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Critical Essay by Kenneth Ledbetter
SOURCE: "Henry Roth's Call It Sleep: The Revival of a Proletarian Novel," in Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 12, No. 3, October, 1966, pp. 123-30.
In the following essay, Ledbetter discusses the relationship between Roth's Call It Sleep and other proletarian novels of the 1930s. He asserts that "Roth's achievement is a novel first, and a proletarian one only secondarily."
The recent publication of a paperback edition of Henry Roth's Call It Sleep and the prominence afforded a review of it in The New York Times Book Review can hardly be construed as a revival of proletarian literature in the United States; our generation remains properly skeptical of the rabid commitment and simple slogans spawned by the confusion of political, economic, and literary values in the 1930s. Such hack work as Mary Heaton Vorse's Strike! and Clara Weatherwax's Marching! Marching!—indeed, the whole body of proletarian melodramas that once were hailed enthusiastically as weapons in the class struggle—have been mercifully forgotten, and our credulity is strained even to conceive of the high seriousness and religious devotion which characterized the literary controversies of that period. Yet Roth's novel, resurrected now after suffering almost total neglect for thirty years, is perhaps the most authentic and compelling expression the American proletariat has received.
It should be noted, of course, that the qualities of Call It Sleep that have given it new life today are the ones most vigorously attacked in the leftist press upon its initial publication in 1934. The Marxist critics of the thirties demanded that proletarian novels meet the immediate needs of the class war, that they be instruments of propaganda containing two-dimensional portrayals of "good guys" and "bad guys" in which the worker-hero discards his petty-bourgeois ideals of virtue and fair play when confronted with the ruthlessness and brutality of capitalist gangsters. To explore the proletarian memory or the consciousness of the worker was to imitate slavishly Proust and Joyce, over-ripe fruits of bougeois decay. Only novels concerned with the proletariat in social relationships (i.e., class conflict) in which the revolutionary movement was portrayed as larger than life and the quickening class-consciousness of the worker anticipated rather than honestly described could expect sympathetic treatment in leftist journals.
Roth was indignantly chastised by the literary Marxists when they discovered that his talents were introspective rather than bombastic. When first reviewed in the New Masses, Call It Sleep was criticized for degenerating into "impression on a rampage," for being too long, for "vile" spelling of dialects, and for over-emphasizing "the sex phobias of this six-year-old Proust." The review concluded: "It is a pity that so many young writers drawn from the proletariat can make no better use of their working class experience than as material for introspective and febrile novels." Favorable comments by John Chamberlain in the New York Times and Fred Marsh in the Herald Tribune were ignored, as were letters by Kenneth Burke (who wrote that "the great virtue of Roth's book … was in the fluent and civilized way in which he found, on our city streets, the new equivalents of the ancient jungle") and Edwin Seaver (who accused the New Masses reviewer of suffering from "the infantile disorder of leftism"). After a second printing of 2,500 copies in January, 1935 (1,500 copies had been printed in December, 1934), Call It Sleep was virtually forgotten until 1956 when Alfred Kazin and Leslie Fiedler called attention to it in a special issue of The American Scholar and Walter Rideout called it "the most distinguished single proletarian novel." It was reprinted from the original plates by Pageant Books, Inc., in 1960, making it possible for readers who had searched unsuccessfully for used copies of the book finally to obtain it, but little critical or popular attention resulted. Now, however, it is available in quantity, and, if the editors of Life magazine can be cited as a reliable source, Roth netted $15,000 from the Avon paperback in 1964 alone.
Call It Sleep is the story of the two years between the ages of six and eight in the life of an immigrant Jewish boy named David Schearl, living first in Brownsville, then on New York's East Side. Physically his life is restricted in both neighborhoods by the tenements that surround him; emotionally it is determined by the paranoia of his father an the security of his mother. David lives in a perpetual fear of his father, of the street, of most of his physical environment, finding love and security only when close to his mother. On the surface there is little action and little plot; events have meaning only as they are refracted through David's controlling consciousness. Always introspective and withdrawn, he is intimidated by the other slum children until at the "cheder" he creates and becomes infatuated with a god of fire and power. The only attachment that he ever has for another child ends disastrously when he is forced to arrange a meeting where the friend "plays dirty" with one of the stepdaughters of David's Aunt Bertha. Running from this experience to his mother, he finds that his parents know of the lie he told at the cheder about his "dead mother and goyish father." Hating him because he suspects he is not really his son, David's father threatens to kill him when he discovers David's part in the sex play at his Aunt Bertha's. David runs in terror from the tenement and finds in the street a metal dipper which he drops into the power conduit between the streetcar tracks. The subsequent electrical shock knocks him unconscious, but he revives and is carried home.
Obviously the surface events of the story do not constitute the novel, for essentially it is a symbolic portrayal of the proletarian world and an epitome of the proletarian experience. David Schearl's is a consciousness undergoing orientation and rebirth, and it is through the representative nature and suggestive quality of his experiences that the plight and the hope of the proletariat are conveyed. The error of the more militant Marxist critics who first reviewed the novel was their failure to recognize the complex system of symbols growing organically out of Roth's account of David's childhood, symbols that reflect more accurately and compellingly than any other expression of the period the point of view and the possibilities of the proletariat. If the proletarian novel is a novel by and about the proletariat in which it is seen as a separate class with unique experiences and responses, then Call It Sleep was the first proletarian novel to be published in the United States.
It is constructed in terms of four major symbols—the cellar, the picture, the coal, and the rail—corresponding to the four parts of the novel. David identifies the cellar with his fear of his father, the terror of the street, bodily corruption, and violence. The picture he associates with his mother, with her warmth and security, and with release. The coal suggests spiritual escape from the physical repulsiveness of his environment, for it is conceived always in terms of the coal with which the angel touched Isaiah's lips so that he might speak with God. The rail, on the other hand, becomes for David the power of God, terrifying in its brilliance, yet comforting in its immensity. In terms of and through these symbols David re-enacts a basically human yet emphatically proletarian pattern of experience—repeated thrusts into the world, each followed by a withdrawal back into the self (in David's case the refuge of his mother's arms, the womb of their tenement flat). Finally, at the end of the novel, cut off from this refuge and unable any longer to retreat, David finds safety—and a new identity—in the power of the rail and in the midst of the proletariat.
The novel begins ironically. The "Prologue," a short scene set four years earlier than the main story, begins with the epigraph, "I pray thee ask no questions / this is that Golden Land," yet the first thing David learns after his journey from Europe and the reunion with his father at Ellis Island is that he is hated and unwanted. To his father he is "the brat," and even the Statue of Liberty is colored by his father's attitude: "the rays of her halo … spikes of darkness roweling the air; shadow flattened the torch she bore to a black cross against flawless light—the blackened hilt of a broken sword." At home, David soon realizes that he is not only an unwanted, an insignificant, object to his father, but also a helpless and inconsiderable object in his new world. Contemplating the water faucet, he "again became aware that this world had been created without thought of him. He was thirsty, but the iron hip of the sink rested on legs tall almost as his own body, and by no stretch of arm, no leap, could he ever reach the distant tap." Even at home, where ordinarily there is the security and contentment of his mother, David discovers (although usually only subconsciously) that he remains an alien in a world unconcerned with his existence. Throughout the novel he must fear and try to combat repeated attempts to destroy this haven of home and mother. His father's presence always threatens his security, as do the visits of playmates or neighbors. Luter, the man who befriends his father in order to try unsuccessfully to seduce his mother, is a danger that David only half comprehends and is finally powerless to defy.
It is interesting to observe that as the novel progresses the oedipal attachment that David has for his mother is made more explicit, and one of the dangers from which the power of the rail delivers him is the suffocating extreme to which this relationship might grow. Early in the novel his mother is merely a source of strength and of safety, yet this soon grows into a feeling of identity. Alone with his mother, inside and warm, David watches the cold rain falling outside, and he welcomes his return to a prenatal state: "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." Later in the novel, David's dependence on his mother is suddenly united with his hatred for his father, the two impulses blending into a feeling specifically sexual in tone and implication. When his father brings home a pair of huge horns to be mounted on the wall (emblem of his cattle-tending days in Europe before coming to America), David instinctively identifies them with his father's great strength and with his mother's sexual contentment. The horns remind him of the beating his father once gave a man and of the serenity of his mother when confronted unexpectedly one afternoon as she arose from his father's bed. And although David does not understand how it could be, he immediately sees the horns as a threat that he must somehow meet.
He was silent. Somehow he couldn't quite believe that it was for memory's sake only that his father had bought this trophy. Somehow looking at the horns, guessing the enormous strength of the beast who must have owned them, there seemed to be another reason. He couldn't quite fathom it though. But why was it that two things so remote from each other seemed to have become firmly coupled in his mind? It was as though the horns lying on the washtub had bridged them, as though one tip pierced one image and one tip the other—that man outstretched on the sidewalk, that mysterious look of repose in his mother's face when he had come in. Why? Why did he think of them at one and the same time. He couldn't tell. He sensed only that in the horns, in the poised power of them lay a threat, a challenge he must answer, he must meet. But he didn't know how.
Outside the peace of his mother's womb lies the street, and David finds himself continually thrust into it by the conditions of his life. Just getting into the street, making the transition from womb to world, requires an almost superhuman effort, for between the safety of home and the insecurity of the street is the cellar, always identified by David with death, corruption, and that part of himself unrelated to his mother, a dark side to his own nature that stems from his father and that occasionally erupts in a burst of temper not unlike the explosive anger of Albert Schearl. The most powerful scene in Part I, and a turning point in David's development, centers around his descent into this darkness of self. Tormented one day by other street urchins until no longer able to endure the frustration, David turns on the one nearest him and knocks him down. As the child falls, his head strikes the pavement and he loses consciousness. David flees, but he cannot go up to his tenement apartment because Luter is there and he is afraid of what he might find Luter and his mother doing. His only refuge from the terror of the street is the terror of the cellar.
…. He sprang to the cellar door and pulled it open—Darkness like a cataract, inexhaustible, monstrous.
"Mama!" he moaned, peering down, "Mama!"
He dipped his foot into night, feeling for the stair, found it, pulled the door shut behind him….
Darkness all about him now, entire and fathomless night. No single ray threaded it, no flake of light drifted through. From the inpenetrable depths below, the dull marshy stench of surreptitious decay uncurled against his nostrils….
He gritted his teeth with the strain. Minutes had passed while he willed in a rigid pounding trance—willed that Luter would come down, willed that Luter would leave his mother…. Exhausted, he slumped back against the edge of the stair…. Against his will he sifted the nether dark. It was moving—moving everywhere on a thousand feet. The stealthy horrible dark was climbing the cellar stairs, climbing toward him…. His jaws began to chatter. Icy horror swept up and down his spine like a finger scratching a comb. His flesh flowed with terror.—Run! Run!
Escaping from the cellar, David finds momentary deliverance in counting utility poles "marching up the hill" while he loses himself among unfamiliar streets. As he follows the poles he experiences a complete dissociation from self, a release from the bonds of temporal identity:
He stopped counting them. And with them, dwindling in the past, all he feared, all he loathed and fled from: Luter, Annie, the cellar, the boy on the ground. He remembered them still, yes, but they were tiny now, little pictures in his head that no longer writhed into his thoughts and stung him, but stood remote and harmless—something heard about someone else. He felt as if they would vanish from his mind altogether, could he only reach the top of that hill up which all the poles were, striding. He hurried on, skipping sometimes out of sheer deliverance, sometimes waving at a laggard pole, gurgling to himself, giggling at himself, absurdly weary.
After these experiences of viewing the self from deep within its darkest recesses and then from a distance that produces a feeling of separation, David is able to turn his thoughts away from the cellar and toward the picture on the wall, a picture always associated with his mother, yet in its pastoral simplicity suggesting another world, different from the one he knows. He is still acutely aware of his own isolation in an alien world, of which he is vividly reminded when he loses himself among the utility poles, but he can now pass the cellar with a feeling of anger rather than of fear, "as though he defied it, as though he had slammed the door within him and locked it." Initially the picture of the corn with the blue flowers under it is merely a token of his mother's happiness and contentment in which he shares, for "she laughed when she hung it up." Later it becomes the emblem of his mother's youth and of her goyish lover, suggesting to David qualities of peace and simple beauty unknown in his East Side world.
The turning point in David's struggle for identity in a world outside his mother's womb comes when he hears in the cheder the story of Isaiah and the purification through which he passes in order to be judged fit to speak with God. In David's seven-year-old mind, the coal with which the angel touches Isaiah's lips becomes a unifying symbol for all of his experiences, revealing to him in the simple terms of light and dark the antitheses within himself and of his world. His first intimation of this new orientation comes one sunny day as he watches the river, the brilliance of it holding him in a hypnotic trance until "his spirit yielded, melted into light":
In the molten sheen memories and objects overlapped. Smokestacks fused to palings flickering in silence by. Pale lathes grew grey, turned dusky, contracted and in the swimming dimness, he saw sparse teeth that gnawed upon a lip; and ladders on the ground turned into hasty fingers pressing on a thigh and against smokestacks. Straight in air they stood a moment, only to fall on silvered cardboard corrugating brilliance. And he heard the rubbing on a wash-board and the splashing suds, smelled again the acrid soap and a voice speaking words that opened like the bands of a burnished silver accordian—Brighter than day … Brighter … Sin melted into light….
The peace of the picture and the light of the coal, however, are soon shattered, for as David's vision at the river passes, he is confronted by a group of boys from another block, who, suspecting that he is Jewish, force him to drop a toy zinc sword into the conduit between the streetcar tracks. David is momentarily blinded by the flash and stunned by the power that leaps from the crevice.
Like a paw ripping through all the sable fibres of the earth, power, gigantic, fetterless, thudded into day! And light, unleashed, terrific light bellowed out of iron lips. The street quaked and roared, and like a tortured thing, the sheet zinc sword, leapt writhing, fell back, consumed with radiance.
In the same way the peaceful brilliance of the tenement roof and the release which it seems to promise degenerate into the corruption of sex play in the darkness of the cellar. On the roof David had found what he hoped would be a friend, but the boy whom David begins to trust merely uses him as a means by which he may work his own designs upon the girl to whom David innocently brings him, and the incident terminates in the explosion that seals him off forever from his mother's womb and that finally forces him to find personal identification (and salvation) in something larger than and external to the self.
Two earlier incidents, however, have already forced David to see his world in an altered light. The first is his discovery that the neighborhood urchins have seen his mother naked in her bath, a discovery that arouses in David intense jealousy followed by the fleeting intimation that his mother's pristine (and protective) nature has somehow been tarnished. The second incident concerns a promise to his father that he will not tell his mother that his father beat him because David had allowed two derelicts to steal milk from his father's delivery wagon, and the experience (especially his fancied infidelity to his mother) leaves David with "a globe about his senses" as he sets out for his lesson at the cheder.
Something had happened! Even Ninth Street, his own familiar Ninth Street was warped, haunted by something he could feel; but perceive with no sense. Faces he had seen so many times he scarcely ever glanced at any more were twisted into secret shadows, smeared, flattened, whorled, grotesque grief and smirking never before revealed.
Confronted finally by an enraged father and a mother no longer able to protect him, David frantically runs from the house that had hitherto been his refuge. The rabbi has told his parents of the lie by which David repudiated his earlier identity; his Aunt Bertha's husband is forced by David's father to reveal David's part in the sex play with his daughter; and his father in turn repudiates David as another man's son and threatens to kill him. Thus with all of the hideous darkness and terror of the cellar closing around him, David flies to the only refuge remaining to him—the rail, the power and light of God by which he must be purified and reborn. Knocked unconscious by the electrical current that leaps through him as he pushes the ladle between the rails, David "sleeps," and through the vision that accompanies this sleep all the disparate elements of his earlier existence are united, so that when he awakes, not so much his world but himself has been changed. He discovers as he awakes that the salvation of those unwanted aliens in a new world will come not through fear and withdrawal, nor by nostalgic yearning for a simpler and more peaceful past, but only through power, the power of the united masses in whose bosom David awakes.
Humanity. On feet, on crutches, in carts and cars. The ice-vendor. The waffle-wagon. Human voices, motion, seething, throbbing.
In this context David shoves the dipper home, and
Power!… titanic power, ripped through the earth and slammed against his body and shackled him where he stood…. A blast, a siren of light within him, rending, quaking, fusing his brain and blood…. And he writhed without motion in the clutch of a fatal glory, and his brain swelled and dilated till it dwarfed the galaxies.
As he awakes surrounded by people attracted by the flash, David sees and accepts all of the elements that had previously splintered and terrorized his world (the river, his father, death, corruption, the cheder, God, the cellar) and descends into the cellar of the self until he is nothing, and into nothingness he "would have hidden again," until, attracted by a single ember, he makes the unifying and saving discovery of the novel: in the cellar there is coal. Picking up the coal of his vision he finds it neither cold nor hot, "but as if all eternity's caress were fused and granted in one instant," and "horror and the night fell away. Exalted, he lifted his head." After he awakes, David is carried home where, alone in his bed, he feels the change within him.
He might as well call it sleep. It was only toward sleep that ears had power to call 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.
The agony—and the hope—of the proletariat have never been more powerfully portrayed in an American novel, a fact that makes it ultimately even more revolutionary than the most militant pieces of party propaganda. The principal difference between Roth and other left-wing writers in the 1930s was the place of emphasis in their work. The others stressed the "proletarian" nature of their novels; Roth's achievement is a novel first, and a proletarian one only secondarily. The remarkable reversal in the fortunes of this novel during the past three years indicates that it will soon attract the body of critical commentary that it has so long deserved. Certainly the tentative probings contained here merely suggest the irony in the fact that recognition of the first significant proletarian novel to be published in the United States had to wait until the revolutionary temper that produced it had long grown cold. Our generation, no longer concerned with the distinction between "proletarian" and "bourgeois" or with art as a weapon, can now concentrate on the remarkably natural and unselfconscious symbol-making power displayed by Roth, and on how the theme of Call It Sleep is expressed through symbols that grow out of the physical facts of David's world and flower easily into spiritual truths.
This section contains 4,094 words
(approx. 14 pages at 300 words per page)