June 15, 2010
Henry Roth: Manqué, Then Rediscovered
“Call It Sleep” by Henry Roth, one of the great and enduring novels of the Jewish immigrant experience in America, was first published in 1934. Only now, 15
years after his death, are we able to read Roth’s last novel, “An American Type” (Norton, $25.95). Between these two landmark events in American letters is a real-life saga that amounts to the backstory of his autobiographical fiction.
Roth and his family landed at Ellis Island in 1909, when he was about 3 years old. They took up residence in Brooklyn and, later, the Lower East Side, the setting of “Call It Sleep.” His first novel received what publishers still call “mixed reviews,” and he never finished the second novel that was under contract with the legendary editor Maxwell Perkins. Over the next 60 years, Roth made his living as an instrument maker, a schoolteacher and an attendant in a mental hospital. But, almost miraculously, “Call It Sleep” was rediscovered by the critics in the 1960s, and the book has since sold more than a million copies. Since then, Roth’s place in the literary firmament has been assured.
Not until the 1990s, however, did Roth finally offer new work for publication. He envisioned a vast autobiographical novel in six volumes, four of which were published under the title “Mercy of a Rude Stream.” These books immediately received the appreciative reading that “Call It Sleep” deserved but didn’t get, although they also sparked something of a literary scandal over passages that suggested incestuous encounters between the protagonist and a couple of his female relations. The remnants of Roth’s unpublished writing, some 2,000 pages in all, were finally retrieved by the suitably named Willing Davidson, a young fiction editor at The New Yorker, who extracted the book that now appears as “An American Type.”
“An American Type” is a gem in every sense. The protagonist, Ira Stigman, is Roth’s alter ego, a “writer manqué” who finds himself “hung up on the meat hook of a second novel,” sexually entangled with two beguiling women, and struggling to shed the baggage of “a slum-bred Yiddle” and define himself as an American. All of the life experiences of the author himself are refracted in the character he has created, and they throw new light on his own life story. In that sense, Roth’s posthumous novel is not only the capstone of a unique literary career, it is also fills in some of the intriguing blank spaces in Roth’s biography.
Roth conjures up the landscape, manners and culture of America during the Depression — New York, Cincinnati, Los Angeles and Albuquerque — with the sharp-eyed powers of observation that belong only to eyewitnesses. Like so many other New York writers, Ira Stigman heads to Los Angeles in the hope of making a living as a screenwriter, but he ends up in a flophouse near the city waterworks, so obviously on the skids that even the hookers don’t bother making a come-on. “You’re the most unfitted person for Hollywood I have ever known,” cautions Edith, the woman who has supported his writing but from whom he has now fled.
So “An American Type” is something of a road novel, too, “a six-month phantasmagoria of exile.” Ira slingshots from New York to Los Angeles and back again, a journey of escape and homecoming that represents a desperate effort to repair a shattered psyche, “one part Edith’s former protégé, the promising novelist, the other an extension of the predatory adolescent, the punk who stole the silver-filigreed fountain pen from a classmate in Stuyvesant High School and was expelled.” Will he return to Edith, the willing lover and helpmate, or seek out the enchanting woman he calls “M,” a gifted musician whose “Anglo-Saxon radiance” has bedazzled him?
“Fortunately for him, Ira only seemed to have a choice; in actuality, if he meant to survive, he had none, or only one,” Roth writes. But I cannot disclose which woman turns out to be his bashert.
“Look,” as Roth himself puts it in an aside to the reader, “any story has to have suspense.” Suffice it to say that Roth’s last novel ultimately takes the shape of a tender love story with a closing
passage that is uncharacteristically sentimental and even heart-breaking.
At one point in “An American Type,” Roth pauses in the story he is telling and flashes forward to the 1980s. Like Roth himself, Ira is shown as an old man at the keyboard of a computer, living alone in Albuquerque, watching the Gulf War news on television.
“He had lost incentive to write, lost inspiration, to do as he had done in the past. Whether his élan would return, he couldn’t say. He rather doubted it. With his eighty-fifth year less than three months away, it was to be expected that his vitality would increasingly ebb,” Ira muses. “Foolish to expect vibrant, inspired surges of prose. Better to devote himself to putting every last detail of his affairs in order, before the end, instead of cudgeling the dull, decrepit ass of fancy — to borrow an Elizabethan’s metaphor.”
But these words, coming so early in the book, are a bit of misdirection. The fact is that Roth’s work (or, to be fair, what Willing Davidson has made of his work) is sure and strong, richly rewarding, and — like so much else in his remarkable life — a kind of fairy tale with a happy if unlikely ending.