of the mainstream of American creative activity. Thus the works of Ludwig Lewisohn, Meyer Levin, Maurice Samuel and other significant Jewish writers were overlooked and omitted from the accepted and acknowledged literary histories. This development has been noted previously and is worth stressing at this time only in order to emphasize the radical change that has taken place in the last ten years.
Today, of course, Herman Wouk, Leon Uris and Harry Golden are household names, and even the less "popular" authors, like Bernard Malamud, J.D. Salinger, Herbert Gold, Harvey Swados, Philip Roth and dozens of other young writers, now represent an entire bloc of talented men who have contributed enormously to the fiction of the last decade. Their books are read, bought and widely discussed. Publishers, who used to avoid Jewish subject matter as non-commercial, now seek out Jewish writers and themes.
The current renascence has led publishers and critics to look back in time in order to discover those Jewish novels which had languished in the 1930's. Today, some of these books are being reissued, to the satisfaction of both literary critics and the reading public.
Daniel Fuchs, for example, wrote three novels about Jews in Brooklyn some thirty years ago which were indifferently received in their own time. When they were made available once again, in a single volume and with a new preface by the author, the novels earned long critical appreciations in scores of general and literary periodicals.
It is no wonder, then, that perhaps the best Jewish novel ever written in the United States should have been "rediscovered" in 1960. It is Call It Sleep by Henry Roth.
Call It Sleep was published early in 1935, received glowing notices and then fell into complete obscurity for twenty years. From time to time, critics made passing references to it, but the novel itself remained unobtainable while a cult of Henry Roth admirers developed.
Leslie Fiedler and Alfred Kazin were among those who called attention to Henry Roth's novel. They wrote about it and, when they lectured, called attention to it. Marie Syrkin, editor of The Jewish Frontier, as long ago as 1940, referred to Call It Sleep as the finest Jewish novel produced in America. But Henry Roth had disappeared and it seemed that Call It Sleep would remain a fond memory in the minds of a handful of sensitive readers.
As a critic who devotes himself almost entirely to Jewish writing in America, I had been asked time and again by interested readers and lecture audiences about Henry Roth and Call It Sleep. It is a book about a young Jewish boy living, at the turn of the century, in New York City, and the sensitivity with which the book was written made a tremendous impact on Jewish readers whose own parents were immigrants and who, themselves, were familiar with the milieu which Henry Roth describes. Accidentally, I had heard from a friend, the novelist and former managing editor of the old American Mercury, Charles Angoff, that Roth was alive and living quietly near Augusta, Maine.
I had remembered that early in 1940 I had seen two short stories in The New Yorker by someone who signed himself as Henry Roth, but I was not quite sure whether it was the same Roth.
Nevertheless, I wrote to Henry Roth in 1959, and that was the first step taken to bring Roth back into our contemporary world. I have corresponded with him at great length ever since (and learned, almost at the outset, that the two New Yorker stories—fragments, he called them—were indeed his). I met him a number of times, both in Maine and in New York City, and was instrumental in the reissuance of Call It Sleep by Cooper Square Publishers. The new edition carries a critical introduction of the novel by Maxwell Geismar, a personal appreciation of the book and its author by Meyer Levin, and a biographical essay by the present writer.
It must be stated unhappily that Henry Roth has been a "one-novel" writer. This is his only book and it is unlikely that he shall ever write another.
The crack-up of American novelists from F. Scott Fitzgerald to Ernest Hemingway is not an unusual phenomenon in the United States. Whatever it is that shatters the psyche of sensitive American novelists, assailed Henry Roth as well as Fitzgerald and Hemingway. Ironically, it now develops that Roth was stronger than they. Fitzgerald sought escape in alcohol and Hemingway shot himself. Roth merely retreated to Maine with a loving wife, raised two fine sons and simply stopped writing.
Before analyzing the remarkable qualities of his novel, I think it is instructive to trace the psychology of Henry Roth and perhaps in doing this we may gain some insights into the heart and mind of an extraordinarily talented man who deliberately withdraws from the creative act.
Roth, I discovered, had become a waterfowl farmer five miles south of Augusta, Maine, and when I first wrote to him, in 1959, telling him that I was one of many who admired his novel, he replied:
It was very kind of you to write. My delay in answering seems to stem from the fact that I apparently have to settle down and become however fleetingly a unified personality, at least during the time of my reply. It's gratifying that Call It Sleep still continues to impress people; it is less gratifying, of course, that the author no longer does so. Apparently that flower grew out of a soil that became sterile.
But—one has seen the same thing happen to others in this epoch and previous ones. It's a little painful. I find myself vacillating between an impatience to get the years over with, and a complacency that I got out of it with a whole skin, relatively whole skin, if not a whole soul. Oh, like everyone else, I have illusions, especially when I have the leisure to have them in, but in my most lucid moments I think, or counsel myself, that the less I attempt to write, the better…. It would seem as if a personality changes, and what was an attribute of the one is not necessarily an attribute of the other. There is one theme I like above all others, and that is redemption, but I haven't the fable.
I don't know if I have the ability either. Other than that I wondered whether there would be any value, any earthly value; of a literary nature, of communing or communicating with one I know nothing about as a means of getting rid of this huge and hideous cargo I lug about with me. Art is a means of jettison.
Or should I say frequently, or for me?
Outside of this sphere, if you have any curiosity about it, I am merely a waterfowl raiser or farmer, and not a very prosperous one, not that it matters in the least, have two children by a woman who daily retrieves my sanity with her constancy and good sense. I am nominally happy—and curiously enough, when I am in my right mind, which happens a surprising number of times during the day, I accept my own history, and that is perhaps my only inner strength. I would not have it arrive at any other outcome except this, and so I sanction what I lament. I don't imagine that is very unique either, is it?
In his second letter to me, Roth wrote:
I think I'm finished. It's a rather hard thing to say, especially for someone who once felt, or fancied he felt, a truly creative ardor. But one might as well face facts, and try to face them as objectively as possible. I do write occasionally, a kind of protracted reminiscence, but it's not worth much, except psychologically, to discharge some of the potential that would never go anyway. I have rather limited ability; I relied almost entirely on the imagination and when that faded, so did I.
Roth continued his defeatism in later letters as well. Once, he wrote: "Yes, I would like to write, to write as I once wrote, when it had meaning and I seemed to be exploring worlds no one else had before, and the possibility existed for uniqueness and wonder and magnitude. But maybe I was just young. If it doesn't exist, or I can't evoke it, why bother? There's enough pulp in the world."
In spite of Roth's nagging feeling of defeat and frustration, he still writes with exceptional brilliance and power, even if only intermittently.
At about the time he learned that Call It Sleep would be reissued, he was invited to contribute an essay on the last twenty-five years of his life, by the editor of Commentary. Eventually, though reluctantly, he did so. In this essay, he re-echoed the thoughts earlier stated in his letters to me, but here they were more carefully phrased.
"By now," he wrote, "I console myself with the thought that my creative powers, such as they were, even though fully employed, would be on the decline anyway, and by now I would have met myself perhaps with certain volumes published, and conscious of a certain modicum of acclaim, and in possession of certain emoluments, to be sure. What difference does it make? The years would have been over in any event. Poor solace, I know. The mind shuttles and reminds. We go this way only once; and shuttles again and rejoins: once is enough."
If most of us, passing through only once, can leave behind us a work of art comparable to Call It Sleep, we would have every reason to be proud of ourselves. But it seems to be the fate of many talented writers to see their pride give way to uncertainty, to doubt always that what they are doing is worth doing. Henry Roth carries the heavy burden of the creative writer. He withdraws constantly from society, from his fellow man, and seldom permits us to see him as he truly is. We must, therefore, judge him on his one book.
Call It Sleep describes the inner life of David Schearl, a little Jewish boy who lives with his mother and father in Brownsville Brooklyn, and later, on New York's East Side. David's world is a harsh one, for his father—who is domineering and bitter—jealously harbors a suspicion that his wife has never loved him and that his son David is another man's son. David survives in the nightmare of the big city jungle. He wants desperately to belong, but everywhere, at all corners of life, he finds enemies. Christian boys taunt him; girls flaunt their sex at him; his father, he is convinced, hates him. He has only his mother and her comforting breast, but it is barely enough.
In Hebrew school, David is first praised by his teacher and then tortured. He is deeply aware of the unspoken animosity which shatters the lives of his parents. He exists in a world he never made, but Roth creates of this world a moving series of vignettes, in poetic prose, in experimental language, now tender, now violent.
To the critic in the Jewish field, Call It Sleep is of special importance. The carefully-phrased dialogue, replete with Yiddishisms brilliantly translated into English to evoke the poetics of the Yiddish language, is only part of Roth's accomplishment. The sounds and smells of the street are here. The give and take between boys and girls, men and women, and the admixture of joy and sorrow, fulfillment and failure, are traced in dozens of pages throughout the narrative.
For example, Roth is particularly observant in tracing the relationship between David's mother and a man named Luter, a close friend of David's father. The passages involving Luter and David's mother are utilized, in part, to depict David's gradual discovery of sex. Roth offers a keen insight into the attitude of a boy who slowly realizes that his own mother is an object of sexual desire. In a later sequence, the street boys call David to join them in peeping at a naked woman, who, horror of horrors, turns out to be his own mother! But more subtly, this is how Roth suggests jealousy on David's part:
Luter, his eyes narrowed by a fixed yawn, was staring at his mother, at her hips. For the first time, David was aware of how her flesh, confined by the skirt, formed separate molds against it. He felt suddenly bewildered, struggling with something in his mind that would not become a thought.
David's love for his mother is deep and when Roth writes of the boy's mother, the prose in the novel sings. The book is full of heavy dialect-spelling, but, from time to time, it suddenly becomes clearly and deliberately lucid.
There is the passage where David's mother talks to her little son about Europe and the death of her own grandmother. Recalling the agony of death, David's mother says: "She looked so frail in death, in her shroud—how shall I tell you, my son? Like early winter snow. And I thought to myself even then, let me look deeply into her face for surely she will melt before my eyes."
As he listens to his beloved mother, David thinks: "I was near her. I was part of her. Oh, it was good being here. He watched her every movement hungrily."
But he is not yet done with his probing of her mood and death seems terrible to him.
"But when do they wake up, mama?" he asks.
Sadly, his mother replies, "There is nothing left to waken."
"But sometime, mama," he persists.
His mother remains the realist and says, "Not here, if anywhere. They say there is a heaven and in heaven they waken. But I myself do not believe it. May God forgive me for telling you this. But it's all I know. I know only that they are buried in the dark earth and names last a few more lifetimes on their gravestones." And the boy listens and thinks, "The dark. In the dark earth. Eternal years. It was a terrible revelation."
The scenes in the cheder, or Hebrew school, are both realistic and idealistic. The aggravated melamed, or teacher, is irritated and frustrated. The children of the New York immigrant Jews want to tear themselves away from their religious studies, but they fear their teacher. He uses a stick on them, shouts at them, but is delighted when one of them shows an aptitude for study. David is a good boy; he is willing to learn. The letters of the Hebrew alphabet come to him easily, and the blessings and prayers trip from his youthful lips. The teacher likes him for that. But the moment David becomes daring in class, or does something he shouldn't, the teacher—to whom Torah is of paramount importance—becomes a scourge and a tormentor. There is violence in these sketches, but the novelist writes out of love and understanding—and knowledge.
These are elements which have for a long time been missing in American Jewish writing. Where there is knowledge, there too frequently appears cynicism. And love and understanding are usually absent.
The sense of Jewish alienation, too, is captured in Call It Sleep. David wants to belong to something. His home is breaking up. The streets are too tough for him. Sex, as it is introduced to him by a sluttish child, frightens him. This is why he is attracted to the rosary of a Catholic street friend. The rosary becomes a symbol of belonging. How he is willing to allow his friend to "woo" his cousin Esther in order to obtain the rosary beads is touching, persuasive and sad at the same time. Just as Roth can describe the Sabbath as "the hushed hour, the hour of tawny beatitude," he can also, within a few swift pages, depict the rawness of life and the cruelty of boys pitted against each other.
It is no wonder that Leslie Fielder has been praising Henry Roth's novel for years. "No one," he has written, "has ever distilled such poetry and wit from the counterpoint between the maimed English and the subtle Yiddish of the immigrant. No one has ever reproduced so sensitively the terror of family life in the imagination of a child caught between two cultures." Fiedler has added that Call It Sleep is "a specifically Jewish book, the best single book by a Jew about Jewishness written by an American, certainly through the thirties and perhaps ever."
Professor Walter Rideout, author of The Radical Novel in America, looks at Call It Sleep not as a Jewish book but as an American novel. In an essay in American Jewish Archives (October 1959) Professor Rideout stated that:
Call It Sleep is a truly brilliant performance, one of the best first novels which I have ever read…. What makes the novel so extraordinary is its seamless web of concrete and abstract, of reality and symbol, of earth and spirit. Many of the events are grossly physical and are described in revolting detail; yet even these become incandescent with the intensity of a mystic's vision as symbol, in the Transcendentalist phrase, flowers out of fact. The language, too, represents the same unity of opposites; it moves back and forth effortlessly from a precisely heard and rendered everyday speech, complete with oath and obscenity, to the apocalyptic imagery of David's own thoughts. The result is to give the reader the sense of himself experiencing all the levels of a child's inner and outer world and of himself coming to accept the repulsive, the ugly, the horrifying along with the clean, the beautiful, the loving, as necessary parts of life's self-contradictory wholeness.
Maxwell Geismar, in his critical introduction to the new edition of Call It Sleep, calls it the definitive novel of a "side-walk-and-gutter generation" which Roth describes better than anyone else, and he suggests that the descendants of these Jews are to be found in the novels of Herman Wouk. "Yes," Geismar writes, "and what a long distance this branch of our native letters—and our native life—has come in the twenty-five years between Henry Roth's chronicle, and say, a Marjorie Morningstar. From the melting pot to the marts of trade and of finance!" Geismar goes further in his analysis and remarks that "in terms of modern psychology the family trio at the center of Call It Sleep is a classic example of the oedipal relation—describedso beautifully, so completely, that one realizes that the author, too, wrote this classic fable in all innocence of spirit. Oddly enough the novel that we associate today with Call It Sleep is William Styron's Lie Down in Darkness, another ironic fable of a childhood and adolescence, based on the Electra-complex of father-daughter love, with the same stress of the tragic 'reality' of existence."
Meyer Levin, who himself is a novelist of substance and solidity, remarks that "most of the book tells of David Schearl's life from his sixth to his eighth year. It tells of the life of his mother and father, as seen through the eyes of this child. I know of no more perceptive work in any literature, dealing with a child's conditioning. In this field, Call It Sleep is a classic."
Quite apart from Henry Roth's remarkable achievement in recreating the mood, tension and agony of childhood he also has managed to bring off a most unusual final section of the book, in which he borrows from James Joyce's stream-of-consciousness method and concludes his book in crackling, beautiful prose.
David flees his home after a violent fight between his mother and father and he nearly electrocutes himself by placing a piece of iron into the crack of the streetcar tracks, thus calling forth a power flash. Geismar interprets this scene as the young hero finding the "light of God" in the third rail of the trolley-car line. He adds that the "power" which convulses his body makes him a man. There is no question that there is powerful symbolism in the final section of the novel called, quite simply, "The Rail." The reader, however, must submit himself to the cumulative power of the prose to realize how difficult a task Henry Roth set for himself and how well he succeeded.
Here is the final passage of the book, which offers a sample of Roth's prose and demonstrates anew that the skill of Henry Roth has not been surpassed by modern prose masters. David's mother suggests to him that he go to sleep and forget the horrible experience through which he has just lived. He agrees to try:
He might as well call it sleep. It was only toward sleep that every wink of the eyelids could strike a spark into the cloudy tinder of the dark, kindle out of shadowy corners of the bedroom such myriad and such vivid jets of images—of the glint on titled beards, of the uneven shine on roller skates, of the dry light on grey stone steps, of the tapering glitter of rails, of the oily sheen on the night-smooth rivers, of the glow on thin blonde hair, red faces, of the glow on the outstretched, open palms of legions upon legions of hands hurtling toward him. He might as well call it sleep. It was only toward sleep that ears had power to cull again and reassemble the shrill cry, the hoarse voice, the scream of fear, the bells, the thick-breathing, the roar of crowds and all sounds that lay fermenting in the vats of silence and the past. It was only toward sleep one knew himself still lying on the cobbles, felt the cobbles under him, and over him and scudding ever toward him like a black foam, the perpetual blur of shod and running feet, the broken shoes, new shoes, stubby, pointed, caked, polished, buniony, pavement-beveled, lumpish, under skirts, under trousers, shoes, over one and through one, and feel them all and feel, not pain, not terror, but strangest triumph, strangest acquiescence. One might as well call it sleep. He shut his eyes.
Call It Sleep is being read avidly by critics in the 1960's, as it was in the 1930's. It is not being overlooked; it is being discussed and analyzed.
Hollywood producers, television personalities, musical comedy writers and paperback publishers are reading it carefully, hoping to find in its pages something which will bring them new fortunes.
Meanwhile Henry Roth continues to live quietly on a byroad in Maine. He is satisfied to have produced his one novel. The rest of us can only regret that he has never given us a second book. But we must be grateful for Call It Sleep.
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