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Thursday, October 30, 2014

Call It Sleep (1934) by Henry Roth

Author Henry Roth wrote Call It Sleep in 1934 and THAT WAS IT.

Book Review
Call It Sleep (1934)
by Henry Roth

  The 1934 publication date of Call It Sleep should come with an asterisk, because it wasn't until a mid 1960s revival that this modernist bildungsroman of the Jewish-American experience in the Bronx and Brooklyn was hailed as a classic.  Call It Sleep is also a famous 20th century one off- Roth didn't publish another novel for forty years. The main aspects of Call It Sleep to understand is that Roth was familiar with James Joyce and the tenets of literary modernism, in terms of utilizing stream of conscience narrative and the incorporation of non-standard English into his writing. For Roth, the other languages include Aramaic (the language of the Old Testament), Hebrew and Yiddish(Hebrew and German language spoken by many Jewish immigrants from Germany/Eastern Europe.)

  So, the narrative style (stream of consciousness) combines with multiple languages, all rendered phonetically in English, and it tells the important story of what it was like to grow up a Jewish-American immigrant in New York City in the early 20th century.  Perhaps Roth's biggest mistake was writing it so close to the time period depicted.  What read in the 1960s as a lost modernist classic may have read as a pale imitation of Joyce in 1934.  My sense is that Call It Sleep was probably favorably noticed upon publication but didn't permeate into the general population the way that the work of Hemingway and Fitzgerald did.

  I don't believe that Call It Sleep is widely read these days, certainly I'd never heard of it outside of the 1001 Books project, and I am a Jewish-American myself.  I would have expected my parents to have a copy, or for it to have been mentioned by a classmate in school in the context of books like The Basketball Diaries or Catcher in the Rye.  Henry Roth's status as a one hit wonder has also likely contributed to his general neglect as an Author.  I think some Authors obtain classic status with later works and then people go back and look at earlier books and elevate them, but if an Artist only has one major work, that project is impossible and there is no interplay between works.  This interplay between various works of a single Artist is something that can contribute to the maintenance of a larger audience years after publication.

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