Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Forays Into American Lit: Henry Roth

When I dreamed up this bloggy romp through my favorite American literature, Henry Roth was at the forefront of my mind. First, a little backstory...

In 2006 or so, I took a class on American Modernism. Don't make the mistake I made and refer to "contemporary" novels as "modern." The two were interchangeable in my head until a prof corrected me over nachos (there was also a vodka tonic). BUT, as I was to learn, Modernism is a distinctive movement in literature and the arts: 
American modernism like modernism in general is a trend of thought that affirms the power of human beings to create, improve, and reshape their environment, with the aid of scientific knowledge, technology and practical experimentation, and is thus in its essence both progressive and optimistic.
This is also another term for the Jazz Age, Roaring 20s, whatever you want to call it. If you love authors from this era, you're a lover of American Modernism. I *heart* American Modernism so hard, I just wanna pinch its cheeks!

But back to Roth. In the Modernism class, we read a ton of good stuff: Fitzgerald, Cather, Wharton, Dreiser. But I think Henry Roth was the biggest surprise to me. The biggest Roth in American literature is Philip Roth (The Human Stain, Portnoy's Complaint, American Pastoral, The Plot Against America). Henry Roth is quite different (far older, less masturbation). He's also quite an enigma. Here are a few bullet points from his bio:

  • Born in Tysmenitz near StanislawowGaliciaAustro-Hungary  (now known as Tysmenytsia, near Ivano-Frankivsk, Galicia, the Ukraine) in 1906
  • Began his life in New York in 1908
  • Roth lived in the slums of the Lower East Side until 1927, when, as a senior at City College of New York, he moved in with Eda Lou Walton, a poet and New York University instructor who lived on Morton Street in Greenwich Village
  • Call It Sleep was published in December 1934, to mixed reviews. It underwent a critical reappraisal after being republished in 1964.
  • Roth began a second novel but growing ideological frustration and personal confusion created a profound writer’s block, which lasted until 1979 (!!!!)
  • With the onset of World War II, Roth became a tool and gauge maker.
  • He later worked as a woodsman, a schoolteacher, a psychiatric attendant in the state mental hospital, a waterfowl farmer, and a Latin and math tutor.
  • Roth died in Albuquerque, New Mexico, United States in 1995.

He published eight books in total, but WHAT A LONG BREAK!

Now, admittedly, I was bad about not finishing my reading by deadline in grad school. There was a lot of beer to be consumed from week to week, so I did what I could. But I will always remember the moment Call It Sleep grabbed me by the hair. I'm not usually much for American immigrant fiction (it just doesn't grasp me the way other themes do), but this one was spectacular. I was working in the campus Writing Center the day of class and I was scrambling to finish by class time. Our professor was notorious for calling us out to analyze and wax poetic about the week's reading. Socratic method! I was always super nervous so I was bound and determined to finish the damn book. 

And it happened. Not only was I keen to finish it out of obligation, I had been grabbed. The characters were compelling, the plot was compelling, the writing was out of this world. And I was lying under a table in the Writing Center break room begging my colleagues to leave me alone. They were sympathetic, so they did, thinking I was just worried about getting verbally nailed in class. 

But obviously, Call It Sleep made quite an impression on me. And it's a book I'd dearly like to re-read sooner than later. Henry Roth is a memorable figure for me not only because of his great writing, but also because he seems such an odd, complicated character. Read his biography -- his was quite a life!

Have you read Henry Roth? Have you ever heard of him? 

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