Henry Roth had one of the most anomalous careers in modern letters: a brilliant novel at age twenty-eight, the incomparable Call It Sleep, lost for thirty years but never quite forgotten, then a torrent of words let loose in his seventies and eighties. That late work of autobiographical fiction, Mercy of a Rude Stream, published in four volumes between 1994 and 1998, was written in large part out of obsessive reflection on the enigma of his career. In interviews as well as in fiction, Roth was tortured by the discontinuities of his life, his failure to live up to the promise of his early work. In Mercy he mused about his reputation, about the audience that had canonized his first novel, taken it to heart, but had then grown fascinated by his "case"—the oddities of his life:
---People, the reading public, were interested in him, to the degree they were, not because they expected exceptional literary output from him any longer, but because they were curious about the vicissitudes he had undergone, vicissitudes marked by an element of freakishness.
Without parading his troubles on TV with Oprah or Jerry Springer, the aged Roth felt he had become part of the ongoing carnival of notoriety and dysfunction, the therapeutic world of stunted achievement or maimed celebrity.
No one cared more about literature than Roth, and it pained him to draw attention as a case study rather than a creative figure. He saw literary language as "the philosopher's stone," "a form of alchemy...that elevated meanness to the heights of art." In the eloquent prologue to From Bondage, the third and strongest volume of Mercy, written shortly before his death in 1995, he expressed gratitude to modern technology, in the shape of his computer, for enabling him "to transmute this otherwise worthless, pain-ridden time known as old age into something of value."
When I met and interviewed Roth in 1987, he was full of theories about why his life had taken such disastrous, self-punishing turns. He gave so many explanations, beginning with his family's departure, when he was eight, from the homogenous Jewish community of the Lower East Side, that his failure to go on publishing after Call It Sleep seemed overdetermined. But there were unspoken reasons as well.
In Shifting Landscape, a collection of essays, stories, and interviews that came out the same year, Roth contemplated the mystery of his aborted career but left out the root cause that most obsessed him. This changed in 1995, when his younger sister, missing from both Call It Sleep and the first volume of Mercy of a Rude Stream, suddenly appeared in his work. He wrote about years of incest with her and a cousin, beginning when both were in their early teens. Though his sister was still living and in her late eighties, he rejected her heartfelt plea that he not shame them by raking up horrors from the distant past. Roth continued to resist any single explanation for his catastrophic writer's block, but it became evident that it was the incest, and the self-loathing that accompanied it, that threw the biggest roadblock across his path. As an autobiographical writer whose work depended on emotional honesty for its devastating power, he found he could not go on in fiction past the ghetto childhood brilliantly evoked in Call It Sleep. In Mercy he at last confronted the dark transgressions he could not face in the years following his first novel.
Many readers and reviewers recoiled from the old man's deliberately crude sexual confessions even as they saluted his painful honesty. For them the alchemy of transformation that Roth sought as an artist had failed to take place. In our conversations, Roth had told me that when he first began writing Call It Sleep in 1930, he was hobbled by the constraints of what actually happened, though such memories had been his inspiration. The novel took off, he said, only when he began to invent freely; it began almost to write itself. But to many critics Mercy seemed weighed down by literal recollection, a Proustian need to recover lost time. In a touching scene near the end of From Bondage, Ira Stigman's wife M voices the credo of the novel, Roth's rationale for dredging up lost moments and sensations, however trivial. "Every speck of consciousness is precious," she says. And the author, facing his computer screen, concludes the book by taking pleasure in recalling the intimate yet ordinary scene in which she said it:
A moment of silence, silicone silence, Ira and M under the yellow incandescents on the kitchen ceiling, the specks of memory which, until moments ago, lay irretrievably buried, now excavated and so pleasingly retrieved and reconfigured through the passage of time.
Roth's image is archaeological, not aesthetic: the novel excavates layer upon layer of remembrance. He would defend his new preference for fact over invention, for sordid or simply ordinary details over any creative embroidery, by belittling his first novel and its modernist progenitors, especially James Joyce, and making light of its sensitive young hero. "In Call It Sleep I invented a victim to cover over the true me," he told Jonathan Rosen, who profiled him for Vanity Fair. But with his later novels, he said, "I tried to reconcile myself to the louse I was. Who I detested. I loathed. And maybe get the reader to do it too." He saw the symbolic motifs and fine writing of Call It Sleep as a way of deceiving the reader and going easy on himself. The modernist techniques that allowed him to see the world through the consciousness of a child created an artificial scrim between the writer and his memories. The exacting demands of form had contributed to his subsequent writer's block as much as the scandalous stories he could not yet tell. Mercy, on the contrary, with its looser narrative, dialogues with his computer, and interpolated comments on his own text, would be a postmodern work, a genuinely frank book that might reconcile himself and his readers to the far less appealing man he thought he was.
Roth's critics were less enthusiastic about Mercy but glad to affirm the radical break between this confessional work and his beloved first book. In one sense they were right: though Mercy picks up the author's story roughly where Call It Sleep leaves off, with the family's move to Harlem when the boy was eight, it was written by someone else many decades later. The later volumes of Mercy have scenes that could match Call It Sleep in intensity—the last hundred pages of From Bondage, certainly —but elsewhere the narrative can feel slack and aimless. Reviewers of the first volume, though not this reviewer, criticized its lack of "novelistic tension," its unprepossessing characters, sharply reduced from the mythic scale of those in Call It Sleep, where the boy's mother and father loom as gigantic figures in his heightened consciousness. They balked at the occasionally pedestrian writing and at the sordid descriptions of incest in the second volume. For these critics, Mercy of a Rude Stream was little more than a deathbed confession, an old man's way of clearing the air and finding peace. Despite wonderful patches, it simply did not add up, as the earlier book manifestly had done. Many readers agreed; despite wide publicity and a remarkable backstory, they didn't buy these books in large numbers.
The received view of Mercy as a belated sequel, a garrulous afterthought, needs to be overturned. Despite some obvious differences, which the author loved to underscore, there are many crucial links between Mercy and Call It Sleep, but the emphasis should be reversed. Instead of straining to situate Mercy as an imperfect sequel to Call It Sleep, we need to understand it as a long, rambling preamble to the earlier novel, showing us how Roth came to be the troubled man who would write it. Mercy takes a much wider view of Roth's background and his busy New York milieu, introducing us to the real-life creatures who would make up young David Schearl's family. Even more important, it offers a raw inventory of the feelings and experiences out of which Call It Sleep was composed. Stigman's shame—his stigma —prepares us for David's profound unease, just as Stigman's fear of the world, his sense of his own uncouthness, are projected back onto David's terrors as he recoils from his father, clings to his mother, yet longs to go beyond her. Ira Stigman's adolescence and college years follow chronologically from David Schearl's tumultuous childhood, but it is Stigman, in a bold leap into art, who will craft David's story.
Roth's early encouragement and support came from Eda Lou Walton, who introduced him to modern poetry, gave him Joyce and Eliot to read, and became both his lover and maternal muse. She urged him to write down the ghetto tales that had fascinated her, and helped give him both the confidence of an adult and a love of language and art. The fourth volume of Mercy ends with Ira's departure from his family in Harlem to live with Walton. The writing of Call It Sleep would soon follow. Without this distance from his family and from the enclosed world of immigrant Jews, without the haven and support she provided, Roth could never have written it.
The elder Roth was convinced he had not told his story truthfully in Call It Sleep. Instead he had confected a flattering lie about a victimized child's bruised sensitivity, suppressing the tortured emotional legacy of his headstrong adolescence. Yet everything that seemed revelatory, even shocking, about the late confessional novel was already there in Call It Sleep. Mercy, as its autobiographical prelude, shows us where those feelings came from. No reader of Call It Sleep could fail to note the incestuous currents between the child and mother, or the child's horrified discovery of the anatomy of sex, the "petzel" and the "knish"—this was the most frequently quoted passage in the novel. The self-loathing that bedeviled the young man in Mercy, especially his feelings of sexual guilt, carried over into his writing of Call It Sleep, where it was projected back onto his precocious childhood. The boy's timorous but mounting curiosity, his frightened hunger for new experience, his growing need to break out of the orbit of his mother's influence, are all impulses we recognize from the older yet scarcely mature Ira Stigman.
This is where Ira's incest fits in, for his brutally quick and furtive couplings with his sister and cousin, far from certifying him as sexually advanced, come through as indications of immaturity: Ira's emotional blockage and fear of the world. They show that he is unable to break out of the cocoon of the family and the ghetto. In Roth's work, his own history always carries a burdensome freight of social history. There is some evidence that incest and sexual abuse were more prevalent in immigrant families. They lived on top of each other, in crowded conditions, cut off from the wider world by poverty, ghetto isolation, and linguistic barriers. As in Freud's 1912 paper "The Most Prevalent Form of Degradation in Erotic Life," which deals with men who can have sex with prostitutes but are impotent with women of their own class, including their wives, Ira worries that his squalid, infantile sex within the family disables him from approaching mature women in the larger world. "He didn't know how to make a pass at someone refined," he feels. Like the men described in Freud's paper, he has severed tenderness from sensuality, romantic feelings from physical gratification. "He knew he couldn't get a hard-on now. Scared with grown-up girls who knew all about it. That's what fucking kids had done to him."
In the person of Edith Welles, the Greenwich Village bohemian and college professor, Eda Lou Walton gives him not only his artistic destiny but his delayed manhood. For the longest time he's a sexual neuter in her presence, the third wheel in her affair with his friend Larry. His sits by and reads Ulysses and The Waste Land as they cuddle for hours on end. "Different world, class, everything else different. A grown-up woman. Same old story. How the hell did Larry have the nerve?" Knowing only lust without love, at first he feels that he brings vileness and pollution into her world of finer feelings, love and art.
Eventually it becomes clear that the opposite is true: Larry is ordinary, Ira is special, a flower of sensitivity that somehow bloomed among the weeds of the ghetto. During the course of an unhappy affair with another man, culminating in an abortion, Edith comes first to depend on Ira as a confidant, then to love him and believe in his talent. She makes possible his escape from Harlem, his entrée into the American world, just as his New England–born wife M, another protective, maternal figure, would do again ten years later. Call It Sleep, written under the artistic and emotional influence of Walton and her advanced modern writers, would be his farewell to the younger self that disgusted him and the immigrant world he left behind, or so he hoped. Different as they seem, both novels are essentially the same book: troubled tales of emancipation, about growing up and stepping out into a larger world. For Roth as an autobiographical novelist, it was apparently the only story he knew, and he had a vast trove of memories that would fill it in.
Henry Roth famously rejected Joyce as the dominant influence on his first novel, yet Mercy of a Rude Stream, whose four volumes echo the earlier book's four long sections, is almost as saturated with Joyce as its predecessor. Presiding over it is not Joyce the formalist or symbolist, the ingenious technician, but Joyce the poet of the ordinary, wonderfully alert to every nuance of city life beginning with the hubbub of the streets. In Mercy, Roth pays reluctant tribute to a shy Jim Joyce for his evocations of furtiveness and "sordidness," the current of fear and squalor in urban lives. Grappling with Ulysses, the young Roth emerges "with the realization that the materials for literature lay in the plethora of the squalid and the banal all about him." This stunned recognition was an invaluable gift for a Depression writer who was also a depressive one. He saw himself as "a mehvin of misery, of the dismal, of the pathetic, the deprived." Tormented at once by memories of his unhappy youth and by the encroaching disabilities of old age, he made both a part of his subject. The conjuror's gift in Joyce's language taught him the alchemy of turning dross into art, misery into beauty; Joyce showed him that "everything was convertible to universal literary currency." In Ulysses he finds "it was language, language, that could magically transmogrify the baseness of his days and ways into precious literature." Mercy is imbricated with a texture of linguistic play, literary allusion, and multilingual puns that were Joyce's legacy not only to Roth's work but, as the dialogue shows, to his daily life. Literary byplay was the lingua franca of Ira's marriage. Edith's poets and Joyce's puns and allusions were also part of Ira's arsenal for defending himself from his unlettered family and those parochial Jews; he was moving "from bondage," out of their world. "He was like somebody coming from one world into another."
The chronological passage from childhood through adolescence to some semblance of maturity is always depicted as a journey between different worlds. But for children of immigrants, born into poor, struggling families, a much wider gulf must be overcome, a disparity of language, manners, education, class, and moral understanding. The world of native-born Americans, confident of their birthright, frightens yet beckons to them. The shame of incest crystallized Roth's feeling that he could not shake off the incubus of his background—Europe, the ghetto, the family romance. "He himself trailed all of Galitzia behind him, Jews and Jews and Jews, an ocean away that he had actually crossed in Mom's arms." Scarred by self-hatred, rupture, and discontinuity, haunted by the failure to develop, he made this slow, agonizing development his obsessive theme.
Roth saw his own predicament, and perhaps its solution, mirrored in a poem Ira and his wife discuss in From Bondage. The book begins and ends with Coleridge's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner," the story of a old man whose transgression gives him "strange power of speech" but also a compulsion to confess, a need for absolution. Like the Ancient Mariner, Roth felt he had an albatross around his neck, a crippling recollection of sin and its aftermath, and could only remove it by telling his story. But he too—like his younger self at the end of Call It Sleep —could not be sure whether he was absolved at the end or merely offered a brief, fitful respite.
Morris Dickstein is Distinguished Professor of English at the CUNY Graduate Center and president of the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics. His most recent book, A Mirror in the Roadway: Literature and the Real World, has just come out in paperback.