In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Henry Roth

  • Introduction
  • Reference Works
  • General Overviews
  • Biographies
  • Interviews
  • Archives
  • On Call It Sleep
  • On Shifting Landscape
  • On Mercy of a Rude Stream
  • Jewishness
  • Language
  • Politics
  • Roth and Other Writers
  • Urban Themes
  • Writer’s Block
  • Foreign Scholarship

American Literature Henry Roth
by
Steven Kellman
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 October 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0227

Introduction

Henry Roth (b. 1906–d. 1995) was an American novelist and short-story writer whose autobiographically based fiction helped define immigrant fiction and American Jewish literature. Born in Tysmenitz, Galicia, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, he resettled in the United States with his family in 1908. They at first lived in Brooklyn before moving to the Lower East Side of Manhattan. In 1914 they moved uptown to Harlem, where Roth attended City College of New York. While still an undergraduate, he was befriended by and moved in with Eda Lou Walton, a poet and an instructor at New York University. With her support, he wrote Call It Sleep, a powerful account of life on the Lower East Side as experienced by a little immigrant Jewish boy. The novel was published in 1934, to critical acclaim but few sales. By the early 1940s, disillusioned with the New York literary scene, he moved with his new wife, the musician Muriel Parker, whom he had met at the artists’ colony Yaddo, to Maine, where he made a subsistence living raising and slaughtering waterfowl. Call It Sleep had meanwhile fallen out of print and public awareness until a paperback edition was published in 1964 and hailed as a neglected masterpiece. Suddenly a bestselling author, Roth, who had written only a few short stories and essays—later collected in Shifting Landscape: A Composite (1987)—during the interim, slowly returned to writing. However, it was only after moving to New Mexico and the death of his beloved wife that Roth felt free to pour forth in fiction drawn closely from his own life. During his final decade, often in pain and longing for death, the octogenarian tapped out thousands of manuscript pages from which his assistant, Felicia Steele, and his editor, Robert Weil, carved out a tetralogy filled with painful personal revelations. In 1994, sixty years after his first novel, Call It Sleep, Roth was back in print with his second, the first volume of a series that took the title Mercy of a Rude Stream. The tetralogy consisted of A Star Shines over Mt. Morris Park (1994), A Diving Rock on the Hudson (1995), From Bondage (1996), and Requiem for Harlem (1998). The last two of the four volumes were published posthumously, as was an additional novel—excavated from the final manuscripts—titled An American Type (2010).

Reference Works

After a long period of neglect, Roth found a place in most standard literary reference works as well as general encyclopedias. Among reference volumes that feature an extended entry on him are Bloch 2003, Kellman 2002, Lyons 1984, and Wirth-Nesher 2008. A recent unconventional encyclopedia, Butnick, et al. 2019, makes flippant, slighting mention of Roth.

  • Bloch, Felicity. “Henry Roth.” In Jewish Writers of the Twentieth Century. Edited by Sorrel Kerbel, 468–470. New York: Fitzroy Dearborn, 2003.

    A portrait of Roth as an immigrant Jewish writer who created “Poetry of the urban junkyard.”

  • Butnick, Stephanie, Liel Leibovitz, and Mark Oppenheimer, eds. The Newish Jewish Encyclopedia: From Abraham to Zabar’s and Everything in Between. New York: Artisan, 2019.

    This unconventional, antic volume refers to Call It Sleep as a “meandering account of life in a New York Jewish ghetto.” Without making any mention of Mercy of a Rude Stream, it gossips about the author’s incest with his sister. See pages 216–217.

  • Kellman, Steven G. “Henry Roth.” In American Writers: A Collection of Literary Biographies. Supplement IX. Edited by Jay Parini, 227–243. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2002.

    A synoptic, methodical overview of Roth’s life and work by his biographer. Emphasis is on the dramatic fluctuations in both life and work.

  • Lyons, Bonnie. “Henry Roth.” In Dictionary of Literary Biography. Vol. 28, Twentieth-Century American Jewish Fiction Writers. Edited by Daniel Walden, 257–264. Detroit: Gale, 1984.

    Published before Roth’s final productive years, this survey situates Call It Sleep and Roth’s short stories within the contexts of his immigrant childhood, his relationship with Eda Lou Walton, his flirtation with Communism, and his family life with Muriel Parker and their two sons.

  • Wirth-Nesher, Hana. “Henry Roth (1906–1995).” In Encyclopedia of American Jewish History. Vol. 2. Edited by Stephen H. Norwood and Eunice G. Pollack, 598–601. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2008.

    One of the leading Henry Roth scholars surveys his accomplishments as “one of the greatest Jewish American writers.”

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