Rediscover: Call It Sleep

When Call It Sleep by Henry Roth (1906-1995) was first published in 1934, it received critical acclaim but suffered commercial failure. The book was out of print until 1960, then released in paperback in 1964. Literary critic Irving Howe's front page review in the New York Times Book Review, the first for a paperback, propelled Call It Sleep to the bestseller lists. It has since sold more than a million copies.

Call It Sleep reflects Roth's experience as a Jewish immigrant in the ghetto of New York's Lower East Side during the early 20th Century. Like his protagonist, David Schearl, Roth was born in Galicia, Austro-Hungary, before arriving in the United States. Call It Sleep follows six-year-old Schearl's tumultuous family, religious and social lives amid crowded tenements and rough streets. Over the course of three years, Schearl's relationship with his family unravels and his friendship with fellow slum-kids leads down dark paths.

Roth experienced decades of writer's block following the commercial failure of Call It Sleep. His next novel, an epic work called Mercy of a Rude Stream, was published in four volumes in 1994-95. Like Call It Sleep, Mercy of a Rude Stream echoes Roth's real-life experiences, this time as a young man in Jewish-Irish Harlem between 1914 and 1927. His final novel, An American Type (2010), is a posthumously published collection of scenes from Roth's life taking place after Mercy of a Rude Stream, including his time as a farmer in Maine. Call It Sleep was last released in 2005 by Picador ($19, 9780312424121). --Tobias Mutter

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