AUTHOR’S NOTE: The factual details of Henry Roth’s life are taken from Steven Kellman’s masterful biography of Roth (Redemption: The Life of Henry Roth; W.W. Norton & Co., New York: 2005) as well as the four volumes of Roth’s autobiographical novel “Mercy of a Rude Stream” and his posthumously published last such novel, “Shifting Landscape.” My debt to Professor Kellman is immeasurable. Certain occurrences and personages mentioned in “Mercy of a Rude Stream” are not corroborated in Kellman’s work; I have nonetheless repeated them here as a certain kind of truth, (albeit they are sometimes confabulations in Roth’s aged memory). I consider Roth’s quasi-fictional self-narrative to have at least equal importance as the scholarly work about his life.
The italicized transliteration of Yiddish words herein is done according to the YIVO standard system published in the 1930s, employing the Litvish pronunciation, albeit Roth heard both Litvish and Polish pronunciation in his home and the neighborhoods in which he lived.
All of 16 years old and already familiar with Alfred Kazin’s A Walker in the City, as well as preternaturally addicted to Damon Runyon’s prose and New York stories, I serendipitously encountered a novel that would change my life. Kazin, I venerated, and Runyon I adored, but when I picked up Henry Roth’s monumental Call It Sleep a year or so after its first paperback edition was sent up the flagpole by Irving Howe in the mid-60s in the New York Times Book Review, I fell in love. https://www.nytimes.com/1964/10/25/archives/life-never-let-up-call-it-sleep-by-henry-roth-with-an-afterword-by.html
David Schearl, the frightened little protagonist, shared a certain personal space with me, that of isolation and fear of violence in a brutal world. Our childhoods were vastly different: his portrayed in the novel, that of the first decade of the 20th century in New York’s teeming, polyglot Lower East Side, is ostensibly far removed from mine, that of the late 1950’s in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Jews made up one half of one percent of my town’s population of 30,000 souls, overwhelmingly goyim: observant Protestants, Catholics, Southern Baptists of all stripes, Methodists, Presbyterians and independent Pentecostals. But in essence our youngest years were one and the same.
Despite David’s environment, packed with Yiddish-speaking Ashkenazic Jews like himself, (but also filled with rough and tough lower class Irish and Italian immigrants), the little boy isolated himself, clinging Oedipally to his adoring mother, clumsy at sports, mixing difficultly with the local children of both sexes, regardless of their ethnicity. I had the same issues, albeit being a bit more friendly in general than David. But the general atmosphere of violence among little boys was no different 50 years after David’s youth on East 9th Street and in Brownsville, Brooklyn, from the tumultuous streets and school playgrounds of my Southern Appalachian hometown. Placid and safe on the outside, they struck fear deeply inside my imperiled soul. How well I remember the lower middle-class boys who lived in army base houses on Cahill Lane, the sons of body shop owners and coal miners.
Our less than quarter-acre backyard was the only one level enough for daily after school games of football and baseball. My mother had one rule for its use: my younger brother Robby and I had to be part of the game. So each afternoon one of the neighbor boys would wander over and there’d be a knock at the door. Despite my and Robby’s lack of physical coordination, the smirking invitation was issued with an invisible fist held up: “Bennnnjy,” James Wilson would drawl with his hill country twang. “Ya’ll come on out and play…” We dared not demur.
The essential connection between David and myself was our parents’ tongue. My parents spoke simple Yiddish over the dinner table (although they were very well educated) for the usual reason in Jewish families of my generation: the five children shouldn’t know what was being exchanged. My mother, Rose, grew up in an abjectly poor three and then four generation home (a series of run-down houses in North and West Philadelphia), as the family was evicted from time to time when her Ukrainian, non-union carpenter father, Shepsha Polonsky, was out of work. Her maternal grandfather’s eyesight failed and his tailor shop on the ground floor of a house on North 6th Street was forced to close. Yiddish was her first language, spoken throughout her upbringing by the entire family. Rose taught my father Cy how to speak it simply and easily, a mere katzenshpring, the leap of a cat, for a Gratz College graduate who had mastered Russian, Biblical Hebrew and five other languages. His parents, immigrants from Poland and Lithuania, undoubtedly spoke Yiddish in their childhood homes, but with their entry into the middle class as all-rightniks, Yiddish was abjured, considered zhargon for greenhorns.
When I was five, Shepsha came to live with us at a critical time in the development of a child’s inner life, when conscious awareness of death and the scary world around emerge in a little boy’s mind from his earlier naiveté and inner world of imaginary friends with mystical powers. Shepsha (we called him Pop) had lost his wife in 1953, and was shunted between his two married daughters’ homes, with my Aunt Sylvia bearing the brunt of hospitality, as she lived near Philadelphia and had a large home. But it was all just too much after a few years, so the widower was shipped down to Tennessee where five children and two adults already shared a three bedroom, one and a half bath, Army-built home. The old carpenter enclosed the back porch and slept out there with his nocturnal urine jar at the ready and false teeth soaking overnight in a glass tumbler, spending his waking hours puttering about, doing miscellaneous carpentry chores for my family and the synagogue, and reading the Philadelphia edition of Der Forverts that came in the mail. I heard Yiddish spoken every day (but mostly screamed) between him and my mother. Things were calmer when Pop sat at the dinner table with his crude manners and hacking cough from smoking unfiltered Camels, which he lit with a match, then extinguished between his well-calloused thumb and forefinger. Pop’s Tennessee sojourn lasted just one year, but I was blessed with learning the Slavic accent. As he spat and cursed, the guttural H became second nature to me.
The 1991 paperback edition of Call It Sleep (acclaimed by Kazin in his Foreword as “the most profound novel of Jewish life that [he has] ever read,” also contains an Afterword by Hanna Nesher-Wirth in which she delves into the world of literary technique, parsing the differences between diglossia (a situation in which two dialects or languages are used by a single language community in addition to the community’s everyday or vernacular language variety) and bilingualism (the ability of an individual or the members of a community to use two languages effectively), seeming to whole-heartedly agree with me that Roth, in one sense or another, wrote his novel in Yiddish, albeit the language is used sparingly in the text itself. Here is her sterling analysis: https://www.jstor.org/stable/20689277?seq=1#metadata_info_tab_contents
The manifestations of diglossia and bilingualism in Roth’s novel reside in the syntax of the dialogue of the Jewish characters and the cantillation of their spoken words (the trop in Yiddish). Seven years after Pop’s arrival, I learned the actual trop during my bar mitzvah training, that used by the chanters of Biblical literature in the synagogue when the Torah is taken out and read in public. But as a child, I had already learned the sound of the Yiddish accent and pronunciation as Pop spoke English to me and Yiddish to my mother, and I organically absorbed the Ashkenazic-accented Hebrew then commonly employed in Conservative synagogues. This is what bound me, most of all, to Roth’s novel when I picked it up a few years after Pop’s death in a nursing home in Philadelphia, where he was shipped off after he and my mother almost came to blows for the umpteenth time. The violence and inter-generational craziness: David Schearl and I were separated at birth.
The trop and all that is embodied therein reflect 5000 years of Yiddishkayt, flowing from the religious chanting in Hebrew and the sing-song rhythm of every-day Yiddish. I was hooked by the end of the first paragraph of the prologue to Call It Sleep, re-living experiences that I had heard recounted in English by both grandfathers and binding them together with my years of Hebrew school. The ostensibly hidden Yiddish language was more powerful than the details of their stories, and so it is in Call It Sleep.
Twenty years ago I took the plunge, and embarked on becoming fluent in Yiddish. I returned to Roth three years ago and devoured it again, this time with a conscious understanding of what draws me to both the author and his work. And last year I decided to do several things: read every word that Roth ever published, his biography by Steven Kellman, and track Roth’s abodes in New York City before he emigrated to Maine to supposedly abandon writing. It then came time for me to perform yet another act of raising the dead, t’khies hameysim, and to translate Call It Sleep into Yiddish.
Though it took a couple months to track down Henry’s son, Hugh Roth, a number of phone calls to the surviving editorial representatives of the publisher of the 1984 paperback edition finally led me to the Henry Roth Literary Trust, of which Hugh and his father’s literary assistant late in life, Felicia Steele, serve as trustees. Forthwith, and for a nominal sum, these generous and foresighted individuals granted me worldwide perpetual rights to bring out a translation into Yiddish and to create a stage play based thereon. The translation is underway by a leading member of my theater troupe, The New Yiddish Rep. Once this task is completed, my circle will have closed, uniting my childhood with David Schearl’s, my grandfather Shepsha to David’s father Albert, and I will rest.
My solicitation for potential translators in a news article in Der Forverts this past spring and among the worldwide community of academic Yiddishists yielded a surprising set of responses, among them two pointedly critical messages questioning the worth of such a project and complaining that my focus should be on sponsoring the creation of new fictional work in Yiddish. I was shocked at what I felt was the shallowness and self interest of these comments from men and women whom I have known, admired, and been taught by over the last twenty years. The new work may well be read by a handful of people, perhaps a few hundred in total, but that is of modest importance to me. My work, whether it be in this domain or in the English language books and essays that I have created since the year 2000, is undertaken because of my perception of its intrinsic value. The true story of Roth and his creation is almost beyond belief.
Adopted by his friend Larry’s NYU English professor, Eda Lou Walton, 12 years his senior, Roth was supported by Walton for a dozen years, while serving as one of her several lovers, working from her Morton Street apartment until the novel was completed in 1934. With Walton’s history of recognizing literary merit in a melange of sexual and intellectual intensity in previous liaisons, Roth reaped the benefits of his bond with an experienced muse and mentor which the world has now has enjoyed for 84 years.
Chaim Roth, the prototype for David Schearl’s father Albert, came to America for the first time in 1898 from Tysmenitz, at a time when the historically Polish town was still part of the Austrian Empire, after the partition of Poland years before. (Today it is part of Ukraine). Son of Shaul Roth, a despotic distillery manager, Chaim attempted to escape the religious strictures of a society where Jews also had limited employment opportunities (his father sought to apprentice him to a wrought-iron maker) and faced daily anti-Semitism. Pilfering money from Shaul, Chaim made his way to the North Sea and headed to the Golden Land. Unable to find work immediately in New York, Chaim headed to St. Louis, Missouri where his two older brothers had already established themselves. Brother Gabe secured several jobs for Chaim, but the impetuous and cynical youngest brother could never last long, and in 1902, he returned to New York City, determined to make it on his own. His efforts were in vain, though, and in 1903, embarrassed and ashamed, Chaim returned to Tysmenitz to work for his father (albeit already having fraudulently applied for and having been granted American citizenship in 1900).
After an arrest and brief imprisonment in Tyzmenitz, and given that he was subject to the Austrian military draft, (despite his American citizenship), the only way out for Chaim was marriage and fatherhood. A solution was found in Leah Farb, a disgraced young woman from the nearby town of Veljish, who had the misfortune of incurring her father’s wrath by falling in love with a local goy. A marriage broker, well aware of the disgraces suffered by Chaim’s and Leah’s respective parents, arranged the union, which was solemnized under a ritual canopy on January 10, 1905. Herschel (Henry) Roth was born in Tysmenitz 13 months later.
After only a few months as a married man, and having failed as a horse trader, Chaim resolved to leave for America again and make good, departing in early 1906. Parsimonious months followed, and in a remarkably short time, Chaim was able to buy steerage tickets for Leah and Henry, albeit Leah had to come up with the money for milk and other ship-board necessities for their journey in August 1907. Call It Sleep opens as mother and son arrive at Ellis Island aboard a ferry in which passengers are brought from the steamship Kaiserin Auguste Victoria as it lies moored in the harbor. Albert Schearl is instantly angry and derisive towards Leah (whose name in the novel is changed to Genya) for having brought their son over dressed in typical fancy European clothing. David’s (Henry’s) straw hat with a polka dot ribbon is flung into the muddy-green waters by his father, and terror sets in.
Though Call It Sleep is set on the far eastern stretches of East 9th Street, Henry’s father, Chaim Roth, (who adopted the name Herman in America) first brought his wife and son from Ellis Island to Brownsville, already also thickly populated with Easter European Jews at the turn of the 20th century. In Brownsville, Chaim jumped from one printing house job to another, again, just as in Tysmenitz, quick to take offense and anger, and when in 1910 the Borden Milk Company offered him a job as a delivery man with his horse and cart, Chaim moved his family to a fourth floor Manhattan walkup at 749 East 9th Street on the corner of Avenue D
749 East 9th Street (1940)
[courtesy of the New York City Municipal Archives]
to be closer to his workplace. The block ended at the East River docks and was filled with immigrant families and industrial structures, including car barns for the trolley lines that were ubiquitous in Manhattan and the coal gas tanks that lined the shores of the river.
Roth’s sister, Rose, was born in 1908 while the family still lived in Brownsville and remained the apple of her father’s eye, while the hot-tempered Chaim violently abused his son for the least misbehavior or perceived insult to Chaim’s personal dignity. Henry was sent to kheyder (traditional strict religious day school) when the family lived on the Lower East Side, and Henry was subjected to the brutality so common in such schools where an autocratic rabbi attempted to drill religious scripture into young boys’ heads at the pain of derision and even whippings for failure.
On July 2, 1914, the Kaiserin Auguste Victoria made another of its periodic voyages to New York, this time depositing Leah Farb’s family on American shores. The presence of a strong orthodox Jewish community in East Harlem drew Henry’s maternal grandparents and uncles northward, and after only six years on the Lower East Side, Chaim, Leah, Henry and Rose Roth moved to be close to Leah’s family. Leah had been lonely and frightened in the crowded streets of the Lower East Side ghetto, and the less-congested uptown streets and proximity of her relatives changed the family dynamics immensely. Chaim also had dreams uptown: the Hudson River branch of the The New York Central Railroad maintained a terminal by the river, under the newly constructed Riverside Drive viaduct, where fresh milk in huge cans was off-loaded each day for distribution to city residents after being processed at dairy plants, among them the enormous Sheffield Farms facility that still stands on West 125th Street. Chaim’s experience as a dairy deliveryman led him to believe that he could be profitably employed uptown, and Sheffield even maintained its own stable and carriage barn across the street from the bottling plant which would eliminate the need for Chaim to pay for a barn and the upkeep of a horse, as he had in his earlier career downtown. Below is a photo of the 130th Street Manhattanville Depot.
The family first settled one block away from the Farbs, into three small, airless rooms at 114th Street and Park Avenue, hard by the looming stone trestle of the New York Central Railroad. Having failed to secure a position at Sheffield Farms, Herman Roth went into the milk delivery business for himself. A few weeks later they moved again, into a four room railroad flat with some windows facing the street above Biolov’s Drugstore at 108 East 119th Street, (photo below; 108 East 119th Street is the fourth building from the right with the articulated cornice and fire escapes, c. 1940), just east of Madison Avenue. [photo courtesy of the New York City Municipal Archives]. The space was a vast improvement for Leah, one in which she could experience the vibrant street life even while upstairs, instead of being entombed.
Young Henry first enrolled in P.S. 103 at 119th Street and Madison Avenue and stayed there through the 6th grade. Thereafter he attended P.S. 24 at 128th Street and Madison Avenue until high school. [Photos and plot maps below taken from New York City Board of Education, Bureau of Finance, Annual Financial and Statistical Report, 1906-1908, courtesy of The Municipal Archives of The City of New York]
During these formative years in East Harlem, Roth lost his fluency in Yiddish, forced to discard it by the schools and the streets, while his mother remained firmly bound to the language. Roth’s assimilation into gentile America included a lengthy stint as a delivery boy for an upscale grocery, Park and Tilford, located at Lenox Avenue and 124th Street where he got see how the other half lived. The struggle to assimilate became central to Henry’s persona; his ties to kheyder life were fully sundered, but he was far from comfortable in a mixed neighborhood so far from his Lower East Side roots, and his parents’ miserable lives made the transition more difficult.
By the time Henry turned 13, his parental opposition pact with his younger sister, Rose, evolved into sexual misadventures. Full-fledged incest started when Rose was a young adolescent and her brother 4 years older, continuing until Henry entered his 20s. Supplemented by frequent erotic encounters with his first cousin in Queens, Roth’s sexuality remained stunted and perverse. Roth’s psychic experiences with his sister mirrored my own young adolescent life, albeit in my case only in my imagination: I remained a virgin until I left for college at age 17. Researchers have stated that over 50% of adolescents experiment sexually with their siblings; that it is normative behavior and not to be condemned. For me the question is how and why; context is everything, and in Roth’s case, the dysfunctional rebellion against shared parents is clear with his sister, though not with his cousin.
Herman Roth failed as an independent milk deliverer and was forced to seek employment, accepting a job as a busboy in a restaurant where his brothers-in-law Moe and Saul worked as waiters. Just as in Tysmenitz, though, Herman quarreled with the owners and quit. With some experience in a New York restaurant, Herman bought a second-hand waiter’s get-up and began waiting tables wherever he could get work. The entry of the United States in World War I on April 6, 1917 posed yet another peril to the Roth family’s economic condition. Herman had to find a position in an occupation classified as essential to national security or face being drafted and sent overseas to fight. Hiring on as a trolley-car conductor met the test, and he started working on a line which passed right along 119th Street between Madison and Park Avenues. But the work gave him severe and chronic intestinal disorders, so once again he quit. Somehow the War Resources Labor Board left him alone. He wasn’t drafted, either, and spent the rest of the war working as a waiter, mostly in private clubs and at banquets all over the City, finding work easily because of the wartime shortage of able-bodied men on the home front.
January, 1920 brought Henry’s graduation from PS 103, and the majority of his male classmates left school to work at low-level jobs to aid in their impoverished families’ subsistence. Some few went on to high school, but Henry was persuaded to attend a new junior high school that had been installed at PS 24 on 128th Street and Madison Avenue. Henry had been an avid reader theretofore, albeit not always the best student, and was eager to go out into the legitimate world and make a living like his classmates. His father, long of the opinion that Henry had no aptitude for intellectual aspirations, pressed his son to enter the workforce, and if need be, take further schooling at night. Urged otherwise by Leah, Henry decided to continue at PS 24 at the new commercial junior high school where practical skills were taught. Ira redeemed himself in his father’s eyes by accepting an after-school job at Park and Tilford, bringing home a precious $5 a week for approximately 24 hours of work. As a stockman and delivery boy, Henry was introduced to the world of gentile bourgeois life that existed in the best parts of central Harlem. The square surrounding Mount Morris Park and many side-streets boasted ornate brownstone private homes where up until the Crash of 1929 upper middle class whites lived in style with servants. Fine apartment homes were also scattered on the main corners of the largest side streets and avenues, where many-roomed maisonettes prevailed. Henry would shlep steamer baskets and orders of fresh and canned delicacies to these homes, always well-dressed and respectful, entering via the ubiquitous servants’ entrances, hoping for a nice tip.
East Harlem in the 1920s was filled with Irish Catholic families, working and middle class, and among its many elementary and junior high schools was the St. Thomas Parochial School, where a young man named Farley Hewins attended until a sharp difference over his desire to matriculate at the public, renowned Stuyvesant High and Father McGrath’s insistence on Farley moving on to St. Pius Academy, a parochial high school, caused Farley to drop out of St. Thomas and register at P.S. 24.[add footnote that Hewins relationship is not mentioned in Kellman; search roth papers for real name He and Henry became instant friends; Farley’s family was not anti-Semitic, as were so many of the Irish families nearby. A love of the outdoors bound them together: hiking, camping, fishing up on the shores of the Hudson River beyond the City line. The Hewins family funeral parlor on East 129th Street doubled as Henry’s home, where he grew accustomed to spending massive amounts of time there with his friend, who was unwelcome in the Roth apartment. Sports adventures in Mount Morris Park near Henry’s home were also frequent. Farley also became a star track athlete, and Henry’s chest swelled with pride when his friend competed and won. The boys would meet in the school basement and swap confidences, whispering furtively about Henry’s Spanish teacher, Mr. Lennard, and his hebephiliac desires, frequently and fully enacted with the bent-over bottoms of students he accused of misdoings, a pre-text for overt genital fondling in the days when such things were ignored by school administrators.
The summer of 1920 proved to be a fateful one for Henry’s parents. Moe and Saul Farb had given up their waiters’ uniforms to open their own restaurant on Fifth Avenue between 115th and 116th Streets, the Mount Morris Restaurant. Herman was not invited to participate because of his lack of business acumen. Out of spite and out of pride, he opened a small delicatessen on 116th Street between Park and Lexington Avenues, but the gesheft failed to prosper, and in a short time was unloaded.
After one year in their newborn junior high school, Farley and Henry transferred to the storied, all boys municipal Stuyvesant High School on East 15th Street, which top students from all over the City attended. Farley’s career as a sprinter was immediately established: within two weeks of matriculation he became known far and wide as the Stuyvesant High School Meteor in metropolitan newspapers. In contradistinction, Henry’s laggard attitude towards academics bred in him deep discontent, failing every subject but English in the first month’s grades. Sloppy with his personal possessions, Henry became the target of schoolboy pilfering, losing compass, protractor, and Bar Mitzvah present fountain pens, one after another, even the unique one with a retractable gold point, and his entire walrus hide briefcase that his aunt had bought him for a graduation present from junior high school.
Anonymous revenge overtook Henry’s soul and in a trice he learned the art of pilferage in the unattended gym locker room, immersing himself in kleptomania in the form of purloining a glittering fountain pen from the inner breast-pocket of a well-to do classmate’s jacket. The metamorphosis from prey to predator struck deep chords in Henry’s adolescent soul, resonant with the incestuous interaction with his sister Rose in reaction to their father’s merciless beatings and shameful cursing and disdain of his only son, meted out in copious portions. The outcast, frightened, wool-gathering student became, for a moment, a hero unto himself, victorious on a path where others feared to tread. Again and again, Henry pulled it off, stealing his classmates’ possessions, copulating with Rose on Sunday mornings while their parents were out, each success adding to his private store of redemption from a tortured inner life. Henry’s final theft trophy was a silver, arabesque-filigreed instrument that he duly presented to Farley in homage to their friendship. First protesting, Farley accepted the proffered gift, but in his position as gym monitor, he soon approached Henry to inform him that a classmate had spotted the pen and told Farley to threaten Henry with a visit to the office if the stolen item was not returned to its rightful owner forthwith.
Protesting that it was his rightful property, Henry was promptly summoned by the gym instructor, the gorgeous instrument in his hand, to visit the assistant principal with the accuser. The interrogation soon turned into an outright confession by Henry of all his thefts as well as a blubbering set of excuses of his own victimization. His father was summoned to appear the next day, and reeling from his confession to his folks the previous nights and their abominative curses, on March 21, 1921, Roth was expelled from Stuyvesant.
The rest of the spring term was spent back at P.S. 24, and Henry matriculated at DeWitt Clinton High School in the autumn of 1921. The school was then located at 59th Street and Tenth Avenue (renamed Haaren High School when DeWitt Clinton moved to the Bronx, and now used by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in the CUNY system) The school’s West Side location made it easy for Henry to commute uptown to his new job at a branch of Park & Tilford at 101st Street and Broadway
Henry’s self-esteem and security at his new school took shape as his lackluster scholastic performance in years prior morphed into excellence in plane geometry With Park and Tilford’s Upper West Side location rumored to be closing, Henry ditched his post there and first started working as a trolley car conductor on the same line as had his father, and then snagged a position as a vendor for the Harry Stevens enterprise at the old Polo Grounds. There he was challenged to become aggressive and successful, carting trays of sodas through the stands, or fall behind in his take at each game. Each afternoon was a shape-up, much like at the docks, but with the help of his friend, Izzy Winchell, Henry became a regular.
A chance encounter with a female restroom attendant in the upper decks while he was taking a break to watch the game turned into the first quasi-normal sexual encounter of his adolescent life when a beautiful, honey-colored girl brushed past him, touching her knees to him to make room for Henry to sit in an empty seat in the largely vacant section in the nosebleeds. Henry had just encountered a windfall when the change clerk at the soda depot mistakenly handed him a roll of quarters in exchange for two dollar bills. The young woman found him cute, they flirted, and a paid assignation was promptly arranged, when in response to her quoted price of three dollars, Henry flashed his wad. Pearl Canby, perhaps an alias, lived in a rooming house at 237 West 138th Street and the deal was done. Or so Henry thought…
Friday evenings at the Roth apartment on East 119th Street were always the same: the ritual blessings kindling the Sabbath lights, sanctification of wine and khallah, and then the same multi-course meal each week, ever the same. Enough to choke a horse, starting with gefilte fish with horseradish, chicken soup, roasted chicken with vegetables, his mother urging him on to gorge himself into a stupor after multiple servings of cake and coffee. But this Friday, Henry held back a bit, and complaining of needing some air, out he went into the darkened Harlem Streets to the 135th Street cross-town trolley, his roll of quarters and a condom, reluctantly bought at retail, in his picaresque pants.
Pearl had given him either a false or the wrong address, however, and when he knocked at Room 18, a scrawny young Black woman answered, telling Henry that no “Pearl” lived there. Theodora knew what Henry had come for, though, and her price was less. In a trice he was locked in the naked embrace of her supple brown thighs, doubled back to encourage easy penetration, sculling him with her hips and false endearments until he climaxed quickly. Two and a half bucks later, Henry was initiated into a world of less abnormal sexuality, at least far removed from incest. No guilt, no transgression. Business as usual. But it made it easier for Henry to accede to Rose’s requests for a dollar each time they fornicated, everything arranged like clockwork and Rose (according to Roth’s novelized account) even more eager than he to go all the way.
Henry’s junior year at DeWitt Clinton brought no more academic success than his first, save his stellar achievements in plane geometry. The beauty of mathematics drew his attention from other subjects, and lackluster performance therewith continued. An unexpected, albeit temporary, triumph followed, though, when he joined the school’s rifle team, and in a burst of rookie enthusiasm, racked up a near perfect score in a match against Morris High. Roth was never to even approach that success during the rest of his competitive shooting career and fell into oblivion among the team’s more attentive members. One team member, Billy Green, became Henry’s steadfast friend, though, and the middle-class Upper West Sider and Henry began spending many weekends together in outdoor adventures, aided by Billy’s storehouse of athletic equipment and camping gear kept with a canoe at a boathouse located on the banks of the Hudson near Billy’s apartment.
Another close friend was found in Larry Gordon, a wealthy, well-dressed ostensibly (in Henry’s perception) gentile boy with whom Henry serendipitously shared a seat in an elocution class one day. Their intemperate conversation during class led to Henry being threatened with administrative sanctions by the principal until he was able to tearfully beg his way off with the substitute instructor, blubbering that to make such a friend was an ineluctable opportunity for Roth, accustomed as he was to the choices among Jewish lower and lower middle class boys among whom he had lived and attended school his entire life.
One of the pair’s first out-of-school get togethers was a slow walk to the 9th Avenue elevated after school one day,
forming an easier acquaintance than that fostered within school corridors. The Arrow-collar shirted, tweed-jacketed and blue top-coat sporting Larry was vastly better off than Henry, but the softness of his demeanor and his fleshy lips belied the surprise Henry soon was served. Larry was Jewish, to Henry’s immense chagrin, a former Sunday school teacher at Temple Beth El on Fifth Avenue (Roth probably mis-remembered the name of Temple Emanu-El, then located on Fifth Avenue and 43rd Street and shortly to move to its current location at the corner of 65th Street and Fifth Avenue). Larry was an atypical member of Emanu-El; all of his great-grandparents had emigrated from Hungary, but the family’s social and economic success in America made him an atypical member of the Ost-Juden, the central and eastern European Jewry who flooded into New City in the late 19th century after the much earlier arrival of German Jews who formed the backbone of the Reform congregation where Larry had taught. Social disdain rained down on Jews of Henry’s ilk, the ost-jüden, from the “Our Crowd” Jews of Emanu-El; the friendship between the two yet another bit of redemption from the hell of poverty and violence of all kinds in which Henry had grown up. The infatuation with each other’s backgrounds grew instantly; Larry used what few Yiddish phrases he had picked up from his older relatives to ingratiate himself with his new friend, and Henry listened in wonderment as Larry told of a youth in Bermuda and other places perhaps physically closer to East Harlem but nonetheless rarified in Henry’s mind’s eye.
An iron link was forged, binding the two young men together. Henry’s desperate struggle to escape his past found an outlet in his new friend, and his thirst for assimilation was mirrored in Larry’s fascination with a poor young man who knew their shared Ashkenazic roots and could re-connect Larry with his grandparents’ culture. Larry schooled Henry in the existence of modern English poetry while Henry joyfully encouraged Larry to pull up from his memory the Yiddish of his parents’ and grandparents’ backgrounds that he had heard as a child. Roth held the ostensibly assimilated young Jew harmless from the suspicion and racism that he had encountered in gentile-dominated society theretofore that could smell a Hebrew from a mile off, regardless of his Brooks Brothers attire. An essential antidote to the perverse sexuality in which Henry had been engaging with his sister was born; that of a romance of the mind. Promise dawned, that Henry could be someone else and find a new world worthy of his soul, that which Larry inhabited, a cut above.
The spring of 1924 found Henry expanding his area of academic interest during his last semester of high school; besides geometry (solid, now), biology fascinated Henry, making him virtually certain that he would pursue a career in it after graduation. Henry’s relationships with Larry and Billy were both maintained, perhaps with a bit of jealousy on the part of both boys, who knew of each other and also cherished their access to Henry’s world. But with graduation, Billy and Henry drifted apart, Henry making a conscious choice to pursue his friendship with Larry over the summer as both waited for college matriculation. One night after a walk in the park with his sophisticated, poetic friend, Henry came to a conscious conclusion about love, his damaged sexuality, and the future of arts and letters that lay ahead, regardless of where he matriculated in the coming autumn. As recounted at the end of Chapter XXIII in A Diving Rock on the Hudson (Volume 2 of Mercy of a Rude Stream), the quintessential question lay shining before him. “Could one dare to strive afterward for that rare, transcendent bliss, even if it was already marred by the squalid? And yet he knew that was what he wanted to win, hopeless as his yearning was, Larry’s world, full of love and refinement and gentle surrender.”
Henry received two letters in mid-July while working that summer as a plumber’s helper, building homes in the Bronx. The first was the award of a full-tuition scholarship at Cornell, with assurances of part-time work sufficient to pay for his room and board. The second validated Henry’s successes at DeWitt Clinton with mathematics and biology: CCNY accepted Henry as a B.S. candidate for registration in the fall, and the die was cut for another major battle with his parents. Herman Roth had originally agreed to defray Henry’s travel expenses to Cornell and support Henry for 6 months there. But when push came to shove, the offer was reneged upon, and after a Sunday morning spent molesting his sister (albeit with her supposed consent), Henry’s letter declining Cornell’s offer was penned and dispatched. Larry would remain in New York at NYU’s downtown campus, and although Henry had chosen to follow the path of intellectual and sexual liberation that Larry had shown him, the conversion was far from complete.
Registration at CCNY quickly turned into a nightmare; students were expected to devise their own schedule and then approach individual desks to lock down their programs. Dilatory to a fault, time and again Henry’s hopes were dashed as available seats for the courses he preferred disappeared before his very eyes. A patchwork program was all he could muster: French 1, Trigonometry, Descriptive Geometry, Military Science and Phys. Ed. I. Due to his stalling, Henry was closed out of English Composition 1. His first semester looked somewhat grim, and it lacked the credits necessary to become other than a conditional student in the second term, who would perforce have to make up the shortfall or face expulsion. Henry floundered in geometry but the philosophy course with its brilliant instructor kept his head in the clouds he so ardently sought.
In contradistinction to Henry’s woeful start, Larry had registered for all the courses he chose at NYU in a two year humanities program that formed a prerequisite to his entry into NYU Dental School. One of his courses in English Literature proved fateful for Henry Roth also, the instructor being a tiny, delicate-boned, New Mexico-born young woman named Eda Lou Walton who had earned an interdepartmental Ph.D. in English and anthropology. Eda Lou quickly invited Larry to join an extra-curricular Arts Club, usually reserved for upperclassmen, that met in bohemian haunts in the Village with names such as The Romany Inn and the Pirate’s Den. Henry longed for an atmosphere like that described to him by his friend, seemingly so lacking at CCNY.
NYU’s main campus in that era was on University Heights in the Bronx, close by Fordham University’s Rose Hill facilities. Long a bastion of WASP scholarship, very few Jews were admitted to the Bronx-based NYU, shunted instead to the downtown campus that NYU had maintained since the mid-19th century. Larry was among them, and his chagrin and disgust at the “fat-headed, thick-skinned” members of the Tribe that filled most of the seats in his Washington Square English class was eagerly shared with Henry. Outside of class, Larry introduced Henry to the scene in the Village and Washington Square Park, with long-haired, wannabe poets, tea rooms, leftist politics and sexual libertinism ubiquitous in the ethnically mixed, still industrial neighborhood. But Henry’s feet remained firmly planted in the immigrant-dominated CCNY environment as well as in the incestuous sex that he began conducting at the end of 1924 with his young teenage cousin Stella in her Flushing, Queens home at a family bris (besides his ongoing encounters with his sister Rose)
Henry’s initial academic performance at CCNY was disastrous; he ended the fall term with a C- average, buoyed only with an A in chemistry, and badly behind in the requirements for a newly matriculated freshman, while his friend Larry prospered with less effort at NYU. The friends became even closer when Larry confided in Henry that Eda Lou Walton had taken Larry as her lover, a rare thing even in the loose ways of Greenwich Village. Larry was already daydreaming about marrying her, cutting off all ties to his family, and changing schools so that their relationship would not imperil her position at NYU.
Yet another fateful step led Henry to Eda Lou Walton’s side; invited to a meeting of the Arts Club, Henry showed up, timorous, in a tweed jacket of Larry’s loaned to him days before, at the Village Inn Teahouse, where undergraduate classmates of Larry’s spread themselves around a table. Larry led the meeting in the smoky, large room, illuminated by candles dripping from wine bottles. Henry’s first meeting with Eda Lou was portentous; she instantly took to the shy young biology student, and he to her, but the proceedings advanced to a poetry reading during which Henry felt completely lost. Belonging nowhere, neither at CCNY, nor in East Harlem, nor there, Henry was nonetheless entranced by Eda Lou and accepted her invitation to accompany Larry to her shared flat for another, less public get together.
Eda Lou’s background and life story were completely different from Henry’s, rendering the differences between him and Larry seem almost insignificant. Eda Lou was a free love devotée and equestrienne from New Mexico with a B.A. summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa key from Berkeley, as well as her Ph.D. Margaret Mead, Eda Lou’s New York friend by correspondence while studying anthropology at Berkeley, became even closer when Eda Lou accepted an instructorship at NYU.
Relations between Eda Lou and Larry ebbed and flowed, he fantasizing about marriage and she conducting simultaneous affairs with him, Margaret Mead’s husband, and whomever else she invited into her bed. Henry was astounded, but given his own checkered sexual history, he soon accepted, if not approved, of Eda Lou’s life, drawn as he was into her thrall. Through Walton, both Henry and Larry were introduced to James Joyce’s recently published “Ulysses,” and it was from Walton’s bookshelves that Henry first became acquainted with T.S. Eliot and other controversial poets and novelists already well known to Walton’s fluid intellectual crowd that included not only Mead but also the poet Leonie Adams, and many members of the women’s discussion group founded in 1912 such as Margaret Sanger, Fannie Hurst, Zona Gale, Frances Perkins Gilman, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Mabel Dodge and Susan Glaspell.
In his threesome with Eda Lou and Larry, Henry played the infantile witness, with full knowledge of Larry and Eda Lou’s sexual interactions, while his secrets were shared only with Larry. Walton often referred to Henry as “child,” as Kellman recounts, “in droll recognition of the twelve years that separated their ages and in genuine maternal tenderness.” (Kellman, op.cit. p. 87) Burdened by a mountain of incestuous guilt, Henry gratefully accepted her compassion, even while she, for the time being, had no actual knowledge of Roth’s perverted behavior. Savior, healer, mother, instructor, and stout admirer of Henry’s tortured soul, Eda Lou played an indispensable role in the development of Henry Roth’s burgeoning literary inclination, that of self-depiction and exorcism of personal demons that informed his work until his death some 70 years later.
Fast-forward almost 50 years to the Upper West Side where 19-year old me accepted a job as a billing clerk in the stock room of Galaxy Music Corporation, a publisher and distributor of classical piano, choral and instrumental music owned by a intellectual property professor at the Columbia University School of Law which I was later to attend. I took the job out of economic necessity; despite my partial scholarship to Columbia College, where I matriculated in 1969, I had no meal ticket at the dining hall and my parents were strapped for cash, my father hospitalized with the suicidal depression that had plagued him for decades. I resorted to shoplifting in the local deli merely to eat, ordering the cheapest hero sandwiches and then tucking them under my bulky jacket while browsing the aisles with an innocent look on my face before absconding. Though not alone in my poverty at school, I was certainly an exception to the rule in several ways, and my throes of assimilation into the world of intellectual New York student culture were daunting and filled with upsetting as well as rewarding experiences, much like Henry Roth’s high school and college years.
At Galaxy Music, I was befriended by a cute 32-year old editorial assistant, some 13 years older. C. was a Ph.D musicology candidate at CUNY, married for many years to a philandering neurologist at a major hospital. The couple was childless and C. finally had had enough of his insisting on sudden trips to the all-night General Post Office across from Penn Station because of an urgent need to post certain letters to colleagues. A 30 minute trip in the doctor’s little BMW from their Central Park West aerie would regularly take at least two hours. So I was a chosen, a callow youth with a big heart to ease her pain and make her feel wanted again. C. introduced me the world of Early Music in New York. I took recorder lessons and joined a chamber group. I felt reborn into a world in which I need not compete, was not disdained by more sophisticated students. All that mattered to the folks to whom C. introduced me was that I was hers. The rest was assumed, inferred. We were monogamous lovers for almost two years until she asked me to marry her. I was in love but aghast. I simply couldn’t. Maybe I regret it now. I learned at her feet and adored her brilliance. I get Eda Lou Walton and Henry. I get it.
The sexual gyroscope of Eda Lou’s life whirred round and round, her attentions to Larry dimming, and her affair with Margaret Mead’s husband, Luther Cressman, deepening, as his open marriage with Mead led him to Eda Lou as well as to a British woman, Dorothy Cecilia Loch, to whom he travelled in the spring of 1927. All was out in the open with Eda Lou as he weighed his feelings, and though he returned to New York in September 1927, engaged to Loch, Cressman took back up with Eda Lou, impregnating her. Eda Lou chose to have an abortion after she moved to a more tranquil apartment at 61 Morton Street in the West Village close by to Edna St. Vincent Millay’s famously
61 Morton Street, c. 1940
[photo courtesy of the New York City Municipal Archives]
narrow town house at 75 1/2 Bedford Street, and the Provincetown Playhouse, where the works of O’Neill, Sean O’Casey and Gertrude Stein were featured regularly. Eda Lou’s Morton Street place was also just down the block from the famous Chumley’s, a watering hole patronized by the likes of Djuna Barnes, Willa Cather, e.e. cummings, John Dos Passos, Theodore Dreiser, James T. Farrell, Ring Lardner, John Steinbeck, Upton Sincliar, Edmund Wilson, and now, Henry Roth.
Recovering, ashen-pallored from her abortion, Eda Lou swore off men, but the ferment between her and Roth, whose literary sensibilities had enlarged exponentially through her good offices, readied her for a relationship founded on their respective sexual torments. Roth came clean with Eda Lou about his incestuous career with his sister and cousin, fully disclosing the intimate physical and emotional details that were verboten even in the ultra-liberal Village circles which he and Eda Lou inhabited. Seeking an emotional hook into her young friend, one of enormous efficacy was proffered by Henry to her, and Roth’s soul-wrenching admissions to Eda Lou broke down any barriers between him that might theretofore have existed. He moved in with her in December, 1927, a tenancy that would last almost 12 years. Henry’s relationship with Larry was sundered and a new one forged from which Call It Sleep emerged, some seven years later. Eda Lou paid Roth’s living expenses before and well after the onset of the Great Depression, as he labored maniacally, both in her home as well as without her during a pair of trips to rural Maine. One stage of infantile intellectual life and perverse sexuality was put aside. But his work was far from done.
Call It Sleep was published in December 1934, but the time was not propitious for the sale of a first-time novel in the horrid economic climate, and despite the mostly favorable reviews that the book garnered. Roth was frustrated, after years of arduous effort and exhausted from the emotional catharsis of self-liberation realized in the novel’s release. Less than 2,500 copies sold, and its publisher went out of business 18 months later, condemning the title to oblivion. An attempt to write a much different epic, that of a midwestern working-class hero, sent Roth to the West Side docks, where to prove his authenticity as a member of the Communist Party, (which he joined in 1934), his protest activities led to a severe beating. Adding insult to injury was the vilification of Walton, who excoriated her paramour for abandoning his pure artistic talents in favor of political parole. Roth burned the incomplete manuscript in the fireplace on Morton Street as he sat there bleeding from an attack perpetrated against him by anti-union thugs on the docks.
In 1938, Roth was invited to the already storied Yaddo Artists Colony at the urging of Walton, whose friend Elizabeth Ames, the executive director, listened to Eda Lou’s paeans to Roth’s productivity and pending second novel, in fact abandoned three years earlier. Yaddo was to prove a turning point in Roth’s life, one of overwhelming importance, for there, at a piano recital by the summer resident Muriel Parker, he would meet his partner of the next 50 years. Fair and with bobbed hair, Parker was thirty years old, and had studied with Nadia Boulanger and Soulima Stravinsky in Paris after graduating summa cum laude from the University of Chicago and earning degrees in piano and composition at the American Conservatory of Music.
The urge of the foreign had lured Roth since childhood, and Muriel, daughter of an itinerant Baptist preacher who found stability in a position as the administrative head of the central Chicago YMCA, was no exception to the rule. Muriel’s mother was of Mayflower stock, marrying beneath her Social Register status for love. Entranced and fascinated with each other, 6′ tall Muriel and Henry began making daily trips into the center of Saratoga Springs to taste the free mineral waters at one of the city’s several park pavilions. By the end of the summer, the two were a couple, from all accounts, and Henry faced the daunting prospect of letting go of Eda Lou Walton, and worse still, telling her so.
Walton had given birth to Roth’s artistic achievements, fostered and nurtured him both intellectually, sexually and emotionally, and was duly proud of her transformation of the timid, frightened spawn of East Harlem’s poverty stricken Jewish ghetto to a full-fledged member of the Greenwich Village literati. Roth was literally an experiment for her, one of several over her young adulthood, and her objectification of Roth in all ways led to the inevitable. The experiment was concluded and Roth would move on, having outgrown a test-tube life, entering for the first time, a reality of love and commitment so foreign to his birth.
Henry drove back to New York City from Yaddo with Muriel by his side, and after dropping her off at the apartment she shared with her sister, he headed to Eda Lou’s new apartment at 107 Waverly Place. It was time to break the news. His debilitating dependence on Eda Lou had ended. Muriel was ready to support him emotionally and physically in a more mature relationship, and Roth was loathe to waste the opportunity to grow up and know what true love is. Though ostensibly nonchalant about her more than decade-long relationship with Roth, when informed, Eda Lou seethed with anger, offering to set Roth up in his own apartment if only he would promise to never see Muriel again. Tortured with guilt,and eager to leave New York altogether after a violent quarrel with his parents over his father’s abuse of Leah Roth, Henry packed up his Model A and headed to California with his Communist Party friend, Bill Clay. A dual track lay before him. Perhaps the time with Bill would open a vein of inspiration for a new novel with a working-class hero, or perhaps Roth would break into Hollywood screen-writing, as so many of his peers were attempting. Eda Lou chastised him violently for his artistic hallucinations, ending up in a spat that saw her hurl an ashtray at Roth. It shattered, as did their bond, in a thousand pieces on her apartment floor.
Rejected by Hollywood out of hand and making no progress on a new novel, Roth returned penniless to New York after half a year. Shortly thereafter he brought Muriel to meet his parents at their home in Brooklyn. They married on October 7, 1939. They spent a few years in New York, where the couple earned their keep in an assortment of jobs, Muriel taught school and gave piano lessons; Henry trained as a mechanic and worked in a variety of machine shops in New York while Muriel also composed music. Their first child, a son named Jeremy, was born on December 23, 1941 and his brother Hugh came into the world in September 8, 1943, as the couple moved about in a variety of apartments in Manhattan. All the while, Roth wrote short pieces but none were accepted for publication. Machinist jobs followed for Henry, first in Long Island City and then in Providence, Boston and Cambridge, after Roth fled the constant reminders of aspiration and failure that confronted him everywhere in New York. On Labor Day 1946, he put an end to his lifelong urban life, picking up and moving to a tumbledown house with no central heating, electricity or funning water in Montville in rural Maine. The couple struggled mightily, as Roth vainly sought steady work as a machinist, and made do with odd jobs and handouts. One afternoon in October, 1946 a funeral pyre of unpublished manuscripts was set ablaze by Henry, in a fruitless attempt to separate from his literary past. Four years of work as a mental hospital attendant in Augusta provided a meager if steady income, supplemented significantly by Muriel’s new job teaching school in nearby Vassalboro. The pleasures, such as they were, of roughing it far from their jobs faded, and in the summer of 1949 the couple sold their Montville house and moved to one in the country just north of Augusta on 3.5 acres. There the family would reside for the next 19 years as Henry transitioned from mental hospital attendant to operating a poultry slaughterhouse of his own design as well as raising ducks from 1953 until 1963. With the publication of Irving Howe’s praise-packed review of the re-issued Call It Sleep on October 25, 1964 came fame and a steady income for Henry Roth, who had spent his entire life in one oblivion or another. With the financial rewards came the freedom to travel until he and Muriel moved to New Mexico in 1968. Muriel and Henry occupied a house trailer in Albuquerque until her death in February 1990; the couple suffered from a multitude of physical ailments, with rheumatoid arthritis crippling Henry’s hands frequently beyond use. In 1991, Henry Roth moved to a local retirement home, but tiring of the circumstances, he bought a former funeral home in the North Valley of Albuquerque where his literary assistant since 1989, an undergraduate student named Felicia Steele, continued to work with him on his multi-volume autobiographical novel, Mercy of A Rude Stream.
My trajectory was far different than Henry’s after C. and I split up in 1973. With new found sexual confidence and a Columbia Law degree soon to be under my belt, my career as Don Quijote took off full force in March 1976 when I met my now ex-wife, a beautiful, young (albeit 3.5 years older than I) highly cultured woman from the Bronx whom I deemed in need of salvation from her horrid family background. Romance obtained and within a few months we were a couple, moving in together in May 1977 and marrying in 1978. Six dream-like years followed but then after the birth of a second child whose colic was interminable, the process of un-coupling began. It was to take 30 years. My development of fluency in Yiddish starting in 1998 eased my way every day, yet another circle unbroken despite the carnage of infidelity and divorce that lay about my feet when I finally summoned up the courage to agree to her many requests to sunder our relationship after two separations, the first of which precipitated a nervous breakdown in the Tel Aviv airport when I departed to study Yiddish there in the summer of 2010 and was told not to bother to return home.
Roth’s passing on October 13, 1995 in a local hospital came as no surprise to anyone. At 89 years of age, he had lived a long and sentient life. Journalists and literary scholars had adulated him for 31 years by then, often traveling thousands of miles from across the country and overseas to interview a unique member of a certain literary pantheon, many said the rightful heir to James Joyce. Crippled by arthritis and widowerhood, Roth’s death left vacant a literary chair that only he could occupy, much like the Lubavitcher Rebbe. His work continues, though, to burn brightly before our eyes and certainly in mine. Roth’s struggles with identity, assimilation, healthy sexuality and a long-term marriage that brought him solace and peace remain a lamp unto my feet.