Henry Roth Slept With His Sister and His Cousin
Now that you know the novelist’s incestuous secrets, is his newly reissued ‘Mercy of a Rude Stream’ quartet worth reading or not?
If the novelist Henry Roth were a character in a novel, instead of the creator of novels and characters, no one would believe in him. His career would seem too unlikely, too melodramatic in its extremes of success and failure, ignominy, and redemption. In 1934, at the age of 28, Roth published his first novel, Call It Sleep, a Joycean evocation of his Jewish immigrant childhood in New York. The book was well received but sold few copies, and soon went out of print. Roth stopped writing, moved to rural Maine, and spent his time at a series of odd and menial jobs, working as an attendant at a mental hospital and a plucker of waterfowl. Thirty years passed before a young editor named Peter Mayer decided, in 1964, to bring out a paperback edition of Roth’s all-but-forgotten book. Much to the publisher’s surprise, the reprint was reviewed by the leading critic Irving Howe on the front page of the New York Times Book Review, where it was described as a forgotten classic of American literature, “one of the few genuinely distinguished novels written by a 20th-century American.” The review turned Call It Sleep into a runaway success, selling a million copies over the next year.
Henry Roth was suddenly promoted to the role of founding father of American Jewish fiction, at a time when writers like Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, and Philip Roth were at their peak. Still, Roth was not tempted to return to writing until, in the late 1970s, he began working on a new autobiographical novel, which would take up the story of his youth where Call It Sleep left off. Eventually, in 1992, the editor Robert Weil overcame the resistance of his colleagues at St. Martin’s Press and insisted on publishing Roth’s new work. In a heroic feat of editing, Weil helped Roth turn thousands of manuscript pages into a series of four volumes, which began to appear in 1994 under the title Mercy of a Rude Stream. Roth lived to see only the first two of these appear; he died in 1995, having found his voice again after 60 years of silence. He narrowly avoided the fate of Ralph Ellison, who went to his grave unable to produce a sequel to his early masterpiece, Invisible Man.
The only thing Roth’s story needs to turn it into a Hollywood-ready fable is for Mercy of a Rude Stream to have been hailed as an unequivocal masterpiece, a worthy successor to Call It Sleep. But the truth is that readers and critics alike have not known quite what to make of Roth’s late-life epic. It eschews the technical fireworks that made Call It Sleep read like a Lower East Side version of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Indeed, one of the themes of Stream is Roth’s newfound disdain for modernism in general and for Joyce in particular. Instead, Stream offers a slow, lengthy, literal account of Roth’s own youth from the ages of 8 to 21. Names are changed—Roth himself goes by “Ira Stigman”—but places, characters, and events seem to be taken straight from life, an impression largely confirmed by Steven G. Kellman’s biography of Roth, Redemption.
At the heart of Roth’s autobiographical novel lies a sensational and disturbing confession, one that cannot help drastically unsettling the reader’s experience of the book. Throughout his teens, Roth confides through the guise of Ira, he carried on an incestuous sexual relationship with his sister, “Minnie,” and with his first cousin, “Stella.” In both cases, the girls were pre-pubescent when he first began having sex with them—or, depending on your point of view, molesting them—and the incest continued for many years. Inevitably, when the first volumes of Stream were published, the revelation of incest was what made headlines, so that if the average reader knows anything about Henry Roth today, it is that he stopped writing for decades and that he slept with his sister. This is a heavy burden of expectation to bring to a book that, even without it, is difficult to grasp due to its length, slow pace, and odd surges of narrative power.
Now the four volumes of Mercy of a Rude Stream are being published as a single volume for the first time, some 20 years after their original appearance. No longer a curiosity or a news story, the book—and despite the division into four volumes, it definitely reads like a single, long book—can start to be judged on literary terms. How does Stream change the way we think about Roth, and about its predecessor Call It Sleep? Did Roth invent a viable new form of autobiographical writing, or did he outlive the genius of his early work?
Mercy of a Rude Stream would probably never have been published if it weren’t by the author of Call It Sleep; but the books are so different that comparing them may be more of an obstacle than a help to understanding. Roth’s first novel, written in his mid-twenties, is an excavation of his early childhood, which he is able to summon up with amazing immediacy. David Schearl, the novel’s protagonist, shares Roth’s biography: Born in Galicia, the Jewish heartland of Austria-Hungary, in 1906, he is brought to America by his mother as a young child. David’s father, Albert Schearl, has gone ahead to establish the family’s beachhead in New York, and he sends money for his wife and son to join him. But the opening pages of Call It Sleep establish with wonderful economy the family dynamics that will turn David’s childhood into a kind of hell. Albert, far from being happy to see his wife and son, greets them at Ellis Island with suspicion and reproof. Seeing David’s gaudy, old-country bonnet, he peremptorily takes it and throws it into the harbor—a symbolic baptism, or perhaps circumcision, which initiates the boy into the harshness of American life.
“This was that vast incredible land, the land of freedom, of immense opportunity, that Golden Land,” David’s mother Genya reflects when she looks at Manhattan’s skyline. But for the Schearls, opportunity proves elusive.This is not a story of immigrant success, like Abraham Cahan’s The Rise of David Levinsky, but the more seldom told story of immigrant dread and fear. The reason the Schearls are unable to rise in American society is that Albert, as we soon come to realize, is mentally ill—a brooding paranoid who is unable to hold a job without getting into fights with his coworkers. A quick way to describe the Schearl family romance is as a disastrous Oedipal triangle, in which father and son are competitors for the mother’s love. But the relationships are so vividly rendered that we always feel we are dealing with a real family, not a Freudian schema. This is a novel that always shows, never tells.
The full revelation of Albert’s brutality comes when David, then just 5 or 6 years old, accidentally kicks another child and bloodies his nose. When Albert sees this, he goes mad with rage, convinced that his son, too, is one of the enemies out to destroy him:
Answer me, his words rang out. Answer me, but they meant, Despair! Who could answer his father? In that dread summons the judgment was already sealed. Like a cornered thing, he shrank within himself, deadened his mind because the body would not deaden and waited. Nothing existed any longer except his father’s right hand—the hand that hung down into the electric circle of his vision. Terrific clarity was given him. Terrific leisure. Transfixed, timeless, he studied the curling fingers that twitched spasmodically, studied the printer’s ink ingrained upon the finger tips, pondered, as if all there were in the world, the nail of the smallest finger, nipped by a press, that climbed in a jagged little stair to the hangnail. Terrific absorption.
The savage beating that follows is less chilling than this moment of frozen observation, in which David’s childlike terror comes across so strongly. The whole novel follows the rhythms of David’s perception in this way, and so it is through his internal monologue that we come to know the life of Jewish poverty in Brownsville and then on the Lower East Side. Everywhere in this life, so often romanticized by those who have escaped it, threats and mysteries lie in wait for David. There is the cellar door of his tenement, which he is afraid to pass on his way out of the building; the cheder, where a crude and abusive rabbi teaches boys to mouth Hebrew words without understanding; the streets, where gangs of bullies lie in wait.
With the No. 1 album in America, the parodist proves yet again the full depth of his genius