The ‘Canker in the Soul’ That Ate Away at Roth’s Writing

August 14, 2005 | , , ,

Redemption: The Life of Henry Roth
By Steven G. Kellman
Norton. 372 pages. $25.95.

Henry Roth’s literary career is a testament to the power of a book review. His first novel, “Call It Sleep,” sold modestly when it was published in 1934, and didn’t approach national prominence. Three decades later, the critic Irving Howe penned an unusually positive and prominent review, and despite having been out of print for years, the book began to leap off the shelves.It sold 250,000 copies in five weeks, and a million within a few years. A dense, Joycean tale of childhood in New York’s Lower East Side, “Call It Sleep” soon found its way into dissertations, syllabi and translations. It’s now recognized as a classic of 20th century American, Jewish and immigrant literatures — and all because of a single review. It’s enough to inspire an otherwise humble book critic with delusions of grandeur.

But as much as one might hope to repeat it, Roth’s story is unique. Even setting aside his career trajectory, it was peculiar. In college, he earned Ds in English and hygiene, yet managed to ingratiate himself with some of the most stylish literary eminences of his day — including the poet and scholar Eda Lou Walton, who became his patron. And though he was an autodidactic polymath and linguist, when news of his novel’s resuscitation arrived in the ’60s, he was eking out a living in Maine slaughtering ducks.

In “Redemption,” the first book-length biography of Roth, literary scholar Steven G. Kellman shapes the messy facts of the author’s life into a coherent narrative and probes its central mystery: Why, after writing a truly great American novel, did Roth not publish another book for 60 years?

Along the way, Kellman ably recounts Roth’s birth in Tysmenitz, Galicia, and his coming to the United States, and then tells of Roth’s unhappy upbringing in Depression-era New York and his adult life in Maine and New Mexico. Kellman catalogs the jobs the author held — delivery boy, precision metal grinder, “permanent substitute teacher” — as well as his shifting political affiliations. As a young man, Roth was an atheistic, party-line Communist and pro-union agitator; later, after being celebrated as a hero of Jewish American culture, he found his way to Zionism.

Politics and religion alone fail to explain Roth’s six decades of silence. Kellman rejects the popular assumption that Roth was just another talented young radical, crushed by the apathy of shortsighted bourgeois readers toward his masterpiece.

For one thing, “Call It Sleep” was never ignored. It was positively reviewed upon publication and celebrated by some critics as one of the best novels of the ’30s. Moreover, Roth did publish in the decades between “Call It Sleep” and his 1990s renaissance, during which an intrepid editor and several assistants culled four volumes of autobiographical fiction from thousands of wandering pages of manuscript. In the intervening “silent” years, Roth placed a handful of short stories in publications including the New Yorker, and submitted, and resubmitted, many more that were finally rejected. He wasn’t silent; he was just writing poorly.

Roth never fulfilled his potential, Kellman argues, because of the nasty secret underlying his creativity: “Incest was the engine that drove his composition” — specifically, the long-term sexual relationships that the author engaged in as a teenager with his younger sister, Rose, and his cousin Sylvia — and “writing was a way to assuage guilt.” Sixty years elapsed before Roth was prepared to reveal this “canker in the soul,” as he described it, and because he could write well only about himself, he published nothing of value in the interim.

Such is Kellman’s theory, at least. In its service, he positions Roth mostly as a psychological victim. Rather than holding the man responsible for seducing two vulnerable relatives, Kellman reads Roth’s troubles as results of “the psychological damage inflicted on” him by his father.

Though Roth was abused, he was also an abuser and, frankly, a jerk: He was a child-beater, anti-Semite, homophobe and betrayer of his acolytes. He mortified his sister by publishing exaggerated descriptions of their incest and had his wife abandon her promising career as a composer to support him. Visitors to his house reported their surprise at finding few books on his shelves; he badmouthed Saul Bellow without reading any of his work.

Knowing all this, the mystery is not why didn’t Roth publish more but rather how such a sick man could produce the sensitivity, insight and beauty of “Call It Sleep” in the first place. Of course, irredeemable behavior and brilliant writing are by no means mutually exclusive, nor is their combination unprecedented. But Roth’s is a case in which the two met spectacularly.

Kellman’s admirable biography is thus not only a necessary addition to the annals of American literature, but also a trenchant exploration of the relationship between the horrors of life and the saving power of art.

[Originally published in The San Francisco Chronicle.]