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)
“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.
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.