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f      ew artists have struggled so hard to make use of so
       much talent as the great American novelist Henry
       Roth. Not to be confused with the Henry Roth known
in the wedding biz for designing “affordable couture” bridal
dresses, this Henry Roth was a novelist whose work spans
two-thirds of the 20th century—minus the 50 years between
his first novel and the quintet of crypto-autobiographical
works that poured out of him at the very end of his life, the
last of which was published in June of this year. He’s best-
known for a novel titled Call It Sleep that sank like a stone      and a blowhard and partly because Roth had no taste or
when it was first published in 1934. It was then resurrected       acumen for political writing, no matter how much he wanted
in 1964 thanks to a celebratory and enormously influential         to do it to please his critics and comrades at the time. In
essay on the book in The New York Times by famed literary          subsequent years, Roth tried repeatedly to craft short stories
and social critic Irving Howe. It topped the best-seller lists,    in the style favored by The New Yorker and other magazines.
sold more than a million copies, and has since found its           But he rarely managed to sell them because he simply had no
place on most top 100 lists of the best novels of the 20th         aptitude for tailoring his work to others’ specifications.
century. Today, Call It Sleep, which chronicles life on New           Everyone who’s ever attempted to chronicle Roth’s life
York’s Lower East Side in 1914 through the eyes of a               has tried to establish a working theory as to why a man with
frightened and precocious 9-year-old Jewish boy, is widely         such enormous gifts seemed unable to do much of anything
acclaimed as the definitive American immigrant novel.              with them for so long. Roth harbored terrible, paralyzing
   Perhaps even more amazing is that Mercy of a Rude               secrets from his adolescence that made it difficult for him to
Stream, the very different series of books Roth wrote from         fully embrace adulthood. It wasn’t until the 80-ish writer
1980 to 1995, at the very end of his life as his body failed him   revealed those secrets in the second volume of Mercy of a
(he was weak, immobilized, and plagued by arthritis so bad         Rude Stream that he fully exorcised those demons. At a time
that pain radiated from his fingers through his body when          when other authors were finding ways to make a living in
he typed), proved even more magnificent than Call It Sleep,        their trade, Roth himself acknowledged that the young
though those books have yet to enjoy the popular success           writer who was mentored and supported by an older woman
bestowed on Call It Sleep during its rediscovery in the ’60s.      in the New York literary scene through the creation of Call
   As you might expect, the 3-decades-late success of Call It      It Sleep in the early 1930s never found the stomach to “grub
Sleep (long before Mercy of a Rude Stream was conceived            for a living and … convert his craft into wares” as his
or even conceivable) was bittersweet for Roth. Having often        contemporaries did. Another theory is that he slid into
described the writer of Call It Sleep as a man long dead,          decades of depression, ennui, and self-loathing that simply
Roth didn’t welcome his belated brush with fame and the            rendered him unable to write. Finally, watching Israel fight
exposure and sense of expectation that came with it.               for its life in the Six-Day War of 1967, Roth was shaken
Although he never entirely stopped writing, he spent               from his stupor, and a desire to preserve, in print, the long-
decades in retreat from the literary world, marking his time       gone (and to him, long-reviled) Yiddish world of his youth
variously as a tool and gauge maker, an attendant in a             was awakened.
mental hospital, and a waterfowl farmer in coastal Maine.             All of these factors are certainly part of the fascinating and
   When Roth did attempt to write over the 50 years           
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