Roth, Henry 1906–1995

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Roth, Henry 1906–1995

PERSONAL: Born February 8, 1906, in Tysmenica, Galicia, Austria-Hungary (now part of the Ukraine); died October 13, 1995; son of Herman (a waiter) and Leah (Farb) Roth; married Muriel Parker (a musician, composer, and elementary school principal; deceased); children: Jeremy, Hugh. Education: College of the City of New York (now City College of the City University of New York), B.S., 1928. Religion: Jewish.

CAREER: Writer. Worked "in writing and idleness," New York City, 1929–38; with Works Progress Administration (WPA), 1939; substitute high school teacher, Bronx, NY, 1939–41; precision metal grinder, New York City, 1941–45, Providence, RI, and Boston, MA, 1945–46; taught in a one-room school in Maine, 1947–48; Augusta State Hospital, Augusta, ME, attendant,1949–53; waterfowl farmer, 1953–63; tutor in math and Latin, 1956–65.

AWARDS, HONORS: Grant from National Institute of Arts and Letters, 1965; Townsend Harris Medal, City College of the City University New York, 1965; D.H. Lawrence fellowship, University of NewMexico, 1968; Litt.D., University of New Mexico, and Hebrew Union College of Cincinnati, both 1994; National Book Critics Circle Awards finalist for fiction, 1997, for From Bondage.


Call It Sleep (novel), Ballou, 1934, 2nd edition with a history by Harold U. Ribalow, a critical introduction by Maxwell Geismar, and a personal appreciation by Meyer Levin, Pageant, 1960, published with a foreword by Walter Allen, M. Joseph (London), 1963.

(Contributor) The Best American Short Stories, 1967, Houghton (Boston), 1967.

Nature's First Green (memoir), Targ, 1979.

Shifting Landscape: A Composite, 1925–1987, Jewish Publication Society, 1987, published as Shifting Landscape, with foreword by Alfred Kazin, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1991.

Mercy of a Rude Stream, St. Martin's (New York, NY), Volume 1: A Star Shines over Mt. Morris Park, Volume 1994 2: A Diving Rock on the Hudson, 1995 Volume 3: From Bondage, 1996, Volume 4: Requiem for Harlem, 1998.

Contributor to periodicals, including Atlantic Monthly, Commentary, Midstream, New Yorker, Signatures: Work in Lavender, and Studies in American Jewish Literature.

Roth's manuscripts are housed at Boston University and the New York Public Library.

SIDELIGHTS: "The death of Henry Roth … at the age of eighty-nine brought to an end one of the most unusual careers in modern letters," stated Morris Dick-stein in the Times Literary Supplement. Roth, whose first novel, 1934's Call It Sleep, was followed by over six decades of literary silence, rallied with the monumental Mercy of a Rude Stream. Published between 1994 and 1996, the first three volumes of this highly-autobiographical six-volume work were described by Dickstein in the Washington Post Book World as "a diagnostic work, a case study cast as personal fiction." But, as the critic added, "that the book exists at all is a miracle, an almost posthumous gift. By returning to literature and resuming his story in old age, Roth has wrestled an unlikely trophy from the clutches of unhappiness, depression and inner turmoil."

Roth's first and best-known novel, Call It Sleep received laudatory reviews upon publication. Alfred Hayes termed it "as brilliant as [James] Joyce's Portrait of the Artist, but with a wider scope, a richer emotion, a deeper realism." The book went into two printings—four thousand copies—and then disappeared, leading an underground existence until its republication in 1960. In 1956 the American Scholar had asked certain notable critics to list the most neglected books of the past twenty-five years. Alfred Kazin and Leslie Fiedlerboth chose Call It Sleep, making it the only book named twice. On October 25, 1961, Irving Howe's front-page review of Call Sleep in the New York Times Book Review marked the first time such space was devoted to a paperback reprint. Howe described the book as "one of the few genuinely distinguished novels written by a 20th-century American, [one which] achieves an obbligato of lyricism such as few American novels can match…. Intensely Jewish in tone and setting, Call It Sleep rises above all the dangers that beset the usual ghetto novel: it does not deliquesce into nostalgia, nor sentimentalize poverty and parochialism. The Jewish immigrant milieu happens to be its locale, quite as Dublin is Joyce's and Mississippi [William] Faulkner's."

Roth's popular novel concerns the life of a young Jewish boy growing up on New York's Lower East Side in the years prior to World War I. Many critics disagree about the central theme or purpose of Call It Sleep; James Ferguson felt that it "is essentially the story of the development of a religious sensibility. Its implications are far more profoundly theological, even metaphysical, than they are social." In Proletarian Writers of the Thirties, Gerald Green wrote that Roth had social motivation in writing the novel: "Unlike the fashionable terrorists, Roth never loses hope, even if salvation speaks to us through cracked lips." And Walter Allen saw the book as "the most powerful evocation of the terrors of childhood ever written. We are spared nothing of the rawness of cosmopolitan slum life." Call It Sleep has also been cited for its political undertones—Roth was a member of the Communist Party at the time he wrote the novel but would later repudiate it—its depiction of Jewish domestic life, and its autobiographical aspects.

Howe believed that Call It Sleep is ultimately successful due to its presentation of the mind of the young boy. "Yet the book is not at all the kind of precious or narrowing study of a child's sensibility that such a description might suggest. We are locked into the experience of a child, but are limited to his grasp of it," the critic noted. Roth acknowledged the autobiographical qualities of the novel but emphasized the methods he used in manipulating events remembered from his childhood. "I was working with characters, situations and events that had in part been taken from life, but which I molded to give expression to what was oppressing me. To a considerable extent I was drawing on the unconscious to give shape to remembered reality. Things which I could not fully understand but which filled me with apprehension played a critical role in determining the form of the novel."

In his middle years, Roth distanced himself from his first novel, saying that "the man who wrote that book at the age of 27 is dead. I am a totally different man. Almost." Although he made some attempts at starting another novel, he became dissatisfied and destroyed the manuscript. Instead, Roth took on a variety of other jobs, satisfying his need to write by composing short stories. Many of these pieces of short fiction are collected in Shifting Landscape. Spanning the period from 1925 to 1987 and edited by longtime friend Mario Materassi, the volume includes not only fiction but also essays, journals, and excerpts from both interviews and correspondence. "Roth's imagination had always been ruminative, sensuous and introspective," explained Dickstein. "He was endlessly absorbed by the mystery of himself…. In the interstitial prose of Shifting Landscape, which is the real fabric of the book,… Roth examines himself as a case and weaves explanations around his deep sense of failure. Yet these autobiographical tales signify his dogged persistence as a writer, even when he was not writing."

It was Israel's Six-Day War in 1967 that finally prompted Roth to begin to attempt another novel-length work of fiction. The war gave the writer back his Jewishness, "a place in the world andan origin," as he told David Bronsen in Partisan Review. "Having started to write, it seemed natural to go on from there, and I have been writing long hours every day since then. I am not yet sure what it is leading to, but it is necessary and is growing out of a new allegiance, an adhesion that comes from belonging."

What his writing was leading to was the proposed six-volume autobiographical novel entitled Mercy of a Rude Stream. The first part, published in 1994 as A Star Shines over Mt. Morris Park, recounts the boyhood years of Ira Stigman. Shy, bookish, and feeling like an outsider, the boy attempts to repudiate his Jewishness and withdraws into a world of literature. "One irony this first volume explores at leisure," comments Lorna Sage in the Observer, is that [Roth's] vocation appeared to him under a false guise, as a romantic vision of exile—Art as the only homeland—whereas his subject and his inspiration lay in the very family and race that he struggled to extricate himself from."

Mercy of a Rude Stream continues with Diving Rockon Diving Rock, finds Roth's protagonist expelled from his Bronx high school, confused about what course his life willtake, and mired in the conflicting emotions of adolescence before emerging with the resolve to become a writer. In From Bondage Stigman has reached college, only to come under the sway of a circle of avidly pro-Joyce intellectuals and find himself entangled in a sexual relationship with of one of his female professors—who is also the lover of his best friend. This sexual liaison is made all the more complicated by reviving Stigman's guilt over an incestuous relationship he once had with his sister. In reading each of the novels comprising Mercy in a Rude Stream, comparisons with Roth's classic first novel continue to arise, according to Mary Gordon in the New York Times Book Review. "And so, how do we read these new works, trailing behind them both a history and a work of literature?," Gordon wondered before concluding: "We read them on their own clearly articulated terms and, having agreed to do that, we are wholly taken up by the touching and fascinating record of a marred life that insists on pressing on us its pulsing, painfully relentless vitality."

Despite his increased commitment to writing fiction during his final years, Roth's domestic life remained of primary importance. "I find my greatest pleasure in matrimony, mathematics and puttering about the premises, in that order," he once said, adding that "I am daily compelled to admiration at the miracle of my wife."



Allen, Walter, The Modern Novel, Dutton, 1965.

Contemporary Literary Criticism, Thomson Gale, Volume 2, 1974, Volume 6, 1976, Volume 11, 1979.

Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 28: Twentieth-Century American-Jewish Fiction Writers, Thomson Gale, 1984.

Howe, Irving, World of Our Fathers, Harcourt, 1976.

Kellman, Steven G., Redemption: The Life of Henry Roth, W.W. Norton, 2005.

Lyons, Bonnie, Henry Roth: The Man and His Work, Cooper Square, 1977.

Madden, Daniel, editor, Proletarian Writers of the Thirties, Southern Illinois University Press, 1968.


Centennial Review, spring, 1974.

Commentary, August, 1960; August, 1977; September, 1984; May, 1994, p. 44.

Economist, February 12, 1994, p. 91.

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Newsweek, January 31, 1994, p. 59.

New Yorker, March 25, 1996, p. 33.

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New York Times, April 15, 1971.

New York Times Book Review, October 25, 1964; August 15, 1993, p. 3; January 16, 1994, pp. 3-4; February 26, 1995,pp. 5-6; December 10, 1995, p. 47.

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Washington Post Book World, October 3, 1982; February 20, 1994, p. 6.