The wisest way to approach a posthumous novel is with low expectations. Given that, you wouldn’t be wrong to afford some grace to Henry Roth’s new posthumous novel, “An American Type” (Norton), cobbled together from 1,900 disordered manuscript pages that were left untouched for nearly a decade after he died. And yet the book hardly needs it.
“An American Type” deserves its place alongside the slim but significant body of works left behind by Roth, one of the last century’s greatest writers, who died at 89, in 1995. The patchwork feel of the novel, and the occasional missteps in experimental prose perhaps would have been cut if Roth had been alive to finish it. But the novel, assembled under the keen eye of Willing Davidson, is a marvelous accomplishment nonetheless.
At its core, “An American Type” is about Jewish assimilation. That story is told through the journey of Ira Stigman, a 32-year-old writer and son of Galician Jewish immigrants. Readers are well aware the Stigman might as well be Roth, who was also a Jewish immigrant born in Galicia, in 1906, and who came with his parents to the Lower East Side, then moved to Harlem when he was 3. Like Stigman, Roth lived with a revered poet and NYU professor — Eda Lou Walton in real life; “Edith” in the book — for much of his 20s. But he then left her for a blue-blood American pianist, Muriel Parker (“M” in the book), with whom he lived the rest of his life.
Stigman’s magnetic attraction to M forms the narrative arc of the book, and it is through his relationship with her that his own Jewish identity is put into sharp relief. The novel begins with Stigman meeting M at Yaddo, in 1938, the storied artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs where Roth actually met Parker. Immediately upon seeing her, Stigman was smitten: “The young woman I was courting — we shall call her M — was a very personable, tall, fair-haired young woman, a pianist and composer, a young woman with a world of patience, practicality, and self-discipline, bred and raised in the best traditions of New England and the Middle West, the most wholesome traditions,” he writes. “I wondered whether there was any reality to my courtship, any future.”
Of course, there was. But before Stigman decides to pursue what could have otherwise been a brief fling, he sets off on a cross-country journey to get out of his rut. Yaddo was supposed to be the cure for his insufferable writer’s block (after Roth’s 1934 novel “Call It Sleep,” he did not write a word for more than 30 years). But it turns out to be just another lost opportunity, save the unintended meeting of M. He convinces an old neighbor and committed Communist, Bill Loem, to travel to California, where he thinks he might be able to gain some financial independence writing for Hollywood. After all, it has been years since his debut novel came out, and he’s still living off of Edith and the wealthy lawyer Dalton, who not so secretly courts her.
Stigman’s cross-country journey, then back again, lends the novel its engine, shaping the work into a Great Depression picaresque. And it is striking how fresh Roth, who wrote these passages in the late-1980s and early-‘90s, can make that period feel. Loem perhaps best captures the hypocrisy of the American Communist movement. Here he is debating Stigman on its merit: “What have you got in Russia but a dictatorship?” Stigman asks Loem, to which he replies: “Sure, the USSR is a dictatorship! But it’s a dictatorship of the majority! It’s a dictatorship o’ the workin’ class!”
Loem’s intellectual feebleness is still less telling than his lack of integrity. Roth has a sharp eye for the routine ironies of everyday life — the contradictions in which we all walk, daily — and second only to Stigman’s repeated hypocrisies are Loem’s own. While Loem blasts away at the material comforts of the American bourgeoisie, ridiculing Stigman for taking remittances from Edith, soon we find out that Loem is, too. Worse, he hasn’t even the courage to ask Edith himself, and instead has his wife, Bea, do his bidding for him.
When Stigman returns to New York, his six-month sojourn out west a failure, M again takes center stage. And it is at this point where his anguish of assimilation is on full display. As his relationship with M deepens, Stigman makes visits to his immigrant Jewish family and to M’s family, and while Roth makes clear that the blue-blooded world is nothing worth fighting for, his own roots fare no better. After Stigman takes M to meet his parents in East Harlem — a disaster, his parents’ boorishness and sycophancy on full display — Roth stands back, offering a glimpse of his views. Though equivocal, they are nonetheless damning and pained:
“Ira thought of the tragedy of the immigrant experience in the New World,” he writes. “Some kind of immense sacrifice — and for what and to what? Success. … Not all the pyramids of skulls of Aztec victims could compare to the victims of success. …Was it the Jews alone, who threw themselves forward with such abandon? No, of course not. It just seemed that way. The Scandinavians traveled out to the Dakotas, to the far West. The Nordics spread out, they took to the soil, they farmed, they homesteaded. Tradition, that was it: that was their tradition, extracting a living from the land. The Jews swarmed on the narrow limb of the East Side like migratory bees about their queen. That was their tradition, seeking success in business, commerce, trade, moneylending.”
Surely there will be some who sense a whiff of anti-Semitism here. But I think Roth is working hard to pre-empt that perception with his qualification, for one thing, that all other immigrants want success, too. Instead, Roth is arguing that the freedom America affords the immigrant is something that, in its most tangible sense, is vacuous. You can be rich in America, sure, but the price you pay is high. The energies once put in preserving cultural identity in more oppressive foreign lands are, in America, spent elsewhere — on wealth, or the striving for it.
Roth is too self-critical a writer, though, to put his protagonist above this Faustian scheme. Stigman may ease up on his thirst for financial success — or its artistic equivalent, recognition and praise — but he still ends up losing something of himself. His ultimate salvation comes in M, and while the love and security she affords him are some of the novel’s most touching and enduring parts, we cannot escape the essential burden of his Jewishness. It is not something Stigman escapes, or perhaps even tries to. But he must constantly bear it, like an albatross, something that impedes his progress rather than hastens it.
When Stigman decides on marrying M, he broaches the subject of a Jewish wedding with her parents. “M would have to become a Jewess, would have to convert, Ira declared,” Roth writes. But Stigman withers at his mother-in-law’s curt shutdown. The economy of her reply perfectly captures her power: “Mother didn’t think so,” M relates. Moments later Stigman is celebrating their wedding, conducted by a civil judge, at a quiet breakfast in the Gramercy Hotel. It is only minutes from the Lower East Side, where Roth himself once lived, but now a world away. The newlywed’s meal, paid for by her family, is telling. As Roth writes, it “would be memorable always: calves liver and bacon.”
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