February 8, 1906, is the birthdate of Henry Roth, the much-acclaimed but long-suffering author of the 1934 novel “Call It Sleep” who waited six decades before completing and publishing his next work. Roth used his own experiences as grist for his writing, and if he found peace toward the end of his life, it’s because he finally came to terms with his most agonizing memories.
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Herschel Roth was born in the Galician town of Tysmenitz, then part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, today in Ukraine. His father, Chaim Roth, was an abusive and irregularly employed man who had first arrived in the United States in 1897. He then came back to Tysmenitz and married Leah Farb in 1905, before returning to New York. Leah and the couple’s first child, Herschel, followed him there in 1907.
After two years in Brooklyn, the Roths moved to the Lower East Side, which the son, now called Henry, would describe as having been a “virtual Jewish mini-state” in those years. It was where he felt at home, and when the family moved up to Harlem in 1914, he never quite recovered.
It didn’t help that they lived in a neighborhood where the boy was subject to anti-Semitic remarks and physical abuse. It was also there that, as a 16-year-old, Henry began an incestuous relationship with his younger sister, Rose (and another one with a female cousin).
Seventy years later, when Roth was interviewed by writer and editor Jonathan Rosen, he had not forgiven himself for his transgressions and referred to his young self as “the louse that I was, who I detested.”
Roth graduated from DeWitt Clinton High School in 1924 and moved on to City College. In 1927, he became involved with Eda Lou Walton, a poet. She was 12 years older and Roth’s instructor at City College, but he moved in to her Greenwich Village apartment. She was like “a mistress and a mother,” Roth later said.
It was under Walton’s guidance and encouragement that Roth began working on the novel that became “Call It Sleep,” about a young Jewish immigrant boy, David Schearl, growing up on the Lower East Side. The book drew on Roth’s own experiences, and though in no way a rosy portrait of immigrant life, it didn’t touch on his most painful memories. That in itself may explain, at least partially, why it was followed by a 50-year writer’s block.
Call it success
“Call It Sleep” was published in the fall of 1934. It received positive reviews and, though his book sold minimally, Roth was commissioned by noted Scribner’s editor Maxwell Perkins to write another novel. But the book never materialized, and what Roth did write, he ended up burning.
In 1939, Roth married Muriel Parker, a non-Jewish pianist-composer, and over the next 50 years he held jobs as a toolmaker, teacher, mental-hospital attendant and duck-and-goose breeder. The couple had two sons and in 1946 settled in Maine. Even after “Call It Sleep” was rediscovered and brought back in print in 1964 – eventually selling 1 million copies – its author did not return to the writer’s life.
A turning point for Roth was the 1967 Six-Day War, which led to what he called a “rational return” to Judaism. This was accompanied by a “slowly awakening desire to write again,” he said. Roth also began studying Hebrew.
In 1979, Roth started work on what became “Mercy of a Rude Stream,” a series of four novels that told the story of Ira Stigman, an immigrant Jew with a life arc similar to that of the author. It was in these books, whose first volume came out in 1994, that he contended directly for the first time with the subject of incest.
Before Henry Roth’s death at 89 on October 13, 1995, he finished revising the “Mercy” books, which were published in the following years and were well received. He also wrote a massive manuscript that, pared down and edited after his death, came out in 2010 as the novel “An American Type.”