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.