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 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.

Here is little David groping his way into New York as winter comes:

The silent white street waited for him, snow-drifts where the curb was. Footfalls silent. Before the houses, the newly swept areas of the sidewalks, black, were greying again. Flakes cold on cheek, quickening. Narrow-eyed, he peered up. Black overhead the flakes were, black till they sank below a housetop. Then suddenly white. Why? A flake settled on his eyelash; he blinked, tearing with the wet chill, lowered his head. Snow trodden down by passing feet into crude, slippery scales. The railings before basements gliding back beside him, white pipes of snow upon them. He scooped one up as he went. Icy, setting the blood tingling, it gathered before the plow of his palm…. Voices of children. School a little ways off, on the other side of the street…. Must cross. Before him at the corner, children were crossing a beaten path in the snow. Beside him, the untrodden white of the gutter.

The succession of sweet, melodious words recalls Joyce, the most musical of twentieth-century masters. In Ulysses Dublin exists through the word-by-word progression of the subliminal consciousness. This is the mental world that is most ourselves, for nothing is so close to us as our inner thinking. Yet in Ulysses the sources of this interior world remain mysterious.

Roth never falls into lyrical expansiveness for its own sake, the usual style of romantic autobiographical novels (say, Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel). Roth’s book is always under control. Perhaps the novel is almost too tightly plotted when we come to the seemingly final explosion between the parents which causes David to run away and to seek a burst of light in a trolley barn when he inserts a piece of metal in the third rail. This is meant to be his epiphany, the self-discovery leading to the artist he will become. Roth wishes to show character as fate, character as dominating the most intimate relationships within the family.

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.

In Roth’s translation, with its implicit meanings, Yiddish often sounds the language of family love and respect for God. The reader from another culture should know that when Albert returns home and, not seeing his son, curtly asks his wife, “Where’s the prayer?” he is referring to his son as his “kaddish,” the Hebrew prayer over the dead, which is the highest obligation of a son to say in memory of his father.

Yet Albert gives no evidence of being a believer. Genya faithfully lights the Sabbath candles Friday at sundown, but, describing her own grandmother to her son, she admits: “But while my grandfather was very pious, she only pretended to be—just as I pretend, may God forgive us both.” That last phrase is entirely characteristic. You don’t have to be pious in order to be a faithful Jew—you just have to honor the tradition, as Genya does, with her separate dishes for Passover and the lighting of the Friday-night candles. The Yiddish of such poor immigrants as the Schearls was often quite homely and full of small mistakes. In Roth’s text, however, they speak with grace, longing, nobility. Yiddish is their real home. When life is fiercest, their language conveys a longing for a better world than this, a longing for spiritual heights that had become customary to people who regard themselves as living under the eye of God.

Yet Roth has no love for the rebbe (teacher) who for twenty-five cents a boy tries to drum the actual language of the Hebrew Bible into his cowed pupils. The “cheder,” the primitive Hebrew school in which the boys are pinched, driven, insulted so they will at least pronounce the Hebrew words, without necessarily understanding them, is presented with harsh realism as a Dickensian schoolroom of torture. The rebbe is the fat, irascible, ill-smelling Yidel Pankower. Even his first name, meaning “little Jew,” brings out Roth’s scorn for the place, the practices of the old routine. The rebbe despises his “American idiots.” Everything was better in the Old Country. Teacher and pupils talk Yiddish by contrast with the sacred Hebrew text. Throughout Call It Sleep the sacred is shown side by side with the profane, as was usual among deeply observant old immigrant Jews. They ignored the actual sordidness of the life surrounding them in their adoration of the holy word itself.

Awful as Reb Yidel Pankower is, he discerns David’s abilities. He benevolently brings in an old, kindly sage to hear David recite his lesson. Think of it, he observes, a kid brought up in New York’s heathen atmosphere who can come so close to the ancient text! David has his first moment of spiritual illumination when he hears Reb Yidel say the following to another boy:

“Now I’ll tell you a little of what you read, then what it means. Listen to me well that you may remember it. Beshnas mos hamelech.” The two nails of his thumb and forefinger met. “In the year that King Uzziah died, Isaiah saw God. And God was sitting on his throne, high in heaven and in his temple—Understand?” He pointed upward…

“Now!” resumed the rabbi. “Around Him stood the angels, God’s blessed angels. How beautiful they were you yourself may imagine. And they cried Kadosh! Kadosh! Kadosh!—Holy! Holy! Holy! And the temple rang and quivered with the sound of their voices. So!” He paused, peering into Mendel’s face. “Understand?”

David is stimulated by this but he does not find holiness in the Hebrew letters. He is startled by the reluctance of the other boys to use strips of Yiddish newspaper, written in the Hebrew alphabet, in the communal toilet. What is sacred for him is mother love. Eventually, we can guess, the radiance of this central relation in his life is what he will seek later on by bending the recalcitrant world into words. “Outside” this love, especially in the cellar, is the world of fear he must learn to master. The first section of the book is called “The Cellar” because it deals with the underground side of life—physical, aggressive, sexual. A crippled neighborhood girl wants him to play “bad” with her. She explains that “babies come from de knish.”


“Between de legs. Who puts id in is de poppa. De poppah’s god de petzel. Yaw de poppa.” She giggled stealthily and took his hand. He could feel her guiding under her dress, then through a pocket-like flap. Her skin under his palm. Revolted, he drew back.

“Yuh must!” she insisted, tugging his hand. “Yuh ast me!”


“Put yuh han’ in my knish,” she coaxed. “Jus’ once.”


“I’ll hol’ yuh petzel.” She reached down.

She tells David that they have been playing “bad.” “By the emphasis of her words, David knew he had crossed some awful threshold. ‘Will yuh tell?’ ‘No,’ he answered weakly.” When he is back home with his mother, “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 is now a fallen creature, out of Eden, who must confront the terrible but fascinating city by himself. What had occurred to him in earliest childhood is now a dead certainty: “This world had been created without thought of him.” By the same token, he is free. The joy of being a boy in the city is that discoveries are to be made everywhere. In a box kept in the pantry he collects

whatever striking odds and ends he found in the street. His mother called them his gems and often asked him why he liked things that were worn and old. It would have been hard to tell her. But there was something the way in which the link of a chain was worn or the thread of a bolt or a castor-wheel that gave him a vague feeling of pain when he ran his fingers over them…. You never saw them wear, you only knew they were worn, obscurely aching.

This intense observation of the variety of things around him marks the novelist-to-be. The city becomes the web of life in which, even when he is “lostest,” David senses his destiny. It is the writer’s city of instant and continuing perception, the Joyce-inspired city of wonders as they come to us through the sensations of the very young David:

When he had come to the end of the dock, he sat down, and with his feet hanging over the water leaned against the horned and bulbous stanchion to which boats were moored. Out here the wind was fresher. The uncommon quiet excited him. Beneath and under his palms, the dry, splintering timbers radiated warmth. And beneath them, secret, unseen, and always faintly sinister, the tireless lipping of water among the piles. Before him, the river and to the right, the long, grey bridges spanning it—

A bridge makes David think of the sword with the “big middle” that used to appear on the Mecca Turkish cigarettes, of the bridge clipping the plumes of a long ship steaming beneath it, of gulls whose faces are as ugly as their flight is graceful, as they wheel through the wide air on wings that cut like a sickle. A tug on the other side of the river peers at a barge, stolid in the water. After a sluggish time, the tug is yoked to the barge, which gives the barge the look of a mustache. The water is sunlit rhythmic spray sprouting up before the blunt bow of the barge. The spray hangs “whitely” before it falls. Now David associates the blunt heaviness of the barge with a whole house of bricks as “a cloud sheared the sunlight from the wharf.” His back feels cooler in the sharpening of the wind, smokestacks on the other bank darken slowly, “fluting filmy distance with iron-grey shadow.”

The Polish boy Leo, whom David admires beyond words for his defiant show of independence, carries a rosary. The black beads become “lucky beads” to David. In his Jewish innocence the links of the rosary drive him wild with envy. He is always the outsider. The sight of the boys on the block grabbing a girl makes him feel all the more isolated in his cruelly won sexual “knowledge.” “I know…I know…I know,” he repeats to himself. In one of Roth’s most telling images, David in sluggish thought resembles “a heavy stone pried half out of its clinging socket of earth.” Leo’s rosary must belong to him, because the beads give out a light like the marbles which other boys roll along the curb.

As a Jew, David is now transgressing, and there may be no safe place at home in which to hide a rosary. In counterpoint to Leo playing “bad” with David’s cousin Esther, David watches Esther, who is afraid of being detected; he hears her squeals at being handled by Leo, and Leo then insists that David “lay chickee” (be a look-out) for him and Esther. Leo pays him off with the rosary David so longs for. The crucifix attached to the rosary frightens him; he recognizes something that may be hostile to him as a Jew. The gold figure on the crucifix swings slowly and David lets the glistening beads fall one by one, in order to see how they light up the dark cellar. Suddenly Esther’s sister Polly appears and accuses Esther; “Yuh wuz wit’ him in dere!” In the violent dispute between Polly and Leo that follows, the Catholic Leo cries, “Yuh stinkin’ sheeny!” The Jewish girl is outraged that her sister not only has been petting, but petting with a Christian! “Her voice trailed off in horrified comprehension. ‘Ooh w’en I tell—He’s a goy too! Yuh doity Chrischin, get oud f’om my cella’—faw I call my modder. Ged out!”‘

David flees the cellar, flees the frightening transposition of sexual taboo into religious taboo. In the streets he wants to get back to his own familiar world. He reaches the cheder, performs brilliantly in his Hebrew reading for the visiting rabbi, then in an excited leap of fantasy, owing to his fascination with the rosary, tells Yidel Pankower that his mother is dead and that he is really half-Christian, the son of a European organist who played in a church. The rebbe, alarmed and curious, intrusively carries the strange story to David’s parents. There is a violent altercation with his father, who is all too willing to believe that David is someone else’s son and beats him.

The scene is mixed with violent humor because it is at this moment that Genya’s sister Bertha and her husband have chosen to come by to ask for a loan. As he is shaken by his father, David drops the rosary on the floor. Totally beyond himself now, Albert hysterically takes this as proof of David’s supposed Gentile parentage. “God’s own hand! A sign! A witness! A proof of another’s! A goy’s! A cross! A sign of filth!”

David runs away in earnest this time, ending up at the trolley car barns, where at the foot of Tenth Street,

a quaking splendor dissolved the cobbles, the grimy structures, bleary stables, the dump-heap, river and sky into a single cymbalclash of light.

David has inserted the metal dipper of a milk can “between the livid jaws of the [third] rail, [where it] twisted and bounced, consumed in roaring radiance, candescent.” As a long burst of flame spurts from below, sounding “as if the veil of earth were splitting,” David is knocked senseless and the hysterical crowd that gathers around his body thinks he is dead. But only his ankle is partly burnt, and in a rousing conclusion to the book he is brought back to his family. The near-tragedy somehow brings Albert to his senses. As his mother weepingly puts David to bed, David finally has some slight sense of triumph, for he is at last at peace with himself.

It was only toward sleep that every wink of the eyelids could strike a spark into the cloudy tinder of the dark, kindle out of shadowy corners of the bedroom such vivid jets of images—of the glint on tilted beards, of the uneven shine on roller skates, of the dry light on grey stone stoops, of the tapering glitter of rails, of the oily sheen on the night-smooth rivers, of the glow on thin blonde hair, red faces, of the glow on the outstretched, open palms of legions upon legions of hands hurtling toward him. He might as well call it sleep.

The light he made for himself in the darkness of the cellar was real. David has won his essential first victory. He is on his way to becoming the artist who will write this book.

This Issue

October 10, 1991