The story goes that after writing the excellent novel, Call It Sleep, Henry Roth lost his muse and was unable to continue his literary career. It took from 1934 to 1979 to completely break through this monumental case of writer’s block. The book that Roth unleashed his revived literary vision on was called Mercy of a Rude Stream. Mercy was to be six volumes but was published as four volumes (the last two posthumously). The final two volumes were re-edited after the death of Roth and published as An American Type which continued the Ira Stigman saga begun in Mercy.
Mercy is an attempt to recapture and understand the astonishing creative energy of his youth. The title comes from Shakespeare’s Henry VIII:
I have ventured, Like little wanton boys that swim on bladders, This many summers in a sea of glory, But far beyond my depth. My high-blown pride At length broke under me, and now has left me, Weary and old with service, to the mercy Of a rude stream that must for ever hide me.
I am only through the first two volumes of Mercy but more interesting than the excellent narrative are the techniques Roth uses to counter the narrative with a second stream-of-consciousness thread. This stream allows the narrator and fictitious author to discuss the creation of the novel and all its themes. The fiction is that Ira Stigman is writing the novel based on his own life, but at least three things make the fiction more interesting: first, Ira discusses the creative process of the novel with his word-processor, usually addressing it as a real person; second, Ira often speaks of sections of his writing as being totally fictitious and not, therefore, biographical; and third, the breaks in the narrative allow for a more directed discussion of some of the themes or techniques used in the writing. In fact, the insertions are often more about themselves than the more standard narrative that surrounds them. Roth, for instance, has major issues with the literary techniques of James Joyce.
Roth’s technical accomplishment in these novels is that he successfully represents the youth of the narrator at the same time as he represents the old-age of the narrator. One review suggested that Roth presented us with the Prince and with the aging King.
Although I still have several volumes to go myself, if you want to experience the immigrant struggling to survive in America and especially if you want to be surrounded by the early life in New York City, then Mercy of a Rude Stream is highly recommended. Here are Roth’s major novels (from Wikipedia):
- Call It Sleep (1934)
- Nature’s First Green (1979)
- Shifting Landscape: A Composite, 1925–1987 (1987)
- Mercy of a Rude Stream Vol. 1: A Star Shines Over Mt. Morris Park (1994)
- Mercy of a Rude Stream Vol. 2: A Diving Rock on the Hudson (1995)
- Mercy of a Rude Stream Vol. 3: From Bondage (1996)
- Mercy of a Rude Stream Vol. 4: Requiem for Harlem (1998)
- An American Type (2010)