This section contains 2,555 words
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Critical Essay by Daniel Walden
SOURCE: "Henry Roth's Call It Sleep: Ethnicity, "The Sign," and the Power," in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 25, No. 2, Summer, 1979, pp. 268-72.
In the following essay. Walden discusses David's quest for peace and a sign from God in Roth's Call It Sleep.
Henry Roth's Call It Sleep, justifiably called one of the great achievements in American writing in this century, was Roth's only novel, a tour de force composed of equal parts of sensitive writing, deep psychological insights, and great ethnic empathy. It was a profound study of an American slum childhood, suggestive of the Great Russians, wrote Lewis Gannett. It revealed more of the actual conditions of living in New York's East Side than any other book extant, said Horace Gregory. Above all, Kenneth Burke said, the book dealt fluently with the psychological phenomena of orientation and rebirth. To me, it is all these, but it is also a book that deals successfully and penetratingly with the traumas of dislocation, the problems of the "New Immigrants" as they were Americanized, and the conditions (especially in the 1920s) of a country tied to industrialism, electricity, energy, power, and disillusionment.
Call It Sleep is very much an autobiographical novel, written in what might have been a state of possession. While working on it from 1929 to 1933 Roth saw that he was in "a sort of general mystical state. I had a sense about the unifying force of some power I neither knew nor had to bother to know," he wrote. "It was part of having been an orthodox Jew," he thought. For at base all he was trying to do was to understand his childhood and what had happened to him. Having felt he was an outcast, having come from a cultural past he felt more than he knew, he had to find relief and release when placed in a present he wanted to understand but could not.
Born in 1906 in a little town in Galicia, to Herman and Leah Roth, Henry was brought to America when he was eighteen months old. His father had arrived earlier to earn money to bring his family over. Unfortunately because Henry's birth date was questioned—it was perfectly natural in the Old Country not to keep records—and Herman was already unhappy in the New World, the intra-familial strife that was to grow was present from that moment. In Henry's eyes his father was a most unadmirable little guy; in a short story in 1969 he called him "a little old dwarf in a baggy pair of pants." His mother, however, who doted on him, was both contemplative and anxiety-ridden, qualities that were given to Genya and Bertha in the book.
At first the Roths lived in Brownsville, but two years later, in 1910, they moved to East Ninth Street, on Manhattan's Lower East Side. Recalling those years, Roth said that he was surrounded by a "homogeneous environment" and "completely identified with it." In that atmosphere of devoutness, orthodoxy, and community, "it would not have occurred to anyone to question the dietary regulations or the observance of holiday rituals." Four years later when the family moved to Harlem it produced an anxiety in him from which he never recovered. The homogeneous environment, in a sense duplicating the life of the shtetl from which they had come, meant a consensus way of living in which almost all the Jews thought alike, dressed alike, ate alike, and reacted alike. Suddenly removed to Harlem, to be near Henry's grandparents, uncles and aunts, he was unceremoniously thrown into a multi-ethnic neighborhood made up of Italians, Irish, and Jews from all over. (In Call It Sleep, however, the fictive Lower East Side was made up of a Jewish ghetto that combined the homogeneity of the Lower East Side with the disharmonious elements of Harlem.) The impressionable Henry, who knew he was a Jew but who had progressed in cheder only to the point where he could read Hebrew by pronouncing the letters, was affected by the forces of Americanization. As Roth put it much later, "Continuity was destroyed when [my] family moved from snug, orthodox 9th street, from the homogeneous East Side to rowdy, heterogeneous Harlem…. And once continuity was destroyed, there would always be a sense of loss afterward, an insecurity." Like many first and second generation immigrants he badly wanted to blend into the environing fabric. "I wanted to adapt to this gentile Irish neighborhood," he remembered, "in the shortest time possible, and one of the conditions for adapting was to get away from Judaism." A few years later, while at New York University and living with his English teacher Eda Lou Walton, twelve years his senior, he admitted that he had paid a price. "In Call It Sleep," wrote Roth, "I stuck with the child, so I didn't have to mature. And I was being supported by Eda Lou, so I didn't have to mature."
While a freshman at New York University, in 1925, Roth wrote a paper in an English class titled "Impressions of a Plumber." After detailing the events of the day in the life of a plumber's helper, he placed the youth on a subway and then described those parts of the day that were due to the system's influence. As the helper looked around him, he saw that "Grim toil has graven on their faces his trademark." When the factory whistle blew, it made a long "Tooooooot." And when the boss came around to check up on the workers, the youth hoped he would trip on the steps of the ladder and hurt himself. In the mind of the helper, "He is the boss; I am the laborer."
Roth, like most immigrants, desperately wanted to be an American but couldn't entirely escape the pull of the past. "Like so many first generation American Jewish youth, I had already come to dissociate from family, Judaism, the whole thing—and to embrace the American scene, the American attitudes." But, he went on, "I couldn't bridge my background. I was able to speak glibly enough at the cocktail party level, but as far as digesting what was going on, especially in the literary world, it just didn't sink in. My whole orientation was to try to understand my own childhood, my own background."
Having written and published this one story, in which the conditions of the working man and the influence of the industrial system were mixed, Roth now began to write Call It Sleep. In the grip of the disillusionment, technocracy, and shattering values of the late 1920s and early 1930s, reminiscent of the traumas, the Social Darwinism, the psychic crisis, and the significance of power at the turn of the century, he sought himself—he sought to find himself—in the tension, problems, and writing of Call It Sleep.
It seems obvious that Call It Sleep was a novel by a Jew manqué about the Jewish experience early in this century. On a more basic level, however, it was a novel about the travails and neuroses of the immigrant generation in a particular cultural context. It was also a novel about the varieties and persistence of ethnicity in the age of energy.
Let me spell out what I mean. First, here are several examples of ethnicity affected by Americanization. 1) In the beginning, David's speech is pure Yiddish and halting English. By the end of Part One, "The Cellar," his Yiddish is more than half English according to his mother. On the other hand, his father, mother, and Aunt Bertha continue to speak fluent Yiddish, but a heavily accented, ungrammatical English. The forces of acculturation did not work evenly. 2) Although Call It Sleep is an American novel it conveys its most important motifs by reference to the past. a) After meeting Genya and David at the boat, it was David's clothes that drew the father's ire. Albert, moving toward becoming an American, picked on the most overt sign of the child's affect. His "distinctly foreign costume" with its "odd, outlandish blue straw hat" marked David a new arrival. b) When Albert, the father, introduced David to his countryman, Luter, he pointed to David, saying, "And that over there is what will pray for me after my death." Albert knew that Luter understood the reference. Albert, unhappy with his son, regretted that the old tradition would be carried out by such a one as "that." c) When Aunt Bertha described her father, she evoked the medieval, Eastern European Jewish past. "His praying," she explained, "was an excuse for his laziness. As long as he prayed he didn't have to do anything else…. A pious Jew with a beard—who dared ask more of him? Work? God spare him. He played the lotteries." In the old country, it was enough for a man to study the Torah. In the New World, a man had to work, to achieve, to make a success. d) Lastly, the reference to the past is especially noted in Genya's aside to Albert when she enrolled David in the Hebrew School. As for his learning what it means to be a Jew, she said, "I think he knows how hard that is already." e) Finally, and how with reference to the forces of electricity and efficiency deified in the 1920s, when David, beset by problems too great for a child to either comprehend or overcome, looked for a sign, i.e., a way out, it was in Isaiah that he found it. Told by the Rabbi that an angel had used tongs to place a fiery coal on Isaiah's lips and thus cleansed him, David at first wondered about the story and then was impelled to duplicate it. As he plunged the metal dipper into the car tracks he kept repeating, "I gotta make it come out." That is, now attempting to fuse the past with the electric present, he had to make the light, the power, the force, the cleansing agent, come to him and cleanse him.
It is this quest for personal peace, and a sign that would lead him to it, that is the driving force of the novel. Seeking his identity, initiated into manhood by Annie, who induced him to "play bad" and then take the blame for it, he was alienated by reason of being a Jew in a Christian multi-ethnic society. At the same time, his father represented terror and irrationality, and the society symbolized hostility and repression. With the coming of spring, however, he felt a new "sense of wary contentment, a curious pause in himself, as though he were waiting for some sign, some seal that would forever relieve him of watchfulness and forever insure his well-being." It was at cheder that he discovered what appeared to be the sign. When the lesson dealt with the pious, unclean Isaiah, who saw God in His majesty and His terrible light, David asked himself: "Why did he want to burn Isaiah's mouth with coal?" Was there some connection with his mother's explanation when he asked her who is God and she said that a pious old woman had once told her that "He was brighter than the day is brighter than the night." Was there a connection with the three antisemitic boys who, in cruelly showing him "magic," forced him to throw a sword into the car tracks? Terror stricken, David remembered, he rammed the sword into the slot, "like a tongue in an iron mouth."
He stepped back. From open fingers, the blade plunged into darkness. Power. Like a paw ripping through all the stable 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. A moment later, he was spurting madly toward Avenue D.
In the Isaiah story God had touched Isaiah's lips with the fiery coal and said you're clean. His mother had said that God "has all power. He can break and rebuild, but He holds." And now out of the iron lips of the car tracks he had witnessed, seen, both light and power.
Soon after, David broke into the cheder to get the Bible; "the blue book with the coal in it! The man and the coal!" was what he was after. Of course, this was all incomprehensible to the Rabbi who caught him. But to David it was another step on the way to the sign, to finding his identity in an ethnic jungle in a technological maze.
At the end of the book, having suffered fear and terror too often, David fled. Instinct guiding him, he headed for the car tracks. Grabbing a metal milk dipper on the way, he kept muttering, "I gotta make it come out" and "in the crack be born." Straddling the sunken rail he braced his legs, held his breath, and "now the wavering point of the dipper's handle found the long, dark grinning lips, scraped, and like a sound in a scabbard—…. Plunged!" But nothing happened. He did it again, this time with his toe crooked into the dipper as into a stirrup. It grated, stirred, slid, and, to the accompaniment of someone else saying "Oy! Machine! Liberty! Revolt! Redeem!, he felt it—
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 sren 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 tolerable 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—.
What had happened? After he was revived his mother asked him, what made you go? What made you do it? His only answer, "I don't know, mama," was true. As a child of seven, gripped by fear and terror and guilt, common to so many then, but beyond his comprehension, he sought the "sign," the "light," the force that God touched Isaiah with and made him clean and pure and innocent and burden-free. He sought the sign in order to be reborn. As an outcast, in an age of power, electricity, and industrialism, between 1925 and 1933, he believed that the Biblical image would fuse with the all-powerful symbols of the environing community. Somehow he knew, instinctively, that as darkness met light, 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," including the "open palms of legions upon legions of hands hurtling toward him." It was only toward sleep that pain and terror were replaced by the "strangest triumph, strangest acquiescence." David had found the sign. David had found a peace.
This section contains 2,555 words
(approx. 9 pages at 300 words per page)