Even aficionados of Jewish American literature may be surprised to be reminded of Henry Roth. Living a full generation before that more familiar Roth, Philip, Henry’s best known work is the novel Call it Sleep, a critically acclaimed work published 1934 that soon disappeared, only to be revived in paperback in the 1960’s, thanks to Irving Howe’s insistence, in The New York Times Book Review. Call it Sleep went on to sell a million copies.
When Henry Roth died in 1995, he left 2,000 pages of unpublished work. From out of that treasure trove, a former fiction editor of The New Yorker, Willing Davidson, edited An American Type (W.W. Norton & Company, $25.95), perhaps one of the last eyewitness testimonies to the horrors of the Great Depression and a rambling account of monumental writer’s block, well- or not-so-well-meaning friends, and an undying love. Readers who loved Call it Sleep — an impressionistic, terrifying yet lyrical account of six years in the life of a Jewish immigrant boy — may find An American Type a very different sort of novel. A scarcely disguised stand-in for Roth himself, protagonist Ira Stigman, stigmatized by his immigrant East-Side roots, interacts with a number of American types throughout the novel, as he himself attempts to discover just what that designation means to them and to him. Shades of Gatsby!
Ira is woefully dependent on Edith, his mentor and financial supporter. Significantly older than he, she has introduced him to a world of glitterati in which he never feels worthy or secure. Ira’s doctrinaire Communist friend, Bill, from whom he becomes increasingly alienated, is a constant reminder that his first book was scorned by the Left. “ ‘If I could write, I’d be a better writer than you.’ Bill raged. ‘Youse can only write about that soft crap is the boojwasie. I’d be writin’ about the workin’ class, the revolutionary workin’ class, an’ what they done for Russia.’ ” Only the gifted composer and pianist who marries him, the woman Ira calls “M,” a self-sacrificing blueblood, seems to truly sustain him, and he can only revile himself for his unworthiness to love her.
Ira seems never to fit comfortably within any of these lives, intellectual, political and artistic. The privations of the Depression, delineated with almost obsessive attention to detail, only add emphasis to the inner deprivation he suffers. Ira says, “The way I feel now, it’s as though what really counts — is the guy who can cope. You understand? The guy who can make his own way. I don’t know what it’s all about. Just what I’m not.”
In the end, octogenarian Ira, looking back on his life, is finally affirmative about something. Of “M,” now deceased, he says, “The artist in them had the power to tear them apart, as he had seen it do with other married couples. No, it was rather her determination to preserve their marriage that kept it intact, her resolution to subordinate her own art to the needs of spouse and family, to steady her neurotic, frustrated spouse and wholesomely rear their two sons.” Feminists will find this statement a familiar and interesting assessment.
Faye Moskowitz is professor of Jewish American Literature and Creative Writing at George Washington University, Washington, D.C. Her books include A Leak in the Heart.