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.