Category Archives: Henry Roth

Links: That’ll Do

Dan Chaon: “We both know that the cliché of the Midwest is that we are all corn-fed, really nice people, but you read any police blotter in any small town, and you know that’s not true (laughs). My mother was someone who was the first big storyteller in my life, and her fascination was always with morbid or crazy things that happened to people she was related to or people she knew about — you know, somebody having a heart attack and falling into a pig pen and being eaten alive by the pigs.”

Various Jonathan Lethem-related film projects are floating around; most recently, David Cronenberg may direct Lethem’s 1997 novel, As She Climbed Across the Table.

Considering James Hynes‘ stellar new novel, Next, as a retort to Reality Hunger.

The best underappreciated Chicago novel.

How motherhood fed Shirley Jackson‘s fiction.

Do critics need to be tougher? (And does my phrasing the link in the form of a question reflect the urge to be compassionate and nonconfrontational that Jeffrey R. Di Leo derides?)

How John Updike revised. The multimedia glimpse into multiple drafts of the opening of Rabbit at Rest is particularly interesting. (Last year I took a look at how Updike tweaked some of the stories that appeared his final collection, My Father’s Tears.)

A letter Nicholson Baker wrote to Updike in 1985, under the “oddly peaceful emotional umbrella” of one of his stories.

Henry Roth biographer Steven Kellman responds in Bookforum (reg req’d) to Joshua Cohen’s criticism of An American Type in Harper’s.

The Italian “journalist” who invented a host of interviews with Philip Roth, Paul Auster, Gore Vidal, and many others has confessed.

Wendell Berry has pulled his papers from the University of Kentucky to protest the school’s affiliation with the coal industry.

Aimee Bender‘s influences, from Raymond Carver to L. Frank Baum to The Piano.

Blogging Ray Bradbury.

Susan Straight on her surprise at how eagerly her students took to Winesburg, Ohio. (Straight also puts in a good word for Alex Espinoza‘s fine 2007 novel, Still Water Saints.) (via)

Thanks to “bungling bureaucrats in Washington, DC,” Annie Proulx couldn’t give a reading in Moscow.

If you’re in Germany after Thanksgiving, there’s a sizable conference on the work of Richard Powers going on. (via)

“[Philip] Roth assumed the persona of my friend’s whiny Jewish mother while masturbating my friend’s black umbrella. In a kvetchy falsetto, Roth scolded my friend for being a bad son.”

Type Casting

What to make of Henry Roth‘s An American Type? The book, chiseled out of one of the sizeable autobiographical chunks of writing Roth left unpublished, is apparently much cleaner than the source material. But does that do Roth a disservice? And what would it mean to do a disservice to a self-loathing, cantankerous writer who seduced his sister? In Slate, Judith Shulevitz worries: “I can’t help bristling at these repeated attempts to impose a conventional morphology on an artist who seems to have been determined to eschew one.” She admires that the reworking of An American Type is “skillfully done” but reasonably wonders what got cut out in the process.

In a demolition (sub. req’d) of the book in Harper’s, Witz author Joshua Cohen asserts that the book never should have been published—and, comparing An American Type with the source material, finds an unseemly effort to streamline, polish, and scrub his prose. The before-and-after passage Cohen uses to prove this point doesn’t seem like a Gordon Lish-grade overhaul, though—it matters, of course, that the draft shifts from first person to third, but editor Willing Davidson mainly seems to be attempting to apply some action (or at least active verbs) to the author’s ruminations.

That shift in voice is enough for Cohen to dismiss the book as misbegotten, though: “It is not my belief that these pages should have been published without intervention; rather it is my belief that these pages should not have been published at all…. Batch II [the source for An American Type] is a work best intended for the interest of the author’s family, scholar-specialists, and the exceptionally sentimental; for Rothians sympathetic enough to interpret their writer’s geriatric lapses as a sort of Kabbalistic prosing of mortality itself, or as emblematic of the horrible humanness behind all expressive effort.” Seems like rereading Call It Sleep would be more rewarding.

Did Anybody Forget the Great Depression?

Miles Orvell, a professor of English and American studies at Temple University, has compiled a list of the top five greatest works of Great Depression-era American literature (that aren’t The Grapes of Wrath):

Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941), James Agee and Walker Evans

Miss Lonelyhearts (1933) and The Day of the Locust (1939), Nathanael West

Come Back to Sorrento (1932), Dawn Powell

They Shoot Horses, Don’t They (1935), Horace McCoy

Call It Sleep (1934), Henry Roth

Hard to argue with those, and it’s always nice to see Call It Sleep included. But I still have a hard time swallowing Orvell’s assertion that the Depression-era literature has been “largely dismissed from the cultural record.” He backs up that point by saying that a “current standard survey textbook of American literature devotes just three pages out of 1500 to Depression Era literature.” And true, the Norton Anthology of American Literature does seem a bit stingy (PDF) on that front—a couple of WPA guide excerpts couldn’t hurt. Yet all five of the works Orvell cites are still in print, and there are plenty more besides—just thinking about crime fiction alone, The Big Sleep and The Maltese Falcon both did a fine job covering “despair” and “corruption” (two of Orvell’s stated threads for Depression lit). Hell, William Faulkner’s greatest run as a writer occurred during the Depression.