The Art of ‘Call It Sleep’

Henry Roth
Henry Roth; drawing by David Levine

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…

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