Henry Roth's Call It Sleep and
the Genius of Saul Bellow
By JOHN J. CLAYTON
I loved Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep when I first read
it in the 60’s, and now that the book is being reissued by Picador, I returned
to it as if I were approaching a great novel, what Alfred Kazin calls the “most
profound novel of Jewish life… by an American.” While I still loved parts of
the book, rereading showed me how dated the novel is, the way Yiezerska’s Bread
Givers or Dos Passos’ Manhattan Transfer is dated—and how trapped it
is in a modernist dualism of interior beauty and worldly, plebian vulgarity.
And as I thought about Roth’s strategies for exploring what critic Jules
Chametzky calls “innerness," I became better aware of what the late Saul
Bellow contributed to the American novel. Of course there’s room for both
Bellow and Roth inside us, but Roth’s novel helps me see what Bellow has done
for writers as Jews and Americans.
I was knocked out by many beautiful passages in Call It Sleep—passages
describing immigrant life, life in the streets and tenements, passages
exploring the boy David Schearl’s consciousness. We are shown the world
phenomenologically; that is, we get to know the city only as it’s filtered
through our protagonist’s awareness. David takes life inside; it becomes his
life, his New York. Here, for instance, is David’s first glimpse of
Luter, a man who pretends to be his father’s friend in order to get his
father’s wife, David’s mother, into bed. At first sight, David doesn’t like
It was not because it was particularly
ugly or because it was scarred, but because one felt one’s own features trying
to imitate it while one looked at it. His mouth so very short and the bow of
his lips so very thick and arched that David actually felt himself waiting for
it to relax. And the way his nostrils swelled up and out almost fatigued one
and one hoped the deep dimples in his cheek would soon fill out.
The hyper-intensity of David's seeing hovers at the edge of fantasy, the
surreal. David doesn’t walk out into a sunny day. Instead: “A dazzling breaker
of sunlight burst over his head, swamped him in reeling blur of brilliance, and
It’s because David is a child in almost constant terror that Roth’s strategies
for revealing the child’s world are so rich. A kid who makes Stephen Dedalus
look like a macho regular Joe, David is isolated, in conflict over his American
(that is, mainstream-Christian) and Jewish identities. But “Identities” sounds
so blah. The situation is so much more agonized. Filled with sexual guilt,
sexual shame, physical fear, David distorts his world, and this distorted world
is painful for the reader to experience.
The drama of Call It Sleep arises from the collision of David’s inner
world and the city he distorts. The novel is built on misunderstood secrets.
Its climax begins in a sensational scene in which David’s various lies and
shames, arising from his tortured misunderstandings, come down on his head.
Roth is a great dramatist of the tortured soul. It’s one way in which he’s much
stronger than Bellow, who isn’t good at building dramatic plots.
But it’s Roth’s ways of stylizing innerness that I want to examine, because
they reveal his strengths and limitations as well as Bellow’s innovations.
Here are Roth’s strategies of exploring David’s lens:
Limited indirect discourse. “How long he lay there he did not know. But
little by little the anguish lifted...” We’re looking not at but through
David—in third person. Yet the language is generally adult. I’m reminded of
James’ Preface to What Maisie Knew. Speaking of his decision to go
beyond the terms the child Maisie might use, James says, “Small children have
many more perceptions than they have terms to translate them…. Maisie’s terms
accordingly play their part… but our own commentary constantly attends and
amplifies.” Joyce, in Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man, revolutionizes
indirect discourse. The style through which Stephen sees—that style changes as
Stephen changes. But while Roth has learned indirect discourse and stream of
consciousness from Joyce, he has applied it in a pretty traditional way.
Fragmented consciousness. Fragments of David’s own language jumble
together, expressing his conflicts and confusion: “—Thought this—? No. Maybe
went two. Then when he ran. Wasn’t looking and went two. Next one. That would
be it. Find it now. Mama is waiting.” This stylization of mind comes straight
out of Joyce, especially out of Ulysses, but it’s handled in a wooden
way. Throughout Call It Sleep are these scattered arias of consciousness.
They’re pretty corny and go on too long. They need a good editor. Their energy
is in their elliptical nature—the gaps that the reader has to fill. But these
gaps are quite obvious. This time through the novel I felt I was being told
what to feel by a writer pretending to spill the contents of consciousness but
really speaking through a puppet on his lap.
Street language and the language of the
inner life. Roth handles dialect very well. Sometimes it’s a pain to get
past the distorted spelling, but it can also be a pleasure. He “does” Italian-immigrant,
Irish-immigrant, as well as Jewish-American street speech. It’s often funny,
always vulgar. It’s set in contrast to David’s lyrical inner world in the same
way as the crude speech of plebian Dubliners is set against Stephen’s inner
life. Here’s Joyce’s Stephen seeing classmates clowning at the edge of the water:
ecstasy of flight made radiant his eyes and wild his breath and tremulous and
wild and radiant his windswept limbs.
—One! Two! . . . Look
—O, cripes, I’m drownded!
—One! Two! Three and
—Me next! Me next!
—One! . . . Uk!
throat ached with a desire to cry aloud…
Here, at the climax of Call It Sleep, David’s consciousness—or, rather,
unconscious inner life—is set against the crude street language of various
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—
“W’atsa da ma’”
The inner life is deep, contemplative,
lyrical. It has dignity, unlike the language of the streets. Throughout the
novel one of its signifiers is a Yiddish translated into high style. It’s this
translated Yiddish that critics most remark on. When the characters speak in
Yiddish, given us in an elegant English, they convey dignity, thoughtfulness,
subtlety, grace. Even the enraged, monstrous
father speaks his rage with elegance. “Shudder when I speak to you,” he
commands David. When Call It Sleep was first published, Roth was
speaking to the assumption that immigrants were crude, vulgar, without depth.
But it’s only in their assimilated costumes that they seem crude. David’s
beautiful mother says, “Within this pale is my America, and if I ventured further
I should be lost.” The language in this book, as Alfred Kazin puts it in the
introduction, “conveys a seeking for a better world than this, for spiritual
heights customary to people who regard themselves as living under the eye of
The languages of the novel struggle against one another; crude street language
clashes with a gracefully translated Yiddish as home language—inner world
versus ugly, exciting streets, an English melted down into a stewpot of immigrant
dialects—language of the Irish cops, the Italian and Jewish peddlers, the tough
street kids from all immigrant groups. Kazin says, correctly, that the Yiddish
mother and son speak together “is made to sound effortlessly noble, beautiful,
expressive, almost liturgical by contrast with the guttural street English that
surrounds David in the street.”
This drama of warring languages is the drama of the novel. But here’s
the problem: what language, what culture, is really being valorized? Roth is
apparently trying to show the richness of the inner lives of immigrants. The
crudeness associated with their speech comes from the attempt to be American.
Roth’s use of a folk quality, associated with Sholem Aleichem, I. L. Peretz,
and even some of I. B. Singer, doesn’t convey the richness of the Jewish
culture he wants to express. In Aunt Bertha there’s a lot of folk-Yiddishkeit,
but Bertha is comic relief. The trap is this: beauty of soul is conveyed in
high style, in elegant English. Kazin speaks about “splendid, almost too
splendid, King James English.” Exactly! But that's a real problem. It’s an
immigrant novel that can’t find soul in actual immigrant language. And Roth
doesn’t invent a language of his own. He borrows from Joyce, he borrows from
All right, it’s too much to say that the poetry of the novel, attempting to
valorize the Jewish soul, valorizes elitist modernist Anglo-American
sensibility instead. But almost. It’s almost as if his stylistic strategies
put Roth in the pocket of a T. S. Eliot, whose aesthetic contempt for the
language of the streets is apparent. The sensitive artist against a crass
modern world: it’s largely the solitary outsider, the artist-to-be, Roth
values, not a community. We see this duality in Portrait and Ulysses,
but Joyce, being a greater writer, maintains a brilliant ironic detachment from
Now we’re ready to see what Bellow accomplishes.
In one of his letters to another Roth—Philip Roth—recently published in The
New Yorker, Bellow speaks of a problem. It’s a problem he
shared with Henry Roth, a problem later Jewish-American writers didn’t face.
Bellow speaks of his liberation in composing Augie March. Before Augie,
he says, “I had written two very correct books…. I seem to have felt that I, as
the child of Russian Jews, must establish my authority, my credentials, my
fitness to write books in English. Somewhere in my Jewish and immigrant blood
there were conspicuous traces of a doubt as to whether I had the right to
practice the writer’s trade…. It wasn’t Fielding, it wasn’t Herman Melville who
forbade me to write, it was our own WASP establishment…. I must say that these
guys infuriated more than they intimidated me.”
When he came to Augie, “For the first time I felt that the language was
mine to do with as I wished.” And he did. He created a sentence of his own in
which the language of the streets and the language of the heart were not in
conflict; they were one. He created a language able to integrate American looseness
and Yiddishkeit with the seriousness of high modernism. He writes in another letter,
“We the children of immigrants had lots of languages to speak and we spoke them
with relish.” He’s referring to Yiddish, Russian, Hebrew, English. And he says,
“You could not be excluded when the common language became your language.” I
am an American, Chicago-born.
Bellow breaks through the trap by recognizing the trap as opportunity. Look
what you can do if you get rid of the notion that these languages are at war.
They’re actually in dialogue—actually capable of making love and birthing a new
language. Just sample a few of Bellow’s rich sentences, from a 1979 story, “A
the shafts of his World’s Fair rickshaw he used to receive, pulling along (capable
and stable) his religious experiences while he trotted. Maybe it was all a
single experience repeated. He felt truth coming to him from the sun. he
received a communication that was also light and warmth. It made him very
remote from his horny Wisconsin passengers, those farmers whose whoops and
whore-cries he could hardly hear when he was in one of his states. And again
out of the flaming of the sun would come to him a secret certainty that the
goal set for this earth was that it should be filled with goods, saturated with
Bellow’s new language, combining depth of soul and the energies of America, is
cultural criticism as well as stylistic victory. It’s not just the immigrant
boy discovering that he owns and can reinvent the language. It’s an attack on
the sensibility of cultural modernism. Bellow’s Herzog writes to a childhood
friend, now a cultural historian:
We mustn’t forget how quickly the visions of genius become the canned goods of
the intellectuals. The canned sauerkraut of Spengler’s “Prussian Socialism,”
the commonplaces of the Wasteland outlook, the cheap mental stimulants of
Alienation, the cant and rant of pipsqueaks about Inauthenticity and
Forlornness. I can’t accept this foolish dreariness…. It torments me to
insanity that you should be so misled. A merely aesthetic critique of modern
history! After the wars and mass killings. You are too intelligent for this.
You inherited rich blood. Your father peddled apples.
You can understand why Bellow, a great Jewish writer, rejected being tagged a
“Jewish” writer. He is declaring, I am an American writer and I own this
Jewish-Walt Whitman-Chicago-spiritual language. After Bellow the trap is
sprung, the duality is broken.Other writers, other ways. Malamud in his
way, Philip Roth in his, Doctorow in his, Ozick in hers. I’m not arguing that
without Bellow other Jewish-American writers would be trapped. The war between
languages turns into a love affair as Jewish-American writers feel comfortable
in America. Not “assimilated” but able to integrate cultures.
And yet it’s the war of languages that gives Roth’s Call It Sleep its
peculiar intensity. It’s the terrible dis-comfort that makes us remember
and re-read the novel. The novel moves toward a scene of near
electrocution—something of a crucifixion, something of a fierce enlightenment
out of Isaiah, and certainly a burning away of the guilt that permeates David’s
consciousness. Purgation-illumination-redemption. It’s as if the warring forces
meet in a great shock more terrible than David can handle. The conflict of
forces in the novel, in language, in America, must have been terrible for Roth
to hold in his hand. Rereading the novel I kept thinking: What this life, what this writing, must have cost Henry Roth. If
this is a dated novel, it’s also one of great power and beauty.