www.newyorker.com /magazine/2005/08/01/writer-interrupted

Writer, Interrupted

Jonathan Rosen 12-15 minutes 7/24/2005

In 1993, I went to visit Henry Roth, a man as famous for his decades of silence as for the great novel he had published almost sixty years earlier, “Call It Sleep.” Roth was living in Albuquerque, in a converted funeral home (by then everything about him was symbolic), but his mind was bound by the geography of his childhood—Brownsville, the Lower East Side, Harlem. He was an eighty-seven-year-old man still fuelled by childhood dreams and traumas, powering around the house on a rolling walker, cursing and singing and explaining. At one point during my stay, Roth asked me to drive him to the doctor. “At least you’ll be making yourself useful,” he observed. He was in an expansive mood during the drive; when we stopped at a traffic light, he suddenly declaimed, “Keep up your bright swords for the dew will rust them.” His voice had the crooning humor of a highbrow vaudevillian. But then I missed an exit and Roth’s mood grew suddenly dark. “When you make one wrong turn,” he said ruefully, “the errors tend to compound.”

But Roth, despite his own dramatic detour, did not remain in outer darkness. When I visited him, he had shattered the block that had imprisoned him and was on the verge of publishing the first installment of a vast, multivolume work, “Mercy of a Rude Stream.” His hands were warped by rheumatoid arthritis; the very touch of his computer keyboard was excruciating. But he still put in five hours a day, helped by Percocet, beer, a ferocious will, and the ministrations of several young assistants. Roth would not die like a pomegranate, with all his seeds inside.

The reasons for Roth’s monumental block—which include but are not limited to Communism, Jewish self-loathing, incest, and depression—are ultimately as mysterious as the reasons for his art and are in some ways inseparable from them. In a new biography, “Redemption” (Norton; $25.95), Steven G. Kellman does an excellent job of exploring Roth’s creative life, its grim cessation and its miraculous rebirth. The biography’s title is perfect, not simply because Roth found in his fallow years an ultimate source of inspiration but because his life made sense to him only when seen in a religious light, as a story of sin and repentance, exile and return. “Righteousness, righteousness shalt thou pursue,” Roth declared the first day I met him, quoting Deuteronomy as a kind of commentary on his entire life. In his own eccentric pursuit of it, he made one of the most haunting journeys in American literature.

Roth was born in 1906 in the Galician town of Tysmenitz, now part of Ukraine. His father, Chaim, left for America that same year, and little Herschel, as he was then called, and his mother followed in 1907. Chaim was the ne’er-do-well son of the manager of a distillery. Like Albert Schearl, the character based on Roth’s father in “Call It Sleep”—a man who torments his wife and beats his son mercilessly—Chaim seems to have poisoned everything he touched with his bad luck and wrathful temperament. His wife had married him only under family pressure, after disgracing herself by falling in love with a Gentile.

The family spent two years in Brooklyn and then moved to the Lower East Side, in those days the most densely populated piece of land on earth and later the setting of Roth’s novel. In “Call It Sleep,” there are safe, sensual moments when young David Schearl is home alone with his mama in their walkup apartment, but below is the cellar, the home of rats, darkness, and forbidden sexuality. How this buried region seeps into the upstairs world is part of the drama of the novel. David is led into a clothes closet by a girl with a leg brace and a style of speaking memorably captured in the shackled lilt of Roth’s phonetically rendered urban dialect:

**{: .break one} ** “Yuh know w’ea babies comm from?” “N-no.” “From de knish.” “—Knish?” “Between de legs. Who puts id in is de poppa. De poppa’s god de petzel. Yaw de poppa.” She giggled stealthily and took his hand. He could feel her guiding it under her dress, then through a pocket-like flap. Her skin under his palm. Revolted, he drew back. **

Nothing quite obliterates sentimental associations with the Lower East Side like the transformation of “knish” into slang for female genitalia. At times, the novel can seem like “Lord of the Flies” played out among the Dead End Kids:

**{: .break one} ** One glance at their tough, hostile faces, smirched by the grime and rust of the junk heap and screwed up into malicious watchfullness was enough. David’s eyes darted about for an opening. There was none except back to the dock. **

Roth came to despise this representation of his childhood, which he felt was a falsification. In interviews and, later, in the autobiographical “Mercy of a Rude Stream,” Roth depicted his life on the Lower East Side as an idyllic time, spent in a secure, cohesive Jewish world that fell apart when he was eight and the family moved to Harlem. Though Harlem had a large Jewish population, the Roths lived in a substantially Irish neighborhood. As Roth later saw it, this was where he learned to hate himself as a Jew, believing the frequent taunts that Jews cared only about money, and envying the Irish toughs who teased and beat him. His Jewish religious education was interrupted, his sense of belonging to a people thwarted. It was, he said, the most traumatic dislocation of his life.

Roth’s characterization of his Harlem exile as a kind of hell makes more sense when considered alongside the revelation that it was there that he began an incestuous relationship with his sister, Rose. According to Kellman, Roth had been “groping” his sister since he was twelve and she was ten; by the time Roth was sixteen he was having intercourse with her. When he was eighteen, he also seduced his fourteen-year-old first cousin Sylvia, leading her into the basement at a bris.

Nearly seventy years later, when I interviewed him, Roth had not yet gone public with his secret, only with the hint that there was a secret. But it was clear from the vehemence with which he spoke of “the louse I was, who I detested” that he viewed his youthful self as evil. Kellman sees the incest as “a dramatic manifestation of immigrant insecurity, the newcomers’ inability to invest their emotions in anything beyond the reassuring confines of the clan.” Incest does function in Roth’s later work as an emblem of ingrown, immigrant misery, but the guilt that Roth felt hung over him like a kind of Biblical curse.

When he was nineteen, Roth was saved from Harlem and its miseries by a petite, Protestant professor of English literature, Eda Lou Walton, who was twelve years Roth’s senior. Born in New Mexico, she had a Ph.D. from Berkeley, where she had studied anthropology and English. She had studied poetry with Witter Bynner and translated Navajo verse. Walton had recently moved to New York to teach at New York University, where she became the teacher—and lover—of Roth’s boyhood friend Lester Winter. Roth, who was attending City College, would travel downtown after his own classes to join them and the many writers and would-be writers who gathered in Walton’s apartment in the Village.

Walton saw genius in the awkward, self-conscious Roth. He began visiting her without Winter, and a platonic intensity developed between them. She shared with him the complex details of her bohemian romantic life, and he eventually confessed his incest to her, presumably finding, in her unjudging, anthropological curiosity, a kind of temporary absolution. But most of all she encouraged his literary dreams. Walton introduced him to the work of T. S. Eliot and James Joyce, lending him a copy of “Ulysses,” still banned in the United States, that she had smuggled back from Paris. From Joyce, Roth learned that the rough ghetto world he had grown up in was fit material for high art.

Gradually, Roth replaced his friend—who didn’t appreciate Eliot and went on to become a dentist—in Walton’s affections. “She took me under her wing and into her bed,” Roth told me, though the bed remained crowded—even Walton’s friend Margaret Mead, no prude, referred to Walton’s promiscuity as “desperate.” On weekends, Roth was ousted to make room for David Mandel, a labor lawyer from New Jersey, whom Walton eventually married. Roth already had enough sexual shame in the bank to live off the interest for the rest of his life, but, despite this new layer of humiliation—compounded by financial support that he received from her—Roth’s time with Walton was essential for the production of “Call It Sleep.”

The novel, which remains one of the masterpieces of American literature, is dedicated to Walton and was written in blue books from N.Y.U. that she provided. Roth spent four years writing “Call It Sleep,” but it has the quality of a book composed in a kind of dream. The world seems sculpted out of light and shadow, and all the elements of this Manichaean universe are equally perilous. The cellar door that terrifies David “bulged with darkness.” Outside, there is “light so massive stout brick walls could scarcely breast it when it leaned upon them; light that seemed to shiver windows with a single beam.” There is a rhapsodic musicality to the novel, a Joycean flow of words, but there is also ominous tension on almost every page. The air, the emotions, the accents are all thick, throwing off violent sparks, like the great burst of electrical energy from the trolley tracks that knocks the young hero into unconsciousness at the book’s end.

No doubt this tension—a harbinger, in some sense, of his future block—derives from the agony Roth felt in writing an autobiographical novel that concealed the most traumatic fact of his own autobiography. (The novel’s manuscript was actually typed by his sister, Rose.) Furthermore, Roth was writing about Jews, although, as he later put it, “all he asked of a book was not to remind him too much that he was a Jew.” And surely there are sociological explanations for this sense of irreconcilable forces colliding in the world of the novel. By the early thirties, when Roth was writing the book, America had shut its doors to immigrants, and nativism and anti-Semitism were on the rise. Roth draws much of this outer opposition into the Jewish world he depicts, making it seem a world turned violently against itself. A rabbi tells his students, “Let me hear you wink and I’ll tear you not into shreds but into shreds of shreds!”

It is fascinating to read “Call It Sleep” in the light of Roth’s later insistence that he imposed on his Lower East Side childhood the disruptions of his Harlem life. He also claimed that he had made David a pathetic victim when in fact he was a villain—a notion that makes sense only if David is guilty of Roth’s own sins and in some sense deserving of his father’s terrible blows. A key element of the plot of “Call It Sleep” is David’s willingness to act as pander for a bullying street kid named Leo intent on “playin’ bad” with David’s cousin Esther. The tryst, David’s receipt of a rosary as payment, and the savage beating that ensues all reverberate with dark, confessional overtones once the reader knows that Roth seduced his own cousin.

It would be a shame if “Call It Sleep” were now mistaken for an encrypted cry for exculpation, just as it is a shame that the book has often been mistaken for a mere immigrant novel—an important one, to be sure, but limited to the plight of newcomers struggling in a strange land. The book is many things, but at root it is a religious work, and much of its enduring power comes from the way Roth harnesses the Biblical to the contemporary. The third of the book’s four sections is called “The Coal,” a reference to a passage from Isaiah, which young David hears, describing the purifying touch of divine fire on the lips of the prophet. David is obsessed with discovering this spark in his own life, and mistakes the electricity pulsing under the trolley tracks for a manifestation of God’s power. The fact that it knocks him out only enhances the uncanny force of the association—David is like the hapless figure in the Book of Samuel who puts his hand out to steady the Ark and is struck dead on the spot.