Redemp­tion: The Life of Hen­ry Roth

Steven G. Kellman
  • Review
By – October 18, 2011
This exem­plary biog­ra­phy con­tains rich back­ground mate­r­i­al, which enhances under­stand­ing of its com­plex sub­ject. It describes, for exam­ple, what New York was like for Jews in the ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry. Hen­ry Roth (1906 – 1995), author of Call It Sleep (1934) the famous exper­i­men­tal nov­el about an immi­grant boy’s ear­li­est Amer­i­can expe­ri­ences, was vic­tim­ized by trau­mat­ic con­di­tions: fear of a cru­el, bru­tal father; the family’s move from New York’s Low­er East Side to a non-Jew­ish sec­tion of Harlem; con­tempt for and dis­avow­al of Jew­ish iden­ti­fi­ca­tion because of innu­mer­able insults and indig­ni­ties suf­fered; a ten-year inter­mit­tent inces­tu­ous rela­tion­ship with his younger sis­ter (and short­er rela­tion­ship with female cousin), caus­ing his ongo­ing need for redemp­tion; and depres­sion over writer’s block after Call It Sleep. Kell­man reveals Roth’s plagued life as a par­tic­i­pant in New York’s promis­cu­ous bohemi­an soci­ety, some­time Com­mu­nist and unsuc­cess­ful exper­i­menter with social­ist real­ism, failed labor orga­niz­er and devot­ed hus­band to [descen­dant of Mayflower immi­grants] Muriel Park­er, pro­pri­etor of Maine water­fowl farm, and retired lit­er­ary celebri­ty in Albu­querque, NM. Roth main­tained some Jew­ish con­nec­tions through­out — a female Recon­struc­tion­ist rab­bi con­duct­ed his memo­r­i­al ser­vice — and he pub­lished many short pieces dur­ing his life­time, (at the end) auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal nov­els, ignored by the gen­er­al public. 
Samuel I. Bell­man is pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus at Cal­i­for­nia State Poly­tech­nic Uni­ver­si­ty of Pomona. He has been writ­ing on Jew­ish Amer­i­can writ­ers since 1959.

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