Inscribed to his father, the villain of this autobiographical novel

Call it Sleep.

New York: Avon, [1964].

Price: $10,000.00


About the item

First mass-market paperback edition. Small 8vo. Inscribed to his father, the villain of this autobiographical novel. Pictorial wrappers, light edgewear with a few creases, cover starting along top crease, preserved in mylar. Kellman, Steven, Redemption: The Life of Henry Roth, New York: Norton, 2005.

Item #352735

Signed and inscribed by Roth to his father: "To my father, Herman Roth / Kennst du das Land? / Henry Roth" in blue ink on verso of front wrap. ("Do you know the country?" in Yiddish)

"Henry recalled Herman as 'a timid, frightened, frustrated little guy, and that's the best I could say about him.' His prose would say much worse." (Kellman, p. 29)

Roth's great autobiographical novel about New York City ghetto life was widely praised upon its release in 1934, but sold only 4000 copies and faded into obscurity. In 1964 it was republished as a paperback by Avon books and reviewed by Irving Howe as the first paperback book ever reviewed on the front page of the New York Times Books section; it sold quickly through 250,000 copies. Howe called it "one of those novels — there are not very many — which patiently enter and then wholly exhaust an experience. Taking fierce imaginative possession of its subject, the novel scrutinizes it with an almost unnerving intensity, yet also manages to preserve a sense of distance and dispassion. …Through the transfiguring imagination of [the hero, it] also achieves an obbligato of lyricism such as few American novels can match."

The novel is frequently compared to the work of James Joyce, and Roth read Ulysses in 1925, when the book was still little more than a rumor in the American mind, after his girlfriend Eda Lou Walton – later the dedicatee of Call it Sleep – lent him the copy of the banned book she smuggled into the country from Paris. Inspired by the way that Joyce turned workaday Dublin into the stuff of high art, he began to take some of the pieces of his New York City ghetto experience and put them together into a novel. Like Joyce's father, who is transformed through the smithy of art into Simon Daedalus, Roth's father Herman becomes Albert Schearl, the villain of the novel. In order to augment paternal menace, Roth transformed the short and scrawny Herman Roth into the hulking bully Albert Schearl: 'I had to increase his magnitude and dimension. I had to fictionalize a character not based on the petty, little man my real father was" (Kellman, 108).

Roth's mother, Leah, had fallen in love with a Gentile in Tysmenitz, Galicia, and to avoid shame, her parents quickly and quietly married her off to Herman Roth, "himself a problem to his parents, and conveniently available" (Kellman, p. 24). In 1906, after losing all of his money in a horse-trading venture, Herman sailed for Ellis Island, and his wife and son followed during the summer of 1907, to a cold reunion. They lived in Brownsville, Brooklyn, then the Lower East Side, filled with recent Jewish immigrants, before settling in an Irish-American section of Harlem, where Herman worked a variety of jobs from press feeder at a printshop to milkman to waiter. He disdained his son's well-praised intellectual precociousness, and the son resented him his brutishness and stinginess and they remained distant for the entirety of Herman's life. He died in 1971, and left one dollar to his son, Henry, and one dollar each to his son's children, leaving the remainder to his daughter, Rose, Henry's sister, who turned over half of the sum to her brother.

"This was a relationship that could not be resolved—and will not be resolved in my lifetime... The only consolation I derive from my detestation of him is that practically all who had anything to do with him came to more or less the same conclusion I did." (Kellman, p. 260-1).