June/July/Aug 2010

Insistence of Memory

Henry Roth's posthumous novel recalls an old romance

Steven G. Kellman


The sixty-year interval between Henry Roth's first novel, Call It Sleep (1934), and his second, A Star Shines over Mt. Morris Park (1994), constitutes the longest intermission in any significant American literary career. In the final decade of his life, Roth overcame severe depression and agonizing rheumatoid arthritis to produce a veritable Niagara of prose—about five thousand manuscript pages. Roth's assistant, Felicia Steele, and editor, Robert Weil, sculpted three thousand of those into the tetralogy Mercy of a Rude Stream, which was published sequentially starting in 1994. Roth died in 1995, at eighty-nine, before seeing the final two volumes, From Bondage (1996) and Requiem for Harlem (1998), in print.

Approximately two thousand disparate pages remained in the author's archive at the American Jewish Historical Society. Two stories were sliced out of the bulky manuscript and published in the New Yorker during the summer of 2006; and now Willing Davidson, a fiction editor for the magazine at the time, has subjected that cache to nips, tucks, and radical liposuction, producing a sinewy novel he's dubbed An American Type. Like his fictional alter ego Ira Stigman, Roth signed a contract with Maxwell Perkins, the Scribner's editor who was legendary for imposing order on the slovenly wilderness of Thomas Wolfe's Look Homeward, Angel. Roth never fulfilled his agreement to deliver a novel to Perkins, but with Mercy of a Rude Stream and, now, An American Type, editorial surgery on his literary leavings looks to be angelic intervention.

Call It Sleep follows David Schearl, an impressionable immigrant child trying to cope with the tumult of the Lower East Side, to age eight. Though the protagonist of Mercy of a Rude Stream—and of An American Type—is named Ira, he seems an extension into adolescence and young manhood of David, himself a thinly veiled version of Roth. Both author and protagonist were born in February 1906, both lived for ten years with an NYU professor, both fell in love with a musician at the artists' colony Yaddo, and both are eighty-four, widowed, and distraught in Albuquerque when they begin to compose this text. Fiction and autobiography exist on a continuum rather than as antitheses; any attempt to put actual life into words transforms, if not deforms, the experience. However, because it hews so closely to known details of its author's life, An American Type bears less resemblance to autobiographical fictions such as David Copperfield or A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man than to The First Man, Albert Camus's account of his impoverished childhood in Algeria, which was also published posthumously and labeled as a novel. An American Type is an absorbing Depression-era love story, but what gives it special interest is the light it sheds on Roth's lost years. By salvaging this Künstlerroman set in the late 1930s, Davidson has made an important contribution to our understanding of a key figure in American Jewish literature.

The book arrives amid a profusion of posthumous publications—of Roberto Bolaño, Susan Sontag, Irène Némirovsky, Vladimir Nabokov, Ralph Ellison, David Foster Wallace (can J. D. Salinger be far behind?). When he finally wrote, Roth wrote to be published, and putting this material, at least, into print needs no apology, though in his afterword, Davidson justifies the chronological order he has imposed on the motley material.

Ira's present-tense ruminations—on his recently deceased, beloved wife, his own physical and psychological ailments, and the imminence of the Gulf War—serve as a frame, but the story itself opens with his arrival in Saratoga Springs, to begin a short residency at Yaddo. Presided over by its infamously autocratic director, Elizabeth Ames, the retreat is also hosting Kenneth F, Muriel R, and Daniel F—these names thin disguises for Kenneth Fearing, Muriel Rukeyser, and Daniel Fuchs, who stayed at Yaddo during Roth's residency in the summer of 1938. To escape Elizabeth's tyranny, Ira periodically drives his Model A into town in the company of the musician M. A romance soon develops, precipitating an operatic confrontation with Edith, Ira's mentor, benefactor, and lover, when he returns to her apartment in Greenwich Village. Though Edith dismisses as "utter romantic rot" her protégé's plot to abandon her and take up with M, Ira is worried that his dependence on the older woman has kept him from growing, artistically and emotionally. To make a decisive break, he will drive to California.

He travels with Bill Loem, an illiterate Communist organizer indistinguishable from the Bill Clay who accompanied Roth on his cross-country trip in 1938. Idolizing him as a hero of the working class, Ira has been casting his companion, who lost a hand in a factory accident, as the protagonist of his novel in progress. However, time on the road together convinces Ira that Bill is a blustering bully who merely parrots Marxist dogma. Unsuccessful at landing work in Hollywood, Ira humbles himself to beg Edith for money. Her reply, identical to a scathing letter Eda Lou Walton sent Roth, who had joined the Communist Party against her advice, excoriates Ira as "first and foremost a completely self-engrossed individualist, to whom communism, the proletariat, or your friends and intimates have meant nothing, except what you could feed on. You have no emotional imagination about anyone on earth but yourself." Nevertheless, she encloses a check.

Without a job, Ira continues sinking into dire financial straits, and though he has had to sell his car, he resolves to return to New York. The most vivid writing recounts Ira's journey home by thumb and boxcar, part of a horde of desperate vagabonds spreading out across America during the final years of the Depression. Roth evokes the agony of an entire day spent by the side of a road attempting to flag down a ride, as well as the terror of hopping on a moving freight train and enduring cold, hunger, and the threat of violence from railroad dicks, as well as from fellow hobos. Unlike Call It Sleep, with its torrential stream of consciousness, the prose in An American Type is generally spare and pointed. But a frigid night in a boxcar makes the mind wander, from the chilly present through memories of childhood, and the evocative style casts off the strictures of adult syntax for the rhythms of nursery rhyme: "Long night awake . . . long night cold . . . long night on a freight, five days old . . . long night of clackety-clack, clackety-clack on wheels pounding eastward over the segmented tracks."

Mercy of a Rude Stream is dominated by Ira's anxiety and guilt over illicit sex with his sister and his cousin, but An American Type, which culminates in a trip to the municipal marriage bureau, where Ira and M formalize their relationship, celebrates the triumph of conjugal love. Self-loathing—not quite vanished—is sublimated into adoration of M. It would be an exaggeration to call this novel of the open road Whitmanesque, but liberated from mortifying attachments to M and his family in New York, Ira experiences an exuberance rarely found in Roth's fiction. If disquieting hints of homophobia occasionally darken its mood, An American Type remains a love story that, while haunted by M's recent unexpected death, begins with courtship and ends with the newlyweds asleep in each other's arms. For all the distress of the ailing, grieving octogenarian author, even the epilogue concludes with the phrase "Innate and unquenchable hope, expression of life's vitality, or a trust in the future." Devoid of the tetralogy's frequent crosscutting between present and past, this book follows a more gratifying, conventional arc, the direction of Cupid's arrow.

Davidson apparently plucked the title from an early reference to Bill Loem as "a true American type." Yet Bill is a minor player in the proceedings, and Ira, beset by his own peculiar meshigas, is hardly a type. Appending American to titles (Idol, Beauty, Gangster, etc.) might be an effective marketing device for domestic audiences. However, since the final paragraph of the book quotes the admonition "Shake your chains to earth like dew" from Shelley's "The Mask of Anarchy," a more telling moniker for this uncharacteristically buoyant block of Rothian prose might have been Shake Your Chains.

Steven G. Kellman is the author of Redemption: The Life of Henry Roth (Norton, 2005).

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