October 13, 2005
Call Him Henry Roth
A new biography explores the true life of the controversial literary figure.
"Redemption: The Life of Henry Roth" by Steven Kellman (Norton).
Until now, there has been no full-scale biography of Henry Roth, whose 1934 novel, "Call It Sleep," is considered a masterpiece of American literature. That book, a portrait in grim realism of a Jewish immigrant child's life, written in spare and remarkable language, went out of print quickly after it was first published. In the 1960s, it was rediscovered and reissued, reviewed with great enthusiasm on Page One of The New York Times Book Review by Irving Howe and went on to sell millions of copies. Roth did not have the same literary resilience. It was 60 years after the first publication until he published another novel, the first volume in his four-part novel, "Mercy of a Rude Stream."
Perhaps there have been no previous biographies because he died only recently, at the age of 89 in 1995, or because until he reached his 80s his career was seen as an enigmatic one-book phenomenon. Another reason is that much of his fiction is autobiographical, and it is particularly challenging for biographers to peel apart layers of fiction and truth. And, he has had a life full of colossal mysteries, literary, personal and spiritual.
Steven Kellman's well-written "Redemption: The Life of Henry Roth" links together the various chapters of his life -- his birth in Galicia, in what was then the Austro-Hungarian empire; his childhood on Manhattan's Lower East Side and then in Harlem; his connection to his mentors; his marriage to Muriel Parker and their move to New England where he worked as a woodsman, mental health attendant, schoolteacher and duck farmer; his interest in communism; his becoming "famous for being unknown" in 1964; his renewed interest in Jewish identity, and his literary comeback, as an aging, severely arthritic man in Albuquerque, painfully working at his computer.
As a biographer, Kellman is respectful of his subject, revealing details that will be new to many readers, and unafraid of exposing the unappealing aspects of his subject's life.
"I had the common notion of the legend of Henry Roth as the Rip van Winkle of American literature," Kellman said. "I realized that there's much more to him: He was a very tormented man, difficult to live with, but he also managed to inspire quite a few people with absolute devotion and love."
"I approach Henry Roth not as a puzzle to be solved but as a mystery to be pondered," he writes in his introduction.
"Redemption" was the title that Roth practically chose for himself, Kellman explained. Roth once told an interviewer that if there were a theme to his life, it would be redemption, as that was the motivation in his final years for sitting day after day at his computer, turning out 5,000 manuscript pages.
"He wanted to redeem himself from a sense of worthlessness he had all his life." Kellman said, and he wanted to be rid of the tremendous burden of guilt.
A major source of Roth's guilt is rooted in his childhood, when, as Roth revealed in the second volume of the novel "Mercy of a Rude Stream" and verified in a videotaped interview, he began a long, incestuous relationship with his sister Rose. This was, as Roth wrote, "a canker in the soul." Kellman and others link Roth's long silence to the "loathsome secret he did not dare share for almost 70 years."
Kellman writes that Roth's parents, much like the parents of David Schearl, the boy in "Call It Sleep," had a loveless marriage. They were brought together in Europe by families who sought a solution for problem children: Chaim, later Herman, needed to marry in order to escape military service; Leah had fallen in love with a non-Jew. They moved to America with their young son, but theirs was not an immigrant success story. Herman failed in one job after another and lived in regret; as Kellman writes, his "mind often assumed the shape of the subjunctive."
Roth wrote "Call It Sleep" under the tutelage and patronage of Eda Lou Walton, a poet, critic and academic who was at the center of a literary circle including Hart Crane, Louise Bogan and Margaret Mead. He moved in with Walton, who was 12 years his senior, when he was 22. As Kellman explains, she reinvented him as an urbane intellectual, and gave him, during the Depression years, the "luxury of stringing words into resonant sentences." "Call It Sleep" is dedicated to Walton. But her generosity was filled with gratitude as well as shame.
Roth left Walton when he met his future wife, the composer Muriel Parker, at Yaddo, the artists' colony. Parker came from a family that traced its lineage back to the Mayflower; her parents were not pleased by their daughter's choice of husband but hosted a wedding, to which he didn't invite his parents.
As Roth told several interviewers, leaving the Lower East Side as an 8-year-old, when his family moved to Harlem, was the most traumatic event of his life. He went from a place where he felt he belonged -- "a virtual Jewish mini-state" -- to a neighborhood where he was the outsider, always unwanted, forced to protect himself. He would also say that he might have become a rabbi had he stayed on the Lower East Side. Instead, he promptly lost interest in being Jewish; his Jewishness and his family were burdens. He would ultimately raise his two sons with no religion.
The Six-Day War in 1967 was a watershed. He identified with the Israelis, broke with communism and embraced Zionism, seriously considered making aliyah and began to take his Jewish identity more seriously. Sometimes when people would ask why he didn't continue writing after "Call It Sleep," he would say that he had lost his connection to his roots. Indeed, by the time he was writing again, he was again immersed in those roots.
Kellman sees if not a religious, then a mystical side of Roth, throughout his life. "He was never erudite theologically. I think there is a kind of primal religious quest at work there -- in the most basic sense, to find order and meaning in a chaotic existence," he said.
For Kellman, who teaches English at the University of Texas at San Antonio, this is a first attempt at biography. Having taught Roth in different contexts and in different countries, he says he is "always impressed by how people from different backgrounds respond to 'Call It Sleep.' I found that among Mexican Americans in Texas and with students in Bulgaria and Georgia, in the former Soviet Union."
Kellman notes that he was surprised to learn how "unliterary Roth was for much of his life." Although he traveled in the most sophisticated literary circles in the 1920s and 30s, he barely had a book in his home in Maine in the 40s and 50s. In later years, he'd be asked his opinion of various writers and he'd admit that he hadn't read them.
Although Kellman had a high degree of access, this was not an authorized biography. He culled through eight cartons of Roth's journals, letters and manuscripts -- housed in the archives of the American Jewish Historical Society -- and interviewed family members and many others who knew him. Roth had burned many papers, but Kellman did uncover correspondence between Roth and editors of The New Yorker from the 1930s to 1950s. Contrary to the myth that Roth stopped writing altogether, he continued to send stories and revised them as the editors suggested, not always successfully enough to be accepted for publication.
Robert Weil, Roth's editor for the "Mercy of a Rude Stream" series -- not a sequel to "Call It Sleep" but it picks up with another character, Ira Sigman, when the earlier novel left off -- and also a devoted friend, had initially suggested Kellman as Roth's biographer although he did not commission the book. But some years later, after some publishing shuffles, he took on the project. He's also a player in the book, as he first met Roth in 1993, published the first volume in 1994, and then urged him to apprise his sister of the contents of volume two.
"There's no way that he could have written those books and not discussed the intense psychic demons that tortured him for 60 years," Weil said.
Rose Broder was in touch with this reporter when the book was about to come out, saying that it was all untrue, that she couldn't understand how her brother, to whom she had been so devoted, would spread these terrible lies. She said that she was the one who typed the manuscript of "Call It Sleep," and she had helped to get the book recognized again after it went out of print. Kellman reports that after their father's death, Herman Broder left his son $1 and the rest of his estate to Rose; she then split what she received with him.
She pleaded with her brother not to publish that material, but he did, later stating that the incest in real life didn't occur as much as in the novel, and paying his sister a settlement of $10,000. Weil has no doubts about the question of incest, but for this writer, it's hard to forget Rose's voice.
Sandee Brawarsky is the book critic for The Jewish Week.