Page 31 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 37

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WALDEN / AMERICAN JEWISH NOVEL
HENRY ROTH
23
I t was almost un ique tha t H enry Roth’s
Call It Sleep
(1934)
shifted focus in so many ways. Unlike any o the r novel o f the era,
this superb psychological work, seen th rough the eyes o f a child,
summed up the tru th s and the traum as o f the imm igrants’ expe­
rience. Con fron ted by a fa the r who was m addened by ghosts o f
the past and p resen t poverty and despair, little David Schearl’s
existence balanced precariously between the trad itional values o f
his m o ther and the
heder
(religious school) and those o f the ou t­
side world. T he most F reud ian o f the interwar novels, involved
with oedipal conflict, God, and phallic imagery, it is, said Leslie
Fiedler, “the best single book by a Jew about Jewishness written by
an American, certainly th rough the thirties and perhaps ever.”
W he ther
Call It Sleep
is a pro letarian novel, which I doubt, is
un im po rtan t. What comes across is the inne r psychic pain o f the
second generation and its social and familial revolts. In Ludwig
Lewisohn’s view, the literary reflections o f the historical and
generational circumstances were par t o f an ongoing dialectical
process th a t would even tua te in a re tu rn to Juda ism , cha r­
acteristically liberal not only in the religious field bu t in politics
and love and sex as well. A lthough Lewisohn was a p rophe t for
the Th irties th rough the Fifties, it appears tha t the continuing
process has wreaked havoc with his words since World War II.
Jews in the United States have responded in many ways to the
pressures o f the New World. Some from the beginning and into
the presen t desired to be and were quickly o r eventually assimi­
lated. Some attem p ted to find a middle way by which they could
become Americans and still re ta in the ir sense o f being Jews. Some
were so alienated or estranged as to d rop ou t and pass into the
g rea t o th e r — the gen tile world. Still o th e rs were doub ly
alienated, no longer at home either in the Jewish o r non-Jewish
context. And some d idn ’t care one way o r the other. A rthu r
Koestler, fo r example, af te r World War II , bade goodbye to
Judaism , op ting for total assimilation. Meyer Levin, accepting
biculturalism, wrote, “Godless though I profess myself, I have
responded with more than warm th to the mystical elements o f
Chasidism. As a writer, I have considered tha t I accept the mate­
rial as folklore. But in my soul I know tha t I take more than this
from these legends.” A lbert H a lpe r spoke o f Yiddish as a “bastar­