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The Other Roth; or Why Does Henry Roth Always Get Screwed?

The Other Roth; or Why Does Henry Roth Always Get Screwed?

My apoloogies for not posting this New York Times story from yesterday, yesterday. I was busy writing my story (my deadline’s Monday night), and didn’t get the time to post it.

But the story reminded me of how not-so well-versed I am. I’ve long known of the author Henry Roth (1906-1995), but mainly by name only. I know that, in the Jewish American canon, his considered an icon, but I’ve never read any of his books. And for some odd reason, I keep merging him with the other Henry (James), but not the other Roth (Philip). Thankfully, the Times’ story reminded me that I wasn’t alone in my ignorance. In fact, "overlooked" is the adjective that seems to hawk H. Roth whenever he’s mentioned.

So what the Times reported–that a new book of his, "An American Type," never before published–will come out by W.W. Norton on June 7, was less shocking then sadly unsurprising. It’s worth being reminded that his first novel, "Call It Sleep," which brought him the literary fame in the 1960s, was actually first published in 1934. But no one paid in any attention. Then, when it was re-released in paperback in 1964, and the Times Sunday Book Review gave it glowing praise, Roth was redeemed.

Still, his four-volume "Mercy of a Rude Stream," didn’t appear until 1994, a year before Roth’s death. Of course, that was wholly of Roth’s own-making–he barely finished anything he worked on, and worked only intermittenly as a writer, until he started to write the "Mercy" novels in the late-1970s. And the new book coming out this June is actually considered part of that "Mercy" multi-volume set. But, according to the Times story, his editors didn’t think the last two books which comprise the now single volume "An American Type" fit with the other four "Mercy" novels.

In any case, the "Mercy" books’ main character, Ira Stigman, returns. He’ll be on his way back from a road trip he made out west, on his way to Manhattan’s Lower East Side, in what seems like a re-working of Roth’s over-arching theme: whether to assimilate or embrace his Jewish immigrant roots.

Read an excerpt here.

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