Insistence of Memory
Henry Roth's posthumous novel recalls an old romance
Steven G. Kellman
An American Type:
by Henry Roth
W. W. Norton & Company
$25.95 List Price
The sixty-year interval between Henry Roth's first novel, Call It Sleep (1934), and his second, A Star Shines over Mt. Morris Park (1994), constitutes the longest intermission in any significant American literary career. In the final decade of his life, Roth overcame severe depression and agonizing rheumatoid arthritis to produce a veritable Niagara of prose—about five thousand manuscript pages. Roth's assistant, Felicia Steele, and editor, Robert Weil, sculpted three thousand of those into the tetralogy Mercy of a Rude Stream, which was published sequentially starting in 1994. Roth died in 1995, at eighty-nine, before seeing the final two volumes, From Bondage (1996) and Requiem for Harlem (1998), in print.
Approximately two thousand disparate pages remained in the author's archive at the American Jewish Historical Society. Two stories were sliced out of the bulky manuscript and published in the New Yorker during the summer of 2006; and now Willing Davidson, a fiction editor for the magazine at the time, has subjected that cache to nips, tucks, and radical liposuction, producing a sinewy novel he's dubbed An American Type. Like his fictional alter ego Ira Stigman, Roth signed a contract with Maxwell Perkins, the Scribner's editor who was legendary for imposing order on the slovenly wilderness of Thomas Wolfe's Look Homeward, Angel. Roth never fulfilled his agreement to deliver a novel to Perkins, but with Mercy of a Rude Stream and, now, An American Type, editorial surgery on his literary leavings looks to be angelic intervention.
Call It Sleep follows David Schearl, an