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Henry Roth’s Secret

We speculated a little last week about why Henry Roth might have gone into a 40 year writing funk after Call It Sleep was published in 1934.

This excerpt from a New York Times article goes a long way toward explaining the real reasons:

In 1964 “Call It Sleep” was reissued in paperback, and in a front-page essay in The New York Times Book Review the critic Irving Howe called it “one of the few genuinely distinguished novels written by a 20th-century American.” Roth, however, tried to dissociate himself from the novel. “The man who wrote that book at the age of 27 is dead,” he said. “I am a totally different man.” He was living in self-imposed exile in rural Maine, where after a series of odd jobs and a stint as an attendant at the state mental hospital he was working as what he called a “waterfowl dresser,” slaughtering and plucking ducks and geese. He hadn’t published a word in years.

Roth variously attributed his block to dislocation, depression and the strictures of Communism. But a darker, more crippling reason — a secret Roth anguished over for years — emerged in “A Diving Rock on the Hudson,” the second of the four novels he began to publish in the 1990s, in which he revealed that as a teenager he had committed incest with his sister and his cousin.

“When he decided he could write about the incest, that was the breaking of the dam,” Robert Weil, who edited the four novels and published them under the blanket title “Mercy of a Rude Stream,” said recently.


That man had some demons. Don’t we all? But incest? That’s brutal. It’s no surprise that Roth hid away in Maine for all those years with those skeletons in his closet.

This also shows how writing can be therapeutic. Maybe Roth finally wrote again after 40 years to exorcise those demons from his past. It’s just a shame it took him so long.

Writers are a screwed-up bunch, aren’t we?

More at The New York Times

(Image: Wikimedia Commons)

4 Comments Post a comment
  1. Brandon #


    So does this new info change your perception or appreciation of the book?


    December 12, 2013
    • I don’t think so. As disturbing as this is, most famous writers had serious issues. We all do. If the book was all about incest, then it might be different. But I can separate the book from the author usually, and Call It Sleep is a really good novel.


      December 12, 2013
  2. Man, I thought I had issues. Thanks for making me feel better, Henry Roth!


    December 12, 2013
  3. hot damn. well, he definitely punished himself for it.


    December 13, 2013

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