Having worked intensely with the reclusive Henry Roth for the last four years of his life, sculpting thousands of manuscript pages into his four-volume “Mercy of a Rude Stream” series, and now having overseen the editing of his final, posthumous novel, “An American Type,” I have unwittingly become something of an Roth authority.
Back in November of 1992 when I nervously introduced myself on the phone to the gravelly voiced octogenarian then residing in an Albuquerque, N.M., funeral parlor-turned-writer’s home, I had little idea that I would in effect become the editorial minder of a career that simply has no parallels in American literary history.
Even today, 76 years after the initial publication of Roth’s now classic “Call it Sleep,” 46 years after its stunning republication in 1964 by a young editor named Peter Mayer, an event that would catapult the onetime novelist-turned-Maine waterfowl farmer to international renown, Roth remains an enigma to most American Jewish readers.
Invariably referred to by many critics as “the other Roth,” Henry Roth remains virtually unknown to today’s younger generation, a man whose lyrical yet emotionally lacerating account of growing up on the Lower East Side recalls an impoverished world of our great-grandparents as foreign as a cheder or a plate of gefilte fish might be on posh Stanton and Rivington streets today.
Yet the literature of Henry Roth, even in this age of cultural assimilation, refuses to be extinguished. Like that strange, ungainly bird, the cormorant, he seems to suddenly appear and then to dart underwater, only to dramatically emerge, in his case, decades later with a new trove in his beak. Even during the last few years of his life, as he stoically battled rheumatoid arthritis yet persisted in writing “An American Type” — sculpted now by a New Yorker editor, Willing Davidson, from nearly 2,000 manuscript pages — he would confess to me that he felt like Rip van Winkle, more an apparitional legend than a bona fide writer. And when I despair that Roth’s sovereign prose might once again be forgotten, I keep bumping into writers and critics, like Jonathan Rosen and Daphne Merkin, Thane Rosenbaum and Junot Diaz — devoted Roth fans all — who rhapsodize about his novels, especially the latter ones, in glowing terms.
Mark Mirsky, the novelist and literary scholar, delighted me a few months ago by insisting that Henry Roth and “Mercy of a Rude Stream” would be yet again rediscovered by academia, and that Roth’s career deserved comparison to Herman Melville, whose literary recognition came nearly 70 years after the publication of “Moby Dick.”
So what accounts for this roller coaster journey? Roth’s output of course was modest by literary standards; he only wrote three novels, the second not appearing until well into his 80s during that “last onerous lap of life,” this third one posthumously. While his contemporaries gravitated to New York, Roth actually abandoned the city of his childhood, living in Maine, where he eked out a hardscrabble living as an attendant at the state psychiatric institution and slaughtering ducks and geese for local farmers.
Equally germane is the darkness of his literature, expressed not only in the violence of his childhood in “Call It Sleep,” but in the “Mercy” volumes, where he confessed to incest with his younger sister, implying that it was his inner turmoil about his sexual transgression that created the writer’s block. While Philip Roth was so fascinated by Henry Roth’s confessional story that he once, considering writing a novel about Roth’s story and the incest, called me up and put me on tape, others were outraged by the older brother’s callous disregard of his living sister’s feelings. Yet anyone who knew Henry at the time realized that his writings, while deeply offensive, were hardly gratuitous. It was, I believed, this “sobering contrast — the juxtaposing of the highly eroticized youth whose tragic life story plays out against the mournful obbligato of the old man’s reflections” — that created literature of enduring resonance.
Several years ago, during an event at the 92nd Street Y, a woman got up at the question-and-answer session. She was disturbed by the searing brutality of David Schearl’s father in “Call It Sleep.” She wondered why he could not have written “about nice things and more happy people.” Marjorie Morningstar, Henry Roth clearly was not, and his blanket rejection of bourgeois materialism provides more than a marked contrast with Herman Wouk’s aspiring protagonist, who chooses a comfy lifestyle in Westchester, and we can infer, a Reform synagogue in the rarefied climes of 1950s suburbia. In fact, Roth’s three major works represent the antithesis of the Jewish-American dream, capped off at the end of “An American Type” with Ira Stigman’s marriage to the patrician, musically gifted M, this character closely resembling Roth’s own devoted wife, Muriel Parker, whose family traced its roots back to the Mayflower.
Recalling that event where I listened to this woman’s discomfort, I shuddered to imagine what she would think of his salacious “Mercy” novels, where Roth portrayed himself as heinously and as unflinchingly as possible, hoping, I suspect, that if he could render himself with “the mercy of a rude stream,” that there might be mercy for what he perceived as the waywardness of modern Jewish life, perhaps even modern American society as a whole. It’s no small wonder that Steve Kellman titled his biography of Henry Roth, “Redemption,” suggesting that deliverance for the tortured novelist was more spiritual than any suburban bromide. As Morris Dickstein once put it so eloquently, “No one cared more about literature than Roth. … He saw literary language as ‘the philosopher’s stone,’ ‘a form of alchemy … that elevated meanness to the heights of art.’”
Yet for those who are looking for a Roth novel without the grimness of New York’s pushcart slums, without the Augustinian confessions of an agonal old man, without the sexual licentiousness that once so greatly pained me as his editor, “An American Type” may be the place to begin. The wracked sensibility so manifest in the earlier novels has largely dissipated, and this work, with its thrilling description of riding the rails with hobos or its evocation of literary Manhattan in the 1930s, may serve as one of the last direct testimonies we have of the Depression. While no reader would compare M, Ira’s wife-to-be, with Marjorie Morningstar, there is even a happy ending, as well as an epilogue so affecting that it is the most poignant portrait of a marriage I know of in contemporary literature.
“The time will still come,” comments Stephen Donadio, the editor of The New England Review, “when the overall design of Henry Roth’s project will come into focus. He is one of the most extraordinary writers.” Few who’ve actually read Roth would question the enduring literary quality of his work. It seems indisputable that each one of his novels provides trenchant, psychological insights into the troubled society we inhabit.
Whether Roth will have to wait, however, as long as Melville to be resurrected is something I cannot presume to answer.
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