The Curious Case Of Henry Roth
While researching Henry Roth, author of Call It Sleep, I found his obituary as it appeared in The New York Times on October 15, 1995.
One of the more curious aspects of Roth’s career, as described in the obituary, was his absence from the literary world for nearly 40 years. He wrote Call It Sleep in 1934, when he was 28 years old. The book was well-received but only sold 4,000 copies and it soon went out of print.
Roth wrote 75 pages of another novel, but eventually succumbed to “writer’s block” and never finished it. He wouldn’t write another novel until the 1970s. As The New York Times puts it:
Mr. Roth’s block was the topic of considerable speculation in the literary world, and he became almost as famous for it as he was for his legendary novel. He did not begin work on another novel until the 1970’s, and did not publish any sustained work of fiction until 1994, when suddenly “A Star Shines Over Mt. Morris Park” was issued, six decades after the appearance of “Call It Sleep.”
Leonard Michaels says Roth’s reemergence on the literary scene was like if J.D. Salinger wrote a sequel to The Catcher in the Rye 40 years after it was first published.
I also thought this excerpt from the obituary was revealing:
The unexpected success of “Call It Sleep” 30 years after its original publication further complicated Mr. Roth’s long struggle to go on writing. Suddenly both readers and publishers were asking for another book. In an interview given soon after the re-issue of the novel, he observed that, “When you get used to living like an average guy, you find it’s not too bad. I was comfortable and then I was being dislodged all over again.”
While he had produced some short fiction over the decades since “Call It Sleep” had first been published, he could not find a way to define or shape any of the larger issues that still tantalized him. Speaking of those decades, Mr. Roth once said that it was “a time of real regret. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to write: the yearning to do so never left me. It was just that I feared I had all but dried up.”
Some writers get famous after they die for a novel they wrote many years before. But Roth became famous while he was still living for a novel he wrote 30 years prior. How weird must that have been? As he says, “When you get used to living like an average guy, you find it’s not too bad. I was comfortable and then I was being dislodged all over again.”
I can’t imagine having written a novel like Call It Sleep, then hanging up the proverbial typewriter for 30 years. I guess this would be like Harper Lee coming out today with another novel 50 years after To Kill A Mockingbird was published.
What do you think would cause someone who wrote such a powerful book like To Call It Sleep to call it quits for so many years?
(Image: Wikimedia Commons)