The Skinless Novelist
Are editors polishing away Henry Roth's neurotic genius?
I can't think of another novelist as skinless as Henry Roth. The author of Call It Sleep (1934), a triumphantly bruised account of a greenhorn's childhood on the Lower East Side, was a shy man, Galician-born, who never developed the hide that would have protected him against fame and its expectations. Instead of publishing a second novel, he fell more or less silent. When he managed to write again after 50 years of poverty and anonymity, he released a stream of confessional narrative that feels like it built up during a lifetime of being rubbed raw. Self-revelation, for Roth, was a matter of compulsion, not policy. Had he been cannier, savvier, a better career manager, he would have cleaned up these late-in-life effusions before the machinery of posthumous literary reputation went to work cleaning them up for him.
The first four volumes extracted by an editor from that flow were published as Mercy of a Rude Stream. Roth saw, and was pleased with, three of the volumes, though he lived to see only two published. The third, and a fourth volume he never saw, appeared after Roth's death in 1995 at the age of 89. The quartet recounts in barely fictionalized form the story of Roth's youth, from the age of 8 till the age of 19, most of it spent in a hostile, mostly Irish Harlem. Names are all that Roth changed, and he barely changed those. Here, under the pseudonym Ira Stigman—the name seems almost to form the sentence, I are a stigma,or maybe astigma-man—we have Roth the mama's boy shrinking from Jew-baiting street toughs; Roth the delivery boy shuttling embarrassed between his bewildered, barely functional parents and the gleaming goyishe world; Roth the envious purloiner of his wealthier classmates' fountain pens; Roth the self-castigating but compulsive seducer of first his sister, then his cousin; Roth the bumbling squire of a much older professor of poetry at New York University. Whatever the guise, the Roth beneath it remains the same: self-absorbed, ashamed, a shlemiel.
There's something flesh-crawling about being in the presence of so much self-loathing, and it's particularly unsettling when the self-loather trumpets his humiliations. This, I have always thought, is why the majority of publishers and critics have dismissed the work of Roth's old age as boring, squalid, shapeless, devoid of the artistry that made his first novel a classic.
Squalid and shapeless it can be; boring and artless it is not. We may not always know where Roth is going, but we know that his descriptions and dialogue feel ripped from the gut, as if his skinlessness deprived him of the usual filters. Now another slice of Roth's life has been culled from the heap and published as An American Type, and we are reminded again of just how alive his writing is and how acute an observer he was. Roth recreates with remarkable immediacy—all the more so given that he was looking back after half a century—both the excitement and the degradation of bohemian life during the Great Depression, at least as he stumbled through it, a quintessentially picaresque figure, forever insecure, characterologically incapable of seizing the main chance.
It is 11 years since the college-age Ira has left Harlem and moved into a Greenwich Village apartment with his mentor and patron, the poetry professor Edith. He has published his acclaimed novel and begun to develop writer's block. During a stay in the artist's colony Yaddo, he meets M., a tall, blond pianist and composer whose gentle manner and disciplined artistry seem to him to incarnate the best of Americanness. Naturally, he feels unworthy of her: "Hers was an inherent nobility, hers all the virtues and amenities of breeding and tradition. What the hell would she want him for, or want with him?" To be with M., he must end his financial dependence on Edith, but such is Edith's hold on him that he can do that only if he leaves New York altogether. How will he support himself? By becoming a screenwriter in Hollywood, of course. "You're the most unfitted person for Hollywood I have ever known," Edith observes, bitterly but accurately.
What follows is a dive into the extinguishing reality of American pennilessness. Ira inches across the country in a run-down Ford Model A, accompanied by Bill, an illiterate Communist whom Ira, during a proletarian-worshipping phase, had tried and failed to make the hero of a second novel. On the road, Bill reveals himself to be a blowhard and bully, while Ira reverts to masochistic type, cowed and disgusted by how easily intimidated he is. Edith is right about Hollywood. Ira drops off his novel at a theatrical agency whose Jewish partners gleam with American politesse and "the alchemy of expensive garb." But when he returns on the appointed day,
his reception was stripped of all punctilio; it was Jewish, or squeamish, or both. They wanted nothing to do with the book and could scarcely conceal their aversion. They both seemed pained, almost stiff with alarm, as if their interests were threatened by the book on the elaborately bracketed desk. They wanted the taint removed as soon as possible.
Judith Shulevitz is a former culture editor of Slate and the author of The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time.