Call It Sleep

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Call It Sleep
HENRY ROTH
1934

INTRODUCTION
PLOT SUMMARY
THEMES
HISTORICAL OVERVIEW
CRITICAL OVERVIEW
CRITICISM
SOURCES

INTRODUCTION

Henry Roth's 1934 novel Call It Sleep is based loosely on the author's own experiences growing up as a Jewish American in New York City during the early 1900s. In the novel, David Schearl is a young boy who must come to terms with conflicting forces in an effort to forge his own identity. The conflicting forces include intense love for and dependence on his mother Genya coupled with fear and hatred for his unstable father Albert. David must also reconcile his Jewish heritage with both his mainstream American tendencies and his curiosity about other cultures and religions.

The novel is notable for its use of Yiddish both directly and indirectly through character dialogue. Most of the dialogue spoken in the Schearl household is in Yiddish, but it is transcribed for the reader in deliberately formal and elegant phrasing. By contrast, the language David and his friends use in the streets is rough, profane, and so heavily seasoned with dialect that it can be difficult to understand. For example, "W'od id 'ey do t'yuh in de polliss station?" is what one character asks after David returns from a brief episode at a local police station. This turns the table on the reader, clearly illustrating the struggles immigrants face when trying to communicate in a language that is not natively their own. The author does this by transforming Yiddish into easily understood English, and transforming English into a daunting collection of strange sounds.

Call It Sleep was first published in the middle of the Great Depression, and it was consequently overlooked by many mainstream readers at the time. Although Roth still wrote occasional short stories after the novel's poor performance, he relied on alternate careers to support himself for the next thirty years. It was only in the 1960s, when the novel was rediscovered by critics and readers alike, that Roth was finally able to once again return to writing as more than just a hobby.

Call It Sleep offers a view of the American dream through the eyes of an immigrant child. In addition, the book has earned its place as an enduring document of the Jewish American experience. As Alfred Kazin writes in his introduction to the Picador paperback edition of the novel,

Though the book was not properly welcomed or understood until it was reissued in paperback in 1964, it has become a world favorite, with millions of copies in print. We can see now that the book belongs to the side of the 1930s that still believed in the sacredness of literature, whether or not it presumed to change the world.

PLOT SUMMARY

Prologue

The year is 1907, a year "destined to bring the greatest number of immigrants to the shores of the United States." On a ferry from Ellis Island to Manhattan, a newly arrived woman and her son travel with her husband, who has already been living in America, working and preparing the home for his family's arrival. They are Jewish and speak to each other in Yiddish. The woman apologizes to her husband, revealing that she could not recognize him when she first saw him at Ellis Island. She tells him that he looks different from when she last saw him in Europe: "Then here in the new land is the same old poverty. You've gone without food. I can see it. You've changed."

The husband is also upset at his wife for not telling the officials that their son is only seventeen months old, which would have saved half the fare they had to pay. The woman argues that the officials would not have believed her because he is so big. The husband asks if she brought the child's birth certificate, but the woman is unsure. The boy wears a straw hat with polka-dot ribbons; the father tells the mother to take it off the boy because it looks silly. When the mother hesitates, the father pulls off the hat and tosses it into the water.

BIOGRAPHY

HENRY ROTH

Herschel Roth was born on February 8, 1906, in the Austro-Hungarian region of Galitzia (also spelled Galicia), in present-day Ukraine. His family immigrated to the United States while he was still a baby, and as a child he lived for several years on New York's Lower East Side, the setting for Call It Sleep.

Roth became interested in writing after being exposed by university friends to authors such as T. S. Eliot and James Joyce, the latter of whose stream-of-consciousness experimentation with language had a profound impact on Roth's own writing. His first novel, Call It Sleep, was published in 1934 to excellent reviews but poor sales.

Although Roth still occasionally sold short story to magazines such as the New Yorker, he gave up on writing as a primary occupation and became a poultry farmer in Maine. Thirty years after its initial publication, Call It Sleep experienced a resurgence in popularity and became a bestseller. Over the next three decades, Roth returned to writing, creating six volumes of a semi-autobiographical series known collectively as Mercy of a Rude Stream. Two of the volumes were published prior to the author's death on October 13, 1995, at the age of eighty-nine. Two more volumes were published posthumously. As of 2007, the final two volumes remain unpublished.

Book 1: The Cellar

Chapters 1-9

Four years later, the boy—whose name is David Schearl—is almost six years old. The family lives in an apartment in the Brownsville neighborhood of New York City. David's father works as a printer; David saves the pages of the daily calendar in their home because his father made it. At the bottom of the stairs leading to their apartment is a cellar door that "bulged with darkness." David fears what lurks behind the door.

One day, David is taken across town by his father, Albert. He is directed to enter, by himself, the printing office where Albert worked, and to ask for his father's personal belongings and final pay. Inside, David is told that Albert nearly killed another employee with a hammer. Several people mention to David that his father is crazy. When David emerges with his father's clothes and money, Albert interrogates him about the people inside. David lies and says the people inside said nothing to him.

Albert gets a new printing job and befriends a foreman named Joe Luter, who hails from the same part of Austria as Albert. Luter is invited to join the family for dinner, and David notices that Luter's presence causes his father to be much more pleasant than usual. Still, David cannot bring himself to like Luter. One night, when Luter has arranged for Albert to go to the theatre alone, Luter returns to the Schearl house to retrieve a package he has forgotten. He makes sly advances toward David's mother—in front of David, who rarely leaves his mother's company—but she politely rebuffs him.

A week later, David's mother takes him to visit their upstairs neighbors, the Minks. Mrs. Mink has a son, Yussie, about the same age as David, and an older daughter named Annie who has a metal brace on one leg. The three children play hide and seek until Yussie is called away to go buy bread. Annie then leads David into a closet to "play bad." He is horrified by what she wants him to do, and he flees to his mother's side in the kitchen. They depart, with David's mother unaware of Annie's actions: "But she didn't know as he knew how the whole world could break into a thousand little pieces, all buzzing, all whining, and no one hearing them and no one seeing them except himself."

David spends the next day avoiding Annie and Yussie. On his way home, he sees a funeral carriage and asks his mother about death and the afterlife. Her answers about what happens to the dead are honest and blunt: "I only know that they are buried in the dark earth and their names last a few more lifetimes on their gravestones."

Chapters 10-16

Luter visits the Schearls for dinner one night but cuts short his visit, and tells them he will not be able to join them for dinner later in the week. After he leaves, Albert reveals that Luter is going to visit a marriage broker, and that Luter has asked Albert to work some overtime at the shop. After dinner, a strange course of events results in David accidentally injuring Yussie, and David subsequently getting beaten by his father with a clothes hanger. David's mother puts an end to the beating, and tells Albert that he will never again strike their son.

Soon after, while David is outside playing with some other boys, he sees Luter enter his family's building while only his mother is home. Immediately after, Yussie confronts David over his injury and challenges him to a fight. The boys all gang up on David, and he strikes one boy to the ground as he flees into his building. Fearful that the boy has been injured, and unable to go to his mother because of Luter, David faces his fear and hides in the cellar: "It was horrible, the dark. The rats lived there, the hordes of nightmare, the wobbly faces, the crawling and misshapen things." After several minutes, David can no longer remain in the cellar and rushes out into the street; he runs away quickly, hoping no one follows.

When he finally grows tired, he begins retracing his route back home. He soon discovers that he is lost, and no one can understand the name of his street, which he pronounces "Boddeh." A woman takes him to the nearest police station, where they eventually figure out the correct street: Barhdee. His mother picks him up soon after and takes him home. Although he never mentions it to her, David cannot escape the thought that his mother "played bad" with Luter when he came to visit.

The next time Luter is expected for dinner, he cancels. David's father detects a sudden change in Luter, as if the man is trying to end their friendship. Soon after, Albert comes home from work with a bandage on his right hand. He has injured it in the printing press, and he blames Luter's coldness for distracting him from his work. He vows never to return to his job and never to work on a printing press again. Yussie stops by, and David makes peace with him and the other boy David had knocked down while fleeing on the day he got lost.

Book 2: The Picture

Chapters 1-9

Two months later, David's father finds a new job as a milkman, and the family moves to a new neighborhood. They live on the fourth floor of their apartment building; instead of a stairway to the cellar, David is now confronted by a stairway to the roof: "They were inviolable those stairs, guarding the light and silence."

In May, just three months after the family moves in, David's Aunt Bertha—one of his mother's younger sisters—comes to live in America. David's father reluctantly agrees to let her live in the apartment for a while. Bertha is a plump, red-haired woman who always looks messy, sweats profusely, and speaks with a sharp tongue. This last trait results in countless arguments with David's father.

When Aunt Bertha develops severe toothaches, she visits the dentist and discovers she must have six teeth extracted. She begins making frequent visits to the dentist—at first reluctantly, but soon with a strange anticipation. Soon enough she tells her sister that she has met a potential suitor at the dentist's office, a man named Nathan Sternowitz. Nathan is a Russian American widower with two daughters, aged ten and eleven. When Bertha makes plans to bring him to dinner, David's mother buys a picture of corn stalks and cornflowers to decorate their apartment. She tells David that it reminds her of where she grew up.

One Sunday, while David's father is out, his mother finally reveals to Aunt Bertha a secret she has been keeping since before she came to America. The two women talk in a mixture of Polish and Yiddish; David tries to listen, but can only make out small pieces of their dialogue. He hears enough to understand that his mother had a relationship with a non-Jewish organist at a local church where they lived, and her parents feared a scandal would emerge. Six months later his mother met Albert, and did not speak of the organist again.

Book 3: The Coal

Chapters 1-9

In February, David's father decides that it is time for David to attend a cheder, or religious class taught by a rabbi. The rabbi, Reb Yidel Pankower, is a stern instructor who strikes his students whenever they make mistakes. David performs well, however, and is especially intrigued when the rabbi tells his students of Isaiah's purification with a fiery coal, brought down to him by an angel.

One day, David is accosted by several white boys who insist on showing him some "magic." They take him to Tenth Street, where there are electrified trolley car tracks, and tell him to throw a piece of metal across the tracks. He does as they command, and the metal ignites in a flash of light. Terrified and awed, David runs to his cheder. He tells the rabbi that he has seen a coal, like Isaiah, in the crack of the trolley car tracks. The rabbi laughs and calls David a fool: "God's light is not between car-tracks." To David, however, the light signifies a great power that the rabbi does not understand.

Book 4: The Rail

Chapters 1-6

Months later, David is told that he must go with his father on a milk delivery route. It is not his father's normal route, and his father does not want to leave the wagon unattended for fear of thieves in the neighborhood. David's job is simply to stay with the wagon while his father makes deliveries within the buildings. While David is sitting with the cart, two men in tatters approach him and attempt to get him away from the cart. When David refuses to move, the men simply take two bottles of milk and tell David that they will pay his father. David knows better, but he is powerless to stop the two. When his father returns, David tells him about the two thieves. His father chases them down with his wagon and beats them with his fists and his horse-whip. He warns David not to tell his mother what has happened.

After the incident, David attends cheder. On his way home, he sees some neighborhood boys trying to capture an escaped canary perched on the house next to his. He later hears the same boys talking about how they had seen a naked woman in one of the apartments while looking for the canary, and he quickly realizes that they are talking about his mother. He flees to the sanctuary of his building's roof and is calmed by the peace he finds there.

Chapters 7-14

The next morning, David returns to the roof. He is surprised when another boy appears on the neighboring roof with a kite. The boy, a Polish American named Leo, seems to befriend David at first even though Leo is older. However, Leo later suggests that he does not want to spend time with David unless David can go skating with him.

Thinking his Aunt Bertha might have skates in the candy shop she has opened with her new husband Nathan, David goes to visit her the next day. He is disappointed when she has nothing for him except candy. While David is there, Bertha asks him to wake up her two stepdaughters, Polly and Esther. He does, and Esther, afraid of the dark, convinces him to go downstairs to the cellar bathroom with her so she can use it. While in the bathroom, Esther tells David he can watch her if he wants, but he does not want to.

Returning home, David discovers that Leo has been looking for him. He visits Leo's apartment, and he is intrigued by the Christian artifacts he sees there. He asks Leo if he can have one, but Leo refuses. After hearing about David's cousin Esther at the candy store, however—and how she wanted David to follow her down into the cellar—Leo offers David a broken rosary if he will take Leo to meet her. David reluctantly agrees to take Leo to the candy store the following morning.

The next morning, David changes his mind and tries to avoid Leo, but Leo catches him. The boys travel to the candy store and sneak into his aunt's yard, where they find Esther. Leo convinces Esther to come into the street and take skating lessons from him, and then he leads her into the basement where he forces himself on her in the dark. David, who has been given the rosary for the part he played, does not know what to do, and he simply hides. Esther's sister Polly hears the commotion and investigates; she is shocked to see a strange boy in the basement with Esther, and threatens to tell their parents. As Esther tries to explain what really happened, David is revealed and runs away to his cheder.

Chapters 15-19

At cheder, David reads for his rabbi and a visiting rabbi. Both are impressed with his abilities, but he breaks down in the middle of his recitation. When the rabbi asks what is wrong, David invents a fantastic story: He has just learned from his Aunt Bertha that his mother is not really his mother. He has also learned that his real father is a non-Jewish organist who lives somewhere in Europe. David is excused from the cheder and runs away. His rabbi decides to visit David's mother and repeat David's story.

Back at the candy store, Bertha and her husband Nathan find out about Leo's assault on Esther. Nathan first blames Bertha, and then decides to go to David's home and tell his mother of the part David played in the affair. Bertha pursues him all the way, trying to stop him.

David finally gets home and discovers that the rabbi is there. The rabbi has told David's parents of his strange tale and learned that David was lying. When the rabbi leaves, however, David's father Albert finally feels that his own longtime suspicions are justified. Albert believes that he is not really David's father, and that much of what David said is actually true. Suddenly Bertha and Nathan arrive at the apartment, with Nathan intending to confront David's parents about their boy's wicked behavior. Bertha attempts to silence her husband, but David blurts out a confession. David's father—no longer believing he is the boy's father—seizes him and begins whipping him with his horse whip. As he does, the broken rosary given to David by Leo falls out of the boy's pocket. David's father sees this as a final confirmation that David is the bastard son of a non-Jew. David's father threatens to kill the boy, to "rid the world of a sin," but David flees the apartment, into the streets.

Chapters 20-21

David takes a zinc-coated ladle from a milk can and travels to Tenth Street, where he had once seen the electrified trolley tracks give off light like Isaiah's coal. He puts the ladle into the tracks, and he is still touching it when the electrical burst hits: "The hawk of radiance raking him with / talons of fire, battering his skull with / a beak of fire, praying his body with / pinions of intolerable light." The resulting electrical burst knocks him out cold. Many of the passersby believe the boy is dead, but a doctor revives him with smelling salts. His ankle is hurt, but otherwise he seems fine. The doctor and a policeman take the boy home on an ambulance wagon. Bertha and Nathan are gone, and the argument between David's parents has cooled. David's father asks his mother if she blames him for David's injury. She tells him, "None foresaw this. No one alone brought it on. And if it's faults we must talk about it's mine as well." The family once again achieves a tentative peace as David closes his eyes: "One might as well call it sleep."

THEMES

Opportunity

One of the driving themes at work in Call It Sleep is the theme of opportunity. At the beginning of the novel, the Schearls travel to America in an attempt to seize the opportunities presented by what David's mother calls "the Golden Land." Although the family lives in an area that many would refer to as a slum, and children's luxuries such as roller skates are almost unheard of, the Schearls enjoy many opportunities throughout the novel that they might not experience elsewhere.

Albert Schearl, David's father, is a paranoid man who seems to have a difficult time remaining at a job for any extended period of time. As David learns early in the book, his father is prone to violent outbursts and anxieties that threaten both his co-workers and himself. However, Albert never seems to have trouble finding a new job. Indeed, when he decides to quit the printing business altogether, he simply changes careers and becomes a milkman with a minimum of difficulty. Though this brand of economic opportunity seems to pass without remark in the novel, it represents an important facet of the American immigrant lifestyle during this period.

Similarly, David's Aunt Bertha and her husband Nathan take advantage of the economic opportunities they are presented in America. When she first travels to the United States, Bertha works as a seamstress; when she meets Nathan, he makes children's leggings. Though they have modest means, the two decide to open a candy shop. This significant event happens, with barely a mention, in between the more important events in the novel. The opportunity to start a new business or career is recognized, taken as a given, and frequently exercised by the immigrants in the novel.

Plurality of Cultures

Throughout Call It Sleep, David interacts with members of many different cultural and ethnic groups. The novel offers a rich and evocative portrayal of the United States in general, and New York's Lower East Side in particular, as a true melting pot for many of the world's cultures.

One inventive way in which Roth conveys this plurality is through dialect. In addition to accurately depicting the accents of Jewish Americans, the author uses accent and dialect to identify other cultures without the need for further elaboration. For example, when David gets lost and is taken to the police station, the helmeted police officer he meets is clearly Irish American, though this fact is revealed exclusively through his speech with lines like, "Step up close an' do yer dooty, sonny me boy."

This mix of cultures reaches a crescendo at the end of the novel, as David lies unconscious in the street after dropping the dipper on the electrified rail. The spectators from the neighborhood are never described; the reader only hears their voices, just as David would. As Hana Wirth-Nesher indicates in her afterword to the novel, "In the reported speech of the bystanders, Roth makes use of dialect: Yiddish, German, Irish, and Italian, and selective reproduction of other languages, namely Yiddish and Italian." These bystanders all come together in an effort to help David.

Search for Identity

Call It Sleep focuses on the individual's search for identity in two ways. First, the book deals with David's growth from childhood into adolescence, and the challenges of discovering his own identity as a person distinct from his parents. This is difficult, as his father's reputation often precedes him. When David has to pick up his father's final pay at one of the printing offices where his father worked, the other employees comment on how much he resembles his father, though they note that he does not look or act crazy like his father did. As David grows up, he meets new people who do not know him through his parents, and he is finally able to develop his own personality and identity.

The second way in which Call It Sleep deals with identity is through David's cultural experiences. Although he is a Jew, David at first has little understanding of what that means. It is only when he attends cheder that he begins to get a sense of the meaning behind Jewish culture and religion. At the same time, he becomes exposed to other religions and cultures, and incorporates elements from these into his own identity. His friend Leo introduces David to Christianity through Catholicism; he is fascinated by the apparatuses of faith such as crucifixes and rosary beads. They seem to represent a mystical power that Judaism does not offer him. Although these elements might seem mutually exclusive to others—such as Leo, who tells David that the Jews are responsible for Christ's death—they become incorporated into David's newly formed identity as a Jewish American.

HISTORICAL OVERVIEW

Manhattan's Lower East Side

Much of Call It Sleep is set in the Lower East Side of Manhattan in New York City. The area has a rich history stemming largely from its substantial immigrant population and its unique origins. Although New York City consists of four other boroughs in addition to Manhattan, this area is often considered to be the heart and core of the city from an economic and geographic standpoint.

The island of Manhattan, which is separated from mainland New York by the Hudson, East, and Harlem Rivers, was settled by the Dutch in the 1620s after it was purchased from a local American Indian tribe by representative Peter Minuit. The settlement was named New Amsterdam, and it operated under Dutch rule until the region was turned over to England fifty years later. The terms of England's annexation allowed the region to retain much of its tolerant cultural heritage, a feature that would later result in the area being viewed as a "melting pot" of various cultures.

The Lower East Side of Manhattan in particular served as the repository for many of the immigrants that journeyed to America in search of freedom and opportunity throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The island's population peaked around 1910 with well over 2.5 million residents, many of whom lived in tenements found on the Lower East Side. In addition to its substantial immigrant population, the Lower East Side has served as an important center for the arts, as well as a nexus for many activist political movements.

American Immigrants in the Early Twentieth Century

The New York depicted in Henry Roth's Call It Sleep is a New York shaped by the rapid influx of immigrants during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In the novel, Roth refers to 1907, the year in which David and his mother Genya Schearl arrive in America, as "the year that was destined to bring the greatest number of immigrants to the shores of the United States."

Immigration to the United States was negligible prior to the middle of the nineteenth century. After that, Western and Northern Europeans began immigrating to the United States in waves prompted by various economic and agricultural conditions in their respective homelands. For example, hundreds of thousands of Irish immigrants rushed to the United States during the great potato famine that struck their home country during the 1840s.

By the late nineteenth century, the demographics of European immigrants had shifted so that the majority were traveling from Southern and Eastern Europe, most notably Italy and Poland. Nearly all these immigrants entered the United States through New York City and its well-known Ellis Island immigration station, which opened in 1892. Jews from many nations, especially Russia, fled to the United States during the early 1900s to avoid pogroms, or race-motivated attacks, directed at them by various anti-Semitic groups.

The massive influx of European immigrants was reduced in the 1910s and 1920s when stricter laws were passed by the U.S. Congress, limiting their numbers based first on literacy skills, and later based on quotas established for each originating country. This latter method is still in use today. Despite the popular notion of America as a "melting pot," the population of the United States has never consisted of more than 15 percent foreign-born residents at any time during its history.

CRITICAL OVERVIEW

Call It Sleep was Henry Roth's first novel, published in 1934 when the author was just twenty-eight years old. Critical reception of the book was overwhelmingly positive, particularly for a first novel, but coming as it did in the midst of the Great Depression, the book failed to make a dramatic impact on the reading public and literary scholars until decades later.

One of the novel's most laudatory reviews appeared in a February 1935 edition of Books, and was written by F. T. Marsh. Marsh calls the book "the most accurate and profound study of an American slum childhood that has yet appeared." Marsh's praise continues:

To discerning readers, I believe, for its profound intensity, its rare virtuosity, its sensitive realism, its sheer weight, its power, circumference and depth, this first novel of this Mr. Roth will be remembered for some time to come. I should like to see Call It Sleep win the Pulitzer Prize—which it never will.

Other reviewers share many of Marsh's sentiments. A reviewer credited simply as S. A. L., writing for the Boston Transcript, calls it "an exceptional book, full of intelligent observation and sympathetic character study." Horace Gregory, in a review for the Nation, calls it "a first novel of extraordinary character," and "an experience which few readers of contemporary fiction can afford to ignore." In a review for the New Republic, Paul Wren asserts that the book is "packed with rare powers and densities."

Reviewers who were more critical focused primarily on a few specific aspects of the novel. For example, Lewis Gannett, in a mostly positive review for the New York Herald Tribune, calls the book "agonizingly real," and cautions, "Some readers who might be drawn to Mr. Roth's book will be shocked by his honest use of street language." In a review for the New York Times, H. W. Boynton writes, "The book lays all possible stress on the nastiness of the human animal." He calls the novel "a fine book deliberately and as it were doggedly smeared with verbal filthiness." Joseph Gollomb, writing for the Saturday Review of Literature, levels the most serious charges, stating that the book "does violence to the truth" and calling it "by far the foulest picture of the east side that has yet appeared, in conception and in language."

Even with substantially positive reviews, however, the book was published in what Alfred Kazin, in his introduction to the novel, calls "that most unpromising year at the bottom of the Great Depression." As David Kirby notes in his review of Redemption: The Life of Henry Roth by Steven G. Kellman, it was a time when "relatively few readers were interested in throwing their disposable cash at an unknown writer, especially one with so troubling a story to tell, and within two years Call It Sleep was out of print."

The book was not completely forgotten, however, and a growing interest in the canon of Jewish American literature during the 1960s led to the novel's rediscovery by a new generation of readers. A 1964 paperback edition of Call It Sleep became the first paperback reviewed by the New York Times, and the book—three decades after its first publication—finally became a bestseller. It has remained steadily popular ever since, and it is considered by many scholars to be an essential classic of Jewish American literature.

CRITICISM

Alfred Kazin

In the following excerpt, Kazin explores Roth's depiction of Jewish immigrants, particularly their language, as they adjust to their new home in New York in Call it Sleep.

Call It Sleep is the most profound novel of Jewish life that I have ever read by an American. It is a work of high art, written with the full resources of modernism, which subtly interweaves an account of the worlds of the city gutter and the tenement cellar with a story of the overwhelming love between a mother and son. It brings together the darkness and light of Jewish immigrant life before the First World War as experienced by a very young boy, really a child, who depends on his imagination alone to fend off a world so immediately hostile that the hostility begins with his own father.

Henry Roth's novel was first published in 1934, at the bottom of the Great Depression. Looking at the date and marveling at this book, which apparently consumed so much of Roth's central experience that he never published another novel, many readers will be astonished. Surely the depressed 1930s produced little else but "proletarian literature" and other forms of left-wing propaganda? A fashionable critic writing in the opulent years after 1945 scorned the 1930s as an "imbecile decade," and explained—with the usual assurance of people who are comfortably off—that the issues in literature are "not political, but moral." Anyone who thinks "political" issues and "moral" ones are unrelated is living in a world very different from the 1930s or the 1990s.

The art fever of the modernist 1920s, in which more first-rate work was produced than in any other single period of American literature, continued well into the 1930s and did not fade until Hitler's war. Henry Roth, twenty-eight when Call It Sleep was published, was as open to the many strategies of modernism as he was to political insurgency. (The book owes a great deal to the encouragement of Eda Lou Walton, a remarkable woman who was teaching modern literature at New York University.)

Though Call It Sleep was not adequately understood or welcomed until it was reissued in paperback in 1964, it has become popular throughout the world with millions of copies in print. We can see now that the book belongs to the side of the 1930s that still believed that literature was sacred, whether or not it presumed to change the world. Those who identify the 1930s with works of political protest forget that it was the decade of the best of Faulkner's novels, from The Sound and the Fury to The Wild Palms, Eliot's Ash Wednesday, Hart Crane's The Bridge, Dos Passos's U.S.A., Katherine Anne Porter's Flowering Judas, Edmund Wilson's Axel's Castle, Fitzgerald's Tender is the Night, Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer, Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, Thornton Wilder's Our Town, Nathanael West's The Day of the Locust, Richard Wright's Native Son, Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls.

What Call It Sleep has in common with these works is its sense of art sustaining itself in a fallen world, in a time of endless troubles and of political and social fright. The world was visibly shaking under the blows of economic catastrophe, mob hysteria, the fascist domination of much of Europe, fear of another world war. And no one was likely to feel the burden of the times more keenly than a young Jew starting life in a Yiddish-speaking immigrant family and surrounded by the physical and human squalor of the Lower East Side.

That last sentence could describe Michael Gold in his autobiography Jews Without Money, an eloquent but primitive outpouring of emotion that concludes with a rousing call to communism as the new Messiah. What from the very beginning makes Call It Sleep so different from the usual grim realism of Lower East Side novels is the intractable bitterness of the immigrant father, Albert Schearl, toward his wife, Genya, and their little boy, David. The father is an uncompromisingly hostile workingman, a printer by trade, driven from one shop to another by his ugly temper. "They look at me crookedly, with mockery in their eyes! How much can a man endure? May the fire of God consume them!" Roth makes this complaint sound loftier than it would have in Albert Schearl's Yiddish. He has been driven almost insane by his memory and resentment of his wife's affair with a Gentile back in Austrian Galicia. It pleases him to suspect that David is not his son.

This obsession, the dramatic foundation and background of the novel, may not be enough to explain Albert's unrelenting vituperation of his wife and his rejection, in every small family matter, of the little boy. David is not just unloved; he is violently hated by his father. The father shudderingly regards him as a kind of untouchable. The boy not only depends exclusively and feverishly on his mother but, in the moving story of his inner growth, becomes a determined pilgrim searching for light away from his tenement cellar refuge whose darkness pervades the first section of the novel, away from the dark cave in which the father has imprisoned mother and son.

Albert Schearl is at times so frenzied in his choked-up bitterness and grief that the introspection at the heart of his son's character—the boy wanders the neighborhood and beyond in search of a way out—must be seen as the only rebellion open to him. Whatever the sources of Albert Schearl's madly sustained daily war on his wife and son—he is perhaps less a jealous husband than a crazed immigrant unable to feel at home in the New World—Roth's honesty in putting the man's hatefulness at the center of the book is remarkable. It reminds us that the idealizing of the family in Jewish literature can be far from actual facts. Jews from Eastern Europe did not always emigrate because of anti-Semitism. The enmity sometimes lay within the family itself, as has been known to happen everywhere. Instead of sentimentalizing the family situation, Roth turned husband, wife, and son into the helpless protagonists of an obvious and uncompromising Oedipal situation. I can think of no other novel except D. H. Lawrence's Sons and Lovers in which mother and son are so fiercely tied to each other. The father is the outsider he has made of himself, and plainly wants to be.

In Sons and Lovers (as in lesser works on the same theme) the father is extraneous because he has lost for the mother the sexual charm that first attracted her. In Call It Sleep Genya timidly loves Albert for all his brutality. She is prepared to love him more freely if only he would stop berating her, but he is so unremittingly nasty that he virtually forces mother and son on each other. Albert in his daily rage somehow reflects his unconscious bitterness at being held down in "the Golden Land." But it is also clear that, notwithstanding Albert's dominating airs, Genya married him because she had no other choice. Her father had disowned her for her past infatuation with a Gentile.

Albert's war against his wife and son sounds an alarm at the very opening of the novel that continues to dominate these three lives until the last possible moment, when the shock produced when David is burned in a bizarre accident brings about a necessary but inconclusive pause in Albert's war on his family.

The book begins in 1907, the peak year of immigration to the United States. Wife and son have just been delivered from the immigration station at Ellis Island to be greeted by a somber, frowning Albert. Not in the least prepared to be amiable, he is quickly incensed because his wife doesn't recognize him without his mustache.

The truth was there was something quite untypical about their behavior … These two stood silent, apart; the man staring with aloof, offended eyes grimly down at the water—or if he turned his face toward his wife at all, it was only to glare in harsh contempt at the blue straw hat worn by the child in her arms, and then his hostile eyes would sweep about the deck to see if anyone else was observing them. And his wife beside him regarding him uneasily, appealingly. And the child against her breast looking from one to the other with watchful, frightened eyes … The woman, as if driven by the strain into action, tried to smile, and touching her husband's arm said timidly, "And this is the Golden Land." She spoke in Yiddish.

Astonished by her husband's haggard appearance, Genya apologizes for not having known him instantly. With the gentleness that she sustains in all the many crises he creates; she says, "You must have suffered in this land." Indeed he has, and will continue to suffer from himself in a way that turns his harshness into their immediate, their most perilous environment. Albert is his wife's only New York. She never attempts to learn English; she is content just to look after her family and is afraid to move beyond the streets of her neighborhood. Her deepest feeling for Albert is not the passion which unsettles him but a concern that comes from a sense of duty. Anything else would be unthinkable to her. Deprived of actual love, since Albert's quarrelsomeness isolates her, she is free to give her entire soul to her little boy.

Call It Sleep is not a naturalist novel, in which character is shaped largely by environment. Jews are generally so conscious of the pressure of history that it was a notable achievement for Henry Roth, coming out of the Lower East Side at a time when it was routine for people to dream of transforming the "conditions" in which they found themselves, to see character as more important than environment. As lower New York in the teens of our century comes alive in David Schearl's anxious but eager consciousness, Roth presents the city not in an external documentary but as formed, instant by instant, out of David's perceptions. David Schearl is portrait of the artist as a very small boy. In this novel we are in the city-world not of Sister Carrie but of Joyce's Ulysses.

He also shows that Genya's enveloping tenderness toward her son is not just "Freudian," theoretical, but a protectiveness that is a part of Jewish history. Its key is the Yiddish that mother and son speak together. David's English is made to sound effortlessly noble, beautifully expressive, almost liturgical, by contrast with the gutteral street English that surrounds him. We are startled to hear him speak a horrible mutilated street dialect when he is away from Mama. Then he is with strangers; and in this novel of New York, English is the stranger, the adopted language, tough and brazen. It expresses the alienation from the larger world of kids competing with each other in toughness. "Land where our fodders died" becomes a parody of a national hymn that shows how derivative and meaningless the line can be when sung by immigrant street urchins.

The young David, searching for experience beyond his immediate neighborhood, discovers that he is "losted," and he tells a baffled woman who cannot make out where the boy lives, "A hunner 'n' twenny six Boddeh Stritt." Later in the novel David is enchanted by the Polish boy Leo flying a kite from the roof. Like Tom Sawyer encountering Huckleberry Finn, David is astounded by the boy's freedom. Hoping to see this marvel again, David asks, "Yuh gonna comm up hea alluh time?" Leo carelessly explains; "Naw! I hangs out on wes elevent'. Dat's w'ea we lived 'fore we moved."

Maybe street kids once talked this way, maybe not. Roth caricatures the terrible English of the street—a "foreign," external, cold-hearted language—in order to bring out the necessary contrast with the Yiddish spoken at home. This is the language of the heart, of tradition, of intimacy. Just as Roth perhaps overdoes the savage English spoken in the street, so he deliberately exalts the Yiddish that he translates at every point into splendid, almost too splendid, King James English. Even when Albert almost comes to blows with his vulgarly outspoken sister-in-law Bertha, he cries out: "I'm pleading with you as with Death!" Storming at his son, he menacingly demands "Shudder when I speak to you!" The English doesn't convey the routine, insignificant weight of the word for "shudder" in Yiddish. The people speaking Yiddish in this book are not cultivated people carefully choosing their words. They are hard-pressed, keyed-up, deeply emotional. There is nothing about the lives in the "Golden Land" that is not arduous, strange, even threatening. So they talk as extremely vulnerable Yiddish speakers from the immigrant working class have always done. It is a verbal style, even a routine, in which people expostulate with one another as if they were breaking all the windows in order to let a little air into the house.

Source: Alfred Kazin, "The Art of Call It Sleep," in The New York Review of Books, Vol. 38, No. 15, October 10, 1991, p.15.

SOURCES

Boynton, H. W., Review of Call It Sleep, in the New York Times, February 17, 1935, p. 7; reprinted in The Book Review Digest (Thirty-First Annual Cumulation), edited by Mertice M. James and Dorothy Brown, The H. W. Wilson Company, 1936, p. 859.

Gannett, Lewis, Review of Call It Sleep, in the New York Herald Tribune, February 16, 1935, p. 9; reprinted in The Book Review Digest (Thirty-First Annual Cumulation), edited by Mertice M. James and Dorothy Brown, The H. W. Wilson Company, 1936, p. 859.

Gollomb, Joseph, Review of Call It Sleep, in the Saturday Review of Literature, Vol. 11, March 16, 1935, p. 552; reprinted in The Book Review Digest (Thirty-First Annual Cumulation), edited by Mertice M. James and Dorothy Brown, The H. W. Wilson Company, 1936, p. 859.

Gregory, Horace, Review of Call It Sleep, in the Nation, Vol. 140, February 27, 1935, p. 255; reprinted in The Book Review Digest (Thirty-First Annual Cumulation), edited by Mertice M. James and Dorothy Brown, The H. W. Wilson Company, 1936, p. 858.

Kazin, Alfred, "Introduction," in Call It Sleep, Picador, 1991, p. ix.

Kirby, David, "Some Called It Sleep," in the Washington Post, August 21, 2005, p. BW10, www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/08/18/AR2005081801292.html (December 31, 2006).

Marsh, F. T., Review of Call It Sleep, in Books, February 17, 1935, p. 6; reprinted in The Book Review Digest (Thirty-First Annual Cumulation), edited by Mertice M. James and Dorothy Brown, The H. W. Wilson Company, 1936, p. 858.

Roth, Henry, Call It Sleep, R. O. Ballou, 1934; reprint, Picador, 1991.

S. A. L., Review of Call It Sleep, in the Boston Transcript, February 13, 1935, p. 3; reprinted in The Book Review Digest (Thirty-First Annual Cumulation), edited by Mertice M. James and Dorothy Brown, The H. W. Wilson Company, 1936, p. 858.

Wirth-Nesher, Hana, "Between Mother Tongue and Native Language in Call It Sleep (Afterword)," in Call It Sleep, Picador, 1991, p. 457.

Wren, Paul, Review of Call It Sleep, in the New Republic, Vol. 82, February 27, 1935, p. 82; reprinted in The Book Review Digest (Thirty-First Annual Cumulation), edited by Mertice M. James and Dorothy Brown, The H. W. Wilson Company, 1936, p. 858.

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