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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?

Read Henry Roth’s full obituary from 1995 over at The New York Times. 

(Image: Wikimedia Commons)

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15 Comments Post a comment
  1. Sometimes the second book is harder to write than the first one. Especially if the first one was so successful. It’s the same with an actor who is defined by one role. How can they compete with the quality of the work they’ve done. Then there is also the fear that you can’t do it again. Thanks for your post. Haven’t read the book or know much about the author.

    Like

    December 3, 2013
    • That’s the weird thing with this one, though. From a critical standpoint, it was well received but it didn’t sell at all and quickly went out of print. Maybe Roth realized how good it was and knew he couldn’t top it.

      Like

      December 3, 2013
    • Elizabeth Gilbert (Eat, Pray, Love) did a Ted talk about this, which was excellent. She acknowledged that she struggled (struggles) with the concept that at 40ish, her greatest work is probably behind her. The talk is great, if you want to look it up.

      Like

      December 3, 2013
      • Thanks. I will.

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        December 3, 2013
        • I am reminded of the failure of Moby Dick to sell when it was published in 1851. The reviews were scathing. It was not until 1917 that it began to be accepted for the great novel it was.

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          December 3, 2013
      • Very interesting. Thanks Lucinda!

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        December 4, 2013
  2. Reblogged this on Curiosidades na internet.

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    December 3, 2013
  3. Thank you, this is very interesting… just been introduced th H.R. in the last year or so.

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    December 3, 2013
  4. I don’t think we can do anything but speculate. And the reasons we would come up with would have nothing to do with the Roth, but rather with our own psyches. I’m still trying to work out why I did so poorly on NaNoWriMo.

    Like

    December 3, 2013
  5. Reblogged this on D.e.e.L's Writing and Various Nonsense.

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    December 4, 2013
  6. The characterful writer #

    Perhaps a maudlin dissatisfaction with a) the novel and/or b) his attempts to write the second. Or a woman or other person getting in the way of his writing schedule.

    Like

    December 6, 2013
  7. Wow, fascinating post! I appreciate the biographical detective work you do to accompany each book you read. 🙂 As for long-term writer’s block, I suspect it has a lot to do with the human fear of failure. If the first thing you create is a masterpiece, then how can you ever hope to equal it? I also suspect that this is why many sequels are worse than the original book, unless the author prepared to divide the story into a trilogy (LOTR) or a seven-part series (Harry Potter) before they even started writing.

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    December 7, 2013
  8. Writing is inspirational and driven by an urge to express something locked up deep within the subconscious mind. Roth may have expressed himself fully through his first novel and then achieved a state of fulfillment. Moreover, quality writers are not after the money. They just need to download their impressions and nothing more. It must have happened with Roth and he may have been contented by what he achieved. But when it became a case of, “famous writer- world watching you and publishers lining up,” it must have put him off. He expressed himself, made his mark and then realized living an average life is not bad. I can become famous any moment, it’s not difficult but is it worth the effort. I think it isn’t so just live a quiet life, knowing that I’ve had my days under the sun, but is’ better under the shade. Writer’s block varies from writer to writer but Roth’s is something unusual.

    Like

    December 10, 2013

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Henry Roth’s Secret | 101 Books
  2. How To Respond When Your Best Work Is Behind You | 101 Books

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