Reader, He Married Her

Henry Roth’s ‘New’ Novel Shows an Earlier Type of Immigrant Prose

By Mark Cohen

Published June 23, 2010, issue of July 02, 2010.
  • Print
  • Share Share

By Henry Roth
W.W. Norton & Co., 283 pages, $25.95

Roth Before Roth: Henry Roth embodied a different American type to the American Jewish authors who followed.
Roth Before Roth: Henry Roth embodied a different American type to the American Jewish authors who followed.

Henry Roth’s new posthumous novel, “An American Type,” owes the attention it is getting, and indeed its very existence, to the author’s 1934 classic modernist Jewish novel, “Call It Sleep.” Nothing less than that masterpiece could have inspired the devotion required to whittle the 270-page “An American Type” out of “Batch 2” — 1,900 pages left at the writer’s death — by the aptly named Willing Davidson, a fiction editor at The New Yorker.

“An American Type” is not a masterpiece, but it is an unsentimental portrait of an American Jewish innocent during the Depression trying to understand himself, his prospects and his country. He succeeds enough in all three categories to make one good decision among all the bad: marrying the right woman. In fact, if critic Vivian Gornick is correct that much of Jewish American fiction is marred by a gift for “talented misogyny,” then Ira Stigman’s enthusiastic love for the woman called only M (based on Roth’s wife Muriel) makes “An American Type” exceptional and refreshing.

I have steeped myself in the Saul Bellow and Philip Roth novels that Gornick knocks, and I admit I was struck by the justness of Gornick’s criticism when I read Stigman’s earnest and unrestrained declaration of love for M, “his soul’s treasure, or his sole treasure. Either word would do.”

But Jewish feminists would be correct to point out a dispiriting aspect of this exception. Stigman’s M is not Jewish, and this fact is incidental neither to her charms nor to Stigman’s humble gratitude for them. M is descended from early American settlers. “They built America,” he thinks, and Jews like himself, along with “other mongrels, were ruining it.” It is a wonder to Stigman that from such grand people as M’s “a hand should be extended to him, hers, the very grace, the last grace of her tradition.”

Stigman’s miserable assessment of the Jews and his soul/sole wordplay, are signs that this novel is not part of the brash, energetic and breezy literary movement that, beginning a half century ago, made the Jewish novel the hottest category in American writing. Roth finished “Batch 2” in 1991, but the author was born in 1906 in Yiddish-speaking Galicia.

Roth arrived in America as a toddler, and his literary style and Jewish consciousness were not touched by the confident American influences that gave birth to the postwar Jewish American novel. He was an early 20th century modernist who delighted in Joycean puns, though such touches appear only rarely in “An American Type.” And he apparently remained forever in awe of goyish America. The phrase “American Type” appears in the novel to describe stereotypical non-Jewish Americans. The editor used the phrase for the title to imply that the Jewish Stigman is also such a type, though he admitted in an interview that Roth probably would have disagreed.

When the novel opens in 1938, Stigman has one “Call It Sleep”-like novel to his credit, an invitation to the Yaddo artists’ colony, an older woman to support and satisfy him (the novel’s coarse sexual language is jarring), and a working-class, not-too-bright friend in the Communist Party. The latter is “a true American type” whom Stigman thinks will make a good model for the hero of his second novel. But the book’s not going well, and no wonder. Stigman dreams of writing scenes set in the Dakota badlands; his imagination is at home in a different milieu. When he first spots M, he is smitten and intimidated, both by her looks and by the lesbian affair she is having. He is intrigued but afraid that she would “probably slap you down if you said boo to her, slap you down like a matzoh.”

Goodbye, badlands.

But it’s also goodbye to the New York Jewish world, which Stigman finds increasingly uncomfortable. Before he brings M to his parents’ home for a Sabbath dinner, he stops by a cafeteria owned by another relative, Max. There Stigman gets sideswiped by a dose of vintage griping that explains why Philip Roth’s Portnoy thought aggravation was a Jewish word. Stigman chats with Max:

‘The restaurant business is shot, that’s all.’ Max picked up his cigar.
‘The Depression?’
‘What Depression? How can you make money when drugstores compete with you? Do you care where you get a cup of coffee, so long as it’s a good cup of coffee, in a cafeteria or in a drugstore?’
‘No, I guess not.’
‘So you see: drugstores ruined the restaurant business.’

Stigman doesn’t find this so charming. On a later visit he “had the feeling that for all of his kin their coming to this country had turned into a kind of pedestrian tragedy.”

And Stigman’s parents are too busy antagonizing each other to worry about a mere shiksa. “That glare: the volcanic fury pent beyond Ira’s father’s endurance. Tortured spirit, and Mom’s, too, both of their lives wrecked in different ways.”

Given such conditions, Stigman’s marriage to M is a lifesaver.

The story is framed by a brief introductory chapter and epilogue that take place in 1990, when Stigman is an old widower. Both sections emphasize his still-vibrant Jewish consciousness, which operates outside any Jewish world but seems hardly bereft because of it. He is encouraged to record his story by the talmudic dictum that says, “You are not required to finish” a work — but neither are you free to desist from it. Stigman mourns his beloved M with the classic “Ahz vey iz mir.” This, by the way, is uttered in a mobile home in Albuquerque, N.M. It seems an unlikely location for such an outburst or for a couplet of Shelley’s poetry, which Stigman recalls in the novel’s closing lines. But one thing is sure: A Shelley-quoting Jewish writer who lives in a mobile home and resorts to his native Yiddish to mourn his non-Jewish wife is the type of thing that could happen only in America.

Mark Cohen edited the new book “Missing a Beat: The Rants and Regrets of Seymour Krim” (Syracuse University Press).

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight":
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.