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.