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Next Up: Call It Sleep

At the time of this writing, I’ve read the prologue to Call It Sleep by Henry Roth. The prologue is about 10 pages, and it almost made me cry.

Of course, had I cried I would have cried manly, Chuck Norris tears, but that’s neither here nor there.

So to say that Call It Sleep starts strong is an understatement. The book details a family of Jewish immigrants and their experiences in New York city in the early 1900s. In just the prologue, Roth conveys the sense of isolation and “foreignness” that these immigrants must have felt in “The Golden Land” of New York.

Anyway, here are some facts about Call It Sleep and its author, Henry Roth:

  • Call It Sleep was published in 1934 to critical acclaim.
  • Despite its critical popularity, the novel sold poorly and was out of print for nearly 30 years until Irving Howe reviewed the novel in 1964 on the cover of The New York Times Book Review.
  • Since being republished, the paperback version of the novel published by Avon (now Harper Collins) has sold more than 1 million copies.
  • It’s widely considered a masterpiece of Jewish-American literature.
  • Call It Sleep was Roth’s first published novel. His second, Nature’s First Green, didn’t come until 1979–45 years later.
  • Redemption: The Life of Henry Roth was Roth’s first published biography in 2006, written by Stephen Kellman.
  • Roth died in 1995 in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

This novel has been heaped with praise by some literary heavyweights. For example:

“One of the few genuinely distinguished novels written by a twentieth-century American.” –Irving Howe, The New York Times Book Review

“Arguably the most distinguished work of fiction ever written about immigrant life…Surely the most lyrically authentic novel in American literature about a young boy’s coming to consciousness.” –Lis Harris, The New Yorker

After venturing into some more lighter fare with Ubik and The Sot-Weed Factor, it appears I’m heading back into the well-known world of dark, depressing literature. But I’m used to it. And I’m actually looking forward to this one.

Any thoughts on Call It Sleep or Henry Roth?

11 Comments Post a comment
  1. I remember it making me almost cry too. No, wait, I did cry. Big girly-girl tears.


    November 26, 2013
    • Yeah, seems like a tough book to read. I expect more possible Chuck Norris tears.


      November 27, 2013
  2. I’ve not read it. I’ll put it in the reading express lane. I’m already sad over missing family for the Thanksgiving holiday, so what’s a few more tears. 🙂


    November 26, 2013
  3. Despite the praise for Call It Sleep, the novel is very much underrated. Furthermore, it’s important to note that when Roth resumed writing after more than thirty years, he returned to the subject of the Jewish immigrants in New York but this time carried the subject through. This is similar to J. R. R. Tolkein who wrote The Hobbit and many years later returned to the subject and created the popular epic, The Lord of the Rings.

    When Roth resumed writing he started much as he did in Call It Sleep but continued with the lives of the characters for four additional volumes known collectively as Mercy of a Rude Stream. Mercy was outlined as a six volume work but the final two volumes were combined into his last novel, An American Life.

    These writings by Henry Roth exceed almost every description you can come up with for them: bildungsroman, Jewish fiction, historical fiction, New York nostalgia, autobiography, stream-of-consciousness, confessional, experimental literature, but the bottom-line is that they are valuable contributions to world literature and unfortunately are relatively unread.

    So read them!


    November 26, 2013
  4. wow, this sounds like a good one! You are doing an excellent job with your lineup, I must say—I appreciate that you try to vary the types of books you’re reading.


    November 26, 2013
    • Thanks! Science fiction into a novel about Jewish immigrants in the early 1900s? That’s what I call reading whiplash.


      November 27, 2013
  5. I don’t think of The Sot-Weed Factor as lighter reading.


    November 26, 2013
    • True. It’s difficult to read but the humor makes it easier to bear. I think it’s “lighter” in that sense.


      November 27, 2013
  6. My favourite part of Call It Sleep is Roth’s understanding and depiction of language. His characters speak a wonderful combination of Yiddish and New York slang.


    November 27, 2013
  7. Chuck Norris doesn’t cry tears. Tears cry Chuck Norris.


    November 28, 2013

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