A Prodigal Struggle with Demons

John Mills V
Muriel Parker Roth and Henry Roth (left) with Muriel’s sister Elizabeth Parker Mills and brother-in-law John Mills IV (right), shortly after the Roths’ marriage. In 1939, the Millses invited the Roths to move into their penthouse apartment with them on East 23rd Street.

When Henry Roth’s debut novel, Call It Sleep, was published in 1934, critics judged it second as a work of fiction, and first as a work of anthropology. An autobiographical account of immigrant Jewish life on the Lower East Side, the book was praised in the New York Herald Tribune as “the most accurate and profound study of an American slum childhood that has yet appeared”; the New York Times reviewer wrote that it “has done for the East Side what James T. Farrell is doing for the Chicago Irish.” The New Masses, a Marxist journal, debated whether the novel was sufficiently revolutionary. This arid political criticism might have contributed to killing it off, for the novel was out of print by 1936.

When it was republished as an Avon paperback in 1964, it was the mysterious fate of the author, who at that point had never completed another novel, that captured the public imagination. Championing Call It Sleep on the cover of The New York Times Book Review, Irving Howe led with a discussion of the novel’s precarious “underground existence” and “vague rumors” that Roth had become a “duck farmer in Maine.” Within the week Call It Sleep had sold more than ten times the number of copies it had sold in the previous three decades, on its way to selling more than a million copies. This came as a shock to Roth, who, after stints as a psychiatric hospital orderly, precision tool grinder, English teacher, and maple syrup vendor, was in fact a waterfowl farmer in Montville, Maine.

Roth’s legend grew with profiles, to which he reluctantly submitted, in national magazines that, as his biographer Steven Kellman put it, “contributed to the myth of Henry Roth as the Rip Van Winkle of American literature.”* Roth did not awake from his long professional slumber until 1994, with the publication of A Star Shines Over Mt. Morris Park, his first novel in sixty years and the beginning of a four-volume saga called Mercy of a Rude Stream, which has now been published for the first time in a monstrous volume of 1,279 pages, nearly twenty years after his death in 1995.

The book comes with endorsements comparing Roth to Balzac (from Cynthia Ozick), Nathanael West (Harold Bloom), and Philip Roth (Bloom again, as well as Joshua Ferris, in his introduction to the edition). Roth bears resemblances to these writers, to be certain: he shares Philip Roth’s agonized sense of humor, Balzac’s interest in sociological detail, and West’s fascination with the grotesque. But the publication of the complete Mercy of a Rude Stream is…

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