New York: Robert O. Ballou, .
About the item
First edition in first state jacket. Variant binding in red cloth (as opposed to light blue cloth), possible trial binding, in jacket that is slightly longer at bottom (~6mm extended from usual jacket). 1 vols. 8vo. Inscribed to his sister, an important figure in the book's history. Publisher's dark red cloth, gilt-lettered blue cloth spine label, cocked, black top-stain, corners lightly bumped, scattered minor abrasions; unclipped dust jacket, numerous tape mends on verso repairing closed tears including length of two folds, portions of top and bottom edges and across spine panel, several hard fold creases, extremities and flap folds rubbed with mild abrading, small nicks; front hinge starting, slight separation at gutter of title page, few signatures stressed, endpapers toned, contents with occasional staining, mostly to blank margins. Custom half-morocco box with four-fold wrapper. Kellman, Steven, Redemption: The Life of Henry Roth, New York: Norton, 2005.
Inscribed by Roth to his sister on the half-title: "For my dear sister, Rose / Henry Roth."
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. It took him some eight years to finish it, and the drafts that he wrote in blue composition books were mailed to his sister, Rose, in the city, who obligingly typed them up and mailed them back (Kellman, 113).
Other details about Henry and Rose's relationship only emerged late in his life. Roth began "groping" his sister when he was twelve and she was ten, and four years later they "reached full sexual intimacy" (Kellman, 67). Roth's novel weaves together so many autobiographical details – about his parents, about the languages in his home, about the gentile slum children he knew, even about sexual relationships with his cousin and other neighborhood girls – but his hero, David Schearl, is an only child. One wonders what Rose made of this omission, in the face of the fact that she would've recognized so much else in the book as the content of her very own upbringing. The full story of their relationship remained a secret until the 1990s; Roth was writing the second volume of his Mercy of a Rude Stream series of autobiographical novels and he introduced a sister character, with whom his hero has an incestuous relationship – she was left out of the first volume, and it's speculated that Roth feared the series wouldn't be published if he included the incest up front in the first volume. Rose Broder (nee Roth), was warned of the content before publication and threatened to sue. This was much reported on at the time, very painfully for all parties involved. Rose was paid $10,000 by Henry and received the legal assurance that sibling incest would not feature in future volumes.
In addition to being excised from the novel, and typing it up for publication, Rose was instrumental in bringing it back into print again as well. In 1956, she attended a talk about the Jewish American literary canon given by Charles Angoff at a Jewish Community Center in Queens. Angoff mentioned the neglected masterpiece, Call it Sleep, which was out of print, and whose author had disappeared. After the talk Rose spoke to Angoff and offered to put him in touch with her brother, then living in Maine as a poultry farmer. Angoff told Harold Ribalow, a cultural macher and former student of Eda Lou Watson, and Ribalow and Rose Broder set about getting the book out of contractual hock to Scribner's – to whom it was transferred in a deal that was to include a novel that Roth wrote about a charismatic but illiterate union organizer, the manuscript to which he burned the very day he was to give it to Maxwell Perkins. Ribalow and Broder eventually got the book published by Cooper Square Editions, an imprint founded by two booksellers expressly to reprint this book which was regularly fetching more than $100 on the rare book market (Kellman 218-220).
It can be hard to square the torturous past of the Roth sibling's relationship with Rose's clear commitment to the book that her brother produced. This copy, likely bound in a trial binding, in an untrimmed jacket, was probably given to her before publication, in acknowledgment of her contribution to the book and Henry's debts to her. It is an extremely powerful association copy of one of the greatest American modernist novels, which is also one of the greatest New York novels, and one of the greatest American novels of the immigrant experience ever to be written.