harvey pekar | shifting landscape by henry roth

Shifting Landscape

by Henry Roth. The Jewish Publication Society. Reviewed by Harvey Pekar

Many literary scholars consider Henry Roth untouchable. Roth’s only novel, Call It Sleep, published in 1934, forgotten, revived in the early ’60s, has justly become regarded as a masterpiece. Drawing from a variety of sources, most obviously James Joyce, Roth might have established a reputation comparable to William Faulkner’s. As it is, many authorities consider Call It Sleep, based on Roth’s childhood experiences in New York around 1910-15, the greatest novel ever written by an American Jew. But he quit writing.

We’ll never know whether he would have done anything better than Call It Sleep, but it was no flash-in-the-pan by a one-idea author. The sure-footed grace and lyricism of Roth’s prose, his wide range of interests, great powers of observation and description, precision of language and willingness to experiment guaranteed that any work by him would have substantial merit.

Roth abandoned his literary career completely in 1940 and published nothing until 1954 when, having become a Maine waterfowl farmer, he contributed “Equipment for Pennies” to The Magazine for Ducks and Geese. A few more articles and stories followed, up to the middle ’60s, when Call It Sleep became a commercial as well as critical success.

Of poultry and the Party: Roth had joined the Communist Party in 1933 and remained an ardent supporter of the Soviet Union until 1966. Then he rediscovered his Jewish roots. Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War and nationalistic pride thrilled and inspired him to write more, though he still published infrequently.

Roth’s literary inactivity has proved intriguing, made him something of a legend. Here’s a great author who hasn’t written anything for decades. Why? Why is he a chicken farmer?

Some of the answers are provided in Shifting Landscape, a collection of Roth’s writing issued late last year by the Jewish Publication Society,* which contains everything he’s published except Call It Sleep, together with his comments on the individual selections. Arranged chronologically, they outline Roth’s biography and allow us to follow his literary and philosophical evolution.

Shifting Landscape’s publication was understandably treated as a happy occasion by critics and journalists, who praised Call It Sleep and traced Roth’s long and difficult journey from the ’30s to the present. Little attention was paid, however, to the quality and nature of the new book’s contents. Because Roth objects to being viewed as a “holy relic” and remains a technically proficient, intellectually sharp writer, his more recent work deserves close scrutiny, not the kindly condescension it’s received.

His literary career had a strange beginning: as a student he became involved with New York University professor Eda Lou Walton, 12 years his senior, and lived with her for a decade. Walton, his lover-patron, introduced Roth to the work of his main influences, Joyce and T. S. Eliot. The earliest selection in Shifting Landscape, “Impressions of a Plumber,” is a student effort in which Roth discusses a plumber’s helper job he’d held, describing with precision and clarity the nature of his work. Getting details right has always mattered to Roth regardless of his occupation.

Socialist unrealism: Prior to the publication of Call It Sleep, Roth started another novel. He’d recently joined the Communist Party and decided to write a proletarian novel based on the life of a second-generation German-American worker from Cincinnati, but couldn’t complete it. The work seemed alien to him. He could not reconcile his modernism, i.e., his use of stream-of-consciousness technique and affinity for subtlety, introspection and subjective portrayal, with the demands of the party for socialist realism.

Roth eventually destroyed what he’d written of this novel, but not before a portion of it was printed in a small magazine. He’s highly critical of the published fragment here, calling it “too rich,” “stilted,” “precious.” What survives, however, is good naturalist writing. Roth probably feels uncomfortable reading the Appalachian dialogue of his characters, a bit too picturesque to be believable, but no disaster.

Roth’s blind attachment to Stalinism is apparent in his disgraceful 1937 article, “Where My Sympathy Lies,” which contains a defense of the Moscow purge trials and an attack on Trotskyists. He’s ashamed of having written it now, but doesn’t appear to have changed as radically as he believes; the slavish devotion he once gave to Stalin’s USSR has now been transferred to Likud-run Israel.

During 1939-40 Roth published three stories in the New Yorker and Coronet. Of these, “Broker,” reminiscent of Stephen Crane’s “Travels in New York-The Broken Down Van,” merits attention. A vignette about the predicament of a black man whose truck gets stuck under a Manhattan bridge, causing a traffic jam and bringing the cops down on his neck, it is beautifully observed. Judging from Roth’s comments, he probably doesn’t think much of “Broker,” probably because it’s not portentious enough. Though not consciously making a big statement, however, he says a lot about the human condition and does so with humor—a rare and welcome quality in his work.

And then: nothing until “Equipment for Pennies.”

During the early ’60s Roth remained a supporter of the USSR and unfavorably disposed toward Israel. He said in a 1963 Midstream statement, “..,.I feel that to the great boons Jews have already conferred upon humanity, Jews in America might add this last and greatest one: of orienting themselves toward ceasing to be Jews.”

Toward a new style: By 1966, though, Roth’s attitude was changing. He published a piece called “The Surveyor” in the New Yorker about a retired American Jew, Stigman, looking around Seville for a location to place a wreath. Because of his surveying equipment, he’s noticed and questioned by a policeman. Stigman refuses to divulge his purpose and is brought to the police station where state attorney Ortega can’t get him to talk but quickly deduces that he’s looking for the spot where Inquisition victims were executed. How does Ortega know? Because it happens that he’s a descendent of Marranos. The two men have a drink later and Stigman’s wife offers a toast, “L’chaim.”

“The Surveyor,” one of Roth’s longer works, is smoothly structured but stylistically conservative and contrived; Roth confuses pretentiousness with profundity.

“Final Dwarf,” worked on by Roth sporadically through the ’60s, focuses on his poisonous relationship with his aged father during a trip to a small town shopping center. As in Call It Sleep, the father is shown to be cruel and intolerant (the elder Roth’s reaction to Call It Sleep reportedly was, “I shouldn’t have beat him so much”). An insightful, unsentimental piece, “Final Dwarf” remains stylistically anonymous.

After the Six-Day War, however, Roth began writing with increased zeal and worked to develop a new style. One of the most revealing statements he’s made is “…the individual per se disintegrates unless he associates with an institution of some sort, with a larger entity. I could not find that kind of bond in religion….I found it in the existence of a nation (Israel).”

But many individuals do well without connection to a nation, large institution, or philosophy, e.g., those whose attachment to family makes life significant. Roth, however, has a “true believer” mentality. Once it was Stalin, currently it’s Israel. “Israel is my chief concern now,” he states, “and any work of literary merit that I can achieve would be in her behalf, to muster sympathy and support for her survival and security.”

There are various political factions in Israel, all of which believe they represent the nation’s best interests. Roth seems to be on the side of the Israeli right; at any rate he will not challenge it. “Oh,” he writes, “I know the question that will be asked: What are we doing in Lebanon? What about the claims of the PLO to be an independent state? What about Israel? Her security, her existence. Who is going to ride above this battle…..That sort of detachment spells paralysis,…” That is, shoot first and ask questions later.

A conscious stream: Roth is now working on a long work, Mercy of a Rude Stream, called by him a memoir-novel, which he wants to be published pothumously. This autobiographical project, covering 1914 to 1939, will contain everything from fictionalized autobiography to journal excerpts and polemics.

One excerpt, “Weekends in New York,” employs material from a 1939 diary in which he writes compellingly about sidewalk preachers and a Friday night family meal. As it and other selections from the latter portion of Shifting Landscape indicate, he’s again writing richly poetic prose. But interrupting this narrative flow are italicized contemporary flash-forward passages in which Roth castigates James Joyce for not having been involved with the Irish revolution and flagellates himself for his previous opposition to Israel. Apparently he wants everyone to be a fervent nationalist.

Roth refused to accept socialist realism in the ’30s, but now he appears to have evolved a similar philosophy in attempting to “muster sympathy and support” for the Israeli right. There is plenty of talk in the essays, memoirs and commentary here about how Jews have suffered, but no acknowledgement of their persecution of Arabs, no concern shown that Israel, originally conceived as a Jewish state, has become a bi-national state with Jewish rulers and an Arab underclass.

Many want to attribute Roth’s views to the eccentricity of old age, but as a young man he was similarly oblivious to the evils of Stalinism.

Roth’s opinions are terribly unfortunate, politically unsound and almost hypocritical: he blasts Saul Bellow for preferring life in the U.S. to life in Israel, while himself residing in Albuquerque. They also mar his literary efforts. When he wrote Call It Sleep, Roth had, by his own admission, an art-for-art’s-sake, “apolitical, aeconomic” attitude, now he violently rejects his previous lack of partisanship and has become a more didactic writer. O.K., but didactic writers must do more than repeatedly proclaim their loyalty and love for Israel. There are too many statements of this kind in Shifting Landscape, so many that perhaps he has purged himself of them. Mercy of a Rude Stream promises to be a substantive effort, an unusual synthetic work. Hopefully, Roth won’t load it up too much with nationalistic rhapsodizing.

* previously published in IN THESE TIMES, August 1988 reprinted w/blessing of Harvey Pekar

from Big Hammer No. 5, Iniquity Press / Vendetta Books, David Roskos. Much more on Harvey Pekar can be found by clicking here…

Henry Roth

(February 8, 1906 – October 13, 1995) was an American novelist and short story writer.

Roth was born in Tysmenitz near Stanislaviv, Galicia, Austro-Hungary (now known as Ivano-Frankivsk, Galicia, the Ukraine). His first published novel Call It Sleep (originally published in 1934) achieved a second life since its re-publication and critical re-appraisal in the 1960s when it sold 1,000,000 copies and was hailed as an overlooked Depression-era masterpiece and classic novel of immigration. It is widely regarded as a masterpiece of Jewish American literature. Call It Sleep was dedicated to his then mistress and muse, Eda Lou Walton.

After the book’s publication, Roth began and abandoned a second novel and wrote several short stories. In the early 1940s he abandoned writing, and moved from New York to Maine and later New Mexico, and worked as a firefighter, laborer, and teacher, among other occupations, before retiring to a trailer park in Albuquerque.

Roth originally didn’t welcome the new-found success that Call It Sleep received, valuing his privacy instead. However, he soon began to write again, at first short stories. At the age of 73, he began work on a series of novels that grew to six volumes, with final editing completed shortly before his death. The first four of these were published (two of them posthumously) as a cycle called Mercy of a Rude Stream while the last two manuscript volumes remain unpublished. He died in Albuquerque, New Mexico, United States in 1995.

Roth failed to garner the acclaim some say he deserves, perhaps because he failed to produce another novel for sixty years. His massive writer’s block after the publication of Call it Sleep is often attributed to Roth’s personal problems, such as depression, and political conflicts. It has also been alleged that because the protagonist in the Mercy of a Rude Stream novels had incestuous relationships with a sister and a cousin that this indicated that Roth himself engaged in such relationships. However, both the sister and the cousin who are alleged to have been involved in such relationships with Roth denied that they ever occurred.

  • * Call It Sleep (1934)
  • * Nature’s First Green (1979)
  • * Shifting Landscape: A Composite, 1925–1987 (1987)
  • * Mercy of a Rude Stream Vol. 1: A Star Shines Over Mt. Morris Park (1994)
  • * Mercy of a Rude Stream Vol. 2: A Diving Rock on the Hudson (1995)
  • * Mercy of a Rude Stream Vol. 3: From Bondage (1996)
  • * Mercy of a Rude Stream Vol. 4: Requiem for Harlem (1998)


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