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An American Type

Overview

“His early novel Call It Sleep was his Ulysses. His late work An American Type is his Grapes of Wrath.”—Thane Rosenbaum, Los Angeles Times
This “glorious, evocative, literary novel for the ages” (Los Angeles Times) has finally taken its place within the great canon of American fiction. Set during the Great Depression, against a backdrop of New York’s glimmering skyscrapers and Los Angeles’s seedy motor courts, this autobiographical work concludes the unparalleled saga of Henry Roth, whose classic Call It Sleep, ...

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An American Type: A Novel

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Overview

“His early novel Call It Sleep was his Ulysses. His late work An American Type is his Grapes of Wrath.”—Thane Rosenbaum, Los Angeles Times
This “glorious, evocative, literary novel for the ages” (Los Angeles Times) has finally taken its place within the great canon of American fiction. Set during the Great Depression, against a backdrop of New York’s glimmering skyscrapers and Los Angeles’s seedy motor courts, this autobiographical work concludes the unparalleled saga of Henry Roth, whose classic Call It Sleep, published in 1934, went on to become one of Time’s 100 best American novels of the twentieth century. With echoes of Nathanael West and John Steinbeck, An American Type is a heartrending statement about American identity and the universal transcendence of love.

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Editorial Reviews

Bookforum
An absorbing Depression-era love story, but what gives it special interest is the light it sheds on Roth’s lost years.— Steven G. Kellman
Donna Seaman - Booklist
“A passionate, life-embracing conclusion to Roth’s bold and cathartic magnum opus.”
Steven G. Kellman - Bookforum
“An absorbing Depression-era love story, but what gives it special interest is the light it sheds on Roth’s lost years.”
Publishers Weekly
This posthumous work by the much lauded Roth (Call It Sleep), assembled by former New Yorker editor Davidson from nearly 2,000 manuscript pages, continues the story of Roth’s alter ego, Ira Stigman. Ira, a Jewish writer, has already published his first novel to much acclaim and is struggling with the second (at Yaddo, no less) when he falls for M, a fetching Midwestern pianist, despite having Edith, his domineering mentor and lover, waiting back in New York City. Ira’s search for artistic inspiration soon requires a change of scenery, so he and his latest muse, a fervent Communist, travel to L.A., but things get off to a rocky start: Ira’s one contact is no longer in town and work is hard to come by, but to turn to Edith or M for help would compromise Ira’s effort to stand on his own. The novel comes close to achieving its aspirations of being a sweeping portrait of 1930s America and the story of a writer struggling with art, love, and finding his own voice, but despite a strong start, the narrative loses resonance as it meanders toward an abrupt and unsatisfying conclusion. (June)
Booklist
“Starred Review: A passionate, life-embracing conclusion to Roth’s bold and cathartic magnum opus.”
The Los Angeles Times
“[A] glorious, evocative, literary novel for the ages.”
The Barnes & Noble Review

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

  • ISBN-13: 9780393339925
  • Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 6/27/2011
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 304
  • Sales rank: 473,224
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.20 (h) x 0.90 (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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Table of Contents

Prologue

At Times in Flight 1

Part One Albuquerque, New York 9

Part Two Cincinnati, Los Angeles 59

Part Three New York 171

Part Four Albuquerque 263

Editor's Afterword 275

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