Mer­cy of a Rude Stream

Hen­ry Roth
  • Review
By – March 6, 2015

About a quar­ter of the way through Requiem for Harlem, the final vol­ume of the four-nov­el sequence that makes up the one-vol­ume edi­tion of Mer­cy of a Rude Stream, there is a stun­ning 50-page scene that embod­ies the strengths and prob­lems of Hen­ry Roth’s belat­ed work. First pub­lished seri­al­ly start­ing in 1994 with A Star Shines Over Mt. Mor­ris Park, fol­lowed in 1995 by A Div­ing Rock on the Hud­son and con­clud­ed by the posthu­mous­ly pub­lished From Bondage and Requiem for Harlem, Mer­cy of a Rude Stream is Hen­ry Roth’s hard-won effort to write, in the face of the mul­ti­ply­ing ills of advanc­ing age, an account of what made him what he became and to come to terms with the long, long years when the author of the 1930s mas­ter­piece Call It Sleep failed to fol­low up with a sec­ond effort as novelist.

In the long scene, Ira Stig­man, the novel’s pro­tag­o­nist, sits at the fam­i­ly din­ner table try­ing to read Par­adise Lost in prepa­ra­tion for a col­lege exam while engag­ing in idle con­ver­sa­tion with his moth­er, Leah, as they await the arrival of his father, Chaim, for Shab­bat din­ner. Ira is, at this point in the nov­el, a 21-year-old stu­dent at City Col­lege, liv­ing with his par­ents and sis­ter in a dis­mal cold-water flat in East Harlem in the late 1920s. Ira and his mother’s inter­change high­lights the warm and lov­ing rela­tion­ship between them at the same time that Ira is rest­less and tor­ment­ed by his fail­ures as son, broth­er, and fam­i­ly hope. The father arrives home and there begins an esca­lat­ing ver­bal duel between the par­ents that is coun­ter­point­ed to Ira’s read­ing in Milton’s great 17th-cen­tu­ry epic of sin and redemp­tion (he iden­ti­fies with Milton’s Satan). On one lev­el, the spar­ring over Chaim’s fail­ure to pro­vide Leah with her week­ly two-dol­lar allowance seems a kind of rit­u­al­ized com­bat that long-mar­ried cou­ples engage in, filled with acid-laced ver­bal jabs that may mask hid­den lev­els of affec­tion. But it ends with Chaim’s throw­ing Leah’s half-drunk glass of tea in her face and Ira and Chaim locked in phys­i­cal com­bat as Ira ris­es to pro­tect his moth­er, the whole scene embody­ing the Oedi­pal hos­til­i­ties in this oth­er­wise ordi­nary fam­i­ly. The scene breaks off with the arrival home of Ira’s sis­ter Min­nie, bear­ing news from the home of Leah’s sis­ter Mamie con­cern­ing the behav­ior of Leah’s pious father who has unex­pect­ed­ly left Mamie’s fam­i­ly to live with oth­er rel­a­tives in Queens.

This long scene segues into anoth­er extend­ed sequence that includes Ira’s try­ing to find out whether Zeyda’s sud­den depar­ture had any­thing to do with Ira’s illic­it sex­u­al cou­plings with his young cousin Stel­la; Ira’s tor­ment at learn­ing that Stel­la has missed her peri­od; his attempts to arrange an abor­tion with the help of Edith, a gen­tile col­lege lit­er­a­ture pro­fes­sor who has tak­en him under her wing; and a final fling with Stel­la in a dark­ened movie the­ater that cli­max­es in a racial­ly-charged encounter. All through this cli­mac­tic stretch of fic­tion, which ends with Ira’s res­o­lu­tion to leave home and move in with Edith, the old­er Ira, now in his late 70s and 80s, sits at his com­put­er and writes it all out (as Roth did when he wrote it in his eighth and ninth decades), pro­vid­ing an old man’s more sea­soned obser­va­tions on the fol­lies and hor­rors of youth.

The read­er can’t help being moved and tak­en in by the vir­tu­osic ener­gy and clar­i­ty of the writ­ing, made more poignant by the descrip­tions of its author’s phys­i­cal chal­lenges, and the build-up of ten­sion as this long, hith­er­to leisure­ly-paced ser­i­al nov­el rush­es towards its con­clu­sion. The read­er can also feel a grow­ing sense of unease at the length to which the author (both the fic­tion­al Ira and the real Hen­ry) goes to lay out the degra­da­tion of young Ira as he tries to come to terms with his sex­u­al deviance (he has also com­mit­ted incest with his sis­ter, the scan­dalous rev­e­la­tion of Div­ing Rock on the Hud­son), his fail­ure in school, his awak­en­ing lit­er­ary sen­si­bil­i­ty, and his grow­ing attrac­tion to the much-old­er Edith (and she for him). Enough, already, one is tempt­ed to shout. The scenes some­times go on per­haps a bit too long for the effect achieved and Ira seems such a pathet­ic char­ac­ter, pas­sive, naïve, wal­low­ing in his self-pity, his sex­u­al com­pul­sions, and his ungain­ly behav­ior with any­one out­side of his fam­i­ly (and most of those with­in it). Yet one reads on, as com­pul­sive­ly as the author wrote.

Roth thought to call his nov­el-sequence Por­trait of the Artist as an Old Fias­co,” a trib­ute to his erst­while lit­er­ary inspi­ra­tion, James Joyce, and an embod­i­ment of his own predica­ment as an artist. Ira, his sur­ro­gate in this heav­i­ly bio­graph­i­cal work, even­tu­al­ly will write a nov­el about his child­hood, which despite crit­i­cal acclaim, sinks into obliv­ion, with its author fol­low­ing into years of mar­gin­al exis­tence, and then in his lat­er years he will turn to writ­ing again to under­stand his life’s fail­ures. The rea­sons for Roth/Ira’s fail­ure to write the expect­ed sequel or any­thing else of any con­se­quence for near­ly 60 years (30 years fol­low­ing the repub­li­ca­tion in paper­back of Call It Sleep to near uni­ver­sal adu­la­tion in 1964) are legion. Roth first reject­ed the aes­thet­ics of Joyce that pro­pelled Call It Sleep in favor of a social­ist real­ism fol­low­ing the crit­i­cism of the nov­el by some left-wing crit­ics. He then found the writ­ing of a nov­el on such a basis an uncon­ge­nial expe­ri­ence, his sub­ject, an illit­er­ate labor orga­niz­er, turn­ing out to be a repul­sive char­ac­ter. (Roth left hun­dreds of addi­tion­al pages of writ­ing beyond Mer­cy that were edit­ed into An Amer­i­can Type, pub­lished in 2010, which con­tin­ues Ira’s sto­ry into the years fol­low­ing the writ­ing of Call It Sleep.)

But, as many crit­ics, such as Mor­ris Dick­stein and Jonathan Rosen, have observed, and as Roth’s biog­ra­ph­er Steven Kell­man doc­u­ment­ed in his 2005 life of the author, Roth’s block was based to a large extent on his guilt and shame over his teen-age sex­u­al com­pul­sions, his furtive inter­course first with his sis­ter and then with his young cousin. So blocked was he on this sub­ject, he does not even reveal that Ira has a younger sis­ter until part­way through A Div­ing Rock on the Hud­son, cre­at­ing a major rup­ture in an oth­er­wise detailed-laden account of his com­ing of age in his work­ing class fam­i­ly. (The sis­ter is also elid­ed from Call It Sleep, in which Roth’s alter ego, David, a younger ver­sion of Ira, is por­trayed as an only child.) Even in this age of lenient atti­tudes toward sex­u­al­i­ty and deviance,” Roth/Ira’s con­fes­sions still have the abil­i­ty to shock.

A final issue for Roth/​Ira was his rela­tion­ship to Judaism. In the nov­els, Ira feels increas­ing­ly remote from his Jew­ish her­itage after the fam­i­ly moves to East Harlem (when Ira is eight). Through the nov­els, Ira increas­ing­ly iden­ti­fies with and seeks accep­tance in the gen­tile world at the same time that he feels ill at ease in it. Roth claimed that his renew­ing sense of Jew­ish iden­ti­ty fol­low­ing the 1967 Six-Day War was a major step in his recov­er­ing his iden­ti­ty as a writer. The old­er Ira in the nov­el mus­es on the per­ilous state of Israel’s rela­tion­ships to its Arab neigh­bors, weav­ing this theme of Jew­ish iden­ti­ty into the dia­logue between old and young Ira.

The one-vol­ume repub­li­ca­tion of Mer­cy of a Rude Stream (the title is a quote from Shake­speare) gives ample oppor­tu­ni­ty for a reassess­ment of Roth’s posi­tion in twen­ti­eth-cen­tu­ry let­ters. Call It Sleep, eighty years after its first pub­li­ca­tion, holds up as a unpar­al­leled glimpse of the expe­ri­ence of a child grow­ing up in the immi­grant com­mu­ni­ties of turn-of-the-20th-cen­tu­ry New York, its pas­sages of child­hood fear and won­der still fresh and lin­guis­ti­cal­ly rich. Many pas­sages of Mer­cy have the same evoca­tive qual­i­ty with­out as much of the lin­guis­tic inven­tive­ness of Sleep but it has its own lin­guis­tic rich­ness as Ira explores the poten­tial­i­ties of lan­guage (Roth liked the mul­ti-lin­gual res­o­nance of the acronym of his work, MORS, which in Latin means death’). Roth thought that the dia­logue between old Ira and his younger self would be the key­stone of the nov­el sequence, and, indeed, this is its most inter­est­ing tech­ni­cal accom­plish­ment even when it does not always illu­mi­nate the younger Ira’s dilem­ma. The expan­sive­ness of Mer­cy in con­trast to the rel­a­tive Aris­totelian uni­ty of Call It Sleep gives it a soci­o­log­i­cal and psy­cho­log­i­cal depth far beyond its pre­de­ces­sor. Par­tic­u­lar­ly mem­o­rable are the scenes in which Ira comes into the orbit of Edith Welles (a stand-in for Roth’s men­tor and lover, Eda Lou Wal­ton, por­trayed with a mix­ture of affec­tion and satire) and her net­work of bohemi­ans and aca­d­e­mics with their pre­ten­sions and sex­u­al com­plex­i­ties. Ira, the ungain­ly and bare­ly edu­cat­ed denizen of East Harlem, shows a ready recep­tiv­i­ty to the avant-garde writ­ings of T. S. Eliot and James Joyce, while he remains tongue-tied amid the bohemi­an throngs at Edith’s salons. It was inevitable that many crit­ics con­sid­ered the pro­lix Mer­cy to be a less­er accom­plish­ment than Call It Sleep, giv­en the near-exalt­ed sta­tus grant­ed to the ear­li­er nov­el. But on its own terms, Mer­cy of a Rude Stream is a dif­fer­ent kind of aes­thet­ic accom­plish­ment — an epic account of a life, rem­i­nis­cent of the expan­sive­ness of a Vic­to­ri­an or Russ­ian nov­el, com­plete with its own self-com­men­tary, a post-mod­ernist exer­cise by a child of the mod­ernist age. 

Relat­ed content:

Mar­tin Green is pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus at Fair­leigh Dick­in­son Uni­ver­si­ty, where he taught lit­er­a­ture and media stud­ies. He is work­ing on a book about Amer­i­can pop­u­lar peri­od­i­cals in the 1920s.

Discussion Questions