Halfway through the first installment of the four-volume autobiographical novel Mercy of a Rude Stream, which the late Henry Roth wrote in the ninth decade of his long and tormented life, an immigrant Jewish schoolboy named Ira Stigman, the author’s fictional stand-in, is called on by his grade school teacher to recite from Walter Scott’s 1805 poem “Lay of the Last Minstrel” at a school assembly. (“Breathes there a man with a soul so dead/who never to himself hath said:/ this is mine own, my native land…”) Ira is so honored because he’d previously recited the poem in the classroom with great fluency; but at the large public assembly he falters, and the words come out “stiff and mechanical.” Humiliated, Ira chides himself afterward for having disappointed his teacher:
Why couldn’t he do the same thing well a second time, or time after time, regularly, uniformly, the way some people could? The way an actor did, the way that a certain soldier did who went to every school and gave enthralling imitations of the noises made by different pieces of ordnance….
The juxtaposition of the tongue-tied Jewish immigrant pupil and the swashbuckling Scottish text may seem, at first, comical—an amusing set piece about immigrant aspiration. But Roth’s choice of poem was a pointed one. Scott’s convoluted tale of a sixteenth-century Border feud, complete with nobles, tombs, goblins, kidnapped bairns, duels, and ghosts, is steeped in rich local color; and the poem is preoccupied not only (as the lines Ira recites suggest) with sentimental allegiance to one’s homeland, but, more subtly, with the way in which the poet in particular derives his art from his connection to his country and traditions. The conceit of Scott’s poem, after all, is that the sixteenth-century tale is being recited by a seventeenth-century minstrel who has barely survived Cromwell’s anti-Stuart purges: he’s “the last of all the bards,” now cut off from a once-rich tradition. The stanza that Ira Stigman recites ends, indeed, with a vehement curse on anyone who is so “concentred all in self” as to feel no connection to his native land.
A deep connection to native traditions—and the trauma of being separated from them—can be seen as the dominating theme of Henry Roth’s work and of his strange life. In 1934, at the age of twenty-eight, Roth published what would be his only book until the bizarre reflorescence represented by Mercy of a Rude Stream. That early novel, Call It Sleep, is now considered a classic of modern American fiction, and according to some is the greatest novel of the early-twentieth-century immigrant experience. As befitting a novel that owes so much to (and borrows so much from) Joyce, the book is an artist’s bildungsroman: the story of how an imaginative immigrant child’s aesthetic consciousness emerges from the conflict between the Old World and the New. The subjects of immigrant assimilation, cultural adaptation, and artistic …