Authors: Henry Roth

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American novelist and short-story writer

Identity: Jewish

Author Works

Long Fiction:

Call It Sleep, 1934

Mercy of a Rude Stream, 1994–1996 (includes A Star Shines over Mt. Morris Park, 1994; A Diving Rock on the Hudson, 1995; From Bondage, 1996; and Requiem for Harlem, 1998)

Short Fiction:

“Broker,” 1938

“Somebody Always Grabs the Purple,” 1940

“Petey and Yorsee and Mario,” 1956

“At Times in Flight,” 1959 (parable)

“The Dun Dakotas,” 1960 (parable)


Shifting Landscape: A Composite, 1925–1987, 1987 (Mario Materassi, editor)


Henry Roth, born in Austria-Hungary in 1906, wrote his first novel in the early 1930’s. Published in 1934 and rediscovered in 1964, Call It Sleep vividly evokes the childhood traumas of a sensitive Jewish immigrant boy in the hostile–and sometimes gentle–New York ghetto. Though not strictly autobiographical, the novel derives much from Roth’s own boyhood in turbulent New York City, as do most of his short pieces published in The New Yorker.{$I[AN]9810000069}{$I[A]Roth, Henry}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Roth, Henry}{$I[geo]JEWISH;Roth, Henry}{$I[tim]1906;Roth, Henry}

Henry Roth

(Harvey Wang)

Roth began writing at City College, where he majored in English and graduated in 1928. His chief mentor was Eda Lou Walton of New York University, whose encouragement and support enabled him to devote almost four years to completing Call It Sleep. Published in 1934, the novel drew reviewers’ praise but made little impact on the public or on most literary scholars. Its subject and style reminded critics of the works of James T. Farrell, James Joyce, and Theodore Dreiser. Psychologically truthful and unified by skillfully handled themes and motifs, the book demonstrated Roth’s considerable skill in the art of fiction.

Between the late 1930’s and the mid-1960’s, Roth largely abandoned writing for a variety of other occupations: high school teacher in the Bronx, precision metal grinder, teacher in a one-room school in Maine, orderly and supervisor in a mental hospital, breeder of ducks and geese, tutor in Latin and mathematics.

In 1964 Call It Sleep was reissued to considerable critical fanfare. Interviewers who sought out Roth found him a sensitive and thoughtful man who had gone his own way, living on a Maine farm after the fashion of a modern Henry David Thoreau. Roth expressed his admiration for the poet Robinson Jeffers and discussed his personal rejection of the notion that the world is absurd. In 1965 he was recognized with an award from the National Institute of Arts and Letters.

After Call It Sleep, Roth published memoirs, short stories, autobiographical sketches, and other miscellaneous pieces, many of which were collected in Shifting Landscape. In 1979 he began work on Mercy of a Rude Stream, a multivolume work that in a sense continues Call It Sleep, since it, too, is loosely based on Roth’s life. In 1994, A Star Shines over Mt. Morris Park, the first volume of Mercy of a Rude Stream and Roth’s second novel, appeared. The second volume, A Diving Rock on the Hudson, appeared in 1995, the same year in which Roth died. Posthumously published volumes were From Bondage, which appeared in 1996, and Requiem for Harlem, in 1998. Although these novels received high praise, most reviewers did not consider the books equal to Call It Sleep.

BibliographyAdams, Stephen J. “‘The Noisiest Novel Ever Written’: The Soundscape of Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep.” Twentieth Century Literature 35 (Spring, 1989). Analyzes the power and integral role of sound in the novel.Buelens, Gert. “The Multi-Voiced Basis of Henry Roth’s Literary Success in Call It Sleep.” In Cultural Difference and the Literary Text: Pluralism and the Limits of Authenticity in North American Literatures, edited by Winfried Siemerling and Katrin Schwenk. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1996. A study of Roth’s first novel, particularly the ways in which he represents different languages and voices.Halkin, Hillel. “Henry Roth’s Secret.” Commentary 97 (May, 1994). A study of Mercy of a Rude Stream and Roth’s homosexual experiences.Kellman, Steven G. Redemption: The Life of Henry Roth. New York: W. W. Norton, 2005. An engaging, readable account of the writer’s life, particularly examining the long interim between Roth’s novels.Lyons, Bonnie. Henry Roth: The Man and His Work. New York: Cooper Square, 1976. The first book-length study to address Roth’s early work. Includes an interview, some biographical information, and a detailed reading of Call It Sleep.Sokoloff, Naomi B. Imagining the Child in Modern Jewish Fiction. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992. Roth’s David Schearl is linked to representations of the child by other Jewish writers, including Sholom Aleichem, Hayim Nachman Bialik, Jerzy Kosinski, Aharon Appelfeld, David Grossman, A. B. Yehoshua, and Cynthia Ozick.Walden, Daniel, ed. Studies in American Jewish Literature 5, no. 1 (Spring, 1979). A special issue of this journal devoted to essays on Roth. Includes a bibliography and an interview.Wirth-Nesher, Hana, ed. New Essays on “Call It Sleep.” New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996. A collection of some of the most engaging and useful analyses of Roth’s first novel.
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