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 identity had, by the time of the publication of Call It Sleep, already been treated in novels by Jewish writers; the best known of these was Abraham Cahan’s The Rise of David Levinsky (1917). What gave Roth’s novel its particular urgency was the way in which the author conflated his young protagonist’s crisis of confused cultural allegiances with a prior and more devastating drama of divided loyalties, one transcending the particularities of Jewish-American experience. The child David Schearl, Roth’s earliest fictional doppelgänger, is caught in the ongoing and vitriolic conflict between his adoring, saintly mother, Genya, a woman who is trapped in romantic memories of the old country—and who never learns English—and his emotionally and physically abusive father, Albert, a tormented, pathetically striving would-be entrepreneur who, in nearly every scene, threatens his small child with blows or with words of a near-biblical portentousness. (“Shudder when I speak to you.”) All too faithfully, the Oedipal triangle at the heart of Roth’s first novel was a replica of the author’s tortured early years.
Famously, Call It Sleep disappeared soon after its publication: the reviews were warm, but the public was cool. It wasn’t until it was revived thirty years later as an Avon paperback—and highly praised on the front page of The New York Times Book Review by Irving Howe, the first step in its elevation to the status of a national classic—that the book caught the imagination of the reading public and became, quite unexpectedly, a best seller in the mid-1960s. (Surely one obvious explanation for the delayed popularity of the book is nostalgia: by the time it became a best seller, the children of the Great Immigration were in their mid-sixties, too.) But by that time, Roth had disappeared as completely as his book had done. Although he’d published his novel while hobnobbing with a “Bohemian” Greenwich Village crowd in the Thirties, reporters and fans who wanted to track him down when fame finally came for him were directed to a bleak little house in rural Maine, devoid not only of a television but also of books, in which Roth lived in austere circumstances with his wife and two sons, eking out an improbable living as, of all things, a waterfowl farmer.
The materially and, apparently, intellectually impoverished life that Roth had ended up living, when contrasted to the rich promise evident in his only novel, raised a question that seized the imagination of Roth’s newfound audience and would be asked for decades to come, one that was pungently put by the author’s sister, Rose (who had typed the manuscript for Call It Sleep): “How could he give up a God-given talent and fool around with chickens and ducks?” Roth himself often gave two reasons for his long silence, and both have to do with the trauma that results when an artist is separated from his cultural roots. The first was that the author, a committed Communist at the time his book was published, was deeply wounded by Party-line criticisms of his book as being overly aesthetic and “bourgeois,” and was incapable of producing the grand, proletarian, socialist-realist work that he felt obliged to write. (Maxwell Perkins, nonetheless, is said to have seen promise in the hundred or so pages that Roth later produced but eventually burned.) The second was that his alienation specifically from his Jewish origins, from the roiling immigrant culture of his childhood, had cut him off from the material that was most fertile for his artistic purposes.
It was for these reasons, Roth would say after Call It Sleep was reborn, that he had come to suffer what would be known as one of the most famous cases of writer’s block in American publishing history. (He did publish a few short stories in The New Yorker, but the world was waiting for another novel.) Only in the 1990s, when nearly another generation had passed and Roth was at the end of his life, did a different, more sensational reason for the author’s long silence come to light. In the second volume of Mercy of a Rude Stream (or MORS, as its sour-humored author, who was literate in Latin, liked to call it), Ira Stigman—who to all appearances is, like David Schearl, an only child in the first volume—is suddenly given a sibling, a sister, Minnie, with whom by the novel’s end he is carrying on an perfervid incestuous relationship. One measure of how great a surprise Minnie was to Mercy’s publisher, St. Martin’s Press, is that she doesn’t appear in the family trees printed at the front of the novels until Volume 3. Far more awkward was the implication that, like virtually every other aspect of the novel, the incestuous relationship between brother and sister was a direct reflection of the facts of the author’s life.
This implication was in fact the truth, and a distraught Rose tried to get Henry to eliminate the reference to incest. To protect his publisher from the legal action that she threatened, Roth made a video in which he confirmed that he had begun to experiment sexually with his sister when he was twelve and she ten, and that by the time they were sixteen and fourteen, respectively, they were engaging in sexual intercourse. “A sneaky mini-family” was how Roth referred to the relationship in Volume 2, entitled A Diving Rock on the Hudson, “a tabooed one.” (Ira also begins a relationship with his first cousin, Stella, and this too mirrored a real-life sexual relationship between Roth and his cousin Sylvia.) Eventually, in 1998, the incest story found its way into The New York Times and The New York Observer.
The secret history of paralyzing sexual shame provided what Roth’s biographer, Steven G. Kellman, calls “another, more compelling reason for his legendary writer’s block”—which is to say, another reason for the same paralysis that (in what is surely a bit of authorial black humor) afflicts the unfortunate Ira Stigman as he tries and fails to recite Walter Scott’s celebration of artistic rootedness, falling prey to an abject, immobilized inability to “do the same thing well a second time, or time after time, regularly, uniformly, the way some people could.”
Whatever the reasons for his long silence, the eleventh-hour burst of productivity that so improbably followed Roth’s prolonged dry spell has been seen as rescuing him from the tragic (if intriguing) narrative of crippling childhood trauma and placing him instead at the heroic center of another, equally intriguing narrative. This story, played out every day on the sound stages of afternoon talk shows, is the tale of shame that, by means of a public confession, is transformed into a healing “closure,” which allows life to go on at last. In Roth’s case, closure helped produce a final epic which, Prospero-like, he achieved immediately before retiring from the world altogether.
This, as its title suggests, is the tale that gets told in Steven G. Kellman’s strangely flat new biography of Roth. You don’t envy Kellman his task: as is often the case with bitter, chronically depressed, and self-destructive people (artists and others), Roth’s life was essentially a monotonous one—the story of childhood miseries that are fated to be internalized and reenacted again and again in an adult life that, because of that perpetual replaying, is itself “blocked.” Roth the smothered mama’s boy sought out maternal women as partners in passionate but ultimately unsuccessful relationships. (His feelings for his wife Muriel, a musician who was his own age, were, apparently, not so much passionate as deeply affectionate.) Roth the abused child beat his own sons; Roth the victim of withering paternal disapproval thought he was worthless, and made his willfully self-punishing life choices accordingly, from his career to the Spartan décor of his house. (The editor responsible for reviving Call It Sleep in 1964 was shocked to find that the one-time aficionado of Dante and Joyce now limited himself to the Saturday Review of Literature and the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.) Roth denounced his father as a “miserably, moody, infantile tightwad,” but that’s precisely how he himself ended up.
But the real problem with the story that Kellman wants to tell is that his tale of redemption only makes sense—is only a “redemption,” indeed is only a tale worth telling—if you see Roth’s final work as a success, as a culminating achievement of a long-repressed talent. If it isn’t, then Roth’s story becomes less dramatic: a story not about tortured geniuses but about the fact that there are always people who need to believe in them.
Reading Kellman’s biography is an unsatisfying experience for a number of reasons. His writing is dreary and pedantic. The author, a comparative literature professor at the University of Texas, pursues pointless tangents whenever they will display his copious research: when Henry goes off to Peter Stuyvesant High School in the autumn of 1920, we get an excursus about the career of the eponymous seventeenth-century Dutchman; when Henry befriends an Irish boy, a disquisition about the Great Famine is not far behind. The tone falters: there are unlovely solecisms (“drowses off”), feeble attempts at—you must suppose—jokes (“At fifteen, Henry Roth was still a defective dictionary; he lacked definition”) and an irritating parochialism. He notes at one point that Stuyvesant High School produced three Nobel laureates—“all of them Jews.” There are, too, careless errors throughout: Albert Camus died in 1960, not 1980.
More seriously for a book that is, like this one, necessarily preoccupied with details of early-twentieth-century immigrant Jewish life and culture, the author’s acquaintance with this material can seem casual. For small-town Galician Jews like Roth’s parents, to be married in a religious rather than a civil wedding (and, hence, for their offspring to be considered “bastards” by the state) was not at all, as Kellman implies, a dramatic anomaly; to characterize relations between cousins as “incestuous” has a sensational allure but is inaccurate. (First-cousin marriages were hardly uncommon among the Jews of Eastern Europe.) And to suggest that the Molotov–Ribbentrop pact of 1939 was “a Faustian agreement that extinguished the hopes of any Jew living on the European continent” suggests an imperfect familiarity with twentieth-century European history—or, perhaps, geography. The pact enabled Hitler to invade Poland and then Western Europe; but for Jews living in Eastern Poland, as Roth’s relatives did, it bought two more years of safety from Nazi terror.
And yet for all the excessive detail and the sometimes silly theorizing about Roth’s psychology (“Roth’s attraction to mathematics…reflected the meticulous prose of Call It Sleep“), Kellman’s life of Henry Roth feels redundant: anyone who cares enough about Henry Roth to read a biography of him has already read about his life. This is certainly so in the case of those who have read Call It Sleep, which faithfully reproduces not only the bitter psychological dynamics of the young Henry’s childhood but also many of its key events and characters: the arrival of mother and child in the “Golden Land” whose promise is so swiftly to prove false for the elder Schearls; tense relationships with tenement neighbors, early sexual experimentation, a particularly gruesome beating by his father, quasi-comical power struggles with the rabbi who runs his religious school, eager attempts at friendships with non-Jewish boys, and so on.
What makes Call It Sleep superior to the many first novels that consist of little more than recast autobiography is a remarkable and precocious artistry that even today is strikingly original in many respects. It’s true that the stark Oedipal triangle of Roth’s novel is decked out with a Freudian symbolism that can strike us, today, as heavy-handed: at the nadir in his relationship with his wife, Albert Schearl hangs a pair of bull’s horns in their tenement flat; David’s symbolic death and resurrection at the climax of the book—he has run away from home after Albert discovers him playing with a rosary—take place after he accidentally electrocutes himself, a mishap that results when he thrusts the handle of a zinc milk-can ladle into the narrow groove between the electrified rails of a streetcar track.
But a genuine and still arresting achievement of Roth’s novel is the way the author manipulates languages to represent his characters’ dilemmas of emotional and cultural identity—the tension between “concentred selves” and their surrounding culture. David Schearl’s move from the shtetl (and later the ghetto) into the American mainstream, from Austrian Galicia to New York City, is presented as an abandonment of the emotionally narrow yet reassuringly homogeneous, Yiddish-speaking world of his unhappy mother for the vivifying but often frightening multilingual milieu of the streets, where Irish, Italian, and Yiddish voices melt together in a confusing, exultant cacophony. Roth is particularly interested in the sounds of immigrant culture, and for that reason exactingly represents the awkward English of the new immigrants phonetically. (“Between de legs,” a neighbor girl instructs the terrified David, “Who puts id in is de poppa.”) The narrative climax of the book is also the climax of its ongoing preoccupation with language and speech: as a crowd of horrified onlookers surrounds the unconscious David after his electrocution, Roth lets us hear their voices all at once in a twenty-two-page-long tour de force that owes an obvious debt to Joyce:
“Lectric shot; Doc!”
“Knocked him cold!”
“Yea, foolin’ aroun’ wid de—“
“Shawt soicited it, Doc!”
“Vee sin id Docteh!”
“Git back, youz!… I’ll spit right in yer puss!”
With even bolder ingenuity, in order to confound further any facile assumptions about which culture is the “mainstream” for the novel’s troubled people, the young Roth had the original idea of representing the Schearls’ Yiddish speech not as it sounds to the American reader (awkward, halting, foreign), but as it sounds to the speaker: natural, even idealized—a pure English that is often poetic (“The sweet chill has dulled,” the mother tells her son. “Lips for me… must always be cool as the water that wet them”), and never less than beautifully proper (“Love, marriage, whatever one calls it, does that to one, makes one uncertain, wary. One wants to appear better than one is”). Even the awful father speaks in the cadences of one of the Prophets: “She’s jesting with the angel of death!” he snarls at one point, threatening his wife’s rebellious sister. As for David himself, his interior voice is always represented, intriguingly and with great effectiveness, as a fragmented stream of consciousness in which the debt to Joyce is again clear:
—Dark yet up. Dark…First, second, third is light. Mine Dark. Dark mine only. Papa stop. Stop! Stop, papa. Light it now. Ain’t mad no more. Light it, mama. Now! One, two, three, now! One, two, three, now! Now! Aaa! Ain’t! Ain’t! Ow! Run away, mama! Don’t let him! Run away! Here! Here I am! Run! Mama! Mama! Mama!
It is only when Roth’s characters speak English that we’re made brutally aware of how awkwardly “foreign” they still in fact are, how helpless they are in this new world. Confronted with an Irish policeman after her son has got lost, this same eloquent mother is reduced to a stiff, mechanical stutter: “Herr—Mister. Ve—er—ve go?”
Listening to these different registers of speech, it is hard for readers not to feel that Roth’s Yiddish-speakers are also the “last minstrels” of their particular linguistic music, and it is only too clear that a profound emotion moved Roth as a young writer to commemorate them. Indeed, as if unable to bring himself to contemplate the implication of assimilation, the author pulls away at the end of his book; the struggle between cultures ends in an ambiguous and cozy truce when, after his miraculous recovery from near electrocution, David falls into the deep slumber to which the title refers.
Such artistry is, it must be said, wholly absent from the four dense volumes that make up Roth’s late-life revisitation of his early years, Mercy of a Rude Stream. (The title, from Henry VIII, cites Cardinal Wolsey’s complaint that he has been left, “Weary and old with service, to the mercy/Of a rude stream that must for ever hide me.”) In cramped, exhaustive, and exhausting detail, these novels recreate Roth’s life on a minute, almost day-by-day basis. (Kellman often cites them as sources for his claims about events in Roth’s life.) Everything, once again, is here: Ira’s early childhood seems identical to Roth’s, starting in the family’s first apartment in Brownsville, moving eventually to the homogeneous Yiddish world of East 9th Street, and ending with the traumatic relocation to multicultural Harlem when Roth/Ira is nine years old—a displacement, Roth later claimed, that he never got over. Down to the appearances, personalities, and professions of various relatives, Ira’s large and noisy extended family exactly duplicates that of the author, including the patriarch, a maternal grandfather who never reconciles himself to the multicultural hubbub of Harlem and cries out that he is “besieged by the barbarians, the Goths, the Vandals, the Teutonim.” In Mercy, this grandfather becomes the voice of traditional values, a fact that makes the series’ most arresting scene—in which Ira and his first cousin have a sexual encounter within a few feet of their sleeping grandparent—the more shocking. (One way to try to make sense of the sprawling novel, indeed, is to see it as an allegory about the depravity that results from the abandonment of tradition.)
There are, too, the by-now familiar parents, dutifully transcribed from the author’s childhood; the description of Ira’s father, Chaim Stigman, as “a mean, stingy, screwy little louse” in Volume 4, pointedly reminds us of Roth’s father. There is the beginning of the sexual relationship with the sister, and later on the commencement of the other “incestuous” relationship with the first cousin; then the tortured adolescence, the stirrings of a literary impulse, the abortive friendships with track-star friends, with handsome non-Jewish boys; an episode of neurotic kleptomania that gets Ira (and got Roth) kicked out of one junior high school; the time he won a writing contest with a story called “Impressions of a Plumber,” which was published in the City College magazine Lavender when the young author was nineteen. The name of the story and the name of the publication are both real.
All this takes up four volumes, at the conclusion of which Ira, now a young man, finds the strength to tear himself away from his family and move in with his older lover, Edith Welles. As if to acknowledge how barely fictionalized this epic “novel” is, the fictional characters bear, in almost every case, the initials of their real-life counterparts. Edith Welles is closely modeled on Roth’s lover Eda Lou Walton, a poet and professor who took him in and who supported him through the writing of Call It Sleep.
There is, to be sure, something oddly impressive about the sheer scale of Roth’s Mercy books; it’s as if, in their minute, exacting, unsentimental recreation of the smallest details of his existence, the shame-filled author were consciously, bitterly creating an anti–Call It Sleep, an autobiographical novel stripped of artistry—as if literary style, as if beauty itself were falsifications that the author, perhaps vindictively, wanted to be eradicated. He traces detailed genealogies and trudges through dreary cityscapes out of little more than an obligation to documentary completeness:
Their apartment, a large one with six rooms, only two flights up, and supplied with steam heat, electricity and hot running water—and even striped awnings above the two front-room windows—was located in the middle of the block—in the middle of 115th Street, between Park and Madison Avenues. It was called in Yinglish a shaineh b’tveen, meaning—literally—a lovely between.
More than anything else in that pedestrian passage, the explication of shaineh b’tveen indicates strongly that we are no longer in the poetic world of Call It Sleep. In Mercy, the world is being observed from the outside—a shift in perspective that of necessity eliminates the thrilling play with points of view that gave the first novel its great distinction. The inclusion of a Yiddish glossary at the back of each of the four novels feels, if anything, like an admission of defeat, and lends to the whole enterprise the slightly dejected aura of an anthropological treatise.
The one attempt at artistic innovation takes the form of an ongoing dialogue, threaded through the narrative, between the elderly author of this extended reminiscence and his word processor, whom he portentously dubs “Ecclesias.” But this device is striking only for the obviousness of its attempts to create some sense of narrative momentum. (There are heavy-handed hints about future developments, not least the incest in the second volume: “When will you redress the omission, introduce the crucial factor?” “In good time, Ecclesias, in good time….”) At one point, Ecclesias comments, ominously, “Well, salvage whatever you can, threadbare mementos glimmering in recollection.” Mercy has indeed the grim feeling of a salvage operation.
As such, as a dogged transcription of a life, Mercy of a Rude Stream will be of interest mainly to those who are fascinated by the writer himself. Such people, in fact, may be said to have been responsible for the entire project—foremost among them the young men (“sons of Henry,” as they were called) who, fervent with belief in a great American Jewish genius, kept in touch with Roth, read his drafts, and served as midwives over a number of years to the work that eventually became Mercy of a Rude Stream. Already in September of 1968 Roth was confiding about the existence of an autobiographical work-in-progress to a young Italian admirer, describing it, with typical self-deprecation, as a “landscape of the self; to epitomize its meaning for myself and others, I offer you the title, Portrait of the Artist as an Old Fiasco.” Not quite a year later Roth described his project to an editor—all too accurately, as it turned out—as “a rambling interminable multivolume opus.” Work in earnest began in 1979, and by the early 1990s the four hundred or so pages that Roth, nearly crippled by rheumatoid arthritis, had managed to produce persuaded Robert Weil, a young editor at St. Martin’s Press, to purchase the long-awaited second novel of Henry Roth for publication. After heroic amounts of editing, painstakingly detailed by Kellman (his biography was also published by Weil), the first volume, A Star Shines over Mt. Morris Park, was published in 1994 to polite reviews that, whenever possible, focused on the improbable “miracle” represented by the writing of the book rather than on its qualities.
To my mind, the final verdict must remain that of a New Yorker editor who, faced with a manuscript about life in Maine that Roth submitted in 1967—an early trickle of the torrent that was to follow—rejected it, saying, “It struck us as a lifeless piece of work…. The feeling here is that a writer’s problems are only likely to be interesting to other writers.”
The considerable interest shown in Kellman’s biography—it was widely covered in the press and was the subject of substantial essays in The New Yorker and The New York Times Book Review—suggests that Roth’s problems, perhaps more than the work itself, is what is interesting about him: if not to readers, then certainly to other writers, for whom the subject of writer’s block is, naturally, a fraught one. As, of course, is the subject of other writers’ sex lives. Together, the two neuroses that seem to twist themselves through Henry Roth’s life like strands of psychological DNA—the sexual and the creative, the incest and the writer’s block—make for an irresistible subject.
And yet the facts of Roth’s life—all of the facts, soberly considered—suggest that the incest has, from the start of this controversy, been a red herring: a flashy, attention-getting, and ultimately misleading distraction, much as the drama of his final work’s appearance was attention-getting but ultimately empty. If you want to know why Roth stopped writing, you must look at the work, and at the life. Call It Sleep ends when its hero is eight; Mercy of a Rude Stream, when its hero, at nineteen, falls into the arms of an older woman. After the late-hour success of Call It Sleep, when Roth was in his mid-sixties, he told an interviewer, “I just failed at maturity, at adulthood.” I suspect that the real cause of Roth’s inability to write persuasively after Call It Sleep, with its masterly rendering of a child’s worldview, was an old, undramatic one: once he’d exhausted the subject of childhood, the only one that was, to him, psychologically as well as artistically urgent, Roth had nothing to write about.
If we must seek psychological explanations for his strange creative tragedy, it is to the parents rather than the sister that we should look. The only period of his life in which Roth seems to have been able to write authentically was during his relationship with the maternal Eda Lou Walton, who like his own mother had created a safe and nurturing environment for the much younger Roth. (Walton liked to call him “child.”) As for that other parent, it seems clear that from the start Roth had internalized the voice of the punishing, brutal father: by middle age, he’d convinced himself that he was, in the end, nothing more than “a schmo who had married a shiksa”—his father’s characterization of him even after the huge success of Call It Sleep.
Whatever else Mercy of a Rude Stream may be, it is, indeed, powerful testimony to an immense self-loathing. One of the reasons that those four volumes are so hard to get through is that Ira Stigman is intentionally made to be a repulsive character—David Schearl stripped of any appealing traits whatever. If Roth’s purpose in Mercy was a self-conscious rejection of the poetry, the romance of artistic creation, that infuses every page of Call It Sleep, then we may say that, like so many abused children, Roth in later life was enacting the parts of both victim and oppressor. His sour and unpersuasive public rejection of James Joyce (at a 1981 Bloomsday conference at the University of New Mexico he offended the organizers with his anti-Joyce ramblings) was an all-too-obvious attempt to kill off a father figure, but the final creative act of his life was to kill off his Benjamin, his best-beloved child.
Kellman writes that he approached Roth “as a mystery to be pondered.” But what if the mystery is no mystery? The unhappy evidence of Mercy of a Rude Stream suggests that Henry Roth, like so many other impassioned writers—Ralph Ellison, Harper Lee, Margaret Mitchell, a list that Roth kept in his Maine cabin—wrote the only novel he had in him, and that was that. The ongoing preoccupation with Roth—the desire to see him as a tormented “genius,” the obsession with his writer’s block, his sex life, his final, “redemptive” resurrection—may in the end reflect more about the commentators than about their subject. In our garrulous age, “concentred all in self,” the traumatized artist who has lost the ability to speak is a far less unnerving figure than the one who has simply run out of things to say.
December 15, 2005