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Incest! Poverty! Writer’s block! Henry Roth’s legacy gets a late coda.

June 4, 2010

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.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. rachel permalink
    June 4, 2010 2:05 pm

    Sheesh. That all sounds very uplifting.

    Carved out of a 2000 page manuscript? How many pages did it clock in at? That sounds like it would be quite difficult. Did I detect some judgment in the 32 year old part? I have mixed feelings about this kind of thing. Don’t people know that sometimes editor’s revisions sometimes drastically changes a story, like for example with Raymond Carver? And yet, those stories, both ways, are brilliant.

    Doesn’t really seem fair to throw the sister under the bus.

    • June 5, 2010 12:46 am

      You’re right. Someone should run right out and write her biography…But truly, sounds like there are some holes in the story.

      • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
        June 5, 2010 10:41 am

        I get the idea it boils down to a fairly simple and very common equation, but one vastly complicated by the accident of an extreme literary gift: messed fellow from a messed up family lives a messed up life, messing up other people left and right.

  2. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    June 4, 2010 2:38 pm

    An American Type comes in at a tidy 304 pp. Rachel, you raise some interesting questions. The cottage industry of compiling coherent novels out of the messy papers left by once great novels is problematic, at best.

    Take Hemingway: Four years after his suicide in 1961, his memoir A Moveable Feast appeared, edited by his last wife, Mary. It contains some of his best writing.

    Islands in the Stream, a novel cobbled from a rough draft and a story or two, came out in 1970 to mixed notices. In 1986, a second posthumous work appeared, The Garden of Eden, a 70,000-word novel carved out of a 200,000-word manuscript. It’s reception was, to say the least, controversial, though it did get some moderately favorable reviews.

    In 1999 another posthumous novel, True at First Light appeared, again, pieced together from a rough draft. Although it has moments, the book reads mainly like a Hemingway parody. A longer, revised version, Under Kilamanjaro, came out, but I haven’t seen it. Don’t feel much compelled to seek it out.

    I haven’t read An American Type (hate the generic title, though), so I can’t say whether Willing Davidson’s triage has given us a coherent novel or not.

    As for poor Rose, Roth does not seem to have cared much about the feelings or fates of other people, aside from his wife.

  3. Sean permalink
    June 4, 2010 3:27 pm

    I can picture Roth and JD Salinger ignoring each other across a diner table.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      June 4, 2010 4:54 pm

      Yes, pointedly. Or perhaps, heads inclined together, going over snapshots of lives they’ve ruined….

    • June 5, 2010 12:48 am

      Sean. Thanks for the laugh. I wish Joyce Maynard would be at the table too.

      • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
        June 5, 2010 10:42 am

        Flirting with both, while taking notes under the table…?

  4. Candice Simmons permalink
    June 6, 2010 7:43 pm

    Interesting man. Sounds like it could be an interesting book. Will I read it? That’s a maybe.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      June 6, 2010 10:03 pm

      I’d give Call It Sleep a look first. It’s readily available in inexpensive paperback editions.

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