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Henry Roth Slept With His Sister and His Cousin

Now that you know the novelist’s incestuous secrets, is his newly reissued ‘Mercy of a Rude Stream’ quartet worth reading or not?

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(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine)
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If the novelist Henry Roth were a character in a novel, instead of the creator of novels and characters, no one would believe in him. His career would seem too unlikely, too melodramatic in its extremes of success and failure, ignominy, and redemption. In 1934, at the age of 28, Roth published his first novel, Call It Sleep, a Joycean evocation of his Jewish immigrant childhood in New York. The book was well received but sold few copies, and soon went out of print. Roth stopped writing, moved to rural Maine, and spent his time at a series of odd and menial jobs, working as an attendant at a mental hospital and a plucker of waterfowl. Thirty years passed before a young editor named Peter Mayer decided, in 1964, to bring out a paperback edition of Roth’s all-but-forgotten book. Much to the publisher’s surprise, the reprint was reviewed by the leading critic Irving Howe on the front page of the New York Times Book Review, where it was described as a forgotten classic of American literature, “one of the few genuinely distinguished novels written by a 20th-century American.” The review turned Call It Sleep into a runaway success, selling a million copies over the next year.

Henry Roth was suddenly promoted to the role of founding father of American Jewish fiction, at a time when writers like Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, and Philip Roth were at their peak. Still, Roth was not tempted to return to writing until, in the late 1970s, he began working on a new autobiographical novel, which would take up the story of his youth where Call It Sleep left off. Eventually, in 1992, the editor Robert Weil overcame the resistance of his colleagues at St. Martin’s Press and insisted on publishing Roth’s new work. In a heroic feat of editing, Weil helped Roth turn thousands of manuscript pages into a series of four volumes, which began to appear in 1994 under the title Mercy of a Rude Stream. Roth lived to see only the first two of these appear; he died in 1995, having found his voice again after 60 years of silence. He narrowly avoided the fate of Ralph Ellison, who went to his grave unable to produce a sequel to his early masterpiece, Invisible Man.

The only thing Roth’s story needs to turn it into a Hollywood-ready fable is for Mercy of a Rude Stream to have been hailed as an unequivocal masterpiece, a worthy successor to Call It Sleep. But the truth is that readers and critics alike have not known quite what to make of Roth’s late-life epic. It eschews the technical fireworks that made Call It Sleep read like a Lower East Side version of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Indeed, one of the themes of Stream is Roth’s newfound disdain for modernism in general and for Joyce in particular. Instead, Stream offers a slow, lengthy, literal account of Roth’s own youth from the ages of 8 to 21. Names are changed—Roth himself goes by “Ira Stigman”—but places, characters, and events seem to be taken straight from life, an impression largely confirmed by Steven G. Kellman’s biography of Roth, Redemption.

At the heart of Roth’s autobiographical novel lies a sensational and disturbing confession, one that cannot help drastically unsettling the reader’s experience of the book. Throughout his teens, Roth confides through the guise of Ira, he carried on an incestuous sexual relationship with his sister, “Minnie,” and with his first cousin, “Stella.” In both cases, the girls were pre-pubescent when he first began having sex with them—or, depending on your point of view, molesting them—and the incest continued for many years. Inevitably, when the first volumes of Stream were published, the revelation of incest was what made headlines, so that if the average reader knows anything about Henry Roth today, it is that he stopped writing for decades and that he slept with his sister. This is a heavy burden of expectation to bring to a book that, even without it, is difficult to grasp due to its length, slow pace, and odd surges of narrative power.

Now the four volumes of Mercy of a Rude Stream are being published as a single volume for the first time, some 20 years after their original appearance. No longer a curiosity or a news story, the book—and despite the division into four volumes, it definitely reads like a single, long book—can start to be judged on literary terms. How does Stream change the way we think about Roth, and about its predecessor Call It Sleep? Did Roth invent a viable new form of autobiographical writing, or did he outlive the genius of his early work?

***

Mercy of a Rude Stream would probably never have been published if it weren’t by the author of Call It Sleep; but the books are so different that comparing them may be more of an obstacle than a help to understanding. Roth’s first novel, written in his mid-twenties, is an excavation of his early childhood, which he is able to summon up with amazing immediacy. David Schearl, the novel’s protagonist, shares Roth’s biography: Born in Galicia, the Jewish heartland of Austria-Hungary, in 1906, he is brought to America by his mother as a young child. David’s father, Albert Schearl, has gone ahead to establish the family’s beachhead in New York, and he sends money for his wife and son to join him. But the opening pages of Call It Sleep establish with wonderful economy the family dynamics that will turn David’s childhood into a kind of hell. Albert, far from being happy to see his wife and son, greets them at Ellis Island with suspicion and reproof. Seeing David’s gaudy, old-country bonnet, he peremptorily takes it and throws it into the harbor—a symbolic baptism, or perhaps circumcision, which initiates the boy into the harshness of American life.

“This was that vast incredible land, the land of freedom, of immense opportunity, that Golden Land,” David’s mother Genya reflects when she looks at Manhattan’s skyline. But for the Schearls, opportunity proves elusive.This is not a story of immigrant success, like Abraham Cahan’s The Rise of David Levinsky, but the more seldom told story of immigrant dread and fear. The reason the Schearls are unable to rise in American society is that Albert, as we soon come to realize, is mentally ill—a brooding paranoid who is unable to hold a job without getting into fights with his coworkers. A quick way to describe the Schearl family romance is as a disastrous Oedipal triangle, in which father and son are competitors for the mother’s love. But the relationships are so vividly rendered that we always feel we are dealing with a real family, not a Freudian schema. This is a novel that always shows, never tells.

The full revelation of Albert’s brutality comes when David, then just 5 or 6 years old, accidentally kicks another child and bloodies his nose. When Albert sees this, he goes mad with rage, convinced that his son, too, is one of the enemies out to destroy him:

Answer me, his words rang out. Answer me, but they meant, Despair! Who could answer his father? In that dread summons the judgment was already sealed. Like a cornered thing, he shrank within himself, deadened his mind because the body would not deaden and waited. Nothing existed any longer except his father’s right hand—the hand that hung down into the electric circle of his vision. Terrific clarity was given him. Terrific leisure. Transfixed, timeless, he studied the curling fingers that twitched spasmodically, studied the printer’s ink ingrained upon the finger tips, pondered, as if all there were in the world, the nail of the smallest finger, nipped by a press, that climbed in a jagged little stair to the hangnail. Terrific absorption.

The savage beating that follows is less chilling than this moment of frozen observation, in which David’s childlike terror comes across so strongly. The whole novel follows the rhythms of David’s perception in this way, and so it is through his internal monologue that we come to know the life of Jewish poverty in Brownsville and then on the Lower East Side. Everywhere in this life, so often romanticized by those who have escaped it, threats and mysteries lie in wait for David. There is the cellar door of his tenement, which he is afraid to pass on his way out of the building; the cheder, where a crude and abusive rabbi teaches boys to mouth Hebrew words without understanding; the streets, where gangs of bullies lie in wait.

Above all, David Schearl is traumatized by the glimpses he gets of sex, the greatest mystery and threat of all. Early in the book, he is dragged into a closet by a friend’s sister, who wants to “play bad” with him:

“Between de legs. Who puts id in is de poppa. De poppa’s god de petzel. Yaw de poppa.” She giggled stealthily and took his hand. He could feel her guiding it under her dress, then through a pocket-like flap. Her skin under his palm. Revolted, he drew back.

“Yuh must!” she insisted, tugging his hand. “Yuh ast me!”

“No!”

This early experience—rendered in the Yinglish dialect that Roth uses throughout—leaves David as terrified of sexuality as he is of his father. His dread will prove catastrophic at the climax of the novel, when he helps a friend to half-seduce, half-rape one of his own female cousins. This transgression, blended with the traumatic secrets he has begun to divine about his own parents’ sexuality, leads to the book’s spectacular denouement. David, having read in cheder about the visions of the prophet Isaiah, seeks his own salvation and atonement by deliberately electrocuting himself with the third rail of the trolley tracks. Using techniques learned from “The Waste Land,” Roth intercuts this sublime disaster with the various voices and accents of all the people who observe it—Italian, Jewish, Irish, a chorus of the urban poor. The whole scene is a tour-de-force, which could only have been written by someone who had mastered the fractured voices and free associations of Joyce and Eliot.

***

Call It Sleep is such a complete and powerful evocation of Roth’s own childhood that his failure to produce a sequel can seem almost natural. Childhood, for Roth, was itself a kind of third rail, the buried source that powered his imagination; and in this book he had grasped it and let its destructive energy flow through him. Perhaps he was one of those writers who have one story to tell, their own. Having told it, the daemon was exorcised, and he had nothing left that he needed to say.

A lifetime later, when Roth produced Mercy of a Rude Stream, it turned out that this diagnosis was both true and false. He was, in fact, a writer with one subject, his own development. Where other novelists grow into an engagement with the world and the reality of other people, Roth remained arrested, or transfixed, by the catastrophe of his own childhood. Yet there were still plenty of stories he could have told after Call It Sleep, which ends with David Schearl as an 8-year-old. What prevented him from continuing his autobiographical fiction, at least until he was near the end of his life?

In Stream, Roth himself offers several answers to this question. He blames ideology: By the time Call It Sleep appeared in 1934, he was a die-hard Communist, and he was stricken by Party attacks on the novel for its bourgeois self-absorption. (As Kellner reveals in Redemption, Roth struggled to write a class-conscious book based on the life of a Party activist he knew, but the work went nowhere. Without the seed of his own experience, Roth couldn’t make his fiction grow.) He blames Joyce: By following the virtuosic example of the master of “silence, exile, and cunning,” Roth came to feel, he estranged himself from his own surroundings and subject matter. He blames his parents for moving from the Lower East Side to an Irish area of Harlem, where he was cut off from his sheltering Jewish environment. Much of the dread and alienation he attributed to David Schearl’s life on the Lower East Side, Roth came to believe, was actually the product of a later phase of his childhood, spent among hostile gentiles on East 119th Street.

But the most important answer, the one that any reader of Stream can’t help but come away with, is that Roth was paralyzed as a writer because he dared not write about the overwhelming fact of his adolescence: his incestuous relationships with his sister and cousin. Even when he started to write Stream, he hoped to keep this secret out of the book. Indeed, in the first volume of the series, A Star Shines Over Mt. Morris Park, Ira Stigman—Roth’s new avatar—doesn’t even have a sister; he appears to be an only child.

It’s no coincidence, however, that this first volume is the weakest of the series. We come to know Ira Stigman as an 8-year-old transplant to Harlem and follow him through his elementary-school and junior-high career. At the same time, we are introduced the voice of the 70-year-old Ira, who is writing the book at some time in the late 1970s. (These present-day interventions are set in different type, to make the time-scheme clear.) The older Ira’s remarks often take the form of an imaginary conversation with his word processor, which he calls “Ecclesias,” and which serves as a kind of artistic conscience, to whom Ira must justify himself. He also frequently writes about his wife, “M”—Roth’s wife was named Muriel—whom he adores.

A Star Shines Over Mt. Morris Park moves slowly, clinging to the actual facts of Stigman/Roth’s life in a way that makes it feel more like an oral-history project or a garrulous memoir than a work of fiction. This feeling never entirely leaves Mercy of a Rude Stream, which commits all kinds of technical blunders that any newly minted MFA would know to avoid. There are clumsy, mechanical transitions and repetitive scenes that make the same thematic point, and awkward sentences. When a section begins “There seemed no end in sight to the terrible World War that raged on in Europe,” we feel we are reading a report, rather than an evocation, of events. This is the chief difference between Stream and Call It Sleep, which is so powerfully immediate and concrete. It is the difference between a writer in his mid-twenties, in touch with the modernist currents of his time, and a writer in his seventies, who has been out of practice and out of touch for half a century.

Still, in the early part of the sequence, Roth lays out a series of themes and techniques that will gradually yield larger and larger pay-offs. By dividing himself into the old man remembering and the young man being remembered, Roth/Stigman casts himself as a kind of detective, out to solve the mystery of his life, which is the mystery of his failure. “You made a climax of evasion, an apocalypse out of your refusal to go on,” “Ecclesias” observes, describing both the electric-shock finale of Call It Sleep and the wider “refusal to go on” that marked Roth’s career. What explains this failure—was it the move to Harlem, or the decision to go to City College instead of Cornell? Was his life permanently derailed by the disgrace of having stolen a classmate’s pen in high school?

But these feel like petty, private complaints, not proper subjects for a writer’s magnum opus. And sure enough, the elderly Ira begins to drop heavy hints that there is another secret, another reason for guilt and failure, still to be revealed in his manuscript. The revelation comes, explosively, in the second book of the sequence, A Diving Rock on the Hudson. All of a sudden we learn, first, that Ira had a sister, and second, that the two were having sex on a regular basis. This is Stigman’s stigma, the explanation for his name and more. Shockingly, the incest is described in almost pornographic terms: “Fuck me, fuck me good,” sister tells brother. Stigman insists on the eroticism of the experience, even though, in the present day, he writes about it with reiterated shame and grief. “Oh, horror, horror,” he writes, after spilling the secret, and the reader eventually loses count of how many times he chastises himself for this long-ago transgression.

Ira’s incest becomes the magnetic core of his personality, drawing to itself every kind of crime and debacle. Like Saint Augustine stealing pears, Ira commits sin after sin, as if to demonstrate his incorrigibility. One of the things Roth writes about best are Ira’s jobs, the various kinds of work he did in 1920s New York: selling soda at the Polo Grounds, delivering fancy food-baskets to rich people’s houses, greasing the axles of subway trains. But again and again, Ira ends up unable to avoid stealing from his bosses, just as he can’t stop himself from stealing the fountain pen at Stuyvesant High. Once you have violated the incest taboo, what do other taboos matter? Once you have ruined your soul, why not ruin your life?

The novel moves at such a stately pace that the rare episodes of high pressure stand out like mountain peaks over a plain. Roth returns to them again and again: the moment in the first volume when Ira drinks from a stream in Central Park, to seal a kind of marriage between himself and the American landscape; the moment in the second volume when Ira, disgraced and expelled from Stuyvesant, stands on a rock on the Hudson and considers suicide; the terrible moment when Ira, fearing that he has made his sister Minnie pregnant, is overwhelmed by the impulse to murder her and fights it by immersing himself in geometry homework.

These pivotal instants are what Joyce would have called “epiphanies,” but the prose style of Stream does not heighten and dramatize them, the way Roth did with the epiphanic moments in Call It Sleep. Narrative momentum is constantly slowed by Roth’s insistence on following the exact contours of Stigman’s life, semester to semester, job to job. And the present-day interrogations and interruptions further deaden the novel’s pace, even as they heighten its intimacy and moral complexity. By the time you reach the end of Stigman’s saga, as he emancipates himself from home and family with the help of an adult lover—the college professor and poet Edith Welles, based on the real-life Eda Lou Walton—you have the sense of having traversed a huge span of time. Few books give a more pronounced sense of the endlessness of childhood, perhaps because, at 1,200 pages, Stream is far longer than most Bildungsromans dare to be.

Yet the character that makes the longest-lasting impression is the elderly Ira Stigman, with all his bathos and digressions (including some sentimental speeches about the State of Israel). It is not just Ira’s reports on his failing health, his eventual loss of M, or his struggles with computer technology that make him such a powerful representative of old age. Rather, it is the very length and unevenness of the book that testifies to the elderly Ira’s tenacious will. By the time he produced Mercy of a Rude Stream, Roth was clearly living to write, and writing to live. He wrote too much, shaped and revised too little, because he was writing against the clock, trying to put his life down in words and somehow justify all its wrong turns and disappointments.

It seems only fitting that this justification remains partial—not a stunning victory over time and guilt but a problematic record of them. Modernism believed in the triumph of art over life, the redemption of life by art, and when he wrote Call It Sleep, so did Henry Roth; that is why he was able to produce a masterpiece. By the time he wrote Stream, Roth had become a postmodernist—distrustful of artistic transformation, blurring the gap between fact and fiction, a maker who needed to leave his human trace on what he made. The result was that he could no longer produce a masterpiece. Instead he wrote something much stranger, and possibly more unique—a human document without parallel in American Jewish literature, without which the full story of that literature cannot be told.

***

Read more of Adam Kirsch’s essays on 20th-century fiction—Singer, Bellow, Grossman, Bassani, and others—here.

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Henry Roth Slept With His Sister and His Cousin

Now that you know the novelist’s incestuous secrets, is his newly reissued ‘Mercy of a Rude Stream’ quartet worth reading or not?