Redemption: The Life of Henry Roth

Redemption: The Life of Henry Roth

by Steven G. Kellman
A penetrating biography of an unheralded master of American fiction.
Henry Roth (1906-1995), author of the great immigrant novel Call It Sleep, is one of the giants of American literature, yet for years he has lacked a biography. After completing his first book in 1934, Roth lapsed into a legendary six-decade silence, only to reemerge with Mercy of a Rude Stream,


A penetrating biography of an unheralded master of American fiction.
Henry Roth (1906-1995), author of the great immigrant novel Call It Sleep, is one of the giants of American literature, yet for years he has lacked a biography. After completing his first book in 1934, Roth lapsed into a legendary six-decade silence, only to reemerge with Mercy of a Rude Stream, hailed as "a landmark of the American literary century" (David Mehegan, Boston Globe) and "as provocative as anything in the chapters of St. Augustine" (Stefan Kanfer, Los Angeles Times Book Review). In following Roth's tortured life from his childhood on the Jewish Lower East Side to his twilight years in New Mexico, literary critic Steven Kellman has uncovered FBI files, spoken with family members and friends, and gained access to the tape in which Roth discussed the long-buried incest of his youth. Redemption is the Shakespearean saga of a great writer doomed to a life of psychological torment, but saved in the end by his search for deliverance.

Editorial Reviews

David Kirby
The Mercy of a Rude Stream novels were meant to relate the only story Roth was capable of telling, his own. Now Kellman has told that story masterfully; scarcely a page here doesn't deftly relate a bit of New York history or make a connection to the larger world of literature. Even better, Kellman tells the story in a way that Roth never could: briefly.
— The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
The obvious hurdle in writing a biography of Roth (1906-1995) is the 60-year gap between his first novel, the Jewish immigrant, stream-of-consciousness classic Call It Sleep (1934), and his second, the four-volume Mercy of a Rude Stream (1994-1998). Kellman, an English professor and author of seven previous scholarly works, makes a strong case against writer's block as the reason for the long silence, pointing out that Roth pitched short stories to the New Yorker for years (with intermittent success). Instead, he suggests, Roth deliberately withdrew from writing rather than allow his autobiographical fiction to confront his worst adolescent shames: expulsion from high school for stealing and a prolonged incestuous relationship with his sister. Kellman's account of Roth's early life draws extensively on the Mercy of a Rude Stream, created from thousands of manuscript pages Roth produced in his final years, and carefully details how they were prepared for publication, blaming editorial missteps for the slightly disappointed reaction of critics surprised by the author's new, more naturalistic voice. After the excitement of Roth's life before Call It Sleep--his Lower East Side childhood, the incest, involvement with an older woman--however, the long, often painfully frustrating decades that follow may make readers wish he'd hurry up and start writing again. Despite occasionally overplaying the drama, Kellman gives readers a thoughtful and objective perspective on Roth's life. (Aug. 15) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
This fine work is the first full biography of American novelist Henry Roth (1906- 95). (Bonnie Lyons's 1976 Henry Roth: The Man and His Work is primarily criticism and does not cover the last two decades of the author's life.) Kellman (English, Univ. of Texas, San Antonio) traces Roth's fascinating career from his birth in Galicia, Austria-Hungary, to his final years in New Mexico. He focuses on his experience of New York's Lower East Side and Jewish and Irish Harlem, memories of which dominate the classic novel Call It Sleep, as well as the quartet of books that make up Mercy of a Rude Stream (all published in the 1990s). Kellman, the author of a number of critical studies on Camus, William Gass, and others, expertly explores the personal, religious, and political reasons Roth gave up fiction for over half a century, plus the intensely creative second act of the writer's career. The overarching theme of the biography is Roth's search for personal redemption and how that quest fueled his amazing comeback. Despite some errors that one hopes will be caught in the final proofing (the male playwright Lynn Riggs, for example, is referred to as "she" on one page and "he" on another), this biography should be included in all public library and academic collections. (Illustrations, index, and family tree not seen.)-Morris Hounion, New York City Coll. of Technology, CUNY Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Call it obscurity: A writer publishes a novel, falls silent for nearly six decades and reintroduces himself with a torrent of words, to the world's indifference. Kellman (English/Univ. of Texas, San Antonio) offers the first book-length study of the life and work of Henry Roth (1906-95), whose fiction (Call It Sleep, 1934, etc.) drew liberally from experience. "What is left for biography to say about a man who wrote hundreds of articulate pages about himself?" Kellman wonders early on. Plenty. The darkest of the secrets of Roth's much-hidden life was his incestuous relationship with his sister, carried out in adolescence and early adulthood. Kellman attempts to locate some of the impulse to commit incest in the immigrant-as-besieged-outsider experience, adding that "as a literary theme, sibling incest has an ancient lineage," but he wisely allows that the act cannot easily be explained away. For her part, Roth's sister bore the psychic burden through the decades, trying to forget, only to find that Roth had commemorated the relationship in the novel cycle called Mercy of a Rude Stream. Roth revealed his life in his fiction in bits and pieces, but on his own terms; friends, translators and fellow writers who came too close to the truth found themselves shut out. Kellman establishes Roth's place as an important chronicler of the immigrant experience in America, but the story is unremittingly bleak: Roth graduates from tenement to college to the literary beau monde without being quite prepared for any of it, writes a fabulous book and then lives in obscurity, ekeing out a living as a "soda pop vendor, plumber's assistant, ditchdigger, English teacher, precision tool grinder, firefighter,maple syrup vendor, blueberry picker, woodcutter, psychiatric hospital attendant, and tutor in math and Latin," his most luxuriant home, late in life, a trailer in Albuquerque. Roth "lived in anguish for most of a miserable century," much of it of his own making. Kellman does solid work in recounting that unhappiness.

Product Details

Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
Publication date:
Edition description:
New Edition
Product dimensions:
6.50(w) x 9.60(h) x 1.40(d)

Meet the Author

Steven G. Kellman teaches English at the University of Texas at San Antonio and is the co-author of Into the Tunnel: Readings of Gass's Novel, a study of poet William Gass.

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