Henry Roth "Call it sleep" - an Analysis

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2010

25 Pages, Grade: 1


1. Introduction

The New York Times described Roth’s novel Call it Sleep as “One of the few genuinely distinguished novels written by a twentieth-century American” (Roth blurb). The book tells us about David Schearl, child of Jewish immigrants in the first decades of the 19th century. Similarities between the author’s biography and David’s life are quite obvious.

This paper will give a short overview of the author’s life and point out a few similarities with the book. After a brief abstract of the novel’s content the focus will be on identity created through language and the Jewish origin of the character. Identity is a very important motif in Roth’s novel and it is influenced by the history of Jewish immigrants in New York’s Lower East Side, as well as by the urban experiences of the character. David searches for his own identity within and outside of his own community.

In the following parts Roth’s technique will be explained by Cohn’s theory of psycho-narration, with a focus on the modernist climax in the penultimate chapter. The paper ends in the conclusion that Roth’s novel is about the search of identity, depicted through a variety of methods.

2. About the author

According to the encyclopedia (Fischel, and Pinsker: 555-556) Henry Roth was born in 1906 in Tysmenicz, Galicia, which used to be a part of Austro-Hungary and nowadays belongs to the Ukraine. Together with his mother Leah Roth he immigrated to the United States at the age of 18 month. His father Herman Roth had already immigrated shortly after Henry’s birth and awaited the family at their arrival in New York. The Roths lived for two years in Brooklyn, then on the Lower East Side and eventually moved to Harlem in 1914.

After graduating from DeWitt Clinton High School in Manhattan in 1924, Roth enrolled in City College of New York with the desire to work in a field of natural science. His literary talent was discovered when he handed in the essay “Impressions of a Plumber” for an English language course, which was published in the student literary magazine. In 1930 Roth met the New York University professor and poet Eda Lou Walton, who became his lover, literary agent and patron. She introduces him to modernist literature which will influence Roth’s own work. Especially James Joyce’s Ulysses inspired Roth, as can be seen in several parts of Call it Sleep. It was under her influence that he started writing Call it Sleep in 1930.

Three years of writing progress and one year of editing later he sent his finished manuscript to several publishers but was rejected. With the help of Walton’s connection the book was eventually published in 1934 with great success concerning critics, but with low sales numbers. Brought back from oblivion by Alfred Kazim and Leslie A. Fiedler in a symposium entitled “The Most Neglected Books of the Past 25 Years” in 1960, the book became soon a bestseller.

For over thirty years Call it Sleep would remain Roth’s only novel. Suffering from an immense writer’s block, he earned his life-stock working in various professions and various places throughout the US. He had met his wife Muriel Parker in 1938 in an artist colony in Saratoga. The marriage lasted over five decades and the couple had two sons. Eventually they lived in Albuquerque, New Mexico where Roth died in 1995, and five years after his wife.

In his article Rosen (74-79) describes how Roth returned from the ‘death’ of his writer’s block at the age of 73, beginning to write on a series of autobiographical novels, four of which were published under the series title Mercy of a Rude Stream. In those books Roth reveals the incestuous relationship he had with his two years younger sister Rose, as well as the seduction of his fourteen year old cousin Sylvia in the basement when he was 18.

Parallels between Roth’s life and David Schearl’s life as depicted in Call it Sleep are obvious. Both, character and author arrived in New York as immigrant children during their infancy. Leah Roth had married Herman because of her family’s pressure after she had shamed herself by falling in love with a gentile, just like Genya Schearl. Similar to Albert, Herman worked as a printer in New York; he had no luck with his ventures and led an unhappy life. In analogy to the Schearl family the Roth’s moved from Brooklyn/ Brownsville to the Lower East Side in New York.

David is depicted as a sensitive child, outraged by the sexual experiences he makes or witnesses. In the fourth chapter of the book it is Leo who represents Roth when he seduces David’s cousin in the basement. When compared to the author’s own life, the novel receives a new and different significance. Call it Sleep can be considered a modernist attempt of a veiled autobiography.

3. The Content of the book

Call it Sleep is divided into a prologue and four parts: Book I The Cellar, Book II The Picture, Book III The Coal and Book IV The Rail. The prologue describes the arrival of David and his mother Genya in New York when he is about 18 month old. It contains the reunion of the family, an atypical reunion in which the father Albert already takes the position of an unloving and violent man.

The Cellar describes David’s life in Brownsville when he is about five years old. Albert’s continually loss of jobs, conflicts with the neighbor children and Luter’s intrusion in the Schearl family are only a few aspects that overshadow David’s experiences. He seems unable to meet his father’s expectations, doesn’t find friends easily and his thoughts evolve around his mother. In addition Albert’s only friend Luter, a boarder at the Schearls’ dinner table, tries to make advances on Genya. When David sees Luter enter his home, he hides in the cellar but soon escapes frightened and runs away. He is lost and his mother has to fetch him from the police station.

When Albert finds a new job at the beginning of The Picture, the Schearls move from Brownsville to the Lower East Side where the remaining parts of the book are set. Sometime later Genya’s younger sister Bertha immigrates and stays with the family. Her stay causes severe trouble with David’s father, but eventually she finds herself a husband and leaves. Before her marriage Bertha talks Genya into revealing the reason why she married Albert. David overhears his mother’s confession: When she was ca. 18 years old, Genya had a love affair with a Christian, an organist. She was found out and forced to break up the relationship and find a Jewish husband. Genya tells part of the story in Polish to stop David from listening, but he uses the bits he understands to invent his own version of the story.

This paper will focus on the second half of Call it sleep. Book III received its name from a story David hears in cheder, a Jewish school to which he is sent to learn Hebrew. Before the eyes of God, angels touch Isaiah’s lips with coal to purify him. David’s obsession with the piece of coal and the holy light that radiates from it will follow the boy until the end of the novel and lead to the modernist climax in the penultimate chapter. On the day of Passover, David walks a few streets away from his home to burn the chumitz, the remainders of leavened bread, on the docks. He is captured by a group of Irish boys who force him to throw a piece of iron into the streetcar tracks on Tenth Street. The electric charge of the tracks erupts with a flash and David believes he has seen the same light as Isaiah did (Roth 239-245).

In the fourth part of the novel, David meets Leo, a Polish boy living in the neighborhood, and becomes friends with him. David admires Leo and is very impressed by Leo’s possessions as well as by his behavior. When he tells Leo about his older cousin Esther, the older boy convinces David to help him meet the girl in secret. In exchange he offers David a rosary, because he has noticed David’s admiration for religious items. But David is shocked by the encounter in his cousin’s basement and flees when the three children are discovered by his second cousin Polly. He goes to cheder and still affected from the events tells his rabbi an invented story according to which his parents are only his foster parents, his biological mother is dead and his real father was a gentile.

Leo’s encounter with Esther, as well as the invented story result in a climatic approach towards the final chapters. The rabbi decides to inform David’s parents about the boy’s knowledge and visits the Schearls. Esther’s father, infuriated by his daughter’s behavior and David’s part in the whole event, also decides to visit the Schearls. When Albert receives the news he throws a tantrum and starts to give David a severe beating. The boy can escape with the help of his mother and hides. In search for the divine light which he believes to have seen on Passover, he throws an iron dipper into the tracks on Tenth Street, but this time he is caught by the electric discharge and loses his consciousness. He is saved and when he returns home accompanied by a police officer and a doctor, his father seems to worry about his son for the first time in his life. The novel ends with the boy falling asleep exhaustedly.

4. Identity in Call it Sleep

David, the protagonist of Call it Sleep, grows up in an environment of different identities which Roth creates through the Jewish ethnicity and religion on the one hand, through languages and urban experiences on the other hand. This chapter will analyze the different spheres of identity described in the novel.

4.1 Jewish immigrants in New York

Between the years 1899 and 1924 almost two million Jewish immigrants entered the United States of America. (Gabaccia 140.) Roth was one of them and so was the fictive Schearl family in his novel Call it Sleep. Jewish immigrants were mainly refugees from Eastern Europe, especially Russia (Gabaccia 141). They fled from an anti-Semitic environment in which they were forbidden to own land and forced to join the Russian army. At the beginning of the 20th century, several pogroms the fear of political prosecution of Jews in Russia caused another wave of immigration, especially to America (Dinnerstein, and Reimers.66).

The immigrants traveled over the Atlantic in huge steamboats and entered the United States via Ellis Island. Most of the Jewish immigrants however remained in New York, where the “[…] so-called uptown Jews who had arrived earlier from Germany and central Europe […]” had already established a Jewish community. Those Jews who left the urban environment to live in the countryside “[…] did not have a million-plus coreligionists to support a full and rounded community life” and smaller communities “[…] simply could not provide the cultural and educational opportunities as well as the Jewish sense of community so essential to these east European newcomers” (Dinnerstein, and Reimers 67).

In contrast to Italian immigrants who left Europe “for the most part illiterate and unskilled” (Dinnerstein, and Reimers 57), the majority of make Jewish immigrants could be “classified as skilled workers” (Dinnerstein, and Reimers 57). Most of them started working in garment factories or so-called ‘sweatshops’ (Sorin 59), establishments where immigrants worked under very bad conditions for low wages. It wasn’t unusual that a new worker had to pay for his employment or “was supposed to work two weeks for nothing […]” (Sorin 57). The exploitation of newly arrived immigrants was common business policy. Under such circumstances the fact that Albert Schearl needs a longer period of time to find an appropriate employment as a dairy driver on his own becomes traceable.


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Henry Roth "Call it sleep" - an Analysis
University of Vienna
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Bachelor Katharina Eder (Author), 2010, Henry Roth "Call it sleep" - an Analysis, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/171959


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