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  • An American Messiah:Myth in Henry Roth's Call It Sleep
  • Lynn Altenbernd (bio)

Henry Roth's Call It Sleep has moved and delighted—and puzzled—two generations of readers. Sometimes regarded as the best of American proletarian novels or as the best novel growing out of the Great Depression, it is in fact neither proletarian in any strict sense nor directly concerned with the economic depression of the 1930s. Since its publication in 1934 and particularly since its reissue in 1960, a succession of commentators have produced something approaching a consensus that the novel is at its core the record of a religious experience and that the novel is a distinctly Jewish work.1

I would suggest that the religious theme developed in Call It Sleep depicts the birth and childhood of a New-World messiah whose story conflates [End Page 673] elements of the Jewish and the Christian traditions and is a version of the birth-of-a-hero myth dealt with by Otto Rank in The Myth of the Birth of the Hero (1909) and by Joseph Campbell in The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949). Rank derives his hero myth from what Freud identified as the family romance—the widespread tendency of youngsters to reject their biological parents and to imagine themselves the children of other, usually more glamorous, progenitors. Freud sees this tendency as a struggle of the child to break the bonds of the Oedipal relationship and to establish psychological independence. This is the significance of the quarrel over David Schearl's paternity and of his unusually strong and persistent Oedipal bond. His rejection of the hostile father is consonant with both Rank's myth and Freud's romance; his rejection of his mother is less evident but equally important in his struggle to gain mature freedom. Further, although Call It Sleep is an intensely Jewish novel, it is also very much an American novel in its depiction of the New York scene and as a part of the major tradition that deals with the supposed exceptional mission and destiny of the American people.

Call It Sleep traces the growth of an immigrant child in Brownsville and the lower East Side of New York City from age six to about age eight. Albert Schearl has come to the New World alone in 1905 and is joined in 1907 by Genya and their son David. From the moment of their reunion at Ellis Island, there is tension between the parents—between the gloomy, threatening, vituperative father and the gentle, submissive, but ardently protective mother. David clings so tenaciously to his mother, and is so fearful—and later so resentful—of his father, that the normal Oedipal relationship is aggravated and prolonged. Albert Schearl has some reason to doubt that he is the child's father; his suspicions poison the atmosphere of the home, while David overhears enough adult talk to suspect that he is not the son of the terrifying god of wrath who rules the family. The child proves to be unusually intelligent and sensitive, so that he suffers more than most of his peers from the rough-and-tumble of city street-life. Enrolled in cheder, he is an eager pupil who quickly earns the approval of the rabbi and who shows an unusual interest in the story of Isaiah. Stimulated even by meager religious instruction, the boy has—or believes that he has—a series of mystic experiences that will ultimately lead him to a terrifying climactic adventure in which he is nearly [End Page 674] electrocuted by the current in the slotted rail of a street-car track. He survives to achieve a kind of reconciliation with his father and a sense of triumphant acquiescence in the conditions of his life.

The boy's characteristics and experiences are strikingly like those of the hero-messiah as depicted by Rank, Campbell, and others. David's given name means "the elect of God" (Ginzberg 533); it also identifies him with the Old Testament King David, who, according to Ezekiel, was to return as the messiah and rule eternally over the future united and perfected state (Ezek. 34: 23-24). Isaiah had foretold a...


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