Roth was born in Tysmenitz near Stanislawow, Galicia, Austro-Hungary (now known as Tysmenytsia, near Ivano-Frankivsk, Galicia, Ukraine). Although his parents never agreed on the exact date of his arrival in the United States, it is most likely that he landed at Ellis Island and began his life in New York in 1908. He briefly lived in Brooklyn, and then on the Lower East Side, in the slums where his classic novel Call It Sleep is set. In 1914, the family moved to Harlem. Roth lived there until 1927, when, as a senior at City College of New York, he moved in with Eda Lou Walton, a poet and New York University instructor who lived on Morton Street in Greenwich Village. With Walton’s support, he began Call It Sleep in about 1930, and completed the novel in the spring of 1934, publishing in December 1934, to mixed reviews. In the 1960s, Roth’s Call It Sleep underwent a critical reappraisal after being republished in 1964. With 1,000,000 copies sold, and many weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, the novel was hailed as an overlooked Depression-era masterpiece and classic novel of immigration. Today, it is widely regarded as a masterpiece of Jewish American literature.
After the book’s publication, Roth began a second novel that was contracted with editor Maxwell Perkins, of Scribner’s. But Roth’s growing ideological frustration and personal confusion created a profound writer’s block, which lasted until 1979, when he began the earliest drafts of Mercy of a Rude Stream (although material written much earlier than 1979 was also incorporated into this later work). In 1938, during an unproductive sojourn at the artists’ colony Yaddo in Saratoga Springs, New York, Roth met Muriel Parker, a pianist and composer; much of this period is depicted in Roth’s final work, An American Type. Roth severed his relationship with Walton, moved out of her apartment, and married Parker in 1939, to the disapproval of her family. With the onset of World War II, Roth became a tool and gauge maker. The couple moved first to Boston with their two young sons, Jeremy and Hugh, and then in 1946 to Maine. There Roth worked as a woodsman, a schoolteacher, a psychiatric attendant in the state mental hospital, a waterfowl farmer, and a Latin and math tutor.
Roth did not initially welcome the success of the 1964 reprint of Call It Sleep, valuing his privacy instead. However, his writing block slowly began to break. In 1968, after Muriel’s retirement from the Maine state school system, the couple moved to a trailer home in Albuquerque, New Mexico, near where Roth had stayed as writer-in-residence at the D. H. Lawrence ranch outside of Taos. Muriel began composing music again, while Roth collaborated with his friend and Italian translator, Mario Materassi, to put out a collection of essays called Shifting Landscape, published by the Jewish Publication Society in 1987. After Muriel’s death in 1990, Roth moved into a ramshackle former funeral parlor and occupied himself with revising the final volumes of his monumental work, Mercy of a Rude Stream. It has been alleged that the incestuous relationships between the protagonist, a sister, and a cousin in Mercy of a Rude Stream are based on Roth’s life. Roth’s own sister denied that such events occurred.
Roth failed to garner the acclaim some say he deserves, perhaps because after the publication of Call It Sleep he failed to produce another novel for sixty years. Roth attributed his massive writer’s block to personal problems such as depression, and to political conflicts, including his disillusion with Communism. At other times he cited his early break with Judaism and his obsessive sexual preoccupations as probable causes. Roth died in Albuquerque, New Mexico, United States in 1995.
The character E. I. Lonoff in Philip Roth’s Zuckerman novels (The Ghost Writer and Exit Ghost in this case), is a composite of Roth, Bernard Malamud and fictional elements.
Published in 1934, Call It Sleep centers on the turbulent experiences of a young boy, David Schearl, growing up in the Jewish immigrant slum of New York’s Lower East Side in the early twentieth century.
Mercy of a Rude Stream is a monumental epic published in four volumes. It follows protagonist Ira Stigman from his family’s arrival in Jewish-Irish Harlem in 1914 to the night before Thanksgiving in 1927, when Ira decides to leave the family tenement and move in with Edith Welles. According to critic David Mehegan, Roth’s Mercy represents a “landmark of the American literary century”.
The first volume, A Star Shines over Mt. Morris Park was published in 1994 by St. Martin’s Press and the second volume, called A Diving Rock on the Hudson, appeared from St. Martin’s in 1995. From Bondage, which appeared in hardcover in 1996, was the first volume of the four Mercy books to appear posthumously. Requiem for Harlem, the fourth and final volume, appeared in 1998. Roth was able to revise both the third and fourth volumes in 1994 and 1995 with the help of his assistant, Felicia Steele, shortly before his death.
Before his death, Roth commented numerous times that Mercy of a Rude Stream comprised six volumes. In fact, Roth did write six separate books. He called the first four “Batch One,” and the last two, “Batch Two.” Roth’s editor at St. Martin’s, Robert Weil, along with Felicia Steele, Larry Fox, and Roth’s agent, Roslyn Targ, found the epic would be best served in four volumes, as the four books of “Batch One” contained a stylistic and thematic unity inconsistent with the remaining two books.
Explaining the difference between Mercy of a Rude Stream and Call It Sleep, critic Mario Materassi, Roth’s longtime friend, argues that “Call It Sleep can be read as a vehicle through which, soon after breaking away from his family and his tradition, young Roth used some of the fragments of his childhood to shore up the ruins of what he already felt was a disconnected self. Forty-five years later, Roth embarked on another attempt to bring some retrospective order to his life’s confusion: Mercy of a Rude Stream, which he has long called a ‘continuum,’ can be read as a final, monumental effort on the part of the elderly author to come to terms with the pattern of rupture and discontinuity that has marked his life”.
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Roth’s final novel, An American Type, emerged from “Batch 2,” which Roth wrote during the late 1980s and early 1990s. With his assistant’s help, Roth produced 1,900 typed pages of scenes beginning where Mercy left off and continuing through 1990. The manuscript of “Batch 2″ remained untouched for over a decade until Weil sent it to The New Yorker, which published two excerpts from “Batch 2” in the summer of 2006 under the titles “God the Novelist” and “Freight.” At The New Yorker the book came into the hands of Willing Davidson, then a young assistant in the magazine’s fiction department. At the suggestion of Weil and Roth’s literary executor, Lawrence Fox, Davidson edited “Batch 2” into An American Type, which was published by W.W. Norton in 2010.
Both a love story and a lamentation, the novel opens in 1938, and reintroduces us to Ira Stigman of the Mercy cycle, a thirty-two-year-old “slum-born Yiddle” eager to assimilate but traumatized by his impoverished immigrant past. Restless with his lover and literary mentor, English professor Edith Welles, Ira journeys to Yaddo, where he meets M (who only appeared in the old man’s reveries in the Mercy series), a blond, aristocratic pianist whose “calm, Anglo-Saxon radiance” engages him.
The ensuing romantic crisis, as well as the conflict between his ghetto Jewish roots and the bourgeois comforts of Manhattan, forces Ira to abandon his paramour’s Greenwich Village apartment and set out with an illiterate, boorish Communist on a quest for the promise of the American West. But feeling like a total failure in LA, Ira begins an epic journey home, thumbing rides from truckers and riding the rails with hobos through the Dust Bowl. Ira only knows that he must return to M, the woman he truly loves.
Sixty-five pages of excerpts from Batch Two consisting of short journal entries appeared in the journal, Fiction, Number 57, in 2011. The majority of these pages are about Roth’s move to Maine, afraid that his associations with the Communist Party would haunt him at his factory job in Massachusetts. Purchasing a small farm, and surrounded by Yankee neighbors, Roth questions his identity as a Jew and struggles to wrest a living out of a Maine countryside where the soil is so hard that he has to dynamite in order to lay pipe deep enough to avoid the winter freezes. The extreme cold that he and his family endured, his work logging, bargaining over antiques and livestock with neighbors, and the world of backwoods and village America form the principal and unlikely drama of these pages. There is also return to the tense, incestuous world of the Roth family in Henry’s childhood in the last of these extracts.
Henry Roth’s writing centers on immigrant experience, particularly a Jewish-American experience in Depression-era America. He has also been hailed as a chronicler of New York city life.
Roth’s work reveals an obsession with cultural depravity: the internal dislocation of the intellectual and of society at large that features so prominently in the work of the greatest Modernist writers. Indeed, Roth often fixates on human depravity in a multitude of forms. Sexually abhorrent acts such as incest, infidelity, and predation, for instance, inform much of his work. As does a more general climate of violence or abuse, often both inflicted on others and masochistically turned inwards.
Throughout his life, Roth simultaneously embraced and rejected the notion of a forgiving God, and this ambivalence is also registered in his writing. Mario Materassi suggests, in “Shifting Urbanscape: Roth’s ‘Private’ New York” that Roth “has never been interested in any story other than the anguished one of a man who, throughout his life, has contradicted each of his previously held positions and beliefs.”
While Roth’s works are generally tragic, and often relentlessly so, his later work holds out for the possibility of redemption, or of mercy in a rude stream. This notion is especially evident in An American Type where the love between Ira and M becomes a means of transcendence.