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The Art of ‘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 (1930), 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.

David observes, very early, that his mother is attractive to a Landsman, “a fellow countryman,” of his father’s, Luter. Albert notices nothing, finds Luter one of the few people he can talk to, and insists on repeatedly inviting him to dinner. When Luter is alone for a moment and no longer has to keep up his pose of formal amiability, it is little David, studying his face, who realizes without knowing the reason that the man has been playing a part.

And the eyes themselves, which were always so round and soft, had narrowed now…the eyeballs looked charred, remote. It worried David. A faint thrill of disquiet ran through him. He suddenly felt an intense desire to have someone else present in his house. It didn’t have to be his mother.

His still unconscious gift of observation will soon provide the way out of the cave in which his father has shut him up.

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 a 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.

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