An American Type

An American Type

by Henry Roth

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The author of the greatest American immigrant novel, Call It Sleep, returns with this posthumous work.
Henry Roth’s final novel, An American Type, is nothing short of a miracle, a lyrical work of immense poignancy from a writer whose biographical story has no parallel in American literature. Roth, best known for his towering immigrant novel Call It Sleep,…  See more details below


The author of the greatest American immigrant novel, Call It Sleep, returns with this posthumous work.
Henry Roth’s final novel, An American Type, is nothing short of a miracle, a lyrical work of immense poignancy from a writer whose biographical story has no parallel in American literature. Roth, best known for his towering immigrant novel Call It Sleep, emerged from a literary hibernation of 60 years in 1994 with Mercy of a Rude Stream, a fictional quartet that would be hailed by as “a landmark of the American literary century.” In contrast to Roth’s previous novels, An American Type is a both a love story and a lamentation, the final fruit of nearly 2,000 unpublished pages that Roth composed in the last years of his life. The manuscript rested undisturbed in an office file for over a decade before it was sent to Willing Davidson, then a young assistant in the Fiction Department of The New Yorker, who with a “growing sense of discovery and elation,” recognized that this unpublished manuscript possessed “astonishing vigor.”
Set in the dire year of 1938, the novel reintroduces us to Roth’s alter-ego, Ira Stigman, a 32-year-old novelist, eager to assimilate but psychologically traumatized by the scars of his impoverished immigrant past. Restless with his older lover and literary mentor, the renowned English professor, Edith Welles, whose obsessive love has crippled him, Ira, a “slum-born Yiddle,” journeys to Yaddo, the famed writer’s colony, where he meets a blond, aristocratic pianist, whose inherent nobility and “calm, Anglo-Saxon radiance” engages him.
The ensuing romantic crisis, as well as the conflict between his ghetto Jewish roots and the bourgeois comforts of Manhattan, forces Ira to abandon the comforts of his paramour’s Greenwich Village apartment. In his relentless search to become a writer, a husband and an American, Ira heads West with an illiterate, boorish Communist, on an illusory quest for the promise of the American West. Thumbing rides from gruff truckers, riding the rails with hobos through the Dust Bowl, Ira explores America’s inherent splendors and its Depression tragedies as he returns home, uncertain if he will marry M., questioning if he’ll ever be able to make anything of his lapidary prose.
Set against crumbling piers and glimmering skyscrapers in Manhattan, against seedy motor courts and tufted palm trees in sun-soaked Los Angeles, An American Type is not only, perhaps, the last first-hand testament of the Depression, but also a universal statement about the constant reinvention of American identity, and, with its lyrical ending, the transcendence of love.

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Editorial Reviews

Over the last 20 years, Henry Roth has evolved from an elderly long-silent prodigy, after the manner of Harper Lee, to a posthumous prolific cottage industry - a kind of upmarket L. Ron Hubbard, but with genius instead of E-meters. Roth's great autobiographical immigrant novel Call It Sleep came out in 1934, that hinge year for American literature when Dashiell Hammett published his last novel, Raymond Chandler his first short story, and Upton Sinclair left off writing just long enough to run a doomed but influential campaign for the California statehouse. Amid all these doings and more, a 28-year-old son of the Lower East Side created what for many remains the first classic novel of becoming an American.


And then ... nothing. For complicated reasons touching on, but not limited to, communism, incest, and sheer cussedness - and best left to Steven Kellman's terrific, fluent biography Redemption: The Life of Henry Roth - only well into his eighties did Roth write the first of an eventual four volumes in his epic second autobiographical fiction, Mercy of a Rude Stream. Roth's death in an Albuquerque hospital near his home in 1995 slowed his belated productivity not a whit, and the last two volumes were published soon after. Now, with publication of the likewise autobiographical An American Type, this late second flowering of Roth's prodigious talent may have finally reached its bittersweet, fitfully brilliant end. No one should mistake An American Type for an equal bookend to Call It Sleep, nor foolishly read it first. But the new book nevertheless has the kind of freshness and energy that long-awaited follow-ups are often said to have, but too rarely do - in this case, passages that rival the artist's early work for grouchy music and pure, grammar-stripping poetry.


An American Type follows Roth's alter ego, Ira Stigman, through the eventful year of 1938 when, discouraged partly by the mixed reception to a novel a lot like Call It Sleep, he (and Roth) jilted their longtime poet benefactress, drove to Los Angeles and hoboed back, and married his (and Roth's) wife of the next fifty years. This boomerang structure gives to an otherwise nakedly autobiographical book a shape, if not always a direction. Plenty of things happen here because that's how they actually happened, rather than for any narratively needful reason. Yet Roth seems wise to this shortcoming, and even puckishly tricks us by introducing a non sequitur of a traffic accident in the late innings, only to turn it into the basis for the proficient New Yorker piece Ira then writes.


About Roth's long silence, Ira vouchsafes hints only. A writer colleague at Yaddo called Daniel F, based on that other fine New York Jewish writer of the immigrant experience, Daniel Fuchs, "lectured Ira on the futility of writing novels, of receiving so little remuneration for all one's striving." Meanwhile Edith, Ira's erstwhile literary Svengali self-servingly suggests that leaving her for his shicksa pianist fiancé "would mean the end of his art." She predicts he'll become another of those has-beens who "let the best years of their lives go into doing all kinds of practical things...until it was too late."


But there's little indication that Roth fell silent soon after 1938 for Fuchs' simple mercenary reasons, particularly, or for the marital and workaday demons Edith warns him against. Of course his brutal father, no more effortfully disguised here than in Call It Sleep, can't have helped any. Nor, come to think of it, could his sainted mother, whose ferocious, all-devouring love wouldn't have been the first or last to convince an autobiographical writer son that his every experience was historic, his every excretion gold, his every utterance news. In the end, a great literary silence remains as much an enigma as a great outpouring. The miracle is that anyone could - even once - write reveries as hypnotically interior, yet magnificently pictorial, as this one, upon watching the mighty presses of Julia Morgan's beautiful Los Angeles Examiner building crank out the Sunday color supplement:


The fluorescents shone on the Hearst printing presses within the great square plate-glass windows of the Examiner Building, flooding the corner. He paused, the anguish within him seeking to cleave to anything, whether purposive, fatuous, anything. Slowly, the great, black machines behind the plate-glass window started moving, reeling out a Sunday comic sheet...Accelerating, they flew past, swifter still and swifter, until gone were Jiggs and Maggie, lost in a multihued ribbon of paper and a high-pitched hum. And banality was gone, triviality was gone, gone the strip's silly postures and problems. All had become a freshet of blended color, diving downward and leaping upward in strict angle, and again, as if the artist's palette had become a cataract.


That Henry Roth could summon such power twice - the second time many silence-struck decades after his legendary debut - is as much a marvel as the Examiner Building itself, still standing after all these years, awaiting a second act as miraculous as that of the writer who once stood outside.

--David Kipen

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Product Details

Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 9.40(h) x 1.20(d)

Meet the Author

Henry Roth (1906–1995) spent his early years on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. In 1914, the Roth family moved to Jewish Harlem. Roth died in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Willing Davidson is a fiction editor at The New Yorker.

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