Henry Roth's Secret
The association may seem an odd one, but the figure most immediately called to my mind by the career of the American novelist Henry Roth is T. E. Lawrence, the Lawrence of Arabia.
Although Lawrence died in a motorcycle crash at the age of forty-seven and Roth is now eighty-eight, each man was the author of a single remarkable book when young, the success of which neither of them ever repeated. In Lawrence’s case this was The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, an account of the British-sponsored Arab guerrilla campaign against the Turks in World War I that is the finest work of English prose to have come out of that conflict. With Roth it was Call It Sleep, a novel about an immigrant family on New York’s Lower East Side that is considered by many to be the greatest single work of American Jewish fiction. Published in 1934, Call It Sleep was praised by reviewers, eventually forgotten, and then quickly recognized as a classic when it was reissued as a best-selling paperback three decades later.
About the Author
Hillel Halkin is a columnist for the New York Sun and a veteran contributor to COMMENTARY. Portions of the present essay were delivered at Northwestern University in March as the Klutznick Lecture in Jewish Civilization.