Incest! Poverty! Writer’s block! Henry Roth’s legacy gets a late coda.
In a spectacular case of writer’s block, Henry Roth published a now-classic novel, Call It Sleep in, 1934–then fell silent for some 60 years, before miraculously producing a monumental four-novel cycle in his 80s. Now, 15 years after his death, Roth gives us one last book — “the sunniest thing he ever wrote,” according to The New York Times.
The new novel, An American Type, was carved out of a 2,000-page manuscript by Willing Davidson, a 32-year-old fiction editor at The New Yorker.
“Roth in many ways thought a lot about himself, but in this book he turns his attention outward,” Davidson says. “In doing so, he discovers a lot of comedy and joy in life around him.”
If that’s true, it runs counter to the grim and often sordid nature of Roth’s previous work. Call It Sleep is the story of an unhappy Jewish immigrant family –violent father, doting mother, hypersensitive son — living in Manhattan’s lower East Side.
Call It Sleep, published when Roth was only 28, received enthusiastic literary reviews, but sold poorly. It was also harshly criticized by a Marxist magazine for bourgeois artsiness and insufficient political content. Roth, a communist, determined to write a proletarian novel, but after years of labor burned all but one chapter in disgust.
Roth abandoned writing and the cultural enticements of New York for a working class life in New England, where he worked a series of menial jobs, including mental hospital attendant and “waterfowl dresser,” slaughtering and plucking ducks and sheep.
Call It Sleep enjoyed a revival in the early 1960s, when it was hailed as a masterpiece and republished — selling more than a million copies. Surprisingly, Roth was not happy about this development, viewing it as an invasion of his privacy.
Explanations for Roth’s cantankerous silence abound. He was brilliant, gifted, headstrong and supremely self-centered, willing to drop an early lover and mentor, Eda Lou Walton, when he didn’t need her anymore.
Though apparently devoted to his wife, a musician, he was an indifferent father to his two sons, at best. You can find a detailed discussion of Roth’s lifen this long New York Times review of Redemption: The Life of Henry Roth, Stephen G. Kellman’s 2005 biography.
Certainly Roth’s life was blighted by guilt and regret over a decade-long incestuous affair with his sister Rose, which started when he was 12 and she was 10. After Roth resumed writing autobiographical novels in his 80s, Rose begged him not to reveal the affair. But he did anyway, in A Diving Rock on the Hudson, the second volume in the four-book Mercy of a Rude Stream cycle.
Robert Weil, who edited the four novels and shepherded them to publication, says Roth’s decision to write about the incest “was the breaking of the dam.”
Roth intended for Mercy of a Rude Stream to consist of six books, but Weil decided the last two were so different in tone that they did not fit. Weil was happy to turn the job over to Davidson, who found only a single novel in the sprawling manuscript.
“He was galloping the last legs of his life and he wanted to write something with a sweeter sound to it,” Weil tells the Associated Press. “I felt An American Type needed a different sensibility. Willing understood its purpose.”
An American Type, which goes on sale Monday, presents a coda, of sorts, to a peculiarly American life, and an addendum to an important body of literary work.