Few artists have struggled so hard to make use of so much talent as the great American novelist Henry Roth. Roth is best-known for a novel titled Call It Sleep that sank like a stone when it was first published in 1934. Today, Call It Sleep, which chronicles life on New York's Lower East Side in 1914 through the eyes of a frightened and precocious 9-year-old Jewish boy, is widely acclaimed as the definitive American immigrant novel. Everyone who's ever attempted to chronicle Roth's life has tried to establish a working theory as to why a man with such enormous gifts seemed unable to do much of anything with them for so long. It's interesting for the author to think about Roth's struggles to find his voice, his purpose, and his subject matter in the context of what drives people in the event filmmaking industry, what sustains their passion, and what sustains their businesses.
nonlinear the editor picture imperfect 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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