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Critical Essay by Irving Howe
SOURCE: "Life Never Let Up," in The New York Times Book Review, Vol. 69, No. 43, October 25, 1964, pp. 1, 60.
In the following essay, Howe asserts that "At the end of a novel like Call It Sleep, one has lived through a completeness of rendered life, and all one need do is silently to acknowledge its truth."
Thirty years ago a young New Yorker named Henry Roth published his first and thus far, his only novel, Call It Sleep. It was a splendid book, one of the few genuinely distinguished novels written by a 20th-century American; and there were critics and readers who recognized this immediately. From the general public, however, the book never won any attention.
In its deepest impress, Call It Sleep was alien to the spirit of the times. The politically radical critics then dominating the New York literary scene had enough taste to honor Roth for composing an impressive work, but they did not really know what to make of it. They could not bend the novel to their polemical purposes, and some of them, one suspects, must have felt that the severe detachment with which Roth presented the inner life of a Jewish immigrant boy between the ages of 6 and 8 was an evasion of the social needs of the moment.
Time passed, thousands of cluttering novels came and went each year, and Call It Sleep faded from sight. So too did its author, about whom vague rumors arose that he became a hospital attendant in upstate New York and then a duck farmer in Maine. But if most books die and a very few live, some just survive precariously in a kind of underground existence. Copies of Call It Sleep became hard to find, but all through the 1940's and 1950's a number of serious critics, writing in such magazines as Commentary and Partisan Review, remained loyal to the book, and kept insisting that it was a neglected masterpiece which people ought to read and some publisher reprint.
In 1960 a small firm (Pageant Books, Inc., now Cooper Square Publishers) did put out the novel in hardcovers, but to little effect. Now, with some accompanying flourishes, Avon has issued the novel in paperback and this time, one hopes, it will finally gain the public it deserves. As with all belated acts of justice, there is something bitter in the thought of the many years that have had to go by; still, it is an act of justice, and a welcome one.
Call It Sleep is one of those novels—there are not very many—which patiently enter and then wholly exhaust an experience. Taking fierce imaginative possession of its subject, the novel scrutinizes it with an almost unnerving intensity, yet also manages to preserve a sense of distance and dispassion. The central figure is David Schearl, an overwrought, phobic and dangerously imaginative little boy. He has come to New York with his east European Jewish parents, and now, in the years between 1911 and 1913, he is exposed, shock by shock, to the blows of slum life.
Everything is channeled through the child's perceptions. For considerable sections, David's uncorrected apprehensions of the world become the substance of the narrative, a mixture of stony realism and ecstatic phantasmagoria. Yet the book is not at all the kind of precious or narrowing study of a child's sensibility that such a description might suggest; for Henry Roth has taken pains to root it deeply in the external world, in the streets, the tenements, the other children David encounters. We are locked into the experience of a child, but are not limited to his grasp of it.
One of Roth's admirers, the English critic Walter Allen, has elsewhere described this aspect of Call It Sleep very well: "David recreates, transmutes, the world he lives in not into any simple fantasy of make-believe—we're a long way here either from Tom Sawyer or the young Studs Lonigan—but with the desperate, compulsive imagination of a poet. He is, indeed, for all the grotesque difference in milieu, much closer to the boy Wordsworth of 'The Prelude.'"
Call It Sleep yields a picture of brutality in the slums quite as oppressive as can be found in any 1930's novel—and because Henry Roth has neither political nor literary preconceptions to advance, neither revolutionary rhetoric nor fatalistic behaviorism, his picture is more authoritative than that of most slum novels. Through the transfiguring imagination of David, Call It Sleep also achieves an obbligato of lyricism such as few American novels can match. David Schearl, in his besieged and quavering presence, exemplifies the force of G.M. Doughty's epigram: "The Semites are like to a man sitting in a cloaca to the eyes, and whose brow touches heaven."
"… a cloaca to the eyes." That is the world of Brownsville and the Lower East Side into which the child is thrust. Quarrelsome grown-ups, marauding toughs, experiments in voyeurism and precocious sex, dark tenements with rat-infested cellars and looming stairways, an overwhelming incident in which David's father, a milkman, whips two derelicts who have stolen a few bottles of milk, the oppressive comedy of Hebrew school where children cower before and learn to torment an enraged rabbi—all these comprise the outer life of the boy, described by Roth with deliberate and gritty detail. One is reminded of Dickens's evocation of childhood terrors, and Roth certainly shares with Dickens the vision of an unmeditated war between the child and society; but nothing in Dickens is so completely and gravely caught up, as is Call It Sleep, with the child's vision of the world as nightmare. Yet—and this seems to me a remarkable achievement—Roth never acquiesces in the child's delusions, never sentimentalizes or quivers over his David. In the economy of psychic life, the book makes abundantly clear, the outer world's vitality and toughness have their claims too.
"… and whose brow touches heaven." For David heaven is his mother's lap, the warming banter of her faintly ironic voice. Genya Schearl, immigrant wife who speaks only Yiddish, a tall and pale beauty, fearful of her violent-tempered husband, yet glowing with feminine grace and chastened sexuality—this marvelous figure should some day be honored as one of the great women of American literature, a fit companion to Hawthorne's Hester Prynne. Genya brings radiance and dignity to every page on which she appears. We cannot help share David's craving for her, even as we recognize its morbid elements; we see her most powerfully through the eyes of the child, as the enclosing mother who provides total security, but we also sense what David has begun uneasily to sense, that she has a complex emotional and bodily life beyond the reach of the child.
As we would say in our contemporary glibness, it is a classical Oedipal situation: the troubled delicate boy, the passionate mother, the inflamed father whom the child looks upon as an agent of punishment and who, in turn, feels himself cut off from the household's circle of love. An Oedipal situation indeed—but in our mindless jargon we forget that this phrase refers to one of the most sustaining experiences a human being can know. Henry Roth, who seems to have been happily innocent of Freudian hypotheses, provides in Call It Sleep a recognizable "case," but far more important, an experience superbly alive and fluid. He writes:
"It is summer," she pointed to the window, "the weather grows warm. Whom will you refresh with the icy lips the water lent you?"
"Oh!" he lifted his smiling face.
"You remember nothing," she reproached him, and with a throaty chuckle, lifted him in her arms.
Sinking his fingers in her hair, David kissed her brow. The faint familiar warmth and odor of her skin and hair.
"There!" she laughed, nuzzling his cheek, "but you've waited too long; the sweet chill has dulled.
Lips for me," she reminded him "must always be cool as the water that wet them." She put him down.
Away from his mother, David is torn by fears: fears of the fingering sexuality he discovers in the street, fears—also hopes—that he is not really the child of his father, fears of the rabbi who curses a fate requiring him to teach the intractable young. At the climax of the book David runs away from home, fleeing the anger of his father who has caught him playing with a rosary and believes him implicated in an act of depravity.
There follows a brilliantly rendered flight through the streets, composed in a Joycean stream-of-consciousness that is broken with fragments of gutter talk, street noise and left-wing oratory. For David, in whose mind a scriptural passage about the fiery coal God put to the lips of Isaiah becomes linked to the terrifying flash of the live rail on a streetcar track, there is now an overmastering urge to sacrifice and cleanse himself. He thrusts the ladle of a milk can into the slot between the car tracks which carries the live rail, suffers a violent shock, and then, recovering, harbors a vision in which all guilts become assuaged and there may yet be a way of containing the terrors of the world.
The writing in Call It Sleep is consistently strong. When speaking in his own right, as disciplined narrator, Roth provides a series of powerful urban vignettes: slum kids fishing for pennies through the grate of a cellar, the ghastly little candy store in which David's Aunt Bertha, a red-haired gargoyle, bitterly trades with urchins, the freedom of tenement roofs on which David learns to climb.
Roth is even better at rendering varieties of speech. With a hard impersonality he records the patois of immigrant children several generations back, and because he never condescends to them or tries to exploit them as local color, he transforms their mutilated language into a kind of poetry:
My ticher calls id Xmas, bod de kids call id Chrizmas. Id's a goyish holiday anyways. Wunst I hanged op a stockin' in Brooklyn. Bod mine fodder pud in eggshells wid terlit paper an' a piece f'om a ol' kendle. So he leffed w'en he seen me.
And here the rabbi curses his "scholars" with a brimstone eloquence:
"May your skull be dark!… and your eyes be dark and your fate be of such dearth and darkness that you will call a poppyseed the sun and a carroway the moon…. Away! Or I'll empty my bitter heart upon you."
But when Genya speaks, Roth transposes her Yiddish into a pure and glowing English, reflecting in prose the ultimate serenity of her character.
Intensely Jewish in tone and setting, Call It Sleep rises above all the dangers that beset the usual ghetto novel: it does not deliquesce into nostalgia, nor sentimentalize poverty and parochialism. The Jewish immigrant milieu happens to be its locale, quite as Dublin is Joyce's and Mississippi Faulkner's. A writer possessed by his materials, driven by a need to recapture the world of his youth, does not choose his setting: it chooses him. And to be drawn into Roth's trembling world, the reader need have no special knowledge about Jewish life, just as he need have no special knowledge about the South in order to enjoy Faulkner.
Call It Sleep ends without any explicit moral statement. A human experience scoured to its innermost qualities can take on a value of its own, beyond the convenience of gloss or judgment. At the end of a novel like Call It Sleep, one has lived through a completeness of rendered life, and all one need do is silently to acknowledge its truth.
This section contains 1,912 words
(approx. 7 pages at 300 words per page)