Call It Sleep | Critical Essay by A. Sidney Knowles Jr.

This literature criticism consists of approximately 17 pages of analysis & critique of Call It Sleep.
This section contains 4,949 words
(approx. 17 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Essay by A. Sidney Knowles Jr.

SOURCE: "The Fiction of Henry Roth," in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. XI, No. 4, Winter 1965–1966, pp. 393-404.

In the following essay, Knowles traces the history of critical discourse about Roth's Call It Sleep and briefly analyzes Roth few short pieces of fiction written since the novel.

In reviewing the publication history of Henry Roth's Call It Sleep, one is struck by the aptness with which its title describes the long period of its obscurity. The novel was first published late in 1934, a year that produced Scott Fitzgerald's Tender Is the Night, Graham Greene's It's a Battlefield, John O'Hara's Appointment in Samarra, William Saroyan's The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze, and Evelyn Waugh's A Handful of Dust. The same year saw the publication of forty-three other works considered memorable enough to be listed in the second edition of Annals of English Literature (1961). Call It Sleep is not listed, nor is the novel or its author referred to, in such compendia as Thorp's American Writing in the Twentieth Century (1960), Herzberg's Reader's Encyclopedia of American Literature (1962), and Burke and Howe's American Authors and Books (revised by Weiss, 1962). A search through the numerous paperback cram-books is equally fruitless.

In an afterword to the present widely-circulated edition, Walter Allen praises Alfred Kazin and Leslie Fiedler for calling attention to Roth's novel, "Fiedler notably in his book Love and Death in the American Novel." In reality, Fiedler mentions the novel in part of a parenthetical sentence in Love and Death (1960), devotes a short paragraph to it in No! In Thunder (1960), and briefly discusses it again in Waiting for the End (1964). In the August, 1960, issue of Commentary, however, Feidler presents a full treatment of the novel. Kazin contributes a blurb to the latest edition, but does not take up the novel in his essay collections, among them Contemporaries (1962), which gathers some seventy-three articles in its 513 pages. In the last ten years there has been a scattering of articles in the literary journals. Call It Sleep is discussed in Rideout's The Radical Novel in the United States (1956) and by Kazin and Fiedler in a symposium on "The Most Neglected Books of the Past 25 Years" in The American Scholar (1956). On the whole, hunting Roth's novel in indexes is useful mainly for reminding the reader that it has been a long time since he looked at Jack London's Call of the Wild.

Yet the novel was not treated with indifference when it appeared in December of 1934. F.T. Marsh, in Books, called it "the most accurate and profound study of an American slum childhood that has yet appeared," and concluded that he would "like to see 'Call it Sleep' win the Pulitzer Prize." The Boston Transcript termed it an "exceptional book"; Horace Gregory, in The Nation, found Roth's novel "an experience which few readers of contemporary fiction can afford to ignore"; The New Republic saw "rare powers and densities" in the work; Lewis Gannett, for the New York Herald Tribune, thought the novel suggestive of "the great Russians." Reviewers in the New York Times and Saturday Review of Literature were shocked by the frankness of Roth's language, which, if nothing else, should have given the novel a certain notoriety. Only certain of the leftist press, as Fiedler points out, were able to dismiss Call It Sleep: the age required that a novel about the slums invoke the class struggle; Roth offered poetry instead.

In its day Call It Sleep did not do badly. The ailing firm of R. O. Ballou gave it two printings; some four thousand copies were put into circulation, a good showing for a first novel in the Depression (but, by comparison, Hemingway's Winner Take Nothing was given a first printing of some twenty thousand copies in 1933, his Green Hills of Africa a first printing of some ten thousand copies in 1935). In 1960, Pageant Books re-issued the novel in hard covers. This impressive edition, with prefatory essays by Harold U. Ribalow, Maxwell Geismar, and Meyer Levin, remains in print; at the time of its first appearance, however, it attracted little attention. All the more amazing that Avon's paperback edition, issued in October, 1964, should have brought the great awakening.

Call It Sleep was thirty years, almost to the month, coming into its own with the public. Was it brought in on the tide of reawakened interest in the 'thirties? Did it need a period when competition from established authors was slack? Whatever the answers, the story of Henry Roth suggests that the one-book author can rarely maintain a reputation in a society awash in books; and it forces us to wonder how many other neglected masterpieces are awaiting their miraculous year.

Call It Sleep may seem at first glance to fall into the tradition of urban naturalism. The novel could stand its ground there, rivaling Farrell, Dreiser, and the other recorders of slum life. Roth's account of three years (1911–13) in the life of the immigrant boy David Schearl recreates the qualities of life in the melting pot with remarkable richness. The novel is full of the lore of Jewish life, the clamor of the streets, the stench of the tenements. Roth is a virtuoso of language; his street dialects are a coarse, dissonant music, rising and falling through the length of the novel. He knows the psychology of the city child: David's fear of the cellars, his exhilaration on the rooftops, must strike deep into the memory of any reader who grew up in the tenements and apartments of a big city. Roth knows the city child's sense of the terrible distance between a third-floor apartment and the street, knows his panic at finding himself lost in a "new" neighborhood only two blocks away. Living in the consciousness of David from his sixth to his ninth year, we are uniquely reminded of that chaotic mixture of savagery and beauty that is city life.


Equally, Call It Sleep belongs in the company of the great Bildungsroman. As a document of developing consciousness it is closely related to Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, sharing that novel's concern with the peculiar mixture of fascination and revulsion produced by certain types of experience. For David Schearl, sex is such an experience. His lessons at the Hebrew school are a source of both fear and irresistible curiosity. His first real friendship produces both triumph and defeat. His home offers both security (the mother) and rejection (the father). Thus, learning the lessons of experience, growing up, becomes for David—as it does for Stephen Dedalus—a matter of surviving and reconciling the very diversity of existence.

The success of Call It Sleep, however, rests ultimately upon factors other than the ease with which it competes with other novels of a certain genre. Something must be said about its extraordinary intensity and about its craftsmanship.

Nineteen thirty-four began with a major event in publishing, the first American edition of Joyce's Ulysses. When Call It Sleep was published eleven months later, reviewers were struck by similarities between the two novels. Comparison of the two is inevitable: both make massive use of stream-of-consciousness; both are "noisy," their authors fascinated by the sheer clamor of interior and exterior experience. There are certain similarities of characterization. The placid femininity of Genya Schearl relates her to Molly Bloom; there are moments when the rabbi Yidel Pankower conjures up the alienated Leopold.

Certainly both can be called—using the term loosely—Freudian novels, novels based upon the assumption that total character can be revealed only when overt acts and speech are presented in relation to the freely associative flow of psychic experience. Roth's technical handling of this assumption is often highly Joycean: one might guess that both the Sirens and Circe chapters of Ulysses, in particular, exercised a strong influence on Roth's presentation of the events in Chapter XXI of Call It Sleep, where young David Schearl runs through a wild storm of exterior and interior experience surrounding the climactic act of the novel.

Call It Sleep, however, is technically far less elaborate than Ulysses, and it is therefore surprising to find that the experience of reading it is somewhat more intense. The reason, perhaps, is that while Ulysses lays bare the complex psychic experience of three characters who may lie in some degree outside ourselves (Leopold, Molly, Stephen), Call It Sleep, by focusing on childhood, draws us into an area of intense psychic experience that we have shared in common, and that is at once simpler and more piquant. We confront the basic traumas in Call It Sleep, their variant effects in Ulysses. We have little choice but to rediscover ourselves in David Schearl; all the terrors, all the joys of childhood seem to dwell in his consciousness. In a very real sense, reading Call It Sleep is a psychoanalytic experience, capable of producing an unusual degree of emotional discomfort in the reader.

This awareness of being deeply touched is present in much of the criticism the novel has attracted so far. Walter Allen calls Roth's work "the most powerful evocation of the terrors of childhood ever written." Leslie Fiedler observes that any element of social criticism in the novel is subordinate to "the passion and suffering of Roth's child hero." Harold U. Ribalow mentions "Roth's remarkable achievement in recreating the mood, tension and agony of childhood."

Yet, as appropriate as such reactions are, it would be misleading to suggest that Call It Sleep is simply an emotional tour de force. While criticism of the novel has been enthusiastic and perceptive (and has, in fact, found much to discuss besides its emotional impact), there is room for further comment on certain subtleties of Roth's craft. It can be suggested, for instance, that the prologue to Call It Sleep not only provides a graphic opening but is also a source of basic themes and metaphors for the whole novel. We are taken in the prologue to a steamer leaving Ellis Island in 1907:

the year that was destined to bring the greatest number of immigrants to the shores of the United States. All that day, as on all the days since spring began, her decks had been thronged by hundreds upon hundreds of foreigners, natives from almost every land in the world, the joweled close-cropped Teuton, the full-bearded Russian, the scraggly-whiskered Jew, and among them Slovack peasants with docile faces, smooth-cheeked and swarthy Armenians, pimply Greeks, Danes with wrinkled eyelids. All day her decks had been colorful, a matrix of the vivid costumes of other lands, the speckled green-and-yellow aprons, the flowered kerchief, embroidered homespun, the silver-braided sheepskin vest, the gaudy scarfs, yellow boots, fur caps, caftans, dull gabardines. All day the guttural, the high-pitched voices, the astonished cries, the gasps of wonder, reiterations of gladness had risen from her decks in a motley billow of sound.

Among the immigrants are David Schearl, then about two years old, and his mother, Genya. Albert, the father, had come to America earlier and the family is now to be reunited. But in Albert's behaviour there is a coldness markedly different from the demonstrativeness of the immigrant families around him. His remarks to his wife and son are contemptuous and accusatory. In a gesture full of shame and pathetic pride, he snatches David's old-country hat and hurls it into the river in order that his boy will not look like an immigrant.

It is a powerful beginning for the novel, and valuable as such, but it is also a scene of considerable resonance. First, it establishes the Schearls as travelers in an alien culture, a circumstance that colors the whole novel. As Marie Syrkin points out, the Schearls are a counterpart of the Holy Family seeking refuge in an inimical land. Second, the prologue establishes the other and more profound kind of alienation existing between mother and son, on one hand, and father on the other. Finally, the prologue suggests a metaphor that underlies the entire work: the voyage that David must take into the alien world of complex experience. In this sense, the sheltering arms of Genya are the old world; David is the immigrant in life who must leave their haven and seek his own meanings in the new culture of maturity. Albert's tearing the hat from David's head and hurling it into the river becomes an abrupt and brutal symbol not only of the father's pride but of the beginning of David's harrowing journey toward some distant station where he can come to terms with the chaos of experience. The gesture is rounded off at the end of the novel when David, brought home with a burned foot after an experience that has had precisely this reconciling effect, is covered with bedclothes by a gentle interne.

Considering the basic theme of the prologue, it is not surprising to find how often the novel presents David literally in motion: the lost David running through the streets of Brownsville looking for his apartment house; running, after his first encounter with the electrified rail; running, after Leo seduces his cousin Esther; running, after telling the rabbi a fantastic suspicion about his parentage; and, finally, running from the fury of his father toward his second rendezvous with the "fatal glory" of the streetcar track. David's flights are at once a perfectly natural record of childhood behaviour and a metaphor of his chaotic progress toward maturity. It is in the prologue that the basic motion of this metaphor is generated.

The scene in which David touches a milk-ladle to the electrified rail of the streetcar line illustrates the care with which Henry Roth unites his themes at the end of the novel. Throughout Call It Sleep, David is perplexed by his growing awareness of sexuality. In an early episode he is uneasily conscious that his mother's body is attractive to Albert's foreman, Luter. In later episodes, David is given a disgusting lesson in the physical mysteries of sex by a crippled girl of the neighborhood; he is horrified to learn that some older boys have been spying on his mother as she bathes; he listens in fascination to the sexual play of Leo and Esther in a coal-bin. Throughout the novel, his days are punctuated by the coarse sexuality of city street-language.

Toward the middle of the novel, David is taken to the Hebrew school, the cheder, where he becomes enthralled by a passage of scripture in which Isaiah is described as having been touched on the lips by a fiery coal, allowing him to speak in the presence of God. In the climactic scene of Call It Sleep, as David seeks his own source of all-clarifying light in the streetcar track, the theme of sexuality and the theme of David's quest for the understanding of Isaiah are united. As he moves toward the track, his interior monologue is set against fragments of the sex-obsessed conversations of the surrounding neighborhood. In David's own thoughts, the act of producing light is expressed in terms that have obvious sexual overtones:

    Now! Now I gotta, In the crack,
    remember. In the crack be born.

When the ladle, thrust between the lips of the track, makes contact with the electrified rail, the result is described in an orgastic explosion of poetic prose:

     Power! Power like a paw, titanic power,
     ripped through the earth and slammed
     against his body and shackled him
     where he stood. Power! Incredible,
     barbaric power! A blast, a siren of light
     within him, rending, quaking, fusing his
     brain and blood to a fountain of flame,
     vast rockets in a searing spray! Power!
     The hawk of radiance raking him with
     talons, of fire, battering his skull with
     a beak of fire, braying his body with
     pinions of intolerable light. And he
     writhed without motion in the clutch of
     a fatal glory, and his brain swelled
     and dilated till it dwarfed the galaxies
     in a bubble of refulgence—Recoiled, the
     last screaming nerve clawing for survival.
     He kicked—once. Terrific rams of darkness
     collided; out of their shock space
     toppled into havoc. A thin scream wobbled
     through the spirals of oblivion, fell like
     a brand on water, his-s-s-s-s-ed

Thus the two themes are united: the generative touch of the fiery coal upon the lips of Isaiah is equated with the generative act of sex. David's struggles with sexuality, as well as with his total environment, are reconciled in a moment that relates the act of sex to the creative energy of God. The subsidence of action that follows, terminating in sleep, carries these implications to their logical conclusion.


Considering the amount of creative energy displayed by Call It Sleep, it is astonishing that no major work by Henry Roth has followed it. The pattern of tension and relaxation in the final pages of his novel has, curiously, proved to be prophetic of Roth's literary career.

Yet Roth has not been completely silent over the years. Four short pieces have appeared over his name, two in the New Yorker and two in Commentary. The first New Yorker piece, "Somebody Always Grabs the Purple," appeared sixteen years after Call It Sleep; the second, "Petey and Yotsee and Mario," sixteen years after the first. Neither story is of great importance. "Somebody" gives us Sammy Farber, "eleven or twelve years old," at a New York branch library. He is looking for the Purple Fairy Book, aware that he might be considered too old for fairy stories. "'Everybody says I'm too big to read fairy books. My mother calls 'em stories with a bear.'" The determined Sammy discovers that another boy is reading the book—"'somebody always grabs the Purple'"—and tries to talk him out of it, without success. The story ends with a suggestion that Sammy intends to follow the boy home and get "the Purple" one way or another.

"Petey and Yotsee and Mario" is a vignette: the Jewish narrator remembers when, as a child, he almost drowned in the East River, but was saved by three neighborhood boys. His mother baked a "Jewish cake" as a reward for the boys, and the narrator was certain they would laugh at the gesture. Instead, the heroes ate the cake "with gusto," as the mother was confident they would: "'You were afraid they wouldn't like Jewish cake. What kind of people would they be if they didn't like Jewish cake? Would they have even saved you?'"

While both stories draw their materials from essentially the same culture as that of Call It Sleep, and are expertly written, they are minor items. It is possible to see in them, of course, some continuing interest in the educative experiences of childhood; in the main, the stories only remind us of a pleasant time when life among ethnic groups in New York was still possible as a subject for gentle humor.

The sixteen-year cycle of Roth's publishing was broken by the two pieces that appeared in 1959 and 1960. Both depart from the world of Call It Sleep and are particularly interesting because they attempt, through the medium of the parable, to account for their author's inability (or unwillingness) to go on producing. The first of these, "At Times in Flight," is an impressive piece.

Like Sherwood Anderson's "Death in the Woods," Roth's parable is an attempt to lay bare certain problems of the literary artist. But while Anderson's story suggests the processes through which the artist understands and makes use of his materials, "At Times in Flight" reveals why, in Roth's case, his materials became no longer valid. The story begins with a reminiscence of an artists' colony that Roth attended in the summer of 1938 (we must assume that the "I" of the parable is Roth; that the artists' colony, called "Z," was Yaddo, near Saratoga Springs; and that the "Martha" of the story became Roth's wife Muriel). The purpose of the colony was to provide a setting for unhampered creativity, but most of the inmates "loafed or spent a great deal of time in frivolity or idle chatter." Roth was engaged in a second novel: "It had gone badly—aims had become lost, purpose, momentum lost. A profound change seemed to be taking place within me in the way I viewed my craft, in my objectivity."

While there, the parable relates, Roth was courting a young woman "bred and raised in the best traditions of New England and the Middle West, the most wholesome traditions." Around them the essentially trivial life of the colony went on: overeating, playing charades, discussing the civil war in Spain. One diversion Roth and Martha found was going into Saratoga Springs to drink the waters, which bubbled, free, from a fountain at the spa. The water appealed to Roth because it reminded him of the seltzer water his family had bought during his childhood on the East Side. It was "not easily obtainable" then, but here he could have all he wanted. Of those at the colony, only Martha shared his enthusiasm.

Another diversion he and Martha shared was watching the training of horses for the nearby track:

as we drove past in the early morning, we would see what I suppose was one of the usual sights at race tracks, but to us a novelty: the grooms or trainers bent low over their mounts and urging them on for a longer or shorter gallop. A horse is a beautiful thing. A fleet, running horse, and we would stop sometimes on our way and watch one course along the white railing. Enormously supple and swift, they seemed at times in flight. The dirt beneath their hooves seemed less spurred by their hooves than drawn away beneath them in their magnificent stride.

One afternoon, they decided to watch a horse race, and took a path "not frequently trodden" through the woods to a point beside the track far from the grandstand. "We seemed to be, as we virtually were, in some coign or niche where we could behold the excitement in a remote and almost secret way." The horses seemed "tiny and remote," the whole event an affair of toys. But as the race began and the horses came nearer, Roth realized that his perspective was changing:

They were no longer toy horses and toy riders. They were very real and growing in reality every second. One could see the utter seriousness of the thing, the supreme effort, the rivalry as horse and man strained every muscle to forge to the front. Oh, it was no toy spectacle; they were in fierce and bitter competition, vying horse and man, even the mounted man, vying for the lead, and the glowing eyeballs and the shrunken jockeys, the quiet, the enormous suppleness and the cry.

As the horses neared the couple, one, with his rider, fell. The jockey rose and limped away, but the horse had broken a leg: "There was something terribly ungainly and grotesque about his motion" as he ran after the pack. A few more steps and the horse fell to the track. Booted men in a truck came to shoot the animal. Martha tried to leave, but Roth restrained her. She was afraid of being shot: "Bullets richochet. I'm afraid." Roth stayed to watch the "grave and dread … event."

I watched them load the carcass aboard the truck, and for some reason a similar scene on the East Side of long ago returned—an image from long-vanished childhood of a cop shooting a horse fallen in the snow, and the slow, winch of the big green van that hauled the animal aboard later. So that was the end? Ars brevis, vita longa.

"'The odd thing is,'" Roth told Martha, "'when I saw him going down, I felt a sense of loss.'" They made their way back to the colony, Martha leading the way because she had a "better sense of direction," Roth musing over the scene they had left, "a horse destroyed when the race became real."

In a note published with the story, Roth says, "The main meaning of the story to me lies in the projection, so to speak, of the inadequacy of a man's art in the face of modern realities, and the implied decision to make a new start." The horse race, then, is life, the fallen horse Roth's art. Call It Sleep was a novel about childhood, of events seen far off, as the beginning of the race was seen. As long as he wrote about childhood, there was a certain comfortable distance between Roth and his material. It was an art that was not quite grounded in reality, like the horses in training that "seemed at times in flight." The trips to Saratoga Springs to the bubbling fountain also suggest a continuing attempt to reuse the experiences of childhood. It is a kind of escape; it comes easy, the waters are now "free." But that "path not frequently trodden" leads Roth to a sudden confrontation with present reality. He is no longer viewing events across a distance of time. The track of time, of maturing experience, has brought his art into the present and his art has failed; the only merciful act is to destroy it. Martha, also an artist, flinches and fears a "richochet," but Roth watches, hearing the "oddly insignificant" report of the pistol that dispatches a childhood-centered art that is no longer viable. It is art that is short, life that is long. Roth expressed the problem more simply in a letter to Harold U. Ribalow; "Apparently [Call It Sleep] grew out of a soil that became sterile…. I haven't the fable."

"The Dun Dakotas" is half a frank expression of Roth's resignation to the failure of his creativity and half a rather enigmatic "yarn." There was something in his era, he asserts, "fatal to creative gusto." He once wondered about what had happened to his art, but he realizes now that "one has to put a term to things." He can accept the fact that there are stages in the continuum of life: "I was a writer once, just as I was an eager East Side kid before that, and a mopey Harlem youth in the interim, who am now a waterfowl farmer." He lives now in present reality. In the parable that follows, Roth tries to express the problem of his generation. He tells of a group of soldiers who went out to map the Bad Lands in the 1870's and were stopped by hostile Indians. To placate the Chief, they gambled with him and lost all their money. When they asked the Chief whether they could pass, he folded his arms and fell silent. Only after "a long dream or a long thought" did he motion them on.

My generation, Roth seems to say, set out to map the Waste Land ("You can imagine the gnarled terrain, or consult an encyclopedia, or consult Mr. Eliot") but were stopped in the process by the hostility of the Waste Landers, or perhaps the hostility of events. We surrendered as much of ourselves as we could, but we still weren't allowed to go on. There was nothing to do but wait:

That was as far as I got for over twenty-five years, waiting for the decision of the Chief who had turned into stone or into legend, waiting for a man to decide what history was in the dun Dakotas, waiting for a sanction; and oddly enough it would have to be the victim who would provide it, though none could say who was the victim, who the victor. And only now I can tell you, and perhaps it's a good sign—at least for my generation, who waited with me—though perhaps it's too late.

"Will the Chief let us pass?" the Scout repeated. "Always remember Great Chief."

"And the Chief unfolded his arms and motioned them the way of their journey. "Go now," he said.

And so the sanction that was denied Roth when he began "a novel about a Communist living in the Midwest" finally came, "though perhaps it's too late."

The story that lies behind these two parables is, in many ways, unique in its revelation of a problem of the American writer. Roth, like so many of his compatriots, started with the myth of childhood, and with the materials of that myth he wrote a remarkable novel. Then he was faced with the problem of where to go next, and the answer seemed to lie in a novel that would deal in some way with adult, political problems of the thirties. He had discovered, as "At Times in Flight" reveals, that the myth of childhood was no longer challenging or useful (while the two later New Yorker pieces are about childhood, they obviously represent no new inspiration); but he had also discovered that he was unequipped to deal with the present partly because of the failure of his art, partly for extrinsic reasons ("The Dun Dakotas"). And so, Roth simply stopped. The themes were there but the embodying fable was not.

While we may lament the virtual retirement of a writer who could produce Call It Sleep, it is difficult not to admire his honesty. The path of American literature is strewn with writers who have found themselves in Roth's predicament and have either failed to recognize it or chosen to ignore it. Wolfe kept rewriting himself; Earrell goes on rewriting Studs Lonigan; Salinger seems unable to find a fresh perspective. Hemingway's quality declined when he abandoned his early themes and tried to reflect the immediate crises of the present. Faulkner, in mid-career, felt some necessity to abandon his original lyricism; his rhetorical style of the forties produced his least satisfactory work. In short, the American writer seems frequently to encounter some crisis of the imagination that demands a change of theme or style. Some have simply gone on producing embarrassing imitations of themselves. Others have changed but lost their touch. Faced with such a crisis, Henry Roth dropped his pen and found a new occupation.

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