Was Henry Roth a Literary Gigolo?


The Life of Henry Roth
By Steven G. Kellman
384 pages. W. W. Norton. $25.95.

Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep, published in 1934, when the writer was 28, was one of the first novels to introduce interior monologue to American literature. Influenced by James Joyce, whom he later rejected as an aesthete interested only in technical virtuosity, Roth gave us what remains a classic novel of the New York Jewish immigrant experience. The central, transparently autobiographical figure is David Shearl, a profoundly sensitive, fearful, and imaginative little boy, brought from Eastern Europe to New York by his beautiful, over-protective mother and his vulgar, deeply disturbed father. Here he is exposed to the many shocks of ghetto life, including, at the justly famous and compelling end of the novel, a near-electrocution which evokes a kind of illumination and regeneration.

Call it Sleep received a few favorable reviews, but was very soon entirely neglected. Until it was reissued in the 1960s, it was out of print and virtually impossible to find. Henry Roth, having endured what looks like the most prolonged period of writer’s block in literary history, did not publish another novel until 1994. In the meantime, while living in New York, Maine, and New Mexico, Roth worked in a variety of fields, including metal grinding, psychiatric nursing, waterfowl farming, and school-teaching. In 1938, after a relationship that had lasted for more than 10 years, he finally broke with poet and City College English professor Eda Lou Walton, his lover, mentor, and editor. A year later he married Muriel Parker, a composer and concert pianist who sacrificed her career for a difficult life with “an interesting man.” Despite having found a loyal partner and an enduring relationship, Roth suffered chronic depression throughout his adult life, a “lingering consequence,” Steven G. Kellman argues, of the damage inflicted on him by his father.

In Kellman's serviceable biography, Redemption: The Life of Henry Roth, built on 82 cartons of Roth’s papers and wide-ranging and probing interviews, the author shows that the conventional take on Roth is terribly oversimplified. Instead of spouting the distorted tale of American literature’s lost young artist who arrived spectacularly and departed with dizzying quickness only to reemerge from a 60-year-old creative black hole, Kellman constructs a much more complex story. He shows, for example, that the legend of Roth’s retreat into total silence is challenged by his persistence over many decades, despite repeated rejection, in submitting stories and essays for publication. Only a small number of these were actually published. Nor does the legend account for the fact that by the late ‘60s, after the critical and commercial success of a rediscovered Call It Sleep, Roth was beginning to think seriously about a massive autobiographical novel.

On the other hand, Roth did not begin writing what would eventually become the four-volume Mercy of a Rude Stream until 1979, and didn’t publish A Star Shines Over Mt. Morris Park, the first in the series, until 1994. Roth’s most richly detailed and accomplished work was always a thinly disguised memoir. But from 1934 until the late 20th century, he could not produce a finished manuscript in this genre. Kellman suggests that what stymied Roth’s creativity after Call It Sleep was the writer’s experience with Communism. In 1933, when his classic manuscript was nearly complete, Roth, like a number of other left-leaning writers, joined the Party. He was, according to friends, “saturated, obsessed with politics…a real Communist zealot.” The Party demanded that literature be “politically correct” and that it provide positive proletarian models. Roth respected the formulas of social realism, but as Kellman says, they destroyed him as an artist.

Yet Kellman insists, less persuasively, that there is a more compelling reason for Roth’s famous writer’s block: the paralyzing guilt of incest. In A Diving Rock on the Hudson (the second volume of Mercy) Roth’s alter-ego protagonist, 15-year-old Ira Stigman, initiates a long-lasting sexual adventure with his 12-year-old sister. In graphic detail, Ira and Minnie go at it whenever their parents are out. Kellman—and others, including Roth himself—maintains that “events in the novel bear a striking resemblance to Roth’s life.” Roth’s real-life sister, Rose Broder, who was alerted to the steamy contents of the forthcoming book, asked, “How can you do this to me?” She even threatened to expose her brother’s “lies,” and, by implication, to sue. The statement that this is “certainly not an autobiography” was inserted on the copyright page, convincing many, including Kellman, that the book was indeed blatantly autobiographical.

Kellman dresses up the forbidden sex with questionable psycho-sociology. Without evidence from, or substantial reference to, scientific literature, he says, “Incest is a dramatic manifestation of immigrant insecurity, the newcomers’ inability to invest their emotions in anything beyond the reassuring confines of the clan.” Persuaded by Roth’s later statements “confirming” intercourse with his sister, Kellman assumes without question that Ira’s incestuous behavior was Henry’s. But in the face of Rose’s denials, which Kellman inexplicably ignores, we are left wondering whether, like the fictional Alex in Portnoy’s Complaint, Roth suffered guilt not for his actions, but for simply lusting after his sister.

Would lust alone have so dammed up Henry Roth’s literary impulse? More convincing is the absence of a muse and editor like Eda Lou Walton from his post-Call It Sleep life. But most convincing of all, although Kellman doesn’t play it this way, are the political pressures Roth felt. He appears to have stayed stuck for more than 30 years on a very negative review of Call It Sleep in the radical monthly New Masses, which sharply accused Roth of failing to make good use of his working-class experience. It was only in the late 1960s that Roth freed himself from the rigidities of Communist ideology, social realism, and Marxist strictures against any kind of nationalism.

As late as 1963, Roth, who had reinvented himself in turns as a literary gigolo, a one-book novelist, and a Yankee farmer purged of Jewishness, was insisting that Jews could serve the world best by ceasing to be Jews. But the 1967 war in the Middle East “traumatized” Roth, and “Zionized” him. Rejecting the rootlessness inherent in Marxist universalism, Roth now saw his identity as “inextricably bound with that of the Jewish people.” And it was Israel, Roth wrote in 1977, that brought him “out of literary hibernation.”

Except for the creative ecstasy apparent in From Bondage, which is volume three in the Mercy series—and not incidentally minus sibling incest—Henry Roth’s new work in the 1990s attracted attention more for his stunning reawakening than for the quality of his writing. That Roth produced some good work in his late 80s leads Kellman, who otherwise writes judiciously, into an exaggerated comparison with Monet, Michelangelo, and Verdi, among others. Kellman, too, has done good work here. But as he himself writes, “Many versions of Henry Roth remain to be told.”