three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
19-Nov-Dec-2005
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The Life of Henry Roth

A-RedemptionHenry Roth (1906-1995) didn’t achieve fame until his classic look at the Jewish immigrant experience, Call It Sleep (1934), was reissued 30 years later. Literary scholar Kellman examines Roth’s life in light of the legendary 60-year gap between his first novel and his four-volume Mercy of a Rude Stream (1994–1998). He suggests that Roth put off writing for the very reason that his work stemmed from his life, and he simply could not face his wracking guilt over alleged incest with his sister and cousin. Kellman also, of course, runs through Roth’s life, from his abusive Lower East Side childhood (reflected in Call It Sleep) to his embrace of communism and Zionism, various jobs as teacher and social worker, and more satisfying adult relationships—when he finally confronted his demons.
Norton. 371 pages. $25.95. ISBN: 0393057798

San Antonio Express-News 4 of 5 Stars
"Kellman does not bury the sordid details of Roth’s life, including his incestuous relationship with his sister and his abusive relationship with his own sons. . . . This is a study not only of Roth the man and writer, but of America at a critical period in history, whose own frailty and achievement shaped her as it did Roth." Victoria Aarons

San Francisco Chronicle 4 of 5 Stars
"Kellman rejects the popular assumption that Roth was just another talented young radical, crushed by the apathy of shortsighted bourgeois readers toward his masterpiece. . . . Knowing [Roth’s personal history], 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." Josh Lambert

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"Now Kellman has told that story masterfully; scarcely a page here doesn’t deftly relate a bit of New York history or make a connection to the larger world of literature. Even better, Kellman tells the story in a way that Roth never could: briefly." David Kirby

Houston Chronicle 3.5 of 5 Stars
"[T]he fullest account yet of a major literary figure whose career—including his unlikely comeback in the 1990s as an ailing octogenarian—defies easy explanation. . . . If the late flood of Roth books left anybody hungry for still more, that may be possible: Almost 2,000 manuscript pages remain unpublished, archived at the American Jewish Historical Society in New York." Jeffrey Tannenbaum

Boston Globe 3 of 5 Stars
"Is the redemption Roth went through necessary to understand it? Maybe not, but Kellman makes sure the reader’s naiveté is no longer possible." Ilan Stavans

New York Times 2.5 of 5 Stars
"Kellman has done a scrupulous job of research, but there is, all the same, something recalcitrant about the material, some way in which the shards of Roth’s fragmented narrative . . . [resist] being glued together even after the chronology is in place, the dramatis personae established and the events sketched in." Daphne Merkin

Critical Summary

Irving Howe’s 1964 description of Roth’s Call It Sleep as "one of the few genuinely distinguished novels written by a 20th-century American" catapulted Roth to fame. Yet the author’s decades-long silence became legendary. In the first book-length biography of Roth, Kellman sensitively probes this mystery. He posits Roth as his abusive father’s psychological victim—and as a result, paranoid, self-loathing, and vengeful—which seemed to sit well with critics. Although reviewers praised the way Kellman never failed to connect Roth’s life to America’s larger cultural milieu, many sensed a lingering secrecy to the writer’s life. Most agreed, however, that this birth-to-life chronicle is "a trenchant exploration of the relationship between the horrors of life and the saving power of art" (San Francisco Chronicle).

Henry Roth’s Classic

Call It Sleep (1934): A young Jewish boy narrates the story of his poor Eastern European family now living in the Lower East Side slums of New York City. "Arguably the most distinguished work of fiction ever written about immigrant life. . . . Surely the most lyrically authentic novel in American literature about a young boy’s coming to consciousness." Lis Harris, The New Yorker