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Literary Death Match: The Fight Over Henry Roth’s Legacy

Literary Death Match: The Fight Over Henry Roth’s Legacy

Henry Roth’s posthumous novel, "An American Type," has just been published and, in its wake, a fiesty literary debate has started to brew. The reviews are trickling in (stay tuned for my own, appearing in the upcoming June 18 issue), and perhaps the most devastating comes from Joshua Cohen in Harper’s. Sadly, his essay is not available online, but I got my subscription copy late last week and was riveted by the piece.

Basically, Cohen argues that Roth’s posthumous editors have whitewashed his stories, turning a famously cantankerous and moody genius into a inocuous milquetoast. It is not that the language or the snippets of experimental prose are no longer there, it’s that the overarching narrative arc has been transformed from one of frustrasted restlessness, which defined his now-classic, "Call It Sleep" (1934), to one of peacable resolution. One of redemption.

It’s clear that Cohen did his homework too. The 1,900 pages of manuscript left by Roth, and upon which "An American Type" was assembled, are open to the public in the Center for Jewish History archives. Cohen went through them and, shockingly, finds that the same beautifully rendered passages that were used to make the Davidson edited "American Type" were exactly the same ones used by Roth’s biographer, Steven G. Kellman. In other words, though the new book jacket indeed acknowledges that the book is largely autobiographical, the writings upon which it’s based may in fact be an unfinished autobiography. The shift from straight autobiography to third person novel, "based on real events," is crucial. Implicitly, it allows an editor much more leeway to write his own ending.

"An American Type" is ultimately hopeful, and that’s makes Cohen worried. If the narrative arc is less truthful to Roth’s own view of his life, does it strike against the very heart of who Roth was: a cranky curmudgeon, a cynic who had no truck with "hope"?


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