All this talk about Historical Fiction and I realize that I recently finished reading the first part of John Dos Passos’ excellent U. S. A. trilogy, The 49th Parallel. It’s so good and compelling that I can’t believe I didn’t read it years ago. Of course, my true but oft repeated excuse is that I was trained to eschew American literature and have only tried to catch-up in my waning years. My work was always Keats, Joyce, Wycherley, and Milton; who knew there was great writing in America? … and Dos Passos is a great writer. Reading his fiction makes writers like Hemingway even more disappointing.
I commented on the narrative structure of Henry Roth’s Mercy of a Rude Stream but reading over that earlier post, I felt I had missed some of the layers of narrative and set to diagramming the structure.
This is an excerpt from the novel (A Diving Rock on the Hudson, page 245) which exhibits some of the narrative complexity:
In mid-July a letter waited for Ira when he came back from work … The first letter was from Cornell University congratulating him on having placed … for a scholarship to Cornell.
Henry Roth is writing the novel which has a somewhat traditional omniscient narrator. However, the fiction is that Ira Stigman is writing the novel relating his youth and, as was suggested, exploring the vitality he remembers from his you in contrast to his declining old age (young Ira discovers creamed spinach while old Ira takes another diuretic).
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.
Call It Sleep by Henry Roth is a big book but fairly easy reading. It is about an immigrant family in New York around the turn of the last century. It focuses on the young son but the mother, father, and extended family are also important in reflecting the period and the Jewish heritage. I enjoyed reading Call It Sleep so much I searched around the State Library System and found a copy of Roth’s much later work, Mercy of a Rude Stream.
My pleasant experience reading this novel was strange for two reasons: first, the dialogue was just what you’d expect from immigrant persons with little education tossed into the strange melting pot of America, and New York in particular, and second, this was a direct narrative without many of the rudimentary nuances of modernism. My usual fare is more involved with multi-layered narratives, time-skipping, bodily fluids, lack of punctuation, and willing dispensation of belief … but Roth made the traditional novel work for me. (There were small elements of stream-of-consciousness and similar narrative techniques but I saw them as inherent in the narrative and not chosen for their literariness).