Redemption, Steven G. Kellman’s new biography of Henry Roth, explores a brilliant novelist with a deep secret—an incestuous relationship with his sister, Rose. Roth’s sexual shame informs Call It Sleep, Roth’s Joycean novel of the Lower East Side, which was published in 1934 but forgotten until the 1960s, when Irving Howe’s praise put the paperback reissue on the bestseller list. By this point, Roth was living in Maine, paralyzed by writer’s block. Finally, in 1979, he began working on another autobiographical novel, Mercy of a Rude Stream. This four-volume work and Call It Sleep have been rereleased by Picador.
Jonathan Rosen, the author of Joy Comes in the Morning (now out in paperback) and editor of Nextbook’s Jewish Encounters book series, met Henry Roth in 1993, two years before his death, and wrote an essay on Roth that appeared in The New Yorker earlier this month. Here he talks about Roth’s troubled life and work.